Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER

 

One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).

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Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

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Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.

STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!

My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.

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But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.

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I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.

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An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.

 

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Brush the Cat’s Teeth!

 

Thank you, interwebs! And hat tip to my pal, the brilliant Jen Sattler, who tirelessly hunts this stuff down to bring it to the attention-deficit masses.

As it happens, tooth-brushing has figured large in my ouvre.

There’s this, from Wake Me In Spring:

Illustration by Jeffrey Scherer.

Illustration by Jeffrey Scherer.

 

And this, from A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade:

Illustration by Greg Ruth.

Illustration by Greg Ruth.

 

Yikes, I feel a trilogy coming on.

So, yes, obviously, I have some dental issues. Carry on!

That Time I Was Asked to Give Advice to Aspiring Writers About “Rejection”

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I recently received a note from a friend. She wrote: “The topic of our local authors’ & illustrators’ meeting is ‘rejection.’ Would you mind sharing an anecdote about either a rejection or an acceptance that I can share with our group? Hearing about these from you will mean a great deal to our members.” 

A few days later I banged out the response below.

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I wish I had something remotely wise to offer you on this topic, some helpful insight that would give you the strength and wisdom to move forward in the face of a cruel, indifferent world.

I assume you already know all the stories. The books that were rejected 37 times only to become classics of children’s literature. The writers who wall-papered their offices with rejection slips. The realities of the business, how sometimes books are rejected simply because they don’t fit into a publisher’s overall plan — not the fault of the writer or even of the book itself.

And also, as I’m sure you know, there are things to be learned from rejection. For a long time early in my career, I hoped for “quality rejections.” Often a good rejection — anything beyond a standard form letter — can become the beginning of a relationship between writer and editor. And I guess it’s also true for standard rejections too. Proof of your hard work, your determination, your persistence. You are a writer sending out manuscripts and receiving replies from publishing companies. That places you inside the process, whether you are happy with the result or not.

Hey, folks, while we’re at it: Let’s hear it for persistence!

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I am saying to you: Rejection is awful. It’s heartbreaking. I first published in 1986, almost 30 years ago, and I still experience professional rejection in many different ways. Just a scroll through my daily feed on Facebook and I’m ready to start drinking. The awards I didn’t win, the amazing books I didn’t write, the terrific ideas I never had, the wonderful schools I’m not asked to visit, the ALA this and the mid-winter that and on and on and on. The world, it seems, is always telling us that we aren’t good enough. I’ve wanted to give up many times, just wave the white flag: I surrender.

That’s when you have to get back to basics. Get back to story. Back to the core of creativity. Read some books. Fill your heart, your mind. Sit back, close your eyes, rest, and imagine.

And write.

Something new, something better.

The world of publishing — of “being” an author — is filled with distractions. The business of it, the tweets and status updates, the self-promotion and networking. Most of it is utter bs. Because none of it is about writing, making things, being a true artist.

You have to keep returning to the purity of words, the insistence of language, the value of story. You have to be a writer. And if you are, if that thing is alive inside you, no amount of outside rejection can ever put out that flame.

Burn brightly, keep creating. And if in the end you never get published, if the world does not fall at your feet, so be it. That’s life. You will have done real work, you will have done your best. I truly believe there’s value in it, personal growth, something. Just to participate in the creative process, to be alive in it, to enter the dance.

It just may feed your soul.

So it’s not really about the world accepting or rejecting you. All of that is beyond your control. It’s about you . . . accepting the world, holding it your heart, and putting forth your best words, thoughts, and feelings onto the page. That, to me, is a triumph.

Congratulations. Now, keep going, and good luck.

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mood-writing

Stories Can Conquer Fear

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“Stories can conquer fear, you know.

They can make the heart bigger.”

— Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist

All Over the World: Selected Titles in Arabic, Indonesian, German, Korean, Greek, Spanish and More

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For someone who has such difficulties with the English language, it’s something of a shock for me to realize how many of my books have been translated into different languages.

Yesterday I got two new ones in the mail: Jigsaw Jones in Arabic and Scary Tales in Indonesian. I always discover these translations in a haphazard way. They just come in the mail or, in many instances, never come at all. I gather that the Arabic translations of Jigsaw have existed for years. Who knew? Not me. They keep us writers in the dark; like mushrooms, we prefer damp, dank places.

