Author Archives: ledaschu

I am a reader first. A reader is what I am.

readinginbed

Art by Mary Azarian

I love to do a lot of things. There’s never enough time in the day, or in the week, or in the year. Music, for one. Never enough time for music.

Last spring I had to get on an airplane. This is not a problem for most people. It is for me. I object to be flying both because it’s an environmental disaster and because it’s a horrible experience. Of which I am afraid. Naturally, I am afraid I am going to die. I do not want to die.

I called the lawyer to set up an appointment to rewrite our wills. “Are you flying somewhere?” he asked. “How did you know?” “Did you last fly seven years ago?” he said. I nodded. “That was the last time you called me.”

I laughed, sort of.

It is apparently standard practice now, in Vermont at least, to fill out an extensive advance directive. This document is not a whole lot of fun. It asks lots of questions I don’t want to have to think about, and I bet you don’t either. Basically, they come down to this: How dead do you want to be before we disconnect the machines?

The document also raises questions about funeral choices, etc. The truth is that I want my funeral to be held before I die. Who cares afterwards? Pas moi, I suspect. So I put that in. Why not?

What does this have to do with writing? Not much. But it has a lot to do with reading. “As long as I can read,” I wrote, “I would like to be alive, even if plugged in.”

Many of us are readers first. But when people ask us what we do, it’s hard to answer that we read. We write, we play music, we garden, we attempt to train obstreperous dogs, we paint, we ski, whatever: we DO STUFF. Yet I have read since I learned how to read. I read constantly. Read a lot. I cannot be without reading material. I take books in the car in case of an emergency. I read on the treadmill. I am an only child, and I was always allowed to read at the table (breakfast, lunch, dinner). I now realize that perhaps this gave my parents a chance to talk to each other without my whining about wanting to read. I still do (read and whine, actually). Bob puts up with it.

For years and years and years and years, most of my reading consisted of books for children and young adults. That was my work and my delight. Now I prefer to read grownup books, even though my status as one is questionable. And I still love long, long books.

I cannot read one on a screen.

I want to hold it on my lap.

I cannot hear one in the car.

I do not like those book-y apps.

I’ve read some great books recently (you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine). Books that surprise me, please me, challenge me, amaze me. The novel for both young and old people is alive and well! I have enough books in the house to tide me over until that advance directive comes into play, which I hope is never. Too many books to read. I laugh, I cry, they change my life.

Last week we lost power in a magnificent snowstorm. We lit candles. I read. The house was deliciously quiet (and we have wood heat, so it was warm). We couldn’t flush toilets, but I could read. We couldn’t eat, but I could read. No machines purring, no writing nagging at me, no email or internet. Reading!

This is my last VCFA faculty blog post (my choice, but it’s time, even though I suggested this blog in the first place, or so I believe–). It’s been a delight, and I thank you all for reading my ramblings. I’m not disappearing, so stay in touch.

Afterword: for more on writing itself, please read this delicious post by mystery writer Leonard Rosen. It may inspire you. http://lenrosenonline.com/2013/04/harold-his-purple-crayon-and-the-writing-process/

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Ramblings about change and transition

John Tenniel

John Tenniel

 

Advance twice, set to partners…/Change lobsters, and retire in same order.  Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I have a very difficult time with transitions, with big and small changes, and of course I am not alone. In some areas, I’m an early adopter. It’s that curiosity thing I have spoken of so often. But life in general? No. Not so much. Change=worrisome.

What about transitions in writing? Early on, I remember being puzzled by details. To propel a character from bed to breakfast, for example, did I have to include getting out of bed, turning the doorknob, peeing, brushing teeth, traipsing downstairs, letting the dogs out, back in, out again, back in, out again, and so on? If not, would the reader understand what was going on? Of course the reader understands, and the accumulation of unnecessary details only leads to the cheese sandwich.*   “I woke up. For breakfast, had pancakes [a nod to Tobin Anderson, who just adores pancakes in books, ha], and went to work.”  [THIS IS JUST AN EXAMPLE. I WOULD NEVER BEGIN ANYTHING WITH WAKING UP AND HAVING BREAKFAST (Exception: Winnie Wakes Up). AND NEITHER WOULD YOU.]

I read, I thought, I listened, and I wrote. I learned to eliminate, cut, eviscerate; to tell only what propels the story. Studying how other writers moved characters about was ever so helpful. In fact, I soon wondered why I had puzzled so. Jump. Slow down when necessary. Crowding and leaping. Etc.

