What shaped your moral imagination?

Hello friends and fellow bloggers. Once again, sorry for the lack of blog last week. I think until I am moved and hopefully settled into new job (of some sort), I should just accept that a blog every two weeks is a more reasonable goal.

So, this week’s quote isn’t from a children’s book but from an article my mom sent me about the importance of children’s literature. The article (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/364662/it-takes-pirate-raise-child-daniel-b-coupland)wasn’t very well written unfortunately, but it ended with some great points about children’s literature and developing children’s “moral imagination.” My favorite part was when he described lecturing his son about teasing his sisters. He realized he wasn’t getting through with a traditional lecture, so he switched tactics: “And then, in a rare moment of inspiration, I looked at him and said, ‘Son, you’re being an Edmund’….The reference to Edmund hit my son in a very deep place in his heart, which only stories can reach.” (If you don’t recognize the reference, go read The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe!)

This article got me thinking about something that has been kind of kicking around in the back of my mind ever since Sarah and I started writing our book. My memory of my most beloved fantasy or magical adventure books as a child (books by C.S. Lewis, J. R.R Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, or Susan Cooper for example) was that they were books about epic battles. It wasn’t just some characters who were good vs. some characters who were evil- it was Good vs. Evil. In the midst of these timeless struggles between large, abstract forces, there were children who had distinct, everyday moral struggles. This juxtaposition was, and still is, thrilling to me.

The question I now struggle with is whether many of the kids’ books today have this same quality. My immediate reaction is that they do not. While I can easily list the strengths and weaknesses of every character in Percy Jackson or Harry Potter, I don’t know if there is one character who resonates with me the way “You’re being an Edmund” does. I don’t know if that is just because I didn’t read those books as a child, so they didn’t impact me the same way or if we have lost something in today’s books.

Or, maybe those books are just a different style than the books I read in my childhood. I think that Harry Potter and Percy Jackson don’t have the sense of timeless Good vs. Evil that are in Susan Cooper or J.R.R. Tolkein. Voldemort is a really, really bad guy, but is he a part of an ongoing struggle between good and evil, right and wrong? I’d say no, although I should probably reread them to be fair. And are the everyday moral struggles the kids face in those books as poignant without that big picture backdrop? For me, they’re not.

That’s not to say that I don’t thoroughly enjoy Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and maybe the observations I’ve made here can be chalked up to me just being nostalgic for the excitement I had when reading books as a child. But, I think there is something to be said for having kids playing a small (but important) role in a larger, ongoing battle. Regardless, I know that I want an epic struggle in our book- I’m not sure if we’ve achieved it with draft #1, but I hope we find a way to convey it in the 2nd draft.

That’s it for me today because I really have to get my house packed up! Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving last week and feel free to comment or share examples of your favorite epic adventure books as a child.

Narnia

Picture Book Gift Giving Guide for Adults

Hello friends and fellow bloggers. This week I am finally putting my two cents in about National Picture Book Month (http://picturebookmonth.com/).  Instead of focusing on why pictures books are important for kids, I’m going to focus on why they’re important for adults. Everyone should read one picture book a week and encourage your loved ones to do so as well. So,since Christmas is right around the corner, I’m going to suggest three ways to find great picture book gifts for those you love:

Give a picture book to someone you love because it is a funny reminder of the person. I gave Matt for his birthday The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Until I moved in with Matt (a typical Wisconsinite who is obsessed with cheese), I was unaware of “stinky cheese.” I have now lost count of the number of times I’ve heard him say, “Ahhh, stinky cheese!” after he has disappeared into the kitchen.  I suggested he go as the Stinky Cheese Man for Halloween next year: 

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Find out a loved one’s favorite book as a child and give it to them. This will be fun for you and your loved one. Matt mentioned a few months back that he loved The Merry Shipwreck as a child. I bought it immediately, curious to know what a young Matt loved. I was three sentences into it, and I actually thought: “Oh my god, I’m dating Captain Barnacle.”  Upon opening it, he read the whole story to me and clearly loved all the ways he was identifying with Captain Barnacle as an adult. I wish I had known about this book when Matt was out east and sailing all the time: 

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My last recommendation makes for great gift giving but is also why you should try and read one picture book per week: picture books remind of us what is good and make us think about things we are afraid of in a way that is life-affirming. I recently was reflecting on the popularity of tv shows with depressing plot lines: “Breaking Bad,” the story of a perfectly normal chemistry teacher with a loving family who becomes a drug manufacturing murderer or “Homeland,” the love story of a troubled bi-polar woman and a marine turned terrorist. The same can be said for a lot of popular YA series as well. I found myself thinking: can’t we discuss the importance of family or fears of dying or belonging without some really horrible event triggering it?

