Monthly Archives: July 2012

Your Favorite Book from Childhood

Judy Blume loved Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.   Andrew Clements adored The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown (illus. by Garth Williams).  Jon Scieszka was a big fan of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.

What’s your favorite picture book from childhood?  What book did you return to, again and again?  And why?

Writers, plumbers, scientists, dog trainers, stargazers, gardeners–I love to hear their replies to those questions.  The answers seem to give such a glimpse into who they were as kids and insight into who they became as adults.  If anything, those questions are great ice breakers.  Everyone has an answer, ranging from an older brother’s Superman comic books to The Little Prince, read aloud exquisitely in French.  As a child, a poet friend could listen only so long to Where the Wild Things Are because she’d get scared–and yet she’d request that book again and again.  One of my sisters, who loved to play mustang as a kid, would pore over Wesley Dennis’s detailed horse pictures in the Billy and Blaze series. 


My favorite was Jane’s Blanket by Arthur Miller, illustrated by Al Parker.  I read this quiet story of a girl outgrowing her beloved baby “bata” over and over.  I remember examining the black-and-white illustrations, with the pink blanket as the only spot of color.  At one point, Jane lays down on the tiny, holey thing:  “Jane had gotten bigger and bigger, but her pink blanket had gotten smaller and smaller.”  And I remember feeling that this whole growing-up thing was mysterious and strange and sad and a little scarey, that it called for leaving and loss; and I remember crying sometimes over that.

And part of the magic of this book was that it was my very own.  In a family with seven kids, practically everything was communal–toys, dolls, the set of children’s encyclopedias.  We went to the library frequently and carted books home in my mother’s laundry basket, but those, of course, had to be returned.  Jane’s Blanket had been a gift (from some unremembered classmate at my birthday party), and I immediately marked it with my name.  Over the years, I protected it from squabbling siblings and carried it with me, into adulthood–a reminder, perhaps, of the mysteries of childhood even in a “bigger and bigger” world.

So, what’s your favorite picture book from childhood–and why?

~Mary Quattlebaum

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Who better than Julie Larios to serve up a writing prompt? I have often admired the wide-reaching content of her poetry and I got a little insight into her process when our northwest contingent of the faculty of VCFA MFA WC-YA gathered in June at Cannon Beach, Oregon.


(L. to r.: Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Jane Kurtz, Tom Birdseye, Julie Larios, Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard.)

Julie suggested we each come up with ten strange facts, trade our lists, then choose two items to address some way in a poem. This makes sense with what I know about creativity, how the pairing of disparate things can lead to new thinking. As I worked I felt a tiny shift from writing with intention to writing to see what I might discover. An interesting turn.

The list Julie handed me oozed with possibilities:

  • Seahorses swallow their food through their snouts.
  • The eyes of the seahorse move independently (helps them see predators – compensating for slow movement.)
  • Newborn babies take 30-40 breaths per minute. Adults over 18 average 8 – 20 breaths per minute.
  • When flying, the blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate can reach about 1250 beats/minute. When perching, 500-600 beats per minute. At night, resting, as low as 40 beats per minute.
  • The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
  • Birds have many bones which are hollow.
  • One sentence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 823 words long.
  • Stress can cause your hair to “turn white overnight” by causing the darker hair to fall out, (alopecia areata), leaving only naturally de-pigmented (white) hair.

One item seemed to be a found poem:

The home of the Collyer Brothers,

famous Manhattan hoarders, was

emptied of 19 tons of junk after

they died – that was only the first floor.

Eighty-four more tons of rubbish were removed

from the second and third floors during the second

attempt. In total, 130 tons of garbage

were removed. Included:

1. bowling balls, 2. three dressmaking models,

3. 25,000 books, 4. kerosene stove, 5. top of

a horse-drawn carriage, 6. 14 pianos,

7. two organs, 8. eight live cats, 9. rusted bicycles,

10. hundreds of yards of silk and fabric, 11. bugles,

banjos, violins, accordions, 12. decades of


The younger brother saved decades of

newspapers because he thought his brother

might like to “catch up on the news” if his vision

ever improved.


I ended up going with only one fact:

  • “four-eyed” fish (anableps) actually have two eyes, the half above water sees one world, the divided half below water level sees the underwater world. Vision is simultaneous.

It was a lovely retreat. I learned that gathering quirky facts can inspire and bouy my writing. I reveled in early morning, mist-shrouded walks down the beach almost as much as my dog, Izzi. And I loved being with my wonderful colleagues.

