Archive for June 30, 2008

William Steig: An Appreciation

“The fact that kids like a book is not proof of its merit. They also like all kinds of dreck confections with names like yo-yos, and animation full of senseless violence. Every kid is a potential genius but also a potential yuckapuck.” — William Steig.

I love William Steig’s books, his picture books (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, Doctor De Soto) as well as his longer works, such as Abel’s Island and Dominic.

Amazingly, Steig published his first children’s book at the vintage age of sixty. I often think that’s what helped make his voice unique, singular. Like many people who reach that state of grace — I’m thinking of any number of old grandpas on the front porch, talking about how the world really works — Steig didn’t seem to care what anybody thought. He was free from all those concerns. Sure of himself, Steig worked to please himself, confident in the knowledge that by doing so, he would almost certainly please others. Or not — whatever!

I admire, too, his faith in his own imagination, his aspirations to make true, lasting Art. Yet he was never pretentious about the writing process. Said Steig, “I just ramble around and discover for myself what will happen next.” He also said: “I can’t truly say that I am ever inspired to write a book. It’s the last thing in the world I think of until I have to do it. And then I count on my imagination to make things happen.”

His artwork serves the text, and often sublimely, perhaps never moreso than in The Amazing Bone, which seems like it sprang from the palette of a French Impressionist. I’m staring at a two-page spread that depicts the book’s porcine heroine, Pearl, as she serenely settles amidst the wild flowers of a forest. She breathes in her surroundings, at one with nature.

Wrote Steig:

Later she sat on the ground in the forest between school and home, and spring was so bright and beautiful, the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower. Her light dress felt like petals.

“I love everything,” she heard herself say.

Despite the artwork, it was Steig’s singular use of language that separated him from the pack. He refused to pander to the perceived interests of young readers; instead, he lifted readers up, selecting the right word even if it wasn’t the easiest word, trusting in his readers’ intuitive intelligence. Children encounter rich, vivid language in his books, words like cantankerous and recumbent. As J.K. Rowling proved in the Harry Potter books, the grandiosity of the language did not turn readers away, but rather heightened the mystery and atmospherics of the telling. Steig’s books serve as an eloquent rebuttal to today’s misguided tendency of “dumbing down” children’s literature.

There’s also sensitivity in his stories, poignancy, a profound sense of wonder. The way Sylvester’s parents, heartbroken and unyielding, never stop searching for their lost child, never surrender hope. Or when Pearl in The Amazing Bone finds herself in the clutches of a cruel fox:

“Be brave,” the bone whispered. Pearl could only tremble.

Steig was a true believer in the immediacy of the creative impulse. He said, “It’s only when you’re consciously aware of what you’re doing in a book that you’re in trouble.” He followed, that is, his own muse. There is nothing cynical about his work, nothing deliberate. I believe he never once tried to figure out the market, never wrote simply to sell, never chased the latest trend, but instead followed his heart. It is why his books are timeless and enduring.

In Dominic, a dog sets out to see more of the world. Soon he must choose between two paths: a road with “no surprise, nothing to discover or wonder at,” or another road that promises to lead him to “where things will happen that you never could have guessed at — marvelous, unbelievable things.”

Like the book’s creator, Dominic chose the second path. Every reader who has opened one of William Steig’s books knows that feeling. For he invites us along on that same journey of surprise and adventure. And away we go, willingly, happily, in the hands of a master.

POSTSCRIPT: A librarian friend — okay, my ex-wife, Maria, who remains my friend — just sent me a cool link. There was a recent celebration of William Steig’s art at The Jewish Museum. To get more info, and to hear Meryl Streep read Spinky Sulks, just follow the link. This presentation of his work from The New Yorker is also awesomely cool.

For Mets Fans Only

As my friend, the super-talented, ultra-cool illustrator Matthew Cordell says, a youtube clip is always an easy blog post. (I think it was Matthew who said it, or maybe Winston Churchill?)

