I originally posted this in October, 2008. It’s nice to come across old writing and think, okay, not terrible. I still agree with myself.
“When I am writing, I think of myself as a writer. But when I am illustrating, I think of myself as an illustrator. I think, though, that I try to create situations with my writing that will be fun to illustrate. The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.” — Bernard Waber.
Bernard Waber floats just under the top shelf of all-time great children’s authors and illustrators — you don’t hear his name much these days, when people list influences — but I suspect he’s under-appreciated. Certainly he’s written some great books, most notably Ira Sleeps Over and The House on East Eighty-Eighth Street., the first of many books starring Lyle the Crocodile. (Waber also has a knack for titles: A Lion Named Shirley Williamson is one of my favorites.)
I interviewed Bernard Waber in the early 1990’s. We spoke again a couple of years after that. I had hoped he could contribute to a book project, but we got sidelined when my son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with leukemia at age twenty-six months. Work just stopped for a while. Bernard understood, of course, and sent Nick a stuffed crocodile, some books, and a lovely handwritten note.
You don’t forget things like that.
So, yes, there’s bias here, an affection that goes beyond books. When I spoke with Bernard Waber more than 15 years ago — and I’m happy to report he is still going strong at age 84 [edit: 87 now!] — his intelligence shined through. He spoke about his craft with clarity and immodesty, as clear and refreshing as cool water. An innate goodness courses through his books. And his stories, no matter how humorous — how sly, dry, and understated — often contain real sensitivity. He writes from the heart.
“The nice thing about humor,” Waber told me, “is that after you have an idea that you think is humorous, there is always another side that’s sad and complicated. Those are the things you discover after you start writing.”
Ira Sleeps Over finds Waber at his best, capturing the inner angst of a childhood dilemma: the first sleepover. Ira is invited to sleep at his friend Reggie’s house — but he has never slept without Tah Tah, his Teddy Bear. Can Ira risk the embarrassment? With staccato dialogue, Waber deftly explores Ira’s confusing, conflcting emotions. In addition, the dynamic with the older sister rings so true. Because somehow Waberknows. He remembers.
His 2002 book, Courage, in which various characters encounter the need for bravery, was inspired in part by 9/11, though he primarily drew upon childhood memories of the Great Depression. I love the cover:
Waber told Becky Rodia, of Teaching K-8 magazine, “Courage is the summoning of core strengths, faith, and idealism in confrontation with life’s challenges. My parents’ bracing themselves against all odds during the Great Depression taught me valuable lessons in this regard. However, because we are humans with frailties, courage can also mean asking for help and support in the face of overwhelming circumstances.”
When I think of Bernard Waber, I think of someone who showed us what a picture book can achieve. Laughter, childlike appeal, and adult insight. For that, and for more personal reasons, I offer this tribute. I don’t know who handles these things, but I hereby nominate Bernard Waber for a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to children’s literature.
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!
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 Doll, The 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.
Preamble: This entry was inspired by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at the great Two Writing Teachers blog, where they issue an annual slice-of-life writing challenge. Essentially, to write every day through the month of March. I did not participate formally, but I like the concept — especially for anyone who attempts the near-impossible, i.e., to teach writing. Bless you all.
It was my fourth hotel in little more than a week, I’d attended a literacy conference in Dublin, OH, flown into Philadelphia, and now worked my way north in a rented Kia through New Jersey on my own, personal traveling dog-and-pony show.
I was both pony and dog, whinny and woof.
It’s true there is no place like home, but hotel life has its comforts, episodes of ease and quiet. I’d adapted to the routine, moving like a shark through the murky waters, seeking out a good meal and an elliptical machine, maybe some free weights and a local highlight.
By 9:00 on this particular night, I’d exercised, eaten, washed and folded and repacked a load of laundry, and now read in the hotel lounge, warmed by an electric fireplace. I learned not to spend too much time in the room, supine, half-awake, fat and clickered. A thought came: the hot tub to melt these tired bones, perhaps slide more easily into sleepfulness.