Perhaps you, too, might be inspired by Julie’s list. See where your wandering takes you.

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Unwinding the “If”


Every time an event like the tragic massacre in Aurora occurs, our country embarks upon the circular arguments that surround gun control.  We’ve heard it all before…

From advocates for more gun regulation, we hear:  It’s the gun industry’s fault. If the shooter had not had access to an assault rifle, there would have been fewer victims.

From advocates for fewer regulations:  It’s the theater’s fault for not allowing concealed weapons.  If someone had only been packing, the gunman could have been stopped.

If if if… So many if’s.  So much finger-pointing.  So much wishing that we could go back to the moments before the event and do one small thing that might have prevented this horrible tragedy.  Our leaders seem stuck in an in-between land where they can’t seem to move beyond that one-syllable, two-letter word, if.   In this particular argument, that tiniest of words has trapped people who should be taking action.  Around and around we go.  Circling the mighty if.  But, what actions should be taken?  What is the truth? 

 Well, here’s one startling truth:  According to, in the year 2005 in the United States, there were almost twenty-eight thousand gun-related deaths.  Broken down, there were ten thousand homicides by gun, seventeen thousand suicide deaths by gun, and almost eight hundred accidental deaths involving a gun. 

You heard me, twenty-eight thousand!  Imagine for a moment if there were twenty-eight thousand deaths by any other cause, what our response would be.  We become alarmed when two or three people contract avian flu.  We stop importing cattle when five or ten people show signs of mad cow disease.  We embargo spinach and strawberries at the slightest sign of salmonella or E-bola. 

And yet, we’re willing to allow almost thirty thousand people a year to die on the receiving end of a gun.  We’re a country in thrall to guns.  But we’re even more in thrall to the old chestnut:  Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

How can anyone deny this?  Such a plain and simple truth, yes?  The problem is not with guns.  Rather, it’s with the people who use them.  Blame must be placed on the user, not on the weapon.  It seems so logical.

But what is there to be done about it?  What is our responsibility as writers for children?  What do we owe our young audience?  It’s an enigma because a message-driven story too often comes across as simply political propaganda.  It’s not our job, or at least I don’t think it is, to preach to our readers. 

However, I do think that it’s our job to challenge anything that is held as a “truth.”  Gary Paulsen did this remarkably well with his book, The Rifle.  In his brief novel, Paulsen follows the 200-year history of a rifle.  In it, a gunsmith makes a perfect gun, a flintlock, one that is considered “sweet” because of its accuracy.  He knows he’ll never make another like it, but he is forced to sell it for financial reasons.  It goes to a patriot who uses it to full effect in the Revolutionary war.  It’s left to a relative who stashes it away in an attic, forgotten for many years.  Then it’s restored and placed, like the piece of art that it is, on the wall above a mantel.  While it’s resting there, a spark from a candle heats up some unspent black powder, and a musket ball that has been resting in the barrel for years and years is released and fired through the window where it tragically hits a young neighbor who was adjusting the lights on an outdoor Christmas tree. 

It was a case of a gun killing someone without a person pulling the trigger.  It defied the adage. 

I remember being startled by the book when I read it, and I admire Gary Paulsen for the guts it must have taken to write it.  A quick look at the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads will show that most readers fall into predictable responses.  They either hate it for its attack on guns, or they love it for its attack on guns. 

The thing is, Paulsen doesn’t attack guns at all.  He treats the gunsmith with respect, and even goes into great detail about the care and craftsmanship that went into the making of the rifle.  He clearly admires the patriot and the risks he took in fighting for independence.  He bears no grudge against the person who hung the gun on the wall.  Paulsen himself is an avid outdoorsman.  I’ll bet he owns a gun or two.

There’s no attack here on guns.

What he’s attacking is that tightly held belief, guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  What he’s showing is that a gun is made to kill.  It can be a thing of beauty.  It can be a useful tool.  It can be a treasure.  But from its inception, its whole purpose is to end a life.  That’s what Paulsen’s slim novel shows us.  Agree or disagree, he’s done his job.

My challenge to all of us who are writing for children, as well as adults who were once children, is to examine the things that are held as true and hold them up to the light.  Let’s see what is really there.  Let’s see if the if can be unwound. 

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Congratulations to the Secret Gardeners! VCFA July, 2012 graduates





I was going to blither on about ereaders in this post, but since the weather has cooled a bit, I’m in a better mood. Cheery as all get out, in fact.  So for all of you VCFA folks scattered hither and yon, here’s a brief recap of yet another splendid ( but hot) residency.