I don’t know, I just find this song pretty funny. It’s about Mets pitcher John Maine — as played by a guy who calls himself, “Kuff and the Buttheads.” Enjoy, or not! Warning: You’ll never get those two minutes and forty-two seconds back.

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A Child With Cancer

I think when you’ve had a child with cancer, as I have, certain things always make you cry. Forever after, you are prone to bouts of blubbering. Memories, little acts that touched you, stick into your heart and remain stuck there, like a forgetful accupuncturist’s needle. Time passes and something unbidden triggers a memory; the needle vibrates again, the heart goes atwitter, and the eyes well up. It’s just one of those life events that, if you think about it at all, well, it’s good to have Kleenex around. Though I prefer the back of my sleeve.

My oldest son, Nick, relapsed with leukemia in 4th grade, after having already gone through it, ages two to four. All totaled up, he’s gone through five years of chemotherapy. Imagine that. I scarcely can, and our family lived through it. Nick’s good friend since 1st grade was (and still is) a boy named Sam. I watched in awe and admiration as Nick and Sam’s friendship weathered this illness. Though Nick was bald and weary, and not a whole lot of fun to be around, their friendship endured. Even more, it thrived. I was privileged to witness the goodness in Sam, his fundamental kindness, the way he treated his sick friend, my son. I won’t describe the specifics, because already I feel as if I’m a trespasser, like I’m on someone else’s property. It’s theirs, not mine. But what I saw, I will say, was genuine love. The friendship, the loyalty, the steadfastness of two boys. And it went both ways; they both gave, and they both received.

More than anything, that experience fueled the core of Six Innings, gave the book it’s heart. It’s what inspired me when I wrote those fictional scenes between two made-up characters, Sam Reiser and Mike Tyree.

It’s a book about a Little League baseball game and, I hope, not just that. The game is the structure that allowed me to enter the lives of some of these boys that I’ve seen, and known, and imagined. I’ve changed all the details — Nick is Sam and Sam is Mike; the form of cancer is different; the characters are more “inspired by” rather than “based upon” — but the core experience remains. Friendship under duress. At the same time, I think you can still read it as a baseball book, with hits and heroics, fears and failures. It’s one specific and yet metaphorical place where real boys live, out on the diamond, on green fields, under clear skies, the purity and relative peace of boys at play, that big yellow sun shining down.

Nick completed 9th grade yesterday. Good grades, too. This morning he announced that he did twenty-five pull-ups. “Good,” I say. “Keep it up, Nick. Keep it up.”

First Review: Along Came Spider!

The process of getting a hardcover book published takes time. There’s the idea, the talking about the idea, the research and rough notes, the first draft, the endless revision, the rejected covers, the final cover (see top of main page), the galleys, the proofreading, the advance copies for reviewers, the binding, the waiting. So much time passes, and distance stretches, that you begin to wonder if it will ever actually become a Real Book.

That’s how it’s been for Along Came Spider, published by Scholastic and edited by the redoubtable Shannon Penney, due in stores this August. But today I got a jolt when a friend tipped me off to a review at a blog called Literate Lives. Outside of a few close friends and a couple of local classrooms, this is the first response from The Outside World I’ve gotten to the book. Making it, officially, real. It wasn’t all a dream. (See review, below legendary, goofy clip from Dallas, Season Nine — speaking of dreams — for my older readers, who remember these things.)

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The review so accurately describes the book, I’ll copy it here in full:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendhsips and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong in Along Came Spider, by James Preller (due out September 2008).

James Preller is probably most known for his Jigsaw Jones mystery series, but this book is much more character driven than the series.