Today I warmed up the trusty, rusty scanner to share a random few translations with you. I have others in French, Italian, Portuguese, and more, but nevermind that. Look here . . .

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Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

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Here’s a sample page . . .

Cool, right? Here's Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist's rendering of the suspect.

Cool, right? Here’s Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist’s rendering of the suspect. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

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In German, Jigsaw Jones was entirely re-illustrated and translated into “Puzzle Paul.”

Jigsaw Jones -- I mean, Puzzle Paul --searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

Jigsaw Jones — I mean, Puzzle Paul –searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

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Here’s the back cover of one of my Scary Tales titles, newly translated into Indonesian.

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They love baseball in Korea too:

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

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Let’s see, how about an interior from the Spanish translation of Hiccups for Elephant?

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

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I’ll stop here with this one, a favorite, the Greek translation of Bystander. Isn’t it amazing? Aren’t I lucky? Doesn’t it just blow your mind to think about it, writing books that are read all over the world?

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TRANSCRIPTION: “Going Home” by A. Bartlett Giamatti (On Baseball, The Odyssey, and Returning Home)

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Many years ago, in 1989 in fact, I enjoyed the memorable experience of attending a public reading at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, created by Roger Angell and A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I still remember the evening vividly, the great selections and talented readers. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and highly recommend it. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

51gxcjdkowl_sl500_aa300_piaudiblebottomright1373_aa300_I was recently reminded of some musings by Giamatti about the nature of baseball, and specifically how the game relates to the idea — the concept, the notion, the pull — of home. His ideas suddenly seemed vitally important to me, helpful to something I was (and still am) writing. So I found the track in my iTunes Library, listened and listened again while transcribing word for word. Here I offer you that one three-minute preamble — words that struck me, and have stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Now, hopefully, a lasting internet artifact.

Please note that I endeavored to transcribe his words faithfully and accurately. The punctuation is my own, faithful to my own ear and to what I imagine to be, perhaps, Mr. Giamatti’s own predelictions, though I’m sure he would have managed the lineup differently. Any sloppiness to these sentences is entirely, I think, due to context. He was speaking from notes, as I recall, but the expression was primarily oral, not written. Thoughts are not always “complete,” as if were.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, scholar and former Commissioner of Baseball.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, scholar and former Commissioner of Baseball.

 

“There is no great long poem about baseball. It may be that baseball is itself its own great long poem. This had occurred to me in the course of my wondering why home plate wasn’t called fourth base. And then it came to me: Why not? Meditate on the name for a moment. Home.

Home is an English word virtually impossible to translate into other tongues. No translation catches the associations, the mixture of memory and longing, the sense of security and autonomy, the accessibility, the aroma of inclusiveness, the freedom from wariness, that cling to the word home, that are absent from ‘house’ or even ‘my house.’ Home is a concept, not a place, a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins. A mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes that one is an original — perhaps like others, especially those one loves, but discreet, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate, and it remains in the mind as the place where reunion, if it were ever to occur, would happen.

So of course home drew Odysseus , who then set off again because it isn’t necessary to be in a specific place, in a house or a town, to be one who has gone home. So home is the goal rarely glimpsed, and almost never attained, of all the heroes descended from Odysseus . All literary romance, all Romance Epic, derives from The Odyssey and it is about going home. It is about rejoining, the rejoining of beloved, rejoining of parent to child, the rejoining of land to its rightful owner or rule. Romance is about putting things right after some tragedy has put them asunder. It is about restoration of the right relations among things. And going home is where that restoration occurs because that’s where it matters most.

Baseball is of course entirely about going home. And to that extent, because it is the only game you ever heard of where you want to get back to where you started (all the other games are territorial; you want to get his or her territory), not baseball. Baseball simply wants to get you from here back around to here, and that I think is why baseball is its own long poem, its own endless epic. We’ll come back again to this later. What we’re going to engage in now however is the way in which baseball, while it has never given itself to the literary expression that is as epic as its own unfolding, is clearly, in a game that recommences with every pitch, superbly fitted to the short poem. To the quick burst, for the shot. And we have three distinguished readers and three distinguished poets who have written quite remarkable, both descriptive and analytic, poems about baseball.”

The poems that were read following Giamatti’s introduction were: “Polo Grounds” by Rolfe Humphries, “Pitcher” and “Base Stealer” by Robert Francis, and “Cobb Would Have Caught It” by Robert Fitzgerald.

