While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn’t have been a hit. That just came real fast, a blaze, a blur.”
Here’s another one of those songs that I recall hearing in my earliest years — a song that was not chosen or selected by me, it was just there, leaking through the airwaves — a song that I only gradually came to recognize as a work of genius. Again: This improbable hit, written in 1967 by John Hartford, struck my tender self as fairly uncool. This was not the hard rock blasting through the walls of my brothers’ rooms. For starters, Glen Campbell had huge success with it and used it as the theme song for his cornball variety show; hell, my grandmother liked Glen Campbell — and she didn’t have teeth! We forget nowadays just how uncool — how reviled — country music was at the time. It was Redneck Music, hillbilly stuff. Those were the people who actually liked the Vietnam War. Or at least so we, the Lords of Popular Opinion, thought.
An aside: It’s another reason how stunning and courageous it was when Dylan went country with “Nashville Skyline”; he was showing respect to a form of music that rockers of the time openly mocked. But we’ll push that big topic aside for another day, the Dylan book I’ll probably never write.
The song has aged extremely well. “Gentle On My Mind” has been covered by everybody, including hipsters of all varieties. One of my favorite versions, not available on Youtube, is by Mark Eitzel, formerly of the San Francisco-based band, American Music Club. Fans of the song might want to track down Eitzel’s version off his covers CD, “Music for Courage & Confidence.” Available on iTunes for 99 cents.
Another favorite artist, Lucinda Williams, recorded it for the odious movie, “Talladega Nights” (it played while the credits mercifully rolled).
Scroll down a second and take a look at those insane, long-winded lyrics. What a mouthful. How does a singer deliver all that? You get those incredible rolling lines, a sense of naturalistic movement aided by Hartford’s artful use of enjambment. The lyric moves and flows like the Mississippi River that John Hartford loved as a child. There’s surprising turns of phrase everywhere, flashing moments that grab my ear: ‘It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me/Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking.”
I love that crazy collision of almost archaic poesy crashing against the syntax of the common tongue; “something that somebody said” indeed. As my buddy Craig Walker used to say, “It’s the damnedest thing.” And I’m sure he must have loved that song, because Craig loved those moments whenever high art and low art met. After all, his favorite movie was “Five Easy Pieces.” But again, thinking of Craig, I digress.
Here’s a few versions for your enjoyment (or mine, I suppose).
Jim Ed Brown:
John Hartford & Glen Campbell:
It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind
It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking
It’s just knowing that the world will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re moving on the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind
Though the wheat fields and the clotheslines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s crying to her mother cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see you walking on the backroads
By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurgling, crackling cauldron in some train yard
My beard a roughened coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands round a tin can I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re wavin’ from the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind
I’ve been dwelling lately on the concept of “books for boys.” It’s a huge topic, one that I can’t possibly address in a single blog entry. I mean, yes, we’re all aware of the gender gap in reading, that many teachers and parents struggle to inspire in their boys a love for reading. There’s been progress made, an awareness that boys are different from girls, and that their tastes in books often reflect those differences. Enlightened teachers are allowing boys to self-select more of their own reading material; graphic novels are gaining popularity and respect; and so on.
Bu when I encounter lists of “books for boys,” I’m often left deeply dissatisfied — even troubled. Because these well-intentioned lists are often guided by limited stereotypes: boys like action, boys like trucks, bodily humor, adventure, violence, etc. Okay, true enough. But these lists led us to an extremely narrow view of what a boy is, and what a boy could be. What about friendship stories? What about sensitivity to others? Gentleness? Don’t boys love their mothers, don’t they struggle with relationships, don’t they ever feel lonely or afraid?
I’ve been thinking about an old favorite book, Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes. It is out of print. I first encountered this quiet little picture book back in the 80’s, when I wrote copy for the SeeSaw Book Club, edited by Craig Walker. Yet it has lingered in my memory ever since. I think it’s a perfect story, one of the few books I wish I’d written. So I finally got around to purchasing a used copy. Let’s take a look at it:
Whoops. Because the image is not available on the internet for screen capture, we’ll have to go to my cheap scanner. My apologies to Mr. Hayes — and to you, Dear Reader — for the darkness, the low resolution. The actual book looks a lot better.
It is the story of two boys, best friends. They did everything together, even quarrel sometimes. But those brief spats did not matter . . . “because Ted was Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”
Then, one summer things changed . . .
A quick aside: This is such a classic story format, and a great model for new (and veteran!) writers. So many stories begin by establishing a timeless permanence. The well-ordered past, where time is frozen and things are always true. We meet the character, or the place, find out what he or she or it is like. And somewhere along the line we turn the page to find a phrase like this: “And then one day . . .” The story leaps into the present moment (if not literally the present tense). Now the real story begins. I think of these as “and then one day” stories. You’ll find that structure everywhere.