In real life, transitions are a wee bit more challenging. Change often=scary.

Life is its own journey, presupposes its own change and movement, and one tries to arrest them at one’s eternal peril. Laurens Van der Post, Venture to the Interior

Transition: I am no longer teaching at VCFA. This has been a particularly challenging change and not one I am navigating with great success. It is odd indeed to pop in for a visit and recognize none of the students. It is odd that they don’t recognize me. It is odd to have new faculty members I don’t really know. It is odd to become an outsider. I am lucky, however. I do get to pop in from time to time.

I do have my sources, however. They tell me the July residency was terrific.The Allies in Wonderland have graduated (and doesn’t the class name say it all? Aren’t we all allies in wonderland at VCFA and in the children’s book world?) Now they face the real world. When they return to campus, which almost all of them will at some point, they will see unfamiliar faces and may feel a bit lost. They’ll schedule group retreats and reunions; they’ll share writing online. Some will drift away. Some will be best friends forever.

Change everything, except your loves. Voltaire, Sur L’Usage de la Vie

My own VCFA class graduated in January, 2004. During the mini-residency, ten of us gathered once again on campus. All are writing. All still love each other. We ate, laughed, gossiped, and caught up. Marriages, divorces, publishing successes, children, grandchildren. Fortunately, no one is very ill and no one has died. For us, for now, the changes are mostly good ones, and for that I am very, very grateful.

I wish everybody a cheery end of summer, filled with good changes only.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

 

All quotes from Bartlett’s.

*the cheese sandwich: Many VCFA students and alums will remember that this was from a talk by Alan Cumyn. If you bore your readers too much, they’ll go to make a cheese sandwich and likely not return.

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Dear People,

Remember letters? Epistles? In my entirely forgotten youth, people wrote them to each other. They used pencil or pen (fountain pens! Inkblots! Ruined items!) and  paper. Later they used typewriters. Sometimes, thinking they were being ever so cool, they wrote to their camp friends on birchbark or on toilet paper. My friend Howie always signed his missives with a drawing of a banjo, just like Pete Seeger. My father signed his with a round, smiling face (Oh, my father’s letters are another story entirely).  People wrote back. Mailboxes contained personal mail.

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If you read my letter about the Beatles concert, you might be able to intuit what some of my own letters were like. Long, rambling, sometimes hilarious, sometimes not, and always filled with typos. Or worse: written in indecipherable longhand. People:  to correct a typo one had to use something called Wite-Out (why no ‘h’?), or even little slips of paper. Carbons? Uncorrectable.  It was time-consuming. Typewriters were not even electric! Fingers hurt! I kid you not.

No more, no more.

So I wish I had written an epistolary novel way back then. One with ephemera included.  When done well, I adore reading them. Don’t they  seem the perfect vehicle for self-obsessed adolescents? Different from first-person, even when there’s only one writer. Why? Off the top of my head: they can create an illusion of being less polished, less “I’m telling you a story now,” less shaped—all by design, of course. When the letters are lively and have a unique voice, they’re unbeatable.

Some examples I’ve read:

84, Charing Cross Road—one of the very best. Feeling Sorry for Celia. Dracula. Griffin and Sabine. The Jolly Postman. Letters From A Desperate Dog. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Daddy–Long-Legs. Flowers for Algernon. The Guernsey Literary etc. Sorcery and Cecelia. Letters from Rifka. The Company You Keep (emails). Love, Stargirl. The Color Purple. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Frankenstein. Anne of Windy Poplars.Thank you, Miss Doover. Letters From Father Christmas. And lots I’m not thinking of.

These novels still need a narrative arc and a reason for existing. Why are these characters writing to each other? Or why is one character writing to everyone else? Is the form still possible, or are emails and text message novels all we can hope for now? Oh, pooey. What’s the reason any contemporary two people would be writing long letters? That could even set a plot in motion. Historical fiction. Time travel.  Or a newly-discovered cache. And etc.

Do you have a favorite? Have you tried one yourself? How might you structure one for today’s readers?

Next time, maybe: something from my father’s letters, if I can find them.

Love from Leda

PS: I’d love to hear from you!

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It was 50 years ago today….

