Monthly Archives: November 2011

Beyond Visual Literacy — Uma Krishnaswami

There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of the picture book. Parent Tracy Grant summarized the heated debate in this piece in the Washington Post. Maurice Sendak chimed in to say that the picture book is blighted by misguided notions of childhood innocence, although he admits at the same time that he hasn’t read very many lately. 

Some of us who watched the National Book Awards streaming from New York recently were a little perturbed by celebrity writer John Lithgow’s attempts to be funny. In the process of self-deprecation he managed to dismiss the entire form of the picture book by suggesting it wasn’t “real.”

Is it, as Karen Lotz, Candlewick publisher suggests in the NYT article that started the brouhaha, a matter of the picture book being an analog artifact in a digital age? I’m not so sure. The codex book might be analog in structure but the picture book, if we pay attention to how young children “read” it, is far from analog in application. 

Adults may read it from front to back and left to right but look at this child poised to turn a page.


Left? Right? Depends? If the book topples and ends up upside down in the process, a two-year-old might continue “reading” it that way. Nothing linear about that.

Toddlers react to the whole book as an object, without privileging the words on the page. They also react to the voice and the presence of an adult reading to them. They memorize text (another skill we tend not to privilege for some odd reason) and will often catch the lazy adult reader trying to flip two pages at once. Young children will want to visit a beloved book over and over, as they define it for themselves auditorily and visually, finding comfort in prediction. And of course they will imitate the reading behaviors (or lack thereof) of the adults in their lives. In all these ways, the picture book is meant to be a multi-sensory experience.

Its future is obviously tied up with the future of the book itself. But as with hybrid cars, we haven’t quite found the right combination of green, cheap, tough, and accessible, not yet. Meanwhile, the codex book with pictures continues to allow children to acquire meaning in the often ambiguous spaces between text and image, and to do so with their entire bodies, which is what young children need to do. Speculating on causation in a narrative is a very different skill from touching a screen to create it. The two are not interchangeable, nor is one better than the other. But they are different.

If we let the picture book slip away while we dither around trying to decide if the form is dead, then the thing we may be endangering is the potential of the young child’s brain to take in multiple stimuli, find meaning, react with all senses at once, and thereby create the active engagement with the world that we call literacy.


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Thoughts of a Small Bug Inside a Lily

I spend my time thinking about strange things.   For example, lately I’ve been noticing lots of straight lines. Railroad tracks, tree trunks.



But I’ve also been noticing spirals. Tendrils, pine cones.



Late at night, I try to think about how this particular obsession might work its way into my writing. The obvious question forms: How are people like pine cones and railroad tracks? Ditto life in general. How can I use that in a poem in a fresh way? It’s pretty straightforward, building the metaphors and equivalencies. No trick to them. Of course, then comes the hard work, getting the words right, and taking the poem (and the reader) somewhere surprising. 

I can tell I respond most to the spiral, and I suspect it’s why I don’t write fiction. No matter how much the patterns get rearranged structurally – and they get rearranged quite a lot in modern fiction –  there is still a story, and something or someone changes because something (it can be quite small) happens.  That’s how a story is engineered. I think of it as the structure of a bridge – there’s an arc either above or below it, often beautiful, but the roadway is straight. As a writer, you tell a story so that both a character and a reader cross to the other side. If they turn to look back, they can usually see the water, the bridge, the other side where the story started.


Who wouldn’t love to build something –  to write something –  as strong and wonderful as that bridge?

But I think the mind of a poet is more like the tendril in the photo above. The curve of the earth is more noticeable, the landscape spins, meaning drifts. Life is a little dizzy, which is not far from ditzy, but also not far from delightful. With a poem, the roadway is not straight, readers can’t turn and see a line from Point A to Point B, the route of cause and effect. Instead of crossing, as I think characters in and readers of stories do, readers fall into a well-crafted poem. And when they turn, when they come back to the poem (don’t we always go back and read through it again, trying to get our bearings, loving the language, trying to make meaning?) the way through it is always different- as if both poet and reader were small bugs, climbing around inside a lily.





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Silence in the Igloo

                  The other day, while making Christmas cakes, I heard a radio interview with Inuit writer and storyteller Michael Kusugak.  Michael’s story Baseball Bats for Christmas remains one of my favorite seasonal books.  Feeling dyspeptic with the mallification of the winter celebration?  Listen to seven-year-old Arvaarluk’s description of Christmas in Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle: “Christmas was a time when you took your most favourite thing and gave it to your very best friend.”