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Robert Fitzgerald, “Cobb Would Have Caught It”

In sunburnt parks where Sundays lie,
Or the wide wastes beyond the cities,
Teams in grey deploy through sunlight.

Talk it up, boys, a little practice.

Coming in stubby and fast, the baseman
Gathers a grounder in fat green grass,
Picks it stinging and clipped as wit
Into the leather: a swinging step
Wings it deadeye down to first.
Smack. Oh, attaboy, attyoldboy.

Catcher reverses his cap, pulls down
Sweaty casque, and squats in the dust:
Pitcher rubs new ball on his pants,
Chewing, puts a jet behind him;
Nods past batter, taking his time.
Batter settles, tugs at his cap:
A spinning ball: step and swing to it,
Caught like a cheek before it ducks
By shivery hickory: socko, baby:
Cleats dig into dust. Outfielder,
On his way, looking over shoulder,
Makes it a triple. A long peg home.

Innings and afternoons. Fly lost in sunset.
Throwing arm gone bad. There’s your old ball game.
Cool reek of the field. Reek of companions.

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Also of note: The Poetry Foundation, where I signed up for spectacular email updates,  recently provided a link to a sweet collection of baseball poems. Click here and start running around the bases . . . Lots of good poems there, even some home runs.

The Best Part of Being an Author

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I am doing this primarily for myself, just for the satisfaction of seeing all 6 book covers in one place. More in the future? That’s not up to me. Swamp Monster comes out in June, I’m pretty sure. Just saw the interior art today for the first time. Love it! Students ask me about the best part of being an author, an impossible question, but I think the answer speaks to the sense of accomplishment that comes with any creative act.

You step back and say, “Wow, I did that!” It’s the best feeling.

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My Year of Children’s Book Festivals

When it comes to children’s book festivals, this is my year for saying yes.

Which is not to diminish in any way my appreciation for being asked. There can be no “yes” until somebody extends the invitation. And for that I am grateful.

Even so, book festivals take me away from home, away from family, so it’s taken some time for me to embrace the idea of them. I mean, who is going to cut the lawn? Who is going to manage the baseball team? How can I sit around and do nothing when I am working at a book festival?

Here’s my schedule for the coming year. If you live nearby to any of these locations, come, please, and say hello. Or make a little trip — you won’t regret it. If you’ve never been to a children’s book festival before, you really should. Bring the kids. It’s always an inspiring scene.

Think of all the time most of us spend driving our children to various activities. Soccer practice, track, sleepovers, bowling parties, etc. Why not spend an afternoon sharing the excitement of books with your children? And in doing so, saying, “This matters, this is important, this is fun. Books, reading, the arts.”

 

HUDSON CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

HCBF_logo_cmykLove the people who put this one together. From the website: “The Hudson Children’s Book Festival, established in 2009, strives to create, sustain, and nurture a culture of literacy in partnership with our community and schools. This free, public event fosters a love of reading as families meet and greet world-class creators of books for children of all ages.” May 2, Saturday. 

 

THOUSAND ISLAND’S BOOK FESTIVAL

I was able to travel up to this area last year and fell in love with it (yes, I was not there during the winter-tundra season). I got invited to this small, intimate festival and I’m looking forward to it. June 6, Saturday.

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PRINCETON CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

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Boy, I was so happy to be invited to this one, just a legendary festival smack in the middle of a great town. This will be my second time (it’s always nice to be invited back!). Such a cool vibe — and the after-party was good, too. A backyard, good food, and a fire: my kind of jam. September 19, Saturday.

 

WARWICK CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

Welcome2-300x225A new one on me! I’m looking forward to checking it out, making new connections. At this point, I’m not even exactly sure how to get there. No worries, I’ll bring an audiotape in the car and enjoy the ride. September 26, Saturday.

 

 

 

CHAPPAQUA CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

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This festival began as the beloved “Children’s Book Day” Festival and it used to take place at Washington Irving’s “Sunnyside” along the Hudson River. Historic and beautiful. It’s since been moved, with new organizers, but the essence is still there. October 3, Saturday.

 

bff036d2d5e67a5efad6f19dccfc3337ROCHESTER BOOK FESTIVAL

This one has come to feel like a true family affair, the rare festival where the authors and illustrators and organizers all come together to hang out, lift a glass, and share a laugh. This will be my third time. I feel fortunate to be a part of it, because every year I am reminded of what it means to be a children’s author, the privilege, the responsibility, and the joy. November 7, Saturday.