In 1965, I was apparently a deranged human being, and I was madly in love with John Lennon. Weren’t we all (those of us who were alive then, that is)? When the Beatles came to DC, I went to see them with my next door neighbor. Here in full is a carbon of the letter I then wrote to my roommate, which I must have saved for just this opportunity. Obviously I have no pride whatsoever and am willing to damage whatever good reputation I have left by posting this drivel, but I admit that I find it amusing. Who was that person?  I hope you can read this; had to play computer games to insert letter, complete with typos. One sentence is redacted to protect the innocent, and it’s in two sections.

beatlesletterfirstpage

Beatlesletter1

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Going for the Gold: very long post

caldecottmedal

Question: is there anything that’s more fun than talking about picture books?

Answer: No. For the purposes of this blog, the correct answer is no. In general, though, the answer is this: dogs.

On December 6th, Grace Greene (Children’s Consultant, Vermont Department of Libraries) and I will be at VCFA hosting/presenting our 16th Mock Caldecott. We first did this many years ago, before most of you were born, my children, but I don’t remember when. Okay, it was 1989. The pattern we set up then still holds, and while I was working at the Vermont Department of Education (17 years) it became my favorite professional event.

Why? Because of the close examination and fervent discussion. Really, try it. And no better time than this year, the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Award.

HOW TO HOLD A MOCK CALDECOTT: ONE WAY (and there are many)

PREPARATION

  1. Think of someone to invite to be your presenter, or use yourself if you know a whole lot. Choose someone who brings some kind of fresh, unique, amusing, or knowledgeable perspective to the art of the picture book. Reviewers, illustrators, educators, editors, writers, etc. all are possible.
  2. Meet with a friend with whom you agree about the most important things, such as dogs and what makes a good picture book. Get a mammoth pile of eligible books (eligibility requirements for Caldecott are here:  (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottterms/caldecottterms  ) Visit your local Indie bookstore.
  3. Go through books, generally avoiding text (see criterion 3. I know, it’s a killer.) Discuss in reasonable and friendly fashion. Seek books that have gotten lots of starred reviews, buzz, and are by previous Caldecott winners. Try for a balance of technique (everything from handmade paper to digital art) and style. Make three piles: yes, no, maybe.
  4. Be on good behavior. Do not throw books on the floor while screeching about annoying things. Laugh as much as possible while making selection of about 15 books. Too many=impossible event. Too few=not so much fun.
  5. Develop list. Send out flyer, email, or whatever to potential registrants for event. Always select snow date if meeting in Vermont. (Sample registration form here: http://libraries.vermont.gov/libraries/cbec/mockcaldecott)
  6. Before sending out news of event, find venue and make sure it has bathrooms, room for small breakout groups, tables for book examination, and possibilities for lunch.
  7. Begin to get excited. Wait for registrations to pour in. Look at books.

THE EVENT: WHAT WE DO

  1. Welcome people as they arrive. Have coffee/tea and something yummy but not too sweet.
  2. Have handouts of Caldecott policies and previous winners/honor books. Also useful: a handout on book discussion. For example: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/discguide.asp  Encourage participants to stay away from “my child liked this” comments, etc.
  3. With all assembled, go over ground rules and schedule.
  4. Introduce presenter. Listen to presenter. Smile, nod head in acknowledgement of brilliance, gain insight. Thank presenter.
  5. Provide time to examine books before and during lunch. Books are laid out on tables in the back of the room. Encourage participants to bring extra copies of any titles they have. Provide stickies so books can be matched with owners.
  6. Have entire crew count off for small groups. Good number for groups is somewhere between 6 and 10.
  7. Break into groups, assigning space for each one. We schedule an hour and a half for small group discussion.
  8. Wander about to make sure everything is going well. If someone is dominating, deal with it. Someone not speaking? Deal with it. Make sure everybody has what they need. Eavesdrop to see how your favorite book is doing.
  9. Give ten minute warning. Each group must choose (consensus) ONE TITLE to present to the larger group. Small groups should choose their most persuasive speaker; someone who can be specific and articulate about illustration.
  10. Reassemble large group. Have each small group present choice, write on board or paper. Use common sense to narrow field and vote for winner. Decide whether there should be honor books based on spread of voting.

CLOSING:

Remind everyone that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ONE BEST BOOK.

Congratulate participants on a job well done. Send them home all aglow.

Since 1989, Grace and I have done fifteen of these events, with presenters such as Anita Silvey, Mary Azarian, Ethel Heins, Mary M. Burns, Megan Lambert, Gratia Banta, Tracey Campbell Pearson, John Stadler and Wendy Watson, so this will be our sixteenth! (I am married to a mathematician.)