         I’m sorry to mention the “C” word when it is not even December yet, and that’s not really what I’m musing about.  Really, I’m musing about experience, imagination, and research. Michael said something about wind that made me pause over my mixed peel.  He was remembering being a kid, out hunting with his family, sleeping in an igloo.  He said that it was completely quiet, even if there was a blizzard outside, because with the round shape of the igloo, “there was nothing to catch the wind.”  He went on to say that when he grew up and went south and watched movies set in the north and he heard the wind whistling and howling he was mystified, wondering “where does that noise come from?”  In a world without trees and high-tension wires there is nothing for the wind to howl against.  The movie makers got that wrong. 

         When we write about things we have not experienced we imagine and we research.  A detail like this, the silent igloo, can make us feel intimidated.     It is the questions that we did not think to ask that can trip us up.  British writer Gillian Cross has a funny piece about this in which she tries to get a child character to go out and play in 1842 but she can’t seem to get him dressed or speaking.  “How could I advance my characters a step if I had to check for Historical Correctness at the end of every sentence?”  We can certainly be paralyzed by such considerations.  But there’s another side to this.  What about that wind that encounters no resistance? What about a wild but silent storm?  What about a place that is quieter than we have ever experienced?  Does this idea, this small accuracy about the real world, give your story-making instincts a nudge?  As usual, anything we find out about, anything, is potential material and the aspects to our job that are the most intimidating are simultaneously the most inspiring.

         Here’s the whole interview:  (Tune in just to hear Michael tell, in Inuktitut, the world’s shortest story.  Inuktitut is a lovely language to listen to, with a kind of chiff on the edges of the consonants.)

 – Sarah Ellis


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I remember when I was still an MFA student, I attended a writers’ conference where a celebrity author was surrounded by an admiring crowd after his keynote. Someone asked him why he didn’t teach, and he responded thusly (or as close as I can come after several decades):

“Teach?” Mr. Revered Writer told them, his voice rising toward the end of the word, as if he were pronouncing the name of a poisonous herb. “Why on earth would I want to look at bad writing all day?”

I wondered then, and I know now, what this mildly famous author missed by not working with new and emerging writers. He missed the chance to grow, to change, to be inspired far beyond his own lonely dreams. If you haven’t read Uma’s thoughts on teaching in the current issue of Hunger Mountain, hie thee hence: Among the beautiful and profound thoughts she expresses in her rich piece is this: “More often than not, I am reminded that the flaws I see most clearly in students’ work are the very ones I’m blind to in my own.” 

Amen. How many times have I worked with a new writer, only to hear myself preaching glibly what I suddenly realize I’ve failed to do in my own work? How often have I reassured an already published student that this will not be his last book, only to find myself in the grip of a similar publish or die panic? Let me count the ways, in fact, that I learn in the act of teaching. 


1997: The very first VCFA MFA in Writing for Children class!

I learn humility, each time I hold in my hands the book of a former student whose work I admire and which inspires in me the yearning toward excellence that all great writing does. I learn grace when well-published authors return to our community for more learning, more growth. When they refuse to say, I know it all. Are not ashamed to say, I’m stuck. 

I learn dedication. I will never forget the young woman whom I asked whether she thought a particular secondary character was serving her story. Because the character was engaging and fun, she was naturally hesitant to consider this question, but promised she’d think mull it over. The next time I read her piece, the character I’d asked about had completely vanished from the

            “Goodness,” I told her, ” I know how attached you were to [X]. How on earth did you manage to let her go?”

            “It was no problem,” my student told me, gamely. “I simply shook her hand and said, ‘Thanks for playing!'”

Guess what I do now, when I know it’s time to cut a much-cherished character, scene, or idea loose?  

I learn how to take criticism. Recently, a student who, like you and me and almost every writer alive, sometimes has to hear the same question or concern several times before she’s willing to apply it to her work, sent me an email. She described the way, when she was little, she used to clean her room in a hurry. But her mother would open the closet where clothes had been thrown, check under the bed where other odds and ends were stuffed, and then calmly remark, “You’re almost done.” 

This student went on say, “Thank you for opening the closet door and flipping up the bedspread and believing that I can get it done. Not be perfect, but do the real work.” Guess how I now aspire to respond when a First Reader finds weaknesses in my draft? Or an editor spots something that requires a substantial revision? 

I learn humor, inspiration, courage, practicality, independence. These are lessons, of course, it never hurts to keep learning. Over and over. All of which makes it hard to imagine writing without teaching. Oh, sure, I guess I could become too famous (in my dreams), too busy to do both. But truthfully? The choice would be excruciating. Because unlike that celebrity author I overheard at the conference, I’d know exactly what I was missing. 