 

On Writing: “Are You Jigsaw Jones?”

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I love this illustration by Jamie Smith from one of the Jigsaw Jones books. I mean, the glove looks like it might have been drawn by an Englishman, which it was, but the spirit is right. I am very grateful that Jamie illustrated so many books in the series; he was, I think, exactly right.

And, yes, I’m glad to see my love of baseball creep into another book.

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Scan 5

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On school visits, readers often as if I am a particular character.

Am I Eric in Bystander? Jude in Before You Go? Am I the great detective Jigsaw Jones? Or the mouse in Wake Me In Spring?

(Okay, no one has ever asked that last question. And the answer is: no, I am not the mouse in Wake Me In Spring! Yes, we both have beady little eyes and whiskers, but beyond that the similarities are purely accidental.)

Back to the Jigsaw question. No, I’m not Jigsaw Jones. It’s rare for any character to fully stand in for the author. But, of course, there are elements of my life and personality — most definitely exhibited in Jigsaw’s sense of humor — in that character. And there are trappings of my childhood in his world.

Like me, Jigsaw is the youngest in the family. Like me at that age, Jigsaw’s grandmother lives with him. And like me, the boy loves baseball.

It was easier to write that way, more natural; I intimately knew those feelings.

But as I’ve grown as a writer, especially from my early days in college, I’ve learned how to distance myself from my characters. The writing, in my case, has become less autobiographical and more fully its own creation. The characters seem to stand and move around on their own two feet, acting according to their own (fictional) inner compasses. I don’t ask what I would do; I ask what they might do. At the same time, parts of my life, my world, leak into everything. How can it be any other way?

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Anyway, I didn’t expect to write this muddled post today. I mostly wanted to share my excitement about the coming baseball season. I am coaching again this year, a really nice group of 15-year-old boys. We’ll play a travel season and enter some tournaments. My 10th-grade son, Gavin, will be playing JV baseball. It’s an impressive accomplishment; not so easy to make those teams in our town. And last but not least, my heart is filled with hope about my beloved New York Mets.

Dare I say it? I think they might actually be good this year.

I often sign copies of Six Innings the same way. “Dream big, and swing for the fences!”

Is there any other way to play?

 

Talking with Cynthia DeFelice: About Writing, Inspiration, the Common Core, Boys, Guns, Books and More

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I have long followed and respected the work of author Cynthia DeFelice, who over the past 25 years has put together an expansive and impressive body of work. No bells, no whistles, no fancy pyrotechnics. Just one well-crafted book after another. There’s not an ounce of phony in Cynthia; she’s the genuine article, the real magilla. Last November, I was pleased to run into Cynthia at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Pressed for time, we chatted easily about this and that, then parted ways. But I wanted more. Thus, this conversation . . . I’m sure you’ll like Cynthia almost as much as her dog does.

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Greetings, Cynthia. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this conversation. I feel like we have so much to talk about. We first met sometime in the early 90s, back when Frank Hodge, a bookseller in Albany, was putting on his elaborate, gushing children’s book conferences.

UnknownIt’s nice to be in touch with you again. I’ll always remember those conferences​ with Frank Hodge.  He made me feel validated as a fledgling writer.  He left me a voice mail telling me how much he loved the book Weasel.  I played it over and over and over!   In 1992, the Hodge-Podge Society gave the first ever Hodge-Podge Award to Weasel.  It meant the world to me.  Those were great times for authors, teachers, kids, and for literature.

Frank forced me to read your book — and I loved it. So I’ll always be grateful to Frank for that; it’s important to have those people in your world, the sharers, the ones who press books into your hands and say, “You must read this!”

Well, good for Frank! He is definitely one of those people you’re talking about. His enthusiasm is infectious.

We’ve seen many changes over the past 25 years. For example, a year or two ago I  participated in a New York State reading conference in Albany for educators. The building was abuzz with programs about “Common Core” strategies & applications & assessments & implementation techniques and ZZZZZzzzzz. (Sorry, dozed off for a minute!) Anyway, educators were under tremendous pressure to roll this thing out — even when many sensed disaster. Meanwhile, almost out of habit, organizers invited authors to attend, but they placed us in a darkened corridor in the back. Not next to the Dumpster, but close. At one point I was with Susan Beth Pfeffer, who writes these incredible books, and nobody was paying attention to her. This great writer was sitting there virtually ignored.