Back to those best friends, Patrick and Ted. One summer, Ted goes to stay with his aunt and uncle at their farm. He even advises Patrick, “Don’t let anyone else use our hideout.”
Patrick is sad and lonely.
But as the days pass, he makes new friends, has new experiences. He joins in with others, he goes to the movies with Mama Bear, he plays alone.
A hideout of his own. Patrick is learning something valuable here, something vitally important.
Then, happy day, Ted returns — with two pet geese!
I love that sentence: “They were loud and quick, and Patrick did not like them.”
The boys argue, get angry with each other — Patrick pushes Ted against their hideout! — but they resolve the conflict to play happily together once again.
And yet there’s been a fundamental shift. Their world has changed . . . inside and out.
“. . . because Ted was still Patrick’s best friend, and Patrick was Ted’s.”
End of story. And by the way, isn’t that great, when you look back at the book, those two illustrations of the swing? First we see Patrick in solitude, seated on the swing, motionless. On the last page of the book we see the swing again: Patrick is smiling, swinging high, pushed by his friend. Again: just right.
Is this not a book for boys? My guess is you won’t find it on many lists. So when we try to serve boy readers, let’s not be so quick to put them in a box labeled, “What Boys Like.” Let’s remember that they have feelings, and struggle with friendships — that they experience confusing emotions — just like everybody else.
I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships 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).
Interesting, isn’t it? It came as a surprise to the reviewer, a fifth-grade teacher, to find a book that dealt with content typically found in a book for girls. Things like friendship, discovery of self, fitting in. Does that mean Spider, like Patrick and Ted, is destined for obscurity, the furnace where “out-of-print” books go to die? Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s not a book that most boys will naturally pick up. I mean: I realize that it isn’t. Just as I know that a book titled “Patrick and Ted” isn’t going to bring boys clamoring. But I can’t believe that when they read it, they won’t see themselves reflected in those pages.
A year ago today, I made my first post on this blog.
I’ve somehow managed 248 posts over that period, all of them a laugh riot. This site has had 23,272 visits, 57,560 pageviews at 2.47 pageviews per visit, and 16,111 “unique” visitors.
No, I don’t know what that means, either. But I do know I’m grateful to everyone (and anyone!) who has stopped by to check it out. And I’m especially grateful to my Nation of Readers who swing by on a semi-consistent basis. Thank you.
My friend Craig Walker used to joke, half-seriously, that everything you could ever say about love has already been said on the Supremes’ “Live at the Copa” album. That is, there are no new revelations forthcoming. So we fall back on the old cliches because they pretty much say it all. Blogging has opened new doors for me, and most significantly, introduced me to a lot of great people. A community. More than anything, that’s been the best part of this blog — and I’m looking at you, dear frantically clicking reader.
So what did I post a year ago? A little tribute to my pal, Craig Walker, titled “Remembering Craig.” I learned more from Craig about children’s literature, and life, and laughter, than just about anyone in this world. He was that rarest of things: a truly great man. My enduring image is of Craig at his desk at Scholastic, while a line of young editors waits outside the door, hoping to catch a few minutes of his time. And whatever they needed, Craig somehow gave: a decision, advice, support, insight, friendship, or laughter. He left us all enriched. But he did leave us, late summer of ’07, and we’ll never forget that time we had, all of us. Craig’s one amazing gift, I think, was that each one of us — out of hundreds — felt that we shared with him a special, individual, meaningful friendship. (I guess we all felt like “unique visitors,” way before it became a kept statistic.) For that time, he was ours. Craig was wholly present with the person in his company; he made you feel, in that moment, like you mattered most of all.
How’d he do that, I wonder? How do you become such a good man?
This is my original post from a year ago:
I often fill my books with little in-jokes, things that few people (if any) will notice. I guess that’s true of most writers. After I worked for a long time on individual character sketches, it came time to construct the actual game for Six Innings — the play-by-play details. I started by looking at a lot of Little League scorebooks, because I’m a nut when it comes to authenticity. Thanks to the Internet, I was also able to review detailed scorebooks from actual Major League games at baseball-reference.com, one of the coolest baseball sites ever.
I searched for one game in particular: Game Six of the 1986 NLCS, Mets vs. Astros. It was a sixteen-inning ordeal, and maybe the best game I ever saw. But it’s also tied to a specific memory. I worked as a copywriter for a children’s publisher in New York. While at work, I followed the game on the radio. At around quitting time, maybe a little before, I called my great pal, Craig Walker, and said, “Hey, our Mets are losing 3-0. It’s the 8th inning. Let’s go to Acme on Great Jones Street, have a beer, and watch them break our hearts.”