For me, picture books are hold-out from our tendency to be drawn toward ridiculously over dramatic and complicated plots. Childhood is a unique time in our lives. It is a time when we feel the bonds of friendship and family more immediately, but we are not yet aware of the concepts of family and friendship. It’s also the only time in our lives when we are told it is ok to be scared of pretty much anything we want. As such, picture books provide an opportunity for authors (and readers) to explore all aspects of life but to do so in a direct and simple manner. The directness, for me, is refreshing and, as I previously said, ultimately life-affirming. I’ll leave you with a famous passage from The Velveteen Rabbit. The number of adult themes in this short passage is pretty astounding:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

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Hope everyone has a great week. Please feel free to comment with why you love picture books or what picture book you are going to read this week. Happy reading! 

Listening through new ears

Hello everyone, sorry we did not get a blog done last week. Lots and lots of changes going on, and it is hard to find the time to write these days. But, this week, I thought I would reflect a little on my experiences attending my 1st ever writing conference.

As you may know, Sarah and I are both members of SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).  I recently attended the annual Fall treat of the Wisconsin chapter of SCBWI. It was amazing. I was a little disappointed in myself for not having reread my book before going to the conference. I thought it would give me a clearer sense of an editing strategy when I had the critique session of our first ten pages. In the end, I’m happy I did not reread it. I think it would have made me more emotionally attached to our book and less open to change.  So, for me at least, it was best to listen through new ears and not look through new eyes before starting the first round of edits.

As it is, Sarah and I have decided to make big, big changes to our first draft. We are hoping to have draft #2 done by Christmas. We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few things that I learned from the conference:

  1. Simplify, simplify, simplify! For us, this meant cutting out a lot of side characters. Our critique was with author, Sarah Aronson (http://www.saraharonson.com/), who also gave a great talk about subplots. At one point she discussed diagramming how your characters interact,  I did not even bother with the diagram because five minutes into her talk, I realized we needed to cut about half of our secondary characters. However, to give you a pictorial sense of our edit needs, I did one for this blog- see below. In retrospect, I am in awe of the cluttered and excited state our brains were in while writing our 1st draft. We wanted to include every idea that came to us. Figuring out what we like best is going to be fun and maybe some of what we cut will be in a future book one day.
  2. Character driven books vs. plot driven books. The majority of talk was about character driven books, but Sarah Aronson thankfully pointed out during our critique that plenty of successful books have been plot driven with fun stock characters. I have been trying to think of a middle grade book that is primarily character driven. They often have distinct characters, but they are usually are not too complex and their growth is straightforward. I think that approach lends itself to the age of the reader, but maybe I am wrong. Sarah and I can not quite decide if we want a book that is more character or plot driven. Any suggestions or preferences everyone? Can you think of a middle grade novel with a really complex character? I would love to read it if so.
  3. Narrative point of view. Part of the character driven book discussion was a preference for 1st person narration. I prefer 3rd person, but apparently 1st person is more of the trend. First person can feel a little obvious to me at points, and, as one presenter pointed out, very rarely would a child actually describe things the way they are written in books. Do you have a preference in narration, either in your reading or writing habits? Sarah and I are thinking about trying a draft in 1st person. Sarah will excel at this. I’m not so sure if I will be at home with it though, but I think it will be a great exercise to try and write our book from a different point of view. Even if does not work out, I am sure I will learn a lot about our characters in the process.

That’s it for us this week. We look forward to any thoughts you may have on the above editing thoughts or any other tips you would like to pass our way. We are very new to the creative writing world and welcome any and all suggestions.

“Creative Chaos,” by Jane Martyn

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Writing: self-soothing for adults

Greetings blog world!  For those that might not know, Jane Martyn is actually two friends writing a fantasy adventure novel together, aimed at middle-school children.  So far, you’ve heard from Kate, but now it’s time to introduce myself and tell you a little more about our book.

I am Kate’s elusive literary teammate, Sarah Martyn Crowell.  Just about the time we launched this blog (and finished our novel) I gave birth to my daughter, Alexandra Jean Crowell, now simply “Alex”.  As I near her 6 week birthday, I am excited to continue the journey of “The Kalon Quests” that Kate and I started one year ago.

Being a new mother, I find the novels I was used to reading are quickly being replaced with parenting material.  There are more suggestions than I can keep up with, but one theme that I see over and over again is encouraging self-soothing and – down the road – developing the ability to self-entertain.

As I think about this advice, it reminds me of the imaginary worlds I created to “entertain” myself as a child.  There was always a good side, a bad side, and I existed in the no-mans land in between.  I remember some of the quirky details, such as the leader of the bad side was named Fireball.  And while the good and bad sides often opposed each other, the good side wasn’t always right and the bad side wasn’t always wrong.  I used this landscape not only to create fun stories and imaginary friends but also as a way to test my own feelings of right and wrong, good and bad.