9780374400200To your point about finding fabulous authors being ignored at conferences, I hear you. It can be a very humbling experience. I find that teachers aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about books and authors as they were 10-25 years ago, and not as interested. They aren’t encouraged in that direction, and they don’t feel they have the time for what is considered to be non-essential to the goal of making sure their kids pass the tests. Thankfully, there are exceptions! You and I both still hear from kids and teachers for whom books are vital, important, and exhilarating.

But, yes, I agree with you completely that literature is being shoved to the side. Teachers tell me they have to sneak in reading aloud when no one is watching or listening.

When I was invited to speak at a dinner, along with Adam Gidwitz and the great Joe Bruchac, I felt compelled to put in a good word for  . . . story. You know, remind everybody that books matter. In today’s misguided rush for “informational units of text,” I worry that test-driven education is pushing literature to the side. The powers that be can’t easily measure the value of a book — it’s impossible to reduce to bubble tests — so their solution is to ignore fiction completely. Sorry for the rant, but I’m so frustrated with the direction of education today.

Well, it’s hard not to rant. It’s disconcerting to think how we’ve swung so far from those heady days of “Whole Language” to today’s “Common Core” curriculum — about as far apart as two approaches can be. I think the best approach lies somewhere in the vast middle ground between the two, and teachers need to be trusted to use methods as varied as the kids they work with every day.

On a recent school visit in Connecticut, I met a second-year librarian — excuse me, media specialist — who was instructed by her supervisor to never read aloud to the students. It wasn’t perceived as a worthwhile use of her time.

Well, that is sad and just plain ridiculous. I was a school librarian for 8 ½ years. I felt the most important part of my job was reading aloud to kids

I didn’t realize you were a librarian. 
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9780374398996Yes, I began as a school librarian. But, really, my life as a writer began when I was a child listening to my mother read aloud.  And every crazy job I had before I became a librarian (and there were a lot) helped to form and inform me as a writer.  This is true of us all.  I had an actual epiphany one day while I was a librarian. I looked up from a book I was reading aloud and saw the faces of a class of kids who were riveted to every word… I saw their wide eyes, their mouths hanging open, their bodies taut and poised with anticipation – I was seeing full body participation in the story that was unfolding.  I thought: I want to be the person who makes kids look and feel like THAT.
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And that’s exactly who you became. Which is incredible. This can be a tough and discouraging business; I truly hope you realize how much you’ve accomplished.

Thanks, and back at you on that. I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we do is important. I think we’ve all had the experience of being scorned because we write for children. The common perception is that we write about fuzzy bunnies who learn to share and to be happy with who they are.

I loved your recent blog post about the importance of books that disturb us. I’m still amazed when I hear from a teacher or parent –- and occasionally even a young reader –- saying they didn’t like a book or a scene from a book because of something upsetting that happened in it. Conflict is the essence of fiction! No conflict, no story (or, worse, a boring, useless one). I love my characters, and I hate to make them go through some of the experiences they have, but it’s got to be done! Did I want Stewpot to die in Nowhere to Call Home? Did I want Weasel to have cut out Ezra’s tongue and killed his wife and unborn baby? Did I want Erik to have to give up the dog Quill at the end of Wild Life? These things hurt, and yet we see our characters emerge from the dark forests we give them to walk through, coming out stronger and wiser. We all need to hear about such experiences, over and over again, in order to have hope in the face of our own trials.

I admire all aspects of your writing, but in particular your sense of pace; your stories click along briskly. They don’t feel rushed, there’s real depth, but there’s always a strong forward push to the narrative. How important is that to you?

I love beautiful writing, I love imagery and metaphor, and evocative language. But all that must be in service to story, or I am impatient with it.  I don’t like show-offy writing.

The ego getting in the way.

Yes. Even the best writers need an editor to keep that ego in check! I seek clarity — what good is writing that obscures and obfuscates? The purpose is to communicate, to say what you mean. That goes for all kinds of writing, not just writing for kids. Kids want to get to the point. So do I.

Can you name any books or authors that were important to your development as a writer? Or is that an impossible question to answer?

 Impossible. Because there are too many, and if I made a list I would inevitably leave out a person or book I adore. Safer to say that every book I’ve read -– the good, the bad, and the ugly –- all are in there somewhere, having an effect on my own writing.

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You are what you eat. Also, your love of nature — the great outdoors! — infuses everything you write.