I’ve learned so much, and not just from the stellar presenters. I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics, about how some people can squash productive conversations while others consistently encourage it. I’ve learned how important it is to be able to articulate what it is that makes a book outstanding—or not. Love all by itself isn’t enough: opinions must be well-defended and based on the art. I’ve watched people listen well to others and even change their minds. I’ve studied how crucial body language can be among people with strong opinions. I’ve watched alliances form and dissolve as a book comes under careful consideration.  I’ve watched animosity flare and –mostly–dissolve.

In 1998, I had the honor of serving on the real (1999) Caldecott committee, and I tried to bring everything I’d learned with me. In turn, I learned even more. The people on that committee were an extraordinary bunch full of insight, passion, and wisdom. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to spend time in a locked hotel room with all of them.

This year, Grace and I will co-present. We plan to go off-record, as it were, in expressing our rather strong opinions (strong opinions are GOOD) about this and that.  Books that should have won or shouldn’t (I have one); books that caused controversy, etc. For example, there are a lot of wordless books to consider. I admit to finding this a bit disconcerting. The reason should be obvious: I’m a writer, not an illustrator. Where are the unforgettable stories, the words that remain imprinted forever in the mind? And why are so many of the wordless books created by men? Or are they? There’s something to ponder.

In any case, I’m excited. Talking about picture books in a careful, thoughtful way is infinitely rewarding. Seeing what’s rising to the top of the illustration heap is fascinating. And above all, I get to see once again what a miracle the picture book is. May it live forever.

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FALL INTO BOOKS

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The first spectacular fall day takes me right back to my first fall in New England. I had run away from home, as it were, to college, outside of Boston. Until I was 15, the end of summer meant grief and loss to me: I left my true home, summer camp, and was forced to return to school, which I hated. I cried for days after camp. I was an outsider everywhere but there.

Then, at 17, I drove north. North. I am still here. Camp had been in New England, so I already knew where I had to go to college, but the glory of fall lived only in my imagination. (Leda, stop now and take a deep breath. Do not begin a rant about climate change and what is happening to fall and to everything else. Deep breath, I say.)

Fall in Vermont: buying peaches becomes picking apples and freezing applesauce. Planting the garden becomes clearing the garden. Stacking wood becomes burning wood.  And wrapping up all the endless outdoor chores means more time for reading. Reading books. In paper. Real books. Books in piles in the living room, the bedroom, the basement, the bathroom. Books by VCFA folks, in particular.

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Clever segue: there was a time, my children, when I took it upon myself to more or less keep track of books published by the faculty, alumni, and students of our exceptionally wonderful VCFA/MFA/WC. I even sent emails of the congratulatory sort, many of which I titled “World Domination.” It wasn’t an impossible task. There were only about 10-15 faculty at the time (this is ancient history), 60-75 students, and most of us were too busy teaching and learning to have more than a book or two a year published (am I funny, or what?). I knew the names of almost all of the graduates because I’d started hanging out at VCFA way back in another century. Plus, I was still reading review journals—all of them—and I kept my eyes open. Blogs were few and far between, and no one had ever heard of Facebook.  

Ah, it was a lovely time. A simpler time. I loved sending out those little cheery notes.

Writing for publication is an odd thing, isn’t it? I don’t think there are many of us who write novels just for ourselves–or for fun (hold your laughter). We tend to want readers, and not only the readers we know. We have, in fact, probably dreamed of holding our first published book for a very long time, if not forever. Didn’t you imagine how it would feel to open your book for the first time, smell the paper, look under the dust jacket, check the binding, memorize the ISBN, call your friends, maybe throw a party? Didn’t you imagine the first time you would see your book on a shelf in a bookstore? A library? Did you—oh, did you—imagine a child (red-haired, pigtails, maybe? A sort of Anne Shirley child?) approaching you with your book held to her chest and a secret sort of smile, the child who might whisper to you, “I loved your book”?

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I think I’m not making this up.

As the semesters piled upon each other, however, I noticed I was falling dreadfully far behind. VCFA books were being published right and left! Reviews appeared everywhere!  Milky Way numbers of stars glistened hither and yon! People were winning awards practically every second! There were two-book deals, three-book deals, six-figure deals: World Domination indeed! (I have used up my 2013 quota for exclamation marks now.)

The task has become overwhelming, and I have apples to pick, wood to burn, books to read. But this is not about me. The point is this, I think: each and every book is cause for celebration. Each and every book means that people can still read, can still find, purchase, or borrow books, and might even be eager to discuss their response with others. Each and every book means that someone’s dream is out there for others to discover.