Fast forward some 20+ years and I find myself creating an imaginary world as my “hobby.” For me, writing and the creative process is my adult version of “self-entertaining/self-soothing”.

Akin to my childhood world, our characters find themselves in a no-mans land, having to choose between two sides: one good and one not-so-good.  The choices they make and the way they develop in this magical world, called Telios, affect who they become in our world, just as my childhood imaginary world was an internal testing ground for the morals I would later develop. It’s a process I think all children undergo, and one we really wanted to highlight in The Kalon Quests (you can read more about our book on our website, link at left).

In my blog posts to come, I will introduce you to some of the characters in our world and our inspiration behind them.  Now that I am re-entering a (mostly) normal life again, Kate and I are resuming our book editing and looking forward to a final product in 2014!

As a curious cub, I’d like to know, what are your adult self-soothing habits?  What type of imaginary worlds did you once create or do you see children creating now?

Sarah and Alexandra Jean!

When I was a child, I had to walk 5 miles in the snow barefoot to get to school…

Hello friends and fellow bloggers, especially those from the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by http://www.twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/. This week’s blog is going to be a little different. Instead of taking a passage from a children’s book and reflecting on how it relates to my life, I’d like to write about my thoughts on reading and writing that occurred to me while reading Beatrix Potter’s The Complete Tales.

For those of you who do not know me, I am 32 years old, and I definitely did not walk 5 miles to school in my bare feet as a child. Nevertheless, I have recently started to have nostalgic impulses. I know 32 is a little young for this tendency to begin, but I guess I am starting to feel old. When something crazy like another shooting spree happens, I think things like “what is this world coming to?” I know that is an obvious thought, but I don’t think it’s one I would have had even ten years ago because….well, you feel a little more invincible in your 20s than you do in your 30s.  

I have just entered the reading/writing blogging world, but I noticed that we have our own reading and writing version of “what is the world coming to?” that so many parents and teachers struggle with. The two I hear most often are: are we losing the battle to foster a love of reading when kids today only want to watch tv and play video games? Another is can this generation write when the vast majority of the writing they do comes in the format of tweets and texts?

Generally speaking, I think these doom and gloom concerns of a totally illiterate society are overblown. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was immediately controversial partly because of its bad grammar ( http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/twain.html). In fact, no one sums up the American tendency to cast off the past and create your own thoughts and values than Huck Finn. When the widow is trying to “learn” him about Moses, Huck was interested at first until he finds out that Moses is dead. He then decides he does not care about Moses because he does not “take no stock in dead people.”

Even though I tend to believe that in most aspects of our culture, we are innovative and Twain-like, I confess I have moments of despair when it comes to reading and writing. While reading Beatrix Potter, I could not help but realize the implications of the fact that somewhere along the way we have switched to a primary battle of “are children reading” from battles about what children were reading. Not that there are not those who worry about what kids read, but for the  most part, I think we are just happy that kids read.

I used to work with middle schoolers (who admittedly had trouble reading), and I know that many of them would have not have understood many words and expressions in Beatrix Potter’s stories.  Examples include: “amongst,” “implored,” “fortnight,” “nought,” “excessively impertinent,” “This is passing extraordinary!” and many more. Even one story that had words like “sufficeth” and “hath” would be alienating to many of the kids I worked with.

I have seen many bloggers stress the importance of letting kids find what they love for reading, and I totally agree. However, can anyone deny the differing levels of sophistication of language and thought in Alice in Wonderland and Percy Jackson (I love the Percy Jackson series, by the way). And what consequences does this have down the road? I have known so many people who could not get into wonderful stories because of language barriers. Many of my classmates in college could not get into Jane Austen because the language was too dry for them. I think this problem can translate into our writing as well. If you read the letters that people wrote during the Civil War and WWI, for example, it is immediately apparent that those soldiers read regularly and were reading more sophisticated writing than we do now.

I have no concluding thoughts on this topic. I’m not sure if we, as a society, really have a problem or if I’m having a “when I was a child, I used to…” moment. Especially to all the teachers and parents out there, I’d love to hear if this is something you ever think about.  I’ll leave you with some Beatrix Potter illustrations because they are wonderful: 

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Figuring out how to do it all…

Hello friends and fellow bloggers, especially those from the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/. Thank you to all who made such kind and encouraging comments on last week’s blog, “Goodnight Stress.” I am happy to report that this week has been much better, but it has been busy. Busy, busy, busy. That’s why I thought this week I would use the short story “Upstairs and Downstairs” from Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel. I think the introductory passage of the story best sums up what I would like to talk about today:

“Owl’s house had an upstairs and a downstairs. There were twenty steps on the stairway. Some of the time Owl was upstairs in his bedroom. At other times Owl was downstairs in his living room. When Owl was downstairs, he said, ‘I wonder how my upstairs is?’ When Owl was upstairs, he said, ‘I wonder how my downstairs is getting along? I am always missing one place or the other. There must be a way,’ said Owl, ‘to be upstairs and to be downstairs at the same time.’ ‘Perhaps if I run very, very fast, I can be in both places at once.’”

