Archive for April 24, 2012

Celebrating 4 Years of Bloggy Goodness: Fathers & Sons & Baseball

I posted this back on July 10, 2008 — before I knew how to insert photos.

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Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.

My father, ten years before I came along, with Neal or Billy.

My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four older brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-style parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.

So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.

I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.

He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.

In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.

Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .

Old Posts Revisited: A Celebration of Four Full Years of Bloggy Goodness

I’ve been so overwhelmed lately, visiting far-flung schools, working hard on my “Shivers” project, all while fighting “flu-like symptoms” for the past ten days.

Anyway, part of my blogging experience has always been one of talking to myself in the dark. I’m never sure that anyone much cares. But, okay, so be it. Now that this blog is nearing the completion of its fourth full year, I thought I’d give myself a break by reposting a few of old favorites that newer readers might have missed.

It’s not abject laziness, it’s a celebration, people!

This one is from November, 2008 . . .

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Found this quote by Katherine Paterson, mentioned on the blog Revision Notes, by Darcy Pattison:

I was writing — learning and growing along with the children — until eventually I was writing fiction worthy of publication. It might have happened sooner had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.

I remember reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Great book, and a fascinating look into the glory days of Old School children’s publishing, comprised of remarkable letters to Sendak, Wilder, Steptoe, Krauss, Brown, and many more.

Nordstrom was the editorial director of Harper’s “Department of Books for Boys and Girls,” 1940 to 1973, and her fingerprints are on such books as Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, The Giving Tree, William’s DollThe Carrot Seed, and Harriet the Spy.

Anyway, one of the things I remember from that book is that she advised her writers against having children! Too distracting! The little ones would get in the way of the work. And, yes, Nordstrom, without children of her own, was absolutely right — and utterly wrong.

I think to write — and write well — is to go deep into yourself. It requires commitment. Time, energy, space (physical and mental). But like Patterson says, isn’t it nice when real life intervenes? Somebody scrapes a knee, competes in a swim meet, maybe needs a talking-to or a lift to a friend’s. That joyful noise pulls you away from the work, a distraction and an interruption, and yet feeds it, sustains it, motivates it, makes it all worthwhle. Every minute.

Again, that beautiful line:

I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.

Caine’s Arcade: Worth Ten Minutes of Your Life

There’s no getting around it. This film is nearly eleven minutes long.

And in web surfing time, that’s like three years.

But, but, but.

This short film is brilliant and beautiful, artfully done, and it will hit you right in the heart, while restoring some of your faith in humanity. For ten minutes of your time, I vote YES.

“I got a fun pass.”

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Fan Mail Wednesday #148: Wake Me In Spring

Hello James,

I was wondering if you have a sequel to Wake Me In Spring. I think it would be a great book idea! I teach preschool to children with autism and they love this book. They ask me to read it everyday. It’s Spring, I think Bear needs to wake up!!! LOL.

Thanks,

Elizabeth

I replied:

Elizabeth,

I totally agree with you. I tried, really tried, to sell that idea to my publisher at that time, Scholastic. My editor was not at all interested in a sequel, however. The book sold more than one million copies, but she just didn’t want to see a follow-up. I wrote a couple of stories that I liked, but it was a losing battle. Those old manuscripts are lost somewhere, I suppose.

It’s a crazy business, endlessly disappointing, and I don’t claim to understand it. I just hope they keep the book in print.

Thanks for your kind words. I’m very proud of that little story — I think it has heart — and young readers still enjoy hearing it aloud on school visits. And I still love to share it with them.

JP

Happy Easter . . . I Think

For more Sketchy Bunnies, click away. All praise the interwebs!

Fan Mail Wednesday #147: In Celebration of Children’s Artwork

Is there anything better than children’s artwork?

No, there isn’t. There is not.

As evidence to that proposition, I share with you some of the contents of a fat envelope I received from Mrs. Chinchar’s first grade class, after I had visited Lawrence Brook Elementary School, in East Brunswick, NJ. (I think.) I can’t include all the drawings and letters here, but I’m grateful for each one. Below, a few highlights . . .

Okay, my heart just melted.

In her letter, Skye wrote, “I love Spring.” I look at this picture and think, Skye loves life!

Ariana concluded her letter with a P.S. “I love love love writing too!”

Zafir drew a scene from his favorite book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. Move over, Greg Ruth, there’s another illustrator in town . . .

This stubble-faced guy frightens me, frankly. I wouldn’t trust him. Hey, wait a minute — I think that’s me. I recognize the shirt.

Each piece of artwork came with a letter. Here’s one that came from Lucus, on the reverse side of the drawing above. I love hearing from fellow writers who share my love of books and reading. Keep up the great work, Lucas!

Last but not least, I received a spectacular drawing and letter from Alyssa, who really “liket” Hiccups for Elephant and concluded her letter in all caps with an explosion of exclamation marks:

“THANK YOU!!! I LOVE TO WRITE!!!!”

(Sorry, I couldn’t fit the entire, joyous piece on my scanner. It deserves a place on my office wall.)

Last comment: Obviously, Mrs. Chinchar is doing something very, very right in her classroom. Thank you for those beautiful, happy letters.