Two men were already soaking in the water. Men like me. Away from home on some job. The younger man said he lived in California, looked about 40. The other was about a decade older — a solid, square-jawed guy bristled with gray, from St. Louis, MO. A sizable man, formerly sturdy, even forbidding, now with a vast distended belly.
St. Louis, I knew, was a baseball town, and in the previous October the Cardinals won the World Series in heart-stopping fashion, so we talked baseball, those cardiac Cards. Sports talk, old glue amongst men, binding us, opening our mouths, a language we shared. I brought up the Steve Jobs biography, said how much I enjoyed reading it, and he said that he was in the middle of it, too.
After ten minutes I rose, ready to leave, but before I could towel off, he climbed out like a great pale bear and produced three cold beers from his personal cooler. He was a bring-your-own-cooler kind of guy, a seasoned traveler, used to making himself at home in anonymous, sterile places.
So he offered me one, here, arm extended, beer tipped a little toward me. Ever have Yuengling? I could hardly refuse. Sat on the ledge this time, submerged in hot water up to my knees. More talk of work and technology and other things. Topics that left me smiling, nodding, a little bored, nearly done. I asked if he had children. Yes, he told me, a boy, 25, and a daughter, 17.
You must be doing the college thing, I said.
No, no, he answered. My daughter has severe cerebral palsy, she was born very small, very early. No, she won’t be going to college.
We talked for a long while about his daughter. He explained her condition, his wife’s difficult pregnancy, the forced bed rest and preeclampsia, the terrible choice he was forced to make. To save a life, to risk a wife or daughter. He said, I live with that decision every day of my life. And he described his daughter’s ability to hear and understand a conversation, but her near-total inability to communicate. I would give my left nut, he said, if she could just tell me that she had to throw up. He told of those occasions when she grew unsettled, distressed — talked of bathing her, of rubbing lotion into her skin, of making her smell clean and good, fresh clothes and baby powder, trying to calm and sooth this troubled creature.
But after two days of that, he said, fussing and fretting and still nothing works, it’s time to pay a visit to the pediatrician.
Was she happy, I asked, could he tell? He said how they loved to go camping, described in detail the whole elaborate set-up — and how she loved to ride on the back of his motorcycle, using the complicated harness system he’d rigged up for those trips. How, also, she liked to turn the pages of magazines and listen to music. The Steve Miller Band was her favorite, no one knew why. So yes he believed she was happy, yes, happy every day.
And a pause now, time moving slow like the smoke that rose from the heated water, and I gave a half-apology at the preposterousness of my next question, which I asked anyway. What has she taught you, this daughter of yours. What have you learned?
He thought it over. Patience, he said, and love. He said how he used to think that love was this or love was the other thing, that love was lust — he made a crude push-pull gesture, in and out with his bent arms — that love was only physical. But he had been mistaken about those things. He said, I learned that love is a quiet river that runs through you, with the power to carve a valley through solid rock.
He said those exact words in a hotel hot tub somewhere in Jersey. We soaked in the echo of that amazing statement. Love is a quiet river, I repeated. That runs through you. With the power, I said, trying to recall the words exact, to carve a valley. Through solid rock. I asked his co-worker, who was now quiet and pensive, if he’d known this about his friend. No, he said, we just met yesterday on the job. And the man from St. Louis, whose name I never did learn, said it’s not something he usually talked about. So I thanked him for that, for telling us about his little girl.
She is so beautiful, he said. Blonde hair, pretty blue eyes.
Dad was the father of seven children, a veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific. After the war, he graduated from Boston University in two and half years, because why in the world would anybody want to waste another minute in school. There was a life to be lived, a brass ring to grab, things to do. Let’s get on with it.
It was a different time, a different generation.