 Item 1:

Marion Dane Bauer, aka Mama Bear, came back to campus to receive an honorary MFA degree, awarded by President Tom Greene. Marion was one of the founders of this extraordinary program, and we’ve hoped to award her this honor for a long time. One reason? We’d get to see her again. And we did! The brief ceremony reduced a few of us to tears, which we followed with applause. And she received a standing ovation from everyone–current students, alumni, and faculty—before she read from two books.It was all glorious. Congratulations, Marion.


Item 2:

We celebrated our program’s 15th year. Fifteen years, and I remember when we were in diapers. And wasn’t the tenth anniversary just last year? Apparently not. How did we mark this auspicious occasion? With champagne, many beloved alumni, and the Board of Trustees.

And cake. Not just any cake. The most amazing cake anyone has ever seen, baked for us by Birchgrove Baking in Montpelier.


Yes, this is all cake, even the Moleskine, and each title represents a faculty book. Don’t tell anyone, but I got to take home the whole “Reading to Peanut” cake because it was on the bottom and the lovely Maureen Hourihan saved it for me. (Thanks, Maureen. I blow kisses in your direction. )  (Photo by Elizabeth Law, stolen from facebook.)  Even though, as I have mentioned, it was hot, the cake did not suffer.

 Item 3:

 For the first time in living memory, we had a wedding, and it occurred during the Saturday night masquerade party extravaganza—a bi-annual event (not the masquerade part) that celebrates the graduates. Graduating student Miriam McNamara married her partner, Allison Murphy, in front of a star-studded, masked, and feather-rich audience that was even blessed by an appearance from Gandalf himself, alive and well in Montpelier. Who knew? I can’t post photos (we respect our students’ privacy), but no matter what you imagine, it was better than that. Except, as I may have mentioned, it was hot.

 Item 4: I have it on good authority that someone got a tattoo.

 Item 5: I have it on equally good authority that there was a bat on the second floor of the Dewey dorms. There was also a bat in one of the pieces in the workshop packet of April and Leda’s workshop. It is a cosmic coincidence.

Item 6:

Alumni appeared in droves, much to our joy, and stayed around all weekend. It was the something-annual alumni mini residency, during which the one and only Linda Sue Park gave a mini-class, which was probably not so mini. The organizers did a bang-up job (as far as I could tell), and the campus was buzzing with news of books published, starred reviews, and contracts signed. Yippee!

In sum:

I am mentioning a few of the more unusual highlights. We also experienced outstanding lectures and readings from graduates and faculty, laughter and tears, and intense workshops. People worked hard. Graduation was impressive, and the large alumni hall was filled to overflowing with proud families of the beaming graduates. Congratulations to the Secret Gardeners, and may you return to us for occasional deep watering.

 That post about ereaders? It may come along one of these days. They annoy me for so many reasons. For now, I’ll stay cheerful.

New addition to post: photo stolen from facebook of The Secret Gardeners!


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A Little Nostalgia

Do you ever long for the good old days?  Do you wish you had one of those old-fashioned manual typewriters so you can bang out your novels the way the all-time literary giants used to do?

Well, now you can write with the convenience of your computer (please use Scrivener!) and the noise of an old clackity typewriter.  Check this out:

I’ve been using Noisy Typer all day and it’s so much fun — especially the satisfying little ding.

And it’s free!  🙂



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Boot camp


AKA Boot Camp for Writers.

It’s wonderful and terrible to be back here every January and July. 


How can so many introverts survive so many days talking, talking, talking about books we’ve read and writing blocks we’ve overcome and writing terms we never heard before we arrived on campus but perhaps stumbled our way into experimenting with before we knew a term existed?  How can we survive the awkward back-in-the-dodge-ball-game feelings that get stirred up by living that closely with fellow writers–sharing dorm rooms and dining spaces and lecture halls?  How can we be brave enough to read at a podium?  Listen to our readers–there in the flesh–comment on what rose up off the page when they read our workshop piece?

But we do.

We create community and traditions and inside jokes and…books.  Poems.  Short stories.  Nonfiction pieces.