This book has two main characters: Spider Stevens, a “typical” 5th grade boy, and Trey Cooper, Spider’s neighbor and childhood friend. The story takes place during the boys’ 5th grade year in Mrs. Wine’s classroom. Trey appears to be mildly autistic, though that is not explicitly stated in the text. Instead, there is the scene where Trey realizes his pencils are not as sharp as he’d like them to be: “… if Trey boke a penil tip, or noticed that his supply of perfectly pointed pencils was running low, Trey had to respond – immediately, ASAP, pronto.” And then when his teacher gets mad at him, he doesn’t understand why, and tries to get her to smile by quoting statements off Mrs. Wine’s Creating Smiles poster — only none of the phrases he chooses are appropriate to the situation. Trey seems to have difficulty with social cues. Then, there is the scene where he gets in trouble at recess, and has to stand at the wall. For him, that is a relief from the hectic and loud playground. So, he stands facing the brick wall, contemplating each individual brick.

Up until fifth grade, none of Trey’s behaviors or comments have bothered Spider; if anything, he has appreciated the wonderful brain Trey has and the way he can be so focused on a topic for a long period of time. They have been great friends. They play together at home, they walk to school together, they even do projects together. But in fifth grade, other kids start to pay attention to Spider, and he has an opportunity to be part of the “cool” boy group. But it will most likely mean Spider will have to leave Trey behind to be part of this other group.

The rest of the story deals with their separation as friends, and how they both grow a little as individuals. James Preller has also included a character that should make the 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Literature started by A Year of Reading. Her name is Ms. Lobel, the school librarian in the boys’ school. She is one amazing lady!!!!!!!!! Her perceptiveness and kindness truly know no bounds, and her ability to see things the way Trey does is amazing!

The story concludes in a very satisfying, realistic way, but that’s all I’m giving away because this is a book you need to read. I think that all adults in education, as well as students, need to read this book because it gives a thoughtful, insightful look into the minds of children like Trey. We all encounter them at sometime in our careers, and I hope, like the amazing Ms. Lobel, we can start to look at the “Treys” in our lives differently, instead of just looking at them as being different. There is a huge distinction in that mindset!

Thanks to James Preller for such a wonderful, thought-provoking story!

Fan Mail Wednesday #5

After taking a week off from the grueling schedule of Fan Mail Wednesday, it’s time to get back in the saddle and ride. So let’s turn that big wheel round and round — please imagine a giant hamster wheel in my office, filled with a tumble of letters, as I turn a huge crank — and see what we’ve got.

Vivian from Baltimore, Maryland, writes:

I have read your book, Jigsaw Jones #18: The Case of the Bear Scare. I liked that book. It was a very interesting book. I want to know how you knew so much about bears. Do you think a black bear could come to my backyard?

Thanks for that letter, Vivian. I got the idea for that book when I read in my local newspaper about a bear that had wandered into a suburban neighborhood. Like many writers, I began to ask myself “What if?” questions. (That’s a good tip for any writer, by the way. Ask “What if?” questions — the answers just might become your next story!)

Then the fun part began. For that book I not only researched Australian slang (kids are called “ankle-biters”), but I also had to learn about bears. I started by locating a bear expert named Lou Berchielli, a black bear specialist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We spoke on the phone and he patiently answered many questions. For example, he told me that bears love bird seed and compost heaps. Because bears are territorial, young males are often kicked out of an area by a larger male and forced to find their own territory. This usually happens in the Spring. Lou told me that bears are also great swimmers, which I didn’t realize. While looking for a new home, these young bears will sometimes get confused, make a wrong turn or two, and end up in the parking lot of a suburban strip mall. It happens all over the country every Spring. I also learned about scat, or bear poop, which is about as fun as research gets. I knew it was the type of info that would appeal to Jigsaw.

To answer your last question, I don’t know if there are many bears in the Baltimore area. It seems like you are more likely to be visited by Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost. I visited Poe’s gravesite when I was last in Baltimore, many moons ago. If there was ever an author who might rise from the grave to take a murky midnight stroll, it would be old Edgar. Hmmm . . . I wonder . . . WHAT IF that really happened? Why would his ghost be haunting the streets? Could the ghost be looking for something, or someone? What if . . . ?