Let Them Eat Cake

I have so much to share these days, and so little time to do the sharing. It’s a happy avalanche of exciting writing projects (and deadlines!), amazing school visits, new experiences, fan mail, and baseball season — but it’s an avalanche nonetheless.

Here’s a quick post. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s visit to Algonquin Middle School in Averill Park, NY.

Why?

Because they made a cake.

Sweet!

The school created a couple of artistic bulletin boards, too.

However, I can’t eat them.

Seriously, these little touches make a difference . . . for me and for the students. They communicate excitement, anticipation, hospitality, and class. Thank you, much appreciated. Like I’ve said before: Authors don’t do school visits, it’s schools that do author visits.


Behind Every Harassed Child . . .

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote a sensitive, perceptive review (3/29) of the new film, “Bully,” a much buzzed-about documentary by Lee Hirsch.

It’s worth reading in full. But here’s a paragraph to wet your whistle:

The feeling of aloneness is one of the most painful consequences of bullying. It is also, in some ways, a cause of it, since it is almost always socially isolated children (the new kid, the fat kid, the gay kid, the strange kid) who are singled out for mistreatment. For some reason — for any number of reasons that hover unspoken around the edges of Mr. Hirsch’s inquiry — adults often fail to protect their vulnerable charges.

I look forward to seeing this important film, while at the same time dreading it.

Here’s the trailer:

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There’s a scene in my book, BYSTANDER, when Eric speaks up to a group of peers. He asks, “The other day with Griffin and David. Why didn’t we do anything to stop it?”

And in that brief dialogue out on the playground, I wanted to quickly present, without editorial, some of the most common reasons cited for failing to stand up.

The mood of the group changed, grew quiet and uncomfortable. A few sets of eyes looked away, perhaps searching for Cody and Griffin.

“What about it, Hakeem?”

The thick-bodied, dark-skinned boy stared at Eric. He smiled, lifted up his hands. “My parents tell me to stay out of it,” he admitted. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Hallenback is a loser,” Drew P. interjected. “You know how annoying he is, Eric. That kid deserves a little roughing up now and then. It’s like he asks for it.”

“Please, sir, may I have another?” Marshall Jenkins joked in a whiny voice.

Most of the boys laughed, nodding in agreement.

Eric noticed that Pat Daly wasn’t laughing.

“What about you, Pat?” Eric asked.

Pat swallowed, looked at the ground. “Even if, let’s say, maybe you saw something that seemed a little harsh,” he tentatively began. “What if you did say something? You’d get your butt kicked the next day.”

“It’s not worth it,” another commented.

“Besides, who are you going to tell?” Marshall asked. “The principal? Mrs. Morris can’t do anything.”

“What about Officer Goldsworthy?” Eric wondered.

“No way I’d ever rat someone out,” Sinjay stated. “Especially not to a rent-a-cop.”

“Eric, listen to me, okay? You’ve got to lighten up, dude,” Drew P. advised. “Why make a big deal out of it? Okay, a few little things have happened. There’s always going to be some guy who takes a pounding. That’s life. What do they call it in science? Natural selection,” he pronounced.

Rex Babin, Political Cartoonist (1962 – 2012): An Old Friend Remembered

Rex Babin lived a block away from me in the early 90′s, back when we both resided in Center Square, Albany. I was new to Albany, with a wife and (soon, in 1993) a young child. Rex was a single guy with a good apartment, and we hung out a lot, listening to the Pixies and Nirvana, and talking, talking, talking. Beer was sometimes involved.

This is Rex, holding my son, Nicholas, 1993. A  future father in training.

Rex was a California kid, tall, strong, ruggedly handsome — always a little out-of-sorts in the gray climate of upstate New York. He worked for the Albany New York Times Union newspaper as a political cartoonist, so there was always something rattling around in his head.

We lost touch after he moved to a new job at The Sacramento Bee in 1999 — keeping touch was something neither of us were any good at. We became Facebook friends, of course, following each other across a great distance, but that was a faint duplicate of the real, tangible connection that once was. I learned on Friday that Rex had passed, after a two-year battle with stomach cancer. He left behind a wife, Kathleen, and a son, Sebastian.
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When I think of our friendship, I’m reminded of so many others that have come and gone. The kid in second grade I used to hang out with all the time. The girlfriend in tenth. The college roommate, the work colleague, and so on. All these friendships that we mutually surrendered over the years.
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We simply let go.
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Glad to unearth this old shot of me, my dog, and Rex.
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What I now understand is that friendship has its own grip. We might loosen our connection, but the friendship — that thing, whatever it was —  never lets go. Anyone who was ever a friend, no matter how ephemeral, carves a permanent place in the heart. We might forget that in our headlong rush to the next and the next and the next, the busy itinerary of our days, but these recent years I find myself remembering those friends more and more.
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Regrets, yes. The could haves and should haves. But mostly this: appreciation for what once was. Gratefulness. Forgiveness. Love.
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Rex was one of those guys. A good guy who passed through and left a mark, like scrimshaw on whale bone. Rex was here. And despite the fact we haven’t spoken in years and years (and perhaps we both should have been better friends), I mourn his passing, raise a glass to his memory, send my best thoughts to Kathleen and Sebastian, and cry a few tears.
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Rex was a friend of mine, and no matter how much rain and sadness we endure, that stuff never, ever washes away. He will be missed.
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