Nell Freudenberger–once the envy of the NY literary world–said in a recent interview with Poets and Writers magazine, “You have this time when you’re trying to become a writer and nobody reads what you write except maybe your mom or your boyfriend.  Nobody needs it by a certain date and there’s no pressure to redo it and redo it and redo it.”  When she got her lucky break…”That was the moment when I discovered that writing is rewriting.  [Before that,] I could have parroted that to you, or to students, but without really understanding that that’s how the work gets done.”

So we do the work.  We do our personal work on our insecurities that might hold us back from ever showing up on this campus and we do our creative work…and for very many of us it changes everything.



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Download this file

In my role as a reviewer for Hornbook Magazine I’ve recently encountered two fictions that began life on-line and then turned into paper books.  Daniel Pinkwater’s Bushman Lives started its life as an on-line serial and The Curiosities:  A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff began as a website.  This got me thinking about David Hockney.  Hockney has always been an “early adopter” of new technologies,  playing around with the potential of photocopying in the 70’s, and now using the iPhone and iPad as his media.  I was lucky enough to see his exhibit “Fresh Flowers” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.  He says, in the catalogue:

             “I was aware immediately when I started drawing on the iPhone that it was a new medium – and not only a new medium but also a very new way to distribute pictures.  I have always been an advocate of drawing.  The teaching of drawing I always thought was the teaching of looking – very good for everybody!  I joked about it – who would have thought that the telephone could bring back drawing?  One quickly realizes that it is a luminous medium and very good for luminous subjects.  I began drawing the sunrise seen from my bed on the east coast of England.  The iPhone was by my bed; it contained every thing you needed, no mess; so you didn’t even need to clean up.  I wouldn’t have drawn the sunrise with just a pencil and a piece of paper.  It was the luminosity of the screen that connected me to it.”

            What is the story equivalent?  What can you do with a cell phone novel or  blog fiction or twitter-roman (I made that one up)  that is new?  How does the very method of distribution affect the writing?  What is our equivalent of the luminous subject?


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Meeting the Author

As a teenager, I lived in an apartment in Queens,


one of the so-called outer burroughs of New York.  It was a staid, middle class neighborhood of sixteen story apartment buildings and, on the older blocks, single family houses.  We lived in a complex of five buildings called Park City Estates.  It was neither a park nor an estate.  The buildings were arranged in a semi-circle, at the center of which sprouted a tall fountain lit by multi-colored lights. Inside our eighth floor apartment, in a corner of the living room, next to the terrace, stood a floor to ceiling bookcase.  There, proudly placed, were an assortment of books from The Book of the Month Club.  Carl Sandberg’s six volume biography of Lincoln, The Canterbury Tales with etchings, a book on Kennedy with a blue slipcase.  Part of the household’s cultural furniture, they were rarely touched.
    In the room I shared with my brother, I spent years poring through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, a book of English and American poetry, with pictures of the poets.  I loved those little pictures, which in some way seemed to bring the poets into our apartment.  I also tried my own hand at poetry.  Handwritten page after page, sometimes in green ink.  It was all a very private affair.
    When I went off to college in upstate New York, I met my first real poet.  He was a huge man.  Six foot two, weighing close to three hundred fifty pounds, he established presence.  His weight had power.  With the long reddish brown beard of a prophet, he could have stepped out of a page of the Bible.
    I took a class from him, and attended every one of his poetry readings.  Whether I understood his poems or not (and now I realize that I didn’t always), I was swept up in the deep river of his voice.  He seemed like an alchemist, full of depth.


There was never a question that here, in this poet, was the real thing.  In him, I saw the writer fully and vitally in the public realm.  My secret life could come into the light. 
    But here is another part of being near, even occasionally talking to, my first author.  While I have still never met any writer as well read, particularly in arcane fields of knowledge, and while I have still never met any writer as prolific, I’ve also never met another writer quite so obscure.  This is hard to admit.  At the time, his rare and intricate intelligence intimidated me.  Did it perhaps also send me into a wilderness of complexity and nuance which it would take me years to find my way out of?  The inspiration was powerful, but was his model the most appropriate one for my own writing?  Coming from the desert of Queens did I sign on as his acolyte for too long?


I suspect that most writers have met an author who wound up being crucial to their own sense of self.  My writer certainly did that. Through his work and the example of his life, he gave me permission to be a writer.  But he also now makes me wonder.  Just what sort of power does such a writer have over us?  Just what needs do they fill?And, now that we are mentors for younger writers, what can or should we provide for them?  Finally, how much of what we provide is up to us and how much will be determined, like it or not, by those younger writers, their own dreams and desires?

Posted on behalf of Mark Karlins


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