Dad settled with my mother on Long Island, became an insurance man, started having kids rapid fire in the Catholic fashion, built a business. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. On rare weekend days I’d tag along when my father needed to pop into his rented office on Wantagh Avenue for an hour or two. We never specialized in father-and-son type stuff, whatever that was, and I’m sure the word bonding did not apply to relationships back in those days, only glue, but I do recall those trips to his office. Dad’s place of business offered that most wondrous of commodities, office supplies — electric typewriters, staplers, a copier, boxes of paper clips and, best of all, tracing paper.
I marveled at its magical properties. Dad didn’t part with his supply easily, that stuff cost money, so I was thrilled and grateful whenever he brought a stack home. Those are nice memories for me, a lifetime away. I sometimes wonder: Whatever happened to that kid? That boy with the tracing paper? Where’d he go?
From around that time, somewhere in the mid 60’s, another day presses forward for attention. One spring morning we set off together — in the hazy gauze of remembrance, just me and dad — to a farm somewhere. Because dad knew a guy, a customer who had a stable and a few horses. He possessed, in others words, shit to spare. And the price was right.
I must have been about five or six years old at the time, no older. We got to the farm, out east on Long Island probably, and I stood around while my father chatted with the owner of the place. Maybe I looked into the stable, fearfully eyed the horses. Did I want to feed one of them an apple? No, I did not. I was shy, watchful and quiet. Eventually my dad keyed open the car truck, borrowed a shovel, and filled it to the brim with horse manure. I stood by, mystified, awestruck. Trunk full, steam rising, we headed back home, where I watched my father spread the still semi-moist shit around the front lawn. It was good for the grass, he explained. Nature’s fertilizer.
My older brothers and sisters recall those times with profound mortification. Imagine the embarrassment they felt, the acute stabbing horror, especially those of a certain age, when the opinion of one’s peers meant only everything. I can’t say this plainly enough: My brothers hated it when dad spread horse shit on the front lawn — even worse, on hot days it smelled like holy hell, the stink filling your nostrils — and yet my father performed the same ritual every year.
And here’s the thing about my dad, really the essential memory of him. He didn’t care. Alan J. Preller simply did not give a hoot what anybody thought. He never did. He embarrassed us, he ticked off people, annoyed relatives, said what he thought and did what he did. Dad lived on his own terms, remarkably indifferent to opinion. And if that made him impossible at times, well, so be it. He wasn’t trying to please anybody.
My father passed away a few years back, coincidentally enough while spreading fertilizer out on the front lawn in Southampton, where he retired. He had moved beyond horse manure by then, thank God, nowadays they’d hang you in Southampton for that, but there was still no way he was going to push around one of those crummy lawn spreaders. No, dad preferred a Maxwell House coffee can, dipping it into a big bag of fertilizer, sprinkling it imprecisely across the yard with a grand sweep of his arm. And to be honest, it’s more fun that way. Believe me, I know.
There he was out on the lawn, doing what he always did, and that’s when his heart gave out, when he fell, when my father left us.
These days, when I’m particularly infuriating — insensitive, implacable, impossible — my exasperated wife, Lisa, will proclaim that I’m becoming just like my father. I won’t listen to anyone, I’ll just do whatever I want. And as I age, it only gets worse. That’s her complaint. The funny thing is, I always hear it as a compliment.
Happy Father’s Day, folks. A good day to pull some weeds, mow the lawn, tend the garden and then, like my father often did, wander into the kitchen, reach into the bottom cabinet where he kept the bottle of Dewar’s, and announce, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.
Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?
I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers.It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.
I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.
One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.
Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.
You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?
But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.
At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.
Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.
As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?
There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.
Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”
Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?
I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.
I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.
As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.
Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.
At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?
School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.
It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!
I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.
You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?
I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.
I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?
One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.
Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?
I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”
I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow Reading. I posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”
My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”
Readers, note: Please check out my other blog, FATHERS READ, for more on the subject of boys literacy. I’ll be away on school visits for most of the week.
Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book, Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.