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All vulnerable all the time and not knowing why

This morning I rode from Doylestown, PA to the Philadelphia airport on a train.  I sank into the rocking rhythm and stared out at the bright trees and would have been beautifully happy except I was sort of consumed by terror that I wouldn’t recognize my stop when I got there.  I tried to soothe myself by pointing out to myself that probably the airport wasn’t well-hidden.  Probably it was in the best interest of everyone to make it easily found.

On the other hand, the train to the airport didn’t show up at the time flashing on the LED display and didn’t have the number on the side of it that was promised on the LED display.  The only reason I knew it was the train to the airport was that I overcame my fear of seeming like a fool and…asked.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?  We say that to ourselves and each other all the time.  What’s the worst thing that can happen if you ask and the woman behind the counter looks at you as if to say, you fool?  Well, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have the old junior high sensation.  You’ll be flooded with feelings that say you are an outsider and an object to be mocked and scorned and you will never, ever be an object of admiration in anyone’s eyes, ever until you die.

That’s the worst thing that can happen.

Now I’m sitting in the airport feeling a jolt of joy to be in an airport—even though I know the plane will be stuffed and the person in front of me will be the only person on the entire airplane who has decided he must recline his seat and I’ll sit with my laptop crammed into my belly button.  I often get upgraded because of my many airline trips.  I know the still often mostly male world of weekday first class and the joys of sometimes having my bag come off first after a long, tedious wait at the baggage claim.  But my jolt of joy has nothing to do with the airport really.

It has to do with something planted deeply in my brain that I don’t understand.

Someone once said that writers say what other people only think.  We love the writers who can name the humiliating, vulnerable things that make us weak with worry.  That’s one good thing about having lived through eighth grade–we have those feelings inside of us that we can use in our writing.

When we’re creating characters, it’s important to remember they have those vulnerabilities, too.  They often don’t know why they feel what they feel.  They are groping around in this world trying to find the right train, trying not to lose their laptops in the process, trying to feel they have earned a spot on this earth.

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Backward Steps

A while ago I read a newspaper article about some University of Washington biochemists who used teams of gamers to decipher the structure of a certain protein.


I do have a writing-related point.  You’ll have to trust me here. 


So anyway.   It was important work, because this protein, called a protease, is something that that retroviruses like HIV need in order to multiply.  And understanding the protein could lead to better anti-viral drugs. 


According to the article, a viral protease characteristically folds itself up to form a convoluted, three-dimensional figure.  Kind of like “a bicycle self-assembling from parts arrayed on a string.” 

I’m writing as if I understand this, but really I don’t.  If you want to read the entire OREGONIAN article, it’s here.  If you want pictures and more technical information, go here

However, as I say, I do have a point.  It’s coming. 

Apparently, there are approximately a bazillion possible ways these proteins might potentially fold themselves up, enough to boggle the minds of even the most advanced supercomputers.  So the scientists, out of ingenuity or desperation or both, devised a game called “Foldit. ” They recruited online teams of nonscientist computer gamers to compete to produce an accurate model of a retroviral protease. 

The scientists and their supercomputers have been trying to come up with this kind of model for more than a decade.  Guess how long the gamers took? 

Ten days. 

No, my point is not that we should recruit teams of online gamers to write our novels for us.  Although, when you think about it…  Hmm. 

But no.  I’m sticking to just the one point.  Hang in. 

The article paraphrases Firas Khatib, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on this project, as saying that human minds “have an advantage over computers because of their intuitive ability to see the potential for a delayed payoff from moves that seem like backward steps.”  Direct quote from Khatib: “Human players can see that you may have to go down this road, not doing well for a long time, but those steps are necessary if you want to get to a more correct solution.  Even the best computers and computer algorithms aren’t very good at that.” 

This, I love.  I’m a sucker for theories about what it is that makes us uniquely human, and this one was new to me.  

At long last, coming to my point: 

Sometimes you have to take backward steps.  Scuttle your favorite secondary character.  Jettison your point of view.  Rip out your beginning and find a new way in.  Dismantle the clever framework that won’t let the light shine through.  Sometimes it’s not enough just to tweak and finesse.  Sometimes backward is the best way forward, and the edifice has to come crashing down.

When you have to tear down a significant part of a labor of love, something to which you’ve devoted weeks or maybe months or maybe years of your life…it can feel like an appalling waste of time, a regression, a defeat. 

But it’s only being human.  Turns out, that’s not so bad.


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