From there, the story gets more hilarious as Owl attempts to race faster and faster up and down the stairs in his attempt to be in both places. He eventually exhausts himself and ends up sitting on the middle step in the stairs because “it was a place right in the middle.”

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Reflections: In this story, Arnold Lobel beautifully captures the childlike desire of wanting everything at once. Of course, young children are usually caught between positives: “I want to do this and this!” Or as Owl put it, “I am always missing one place or the other.”

As adults, I think we tend to feel caught between negatives, “I have to clean the house, I have to meet a client, I have to write a brief…how am I going to get it all done!?” Or, a little more positively, we feel caught between a negative and a positive: “I really should be preparing for my hearing this afternoon, but it’s so much more fun to write my blog….” 

If you have not figured it out yet from my talk of clients and briefs, in addition to launching my writing career this past summer, I decided to start my own law practice. In many ways, this career move has been fun and exciting. I get to make my own schedule, I don’t have a boss, I have time to take my dog on long hikes and write, and I get to choose what area of law I work in. There are of course risks as well; first and foremost is I need to make enough money to pay off my student loans.

Like Owl, I’ve had moments recently when I feel like I’m running at high speeds between obligations but never quite achieving success in any of them. I realize now that when I decided to open up my own practice, I also decided to become a secretary and an accountant (both of which are much harder than being a lawyer). Likewise, I now know that when I decided to write a book, I also decided to become a blogger, a tweeter, a marketer, an editor, and a researcher.

I have not figured out the secret to successfully balancing my many obligations, but I do know I need to remember that, like Owl, I am caught between two positives: I love writing, and I love being a lawyer. I don’t particularly like figuring out all my billing or trying to make sense of the children’s book market. But, I think the key to my middle-step solution is realizing that big, happy things often have little, negative things that come along with them. As long as I learn to avoid Owl’s mistake of needlessly running around like crazy, I should be fine.

That’s all for this week. I leave you with a bit of advice that I’m going to follow as soon as I post this because I really do need to prepare for that hearing: take a deeeeeeeep breath everyone and use the big, happy things to motivate you to take care of those nagging, little things. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog today. Feel free to share some of your Owl-like tendencies: what are the things in your life that make you wish you could be in ten places at once? 

Goodnight Stress

Hello friends and fellow bloggers, especially those from the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/. I’ve had a rough few weeks, and this week did not get off to a great start either. I usually try and work on my blog over the weekend and then polish it on Monday. Due to the (what feels like) millions of other things I had to do, I had not started my blog or even read a children’s book to feature this week as of 6 PM on Monday night. I did what I always do when I feel overwhelmed- I called my mom. She told me what I already knew but still needed to hear: let things go. Easier said than done, but lucky for me, I have a weekly blog that is a perfect place to get things out of my system.

So, this week’s children’s book is the beloved Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I do not have a particular passage from the book that inspired me. Instead, the whole book inspired me to write, “Goodnight Stress,” my adult version of Goodnight Moon (which is also a roundabout ode to mothers). Amazingly, I do not have a copy of Goodnight Moon, so I looked online for the text to it. While looking, I ran across this website that had arranged Goodnight Moon like a poem, which I recommend reading: http://poetryforchildren.tripod.com/poetryforchildren/id18.html. I used her arrangement, so it is easier to read.

That’s it for me this week. If you’re having a rough time, I highly recommend writing your own adult Goodnight Moon poem. I felt much better by the end of it.  Hope everyone enjoys it and happy writing! ‘

PS- I apologize about the spacing! I couldn’t get it to stop the double spacing and too tired to figure it out….

Goodnight Stress

In a fine farm house

There was a nice woman

Trying to work out

All the anger and frustration

That is always about

And there were maddening guys thinking they’re wise

And paper all around

And deadlines abound

And mistakes being made

And nerves that are frayed

And clients, and a blog, and a mind that feels bogged

And a sweet mom who helps cut through the fog…

Goodnight house

Goodnight worries

Goodnight bad thoughts that tire me out

Goodnight anger and all the doubts

Goodnight guys thinking they’re wise

Goodnight stress and goodnight mess

Goodnight chores and goodnight scores

Goodnight briefs and lack of sleep

Goodnight fights and goodnight slights

Goodnight everyone and goodnight moods

And goodnight to my mom whose love is my truth

Goodnight worries, goodnight cares

Goodnight problems everywhere.

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One of my favorite pictures of me and my mom- we are huge Detroit Tiger fans 🙂