Craig did not need to be asked twice. We sat down at the near-empty bar, ordered a glass of suds, and watched the television. The Mets miraculously tied it up with three runs in the ninth inning. The game was on. We ordered another beer. Then another. Because the game kept on going. Ten innings, twelve innings, fourteen innings. We ordered food. We laughed, we watched the game in wonder and anxiety and joy. We made about a dozen new friends that day, since by then the city had caught on and seemed to stop — something was happening in Houston, a ballgame of amazing drama, and everybody had to Stop & Pay Attention. In the top of the 16th, the visiting Mets scored three runs. We sweated through the bottom of the inning, when the Astros almost came all the way back. It taught me that it was more exciting, more stressful, trying to cling to a lead than to dramatically win a game with the swing of a bat (which is joyous and exhilarating, don’t get me wrong).
I used that game as a model for parts of Six Innings. I cobbled together the top of the 9th and the bottom of the 16th and transferred it to the 6th inning of my fictional game. Today I read the book and the ghost of that afternoon with my beloved friend, the great Craig Walker, still hovers around the edges. Craig is gone now, passed too soon from this world, and he never got to read my book, our book, a tale I dedicated to him.
And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!
– – – – –
Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?
It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy. It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others. They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.
Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.
Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.
I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.
I get the sense that your first love is poetry.
I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.
Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.
I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator. I saw her work online and really liked her style. Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.
What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.
It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time. It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful. They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.
I see you already got a great review from KirkusReviews. And I quote in part:
“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”
Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.
It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.
Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?
I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children. Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .
Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.
Yes, of course!
We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.
Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!
Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”
A touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever. It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.
As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.
That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.
Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?
You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”
I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!
Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.
It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.
Not to mention posters of cute kittens.
I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.
Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.
I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell. I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day. It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests. And the camaraderie was great.
There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?
I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania. My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.
Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?
I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.
Did you celebrate?
I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.
Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.
Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.
What about favorite adult books?
Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.
I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”
Last question: Favorite movies?
The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.
Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!
As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)
Back on November 5th, the day after the election, I acted quickly and purchased this remarkable, evocative piece of art from my friend, illustrator Greg Ruth. For the story on that, and where to find other art by Greg, click here and follow the links.
As it turns out, I was not at all alone in my appreciation of Greg’s work. Another old friend, publisher Brenda Bowen of the Bowen Press imprint at HarperCollins, was so inspired by Greg’s work that she signed him up for a wonderful project. Here’s a clip from an article by John A. Sellers in PW’s Children’s Bookshelf:
This October, HarperCollins’s new Bowen Press imprint will release Our Enduring Spirit: President Barack Obama’s First Address to the Nation, a 40-page picture book with illustrations by Greg Ruth.
The book will consist of the President’s speech (adapted for young readers—the entire speech will also be included, in the back matter), biographical notes about Obama, as well as an overview of his first 100 days in office. Graphic novelist/illustrator Ruth (Freaks of the Heartland; Sudden Gravity) had been sketching Obama throughout the Presidential campaign, and when Bowen Press publisher Brenda Bowen, who was on Ruth’s mailing list, saw additional Obama artwork that he had created on election night, she called Ruth and signed him up for this project, in anticipation of Obama’s inauguration.
This pleases me in so many ways I can’t begin to express it. I first met Greg when he signed up to illustrate my upcoming picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel & Friends, 2010). We’ve exchanged emails, bonded over Magic Realism and Kelly Link, our children and books, our love for Liz Szabla and our fear of Facebook, and many other things. He’s just so incredibly talented — a true artist — and a nice guy, too.
There’s a lesson in this for creative people. Greg was inspired by Obama, filled with hope and excitement, so being an artist he began to sketch. There was no master plan. He wasn’t thinking about books, or sales, or furthering his career. He was simply following his enthusiasms, expressing what was inside, what had to come out, his bursting joy. That it led to a book — and such an important book — came to Greg as a complete surprise. Good things happen when you follow your enthusiasms.
For me, personally, the story deepens because Brenda is an old friend, from back in our days at Scholastic together. We were friends inside the office and out, even belonging to a small, happy reading group together. We’ve laughed a lot. Time passed and these days we rarely have much contact, but those old affections never die; I’ll always be crazy about Brenda. So now all those loose threads come together with this book that celebrates Obama, and the renewed hope that so many of us have for our country.
Lastly, just to add one more thread, I wanted to post a photo that was taken on October 25, 1986, at Brenda’s parents’ beach house on the Jersey shore. A whole gang of us went there for a madcap weekend. It’s a shot of me and Craig Walker, one of the greatest friends I’ve ever known. That night we drank beer and watched Game Six of the World Series together — one of the most stirring, improbable, momentous comebacks in baseball history.
I was always proud and pleased that Craig kept this photo on his office wall. After he died, I visited his office. It was a terrible feeling, walking into that room. I looked around, lost, wanting something to keep. And I took this photo off the wall . . .