Nature and the great outdoors, yes.  My love of these things will always be a big part of my writing.  I find that after a lifetime of experience and reading and exploring, I know a lot about the natural world, and it’s fun to include that knowledge in my writing. Sometimes I worry that kids are being cut off from the real world.  But I do know lots of kids who love animals and trees and flowers and bugs, love to hunt and fish, to mess around in ponds and streams, build forts,  paddle canoes, collect fossils — you name it. They give me hope for the future.
Where do you live?

On and sometimes in (during the floods of 1972 and 1993) Seneca Lake in beautiful upstate New York.

Is that where you’re from?

Nope. I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Philly. I came up here to go to college and never left.
Your books often feature boy characters. Why do you think that’s so?
9780374324278You’re right: more than half of my main characters are boys.  I’m not sure why.  And I don’t know why I feel so perfectly comfortable writing in the voice of a 10-11-12 year old boy.  Maybe because my brothers and I were close and we did a lot together?  Maybe because my husband still has a lot of boyish enthusiasm?  At any rate, I am crazy about pre-adolescent boys, their goofiness and earnestness and heedlessness.  My new book (coming out in May) is called Fort.  It features two boys, Wyatt and Augie (age 11) who build a fort together during summer vacation.  I had so much fun writing it.  (I have to admit, I love when I crack myself up, and these guys just make me laugh.)
While writing, are you conscious about the gender gap in reading? This truism that “boys don’t read.”

I am. Sometimes I am purposely writing for that reluctant reader, who is so often a boy. I love nothing so much as hearing that one of my books was THE ONE that turned a kid around, that made him a reader.

I just read Signal, so that book is on my mind today. I had to smile  when Owen gets into the woods and his phone doesn’t work. No wi-fi. It’s funny to me because in my “Scary Tales” series I always have to do the same thing. If we want to instill an element of danger, there has to be a sense of isolation that doesn’t seem possible in today’s hyper-connected world. “What? Zombie hordes coming over the rise? I’ll call Mom to pick us up in her SUV!” So we always need to get the  parents out of the way and somehow disable the wi-fi. You didn’t have that problem back when you wrote Weasel.

9780312617769Thanks for reading Signal.  And, yeah, it’s really annoying that in order to be plausible in this day and age, you have to have a reason why your character isn’t on the phone with Mommy every time something goes wrong.  (Another good reason to write historical fiction!)  In Fort, Augie lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have money for a cell phone, and Wyatt’s with his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and (unlike Mom) Dad doesn’t believe in kids being constantly connected to an electronic nanny.  So — halleluiah!  Wyatt and Augie are free to do all the fun, dumb, and glorious things they feel like doing!
My friends and I built a fort in the woods when we were in high school. Good times, great memories, just hanging out unfettered and free. I included a fort in my book, Along Came Spider. For Trey and Spider, the book’s main characters, the fort represented a refuge. It was also a haven for their friendship away from the social pressures and cliques of school. A place in nature where they could be themselves. So, yes, I love that you wrote a book titled Fort. I’ll add it to my list! (You are becoming an expensive friend.)
Well, now that I’ve discovered your books, I can say the same. Money well spent, I’d say.
Where did the idea for Signal originate?
The inspiration for Signal came one morning as I was running on a trail through the woods with Josie, my dog at the time.  She proudly brought me a white napkin with red stuff smeared on it.  I thought, Whoa, is that blood?  No, whew. Ketchup.  But what if it had been blood?  And what if a kid was running with his dog and she brought him pieces of cloth with blood stains?  Eww.  That would be creepy!  And scary, and exciting, and mysterious — and I started writing Signal.

You’ve always been extremely well-reviewed. Readers love your books.  And yet in this day of series and website-supported titles, where everything seems to be high-concept, it feels like the stand-alone middle grade novel is an endangered species.

I have been lucky with reviews.  But, sadly, I think traditional review sources are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as blogs and websites and personal media platforms take over. That’s not good news for me because I am simply not interested in self-promotion.  Can’t do it.  Don’t want to do it.  I just want to write the best books I can and let them speak for themselves.  I know it’s old-school, but there it is.  You said that a stand-alone middle grade novel is becoming an endangered species amid all the series and “high concept” books out there, and I think you’re right.  But when that stand-alone book somehow finds its niche audience, when kids and teachers somehow discover it and embrace it as theirs . . . , well, it’s a beautiful damn thing, and it’s enough to keep me writing, for now.