Some of us, however, are still struggling, still hoping. It is you I celebrate as well. Either someone will publish your hard work, you’ll publish it yourself, or, maybe, you’ll stop writing. People, you can have a full and rewarding life without that particular dream fulfilled. Your friends and family will still love you, you will still love them, and there will be perfect fall days when the earth is so beautiful you can hardly bear it.

 I have come full circle. Happy fall, happy writing, happy reading, and congratulations to all of you.

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by | September 8, 2013 · 3:06 pm

Harper’s Index

I’ve been a fan of Harper’s Index since it began, which was a long time ago though I have no idea when. Do you know it? It’s a regular feature in Harper’s—a seemingly random list of statistical information. But it’s far from random. The editors of the page cleverly arrange one-sentence long factoids; often the juxtaposition is absolutely startling. Or upsetting. Or ironic. Amusing. Usually political. There are no conclusions; that’s your assignment.  Read between the lines, connect the dots from A to B.

For a journalist or a writer of nonfiction, these are little gems. Yet possibilities also exist for the novelist. Where do ideas come from? The Index offers opportunity. And also: how can you structure your own writing so that the reader does some of the work, making inferences, drawing conclusions, making connections.

My husband is a statistician, so I approach the Index with suspicion, if not with more than the average amount of skepticism. Harper’s always has source information, however. But that’s not the point. The point is—here—to engage the mind and imagination. Then, the connections are where story comes in.

For example, this series: (November, 2012)

  •  Percentage of Canadians who believe in global warming: 98
  • Of Americans who do: 70
  • Of Republicans: 48
  • Percentage of Republicans who believe in demonic possession: 68

 Those three are possibly incendiary (ha, what a punster I am), but would be fascinating to explore. What are the possible inferences? What is the connection between people who believe in demonic possession and those who don’t believe in global warming? Clearly there’s a lot of overlap—why? Maybe not a story idea yet, but where can you take it? Do more Republicans have actual experience with demonic possession? A president, perhaps? (No offense to Republican readers.) After all, we all know that the supernatural is what’s selling (ugh).

 Or these (August, 2012):

  • Percentage of top 40 songs from the 1960s that were written in a major key: 85
  • From the 2000s that were: 43

 What thoughts pop up from this startling information? That we’ve gotten more sophisticated in our tastes? That we’ve gotten sadder as a nation? That music teachers are more anxious? That social media are influencing our tastes? Moreover, what story possibilities occur to you? Let me know. I’ve got a few ideas myself. Example: one teenage rock and roll star who makes it his or her business to ban anything written in a major key. Perhaps he has been taken over by demonic possession and wants ensure that the entire US population is on anti-depressants, making us easier to invade. What—me  worry?

Moving right along: these (August, 2012):

  • Number of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks in 2010: 15
  • Number killed by falling televisions: 16

 My warped sense of humor takes me right to a film script. Were the televisions dropped by the terrorists? Who dropped the last one? Are televisions becoming animated killers? Oh, I like that.

 Or these single entries (August, 2012):

  • Number of days a juvenile penguin eluded Japanese authorities after escaping from an aquarium in March: 82
  • Estimated market price paid by panhandlers in Johannesburg to rent a baby for the day: $3

With the single entries, there’s no need to follow the line from A to B, but each, as with a good newspaper headline, suggests multiple entry points. From whose point of view should the penguin tale be told? Picture book or novel? Who else is involved? Where is the penguin hiding? What does he learn to eat? Is he disguised as a child? Etc.

The panhandler piece raises similar questions, minus the picture book option. A darker tale.

My brain begins to spin. And while it’s hard to take someone else’s ideas for your own work, there’s nothing wrong with springboards to your own imagination.

The Index  is also searchable if you’re a subscriber, so you can have fun developing your own sequences. I just happened to search DOGS. Can’t imagine why.

Item. Surely there’s a story here:

  • Estimated number of American dogs that have been named as beneficiaries in wills: 1,000,000
  • Ratio of American children to American cats and dogs: 1:2

Less happily. Tragically, and a companion to Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful new book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • Number of beagles used in radiation research that the Department of Energy will bury in a toxic-waste dump in 1991: 850
  • Gallons of radioactive beagle excrement that will be buried: 34,000

I just might write that novel myself.

 

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by | July 4, 2013 · 6:44 am