For now?!

Well, my husband is 9 years older than I am and recently retired, and there are a lot of things we still need to do!

Like what?

We have a farm property we are improving by digging a pond, and by planting trees and foliage to benefit wildlife. We stocked it with fish, and enjoy watching it attract turtles, frogs, toads, dragonflies, birds and animals of all sorts. So we like to spend a lot of time there, camping out. We love to travel, and are headed next on a self-driving tour of Iceland. We also have four terrific grandchildren we like to spend time with. I could go on and on with the bucket list…

By the way, I agree about the blogs. I think we are seeing a lot more opinion — more reaction — but less deep critical thought. It’s fine and useful for a neighbor to tell you they hated or loved a movie, but it’s not the same as a professional film critic providing an informed, and hopefully insightful, critique. Yet somehow today it’s all conflated. 

Well, there is a similar phenomenon with self-published books. I’m not a total snob about it, and there are plenty of good books that didn’t go through the process of being accepted by and edited by a professional at an established publishing house. But I’ll repeat that everyone needs an editor. And I’m often amazed at the brazenness of people spouting off in various social media platforms, often without being fully grounded in the subject they are pontificating about. But, hey, maybe I’m just getting to be an old fart.

Yeah, I don’t Tweet either. We’re being left in the dust! My observation is that the “kidlitosphere” is comprised 90% of women. Of course, many of those bloggers are passionate, smart, generous women who genuinely want to see boys reading. But I always think of a favorite line written by one of my heroes, Charlotte Zolotow, where a boy imagines his father telling his mother, “You never were a boy. You don’t know.”

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I don’t think it’s an ideal thing that the blogging world — which has become such an important source of information about books — is overwhelmingly female. Of course, the situation is not at all their fault. 

That’s why it’s so great that there are writers out there like you, Bruce Coville, Tedd Arnold, Jon Scieska, Neil Gaiman, Jack Gantos –- who not only write books boys like, but are out there in schools demonstrating that REAL MEN read and write! I don’t know what we can do about the gender gap other than to be aware of it and to write the best books we can, books that both boys and girls will devour.

Tell me about Wild Life. Once again, you are mining the world of adventure — a boy, a dog, and a gun.

I never got as much mail from kids, teachers, grandparents and other caregivers as I did after that book came out. In our hyper-politically correct world, GUNS = EVIL. You can’t talk about them in school. So where does that leave a kid who spends his or her weekend hunting, who studies nature in order to be part of it, who hunts respectfully, with care, who is enmeshed in family history and tradition, who through hunting feels part of the full complexity of life?

8901928I had to keep silencing the censors in my head telling me I couldn’t put a gun in an 11 year old kid’s hands, unless it was a matter of survival in a book set back in “the olden days.”

I was amazed and immensely gratified to learn that a lot of kids found themselves and their interests represented in Erik’s story. I didn’t write it with an agenda in mind. I simply wrote it based on the experiences I’ve had when my husband and I take our bird dog on her yearly Dream Vacation to North Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Ha! I love that your dog has a Dream Vacation.

I get so much joy from watching her do what she was born and bred to do. I cherish our days out on those wide open prairies, and have learned to see the subtle and varied beauty of the landscape. I was just hoping to write a rip-roaring good story that incorporated all that wonderful stuff. Our hunting experiences have nothing whatsoever to do with “gun violence” of the sort you hear about on TV. It’s been interesting to hear from kids who really get that.

Yeah, I enjoy meeting those kids, often out in the western end of New York State. One of my readers from the North Country sent me this photo. Isn’t she great?

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Oh, man, I love that! We can’t forget those kids are out there.

What’s next, Cynthia? Any new books on the horizon?

Possibly, just possibly, a sequel to Fort. But that’s all I will say, even if you use enhanced interrogation techniques.

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Huge-rubber-duck-13--196-pWe do not waterboard here at Jamespreller dot com, and I resent the implication! Those are merely bath toys that happen to be . . . nevermind!

According to the rules of the interwebs, I see that we’ve gone way beyond the approved length of standard posts. Likely there’s no one left reading. It’s just us. So I’ll end here with a big thank you, Cynthia, for putting up with me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I hope I’ll see you again in Rochester at the 19th Annual Children’s Book Festival

Yes!  I look forward to seeing you there.  It’s an incredible event, and gets bigger and better every year.