Musings and reflections about writing, storytelling, literacy, Rowan the Golden, and everything in-between
It's a snow day here in central Oregon. And I mean a SNOW day. The prediction of 8-12 inches was achieved hours ago, and it's still snowing. A lot. Constantly. I shoveled at least two feet of off the deck and within an hour it was covered with another 4". So, being the courageous mountain woman that I am, I quit. Came inside to put together a snow rake, which I bought two years ago after the last snowpocalypse, and it's been in its original box, in the shed, ever since. The guy at Ace Hardware had said, "Oh, it's easy. Just put it together, then you can extend it to the length you need." So, I brought it inside, carefully laid out the parts, and discovered the instructions were less than helpful. Miniscule illustrations with arrows that vaguely pointed to unidentifiable portions of the rake. Step one involved putting the handle into a tube that was smaller than the handle. Smart. So I pounded and, eventually, the two parts became one. I gradually figured out the rest with logic and absolutely no help from the so-called instructions. But then I discovered that the pounding had flattened the opening on the other end of the handle to which I was to add the extensions, and it was now too small for anything to fit inside. I quit.
That's when I decided I needed to spend my time doing something much more valuable than terrifying my two cats with shouted epithets of scorn. So now the three of us are on my bed. They are curled around themselves, nose to tail and paws over eyes (not around each other; they hate each other, even though they were born of the same mother, in the same litter, but from a different father, which I think has scarred and shamed them so much they can't offer love to the other). The French doors allow me to watch the snow falling and piling and covering. Bare branches are whipped with cream frosting. Evergreen trees are droopy with the heaviness of snow. All the world is white and silent and the earth is, I hope, drinking and storing moisture in preparation for the fires of summer.
I could be reading. But where would I begin? I don't mean by that, where do I begin in the book. Begin at the beginning, of course. Or where I left the bookmark. No, what I mean is, do I begin with the living room book, or the dining table book, or the bedside book, or the audio book, or the in-a-pile-waiting-for-the-right-time book?
I don't read just one book. Being a librarian and a storyteller, I am ravenous for books, so I read what I left where I am.
Where I am now is in the bedroom, snuggled beneath blankets, listening to one cat's snores and David Arkenstone on Amazon music, so we'll begin here. Last night, before sleeping, I finished I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. I have to say I really hate that title, because it makes one think of damsels in tight corsets and billowy skirts, standing on the terrace and softly weeping as the buccaneer sails off to the Caribbean. In fact the book is a powerful novel about Mary Cassatt, one of the few female Impressionists, and her tempestuous, unpredictable relationship with another artist, Edgar Degas. He was, to put it mildly, rude and often boorish. But his talents fascinated Cassatt, and she endured his priggishness (is that a word?) for an occasional compliment or kindness. The book also includes the story of another ill-fated relationship between Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot, as well as appearances by many others who were part of Belle Époque Paris, and it is truly fascinating and very well written and researched. I occasionally wanted to shake Cassatt's shoulders and say something helpful like, "I know these kind of men! Shut the door! Pull the blinds! Don't pick up the mail!" But you love who you love. And she always loved him. (OK, I guess that could be the title.)
Tonight I will begin reading a 650-page tome by Irving Stone, he who wrote Agony and the Ecstacy, about the starving and never satisfied Michelangelo, and Lust for Life, about the maniacal and never satisfied Vincent van Gogh. This one is about Camille Pissarro, another early Impressionist. I look forward to hours and hours and hours and hours of immersion into the life of another poverty-stricken, unappreciated, and never satisfied artist.
Why all the Impressionism? I am traveling to Europe in May, visiting parts of Spain, France and Italy with my daughter. Galleries and museums galore! But, lest you think I am single-minded in my reading choices, let's move on to the dining table. I enjoy breakfast granola and coffee with Douglas Chadwick, who is more familiar with snow than I ever want to be. The book is The Wolverine Way, and is an account of Chadwick's many years of researching and following wolverines in Glacier National Park. Not only is what he learns about these elusive carnivores fascinating, but his writing is captivating, a rare talent among scientific researchers. He describes a mayfly caught in an ice storm as "a winged ant with soaked and crumpled flight gear." And more about the ice: "I find myself looking at countless tiny sparks dancing through the air in front of my eyes. Galaxies within galaxies, invisible imps cavorting with miniature sparklers...." He has great humor, too, about what it's like to survive the dramatic weather of Glacier, as well as encounter the animals who call it home. When one of his research partners is approached by more than a dozen wolves, Chadwick says to his wife, "Cool. After they kill him, let's take his stuff and tell everybody the wolves carried it off." Love this book!
sAnd now the kitchen. Here's where I have the joy of listening to a book while preparing a meal, emptying the dishwasher, mopping the floor. I continue listening while dressing in the bathroom, or folding laundry, or potting plants. I am an auditory learner, so I retain what I've heard easier than what I've read from text. Currently, I am re-listening to The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. I actually read it a couple of years ago, but am returning to this sensual story of 15th century Florence and a young woman who is caught up in the bigotry and prejudice of the day. There's plague, fanaticism, betrayal, the majesty of Renaissance art, and even murder.
When I visit the Uffizi Gallery, and the Accademia Gallery, and the Orsay Museum, and the Musee de l'Orangerie, the paintings will mean so much more because of the books I've read. (Yes, I know I didn't include the accent marks, but darned if I can figure out how to do that.)
I also listen while driving, sometimes to the same book that is downloaded on my phone, but sometimes to CDs, which is what I've been doing recently, thoroughly enjoying Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina and wonderfully read by Frankie Corzo. This is the 2019 Newbery Medal winner, which is awarded to "the most distinguished" children's book published in the previous year. It is a heartwarming story of a sixth-grader whose world is changing, from confusing friendships at school to a grandfather declining with Alzheimer's disease. The success of an auditory book depends on the oral interpretation; I have deleted and discarded many, many books based on the first twenty minutes of listening to a pedestrian and uninspired reading. But Corzo (and Kathe Mazur for Birth of Venus) both give excellent performances, bringing the stories and characters to life.
One more to mention. A debut novel by Catherine Alene. The Sky Between You and Me is a novel in verse that tells the heartbreaking story of a teen who is slowly spiraling into anorexia. Friendships, the pressure of winning at horseback riding events, and the grief of losing her mother to cancer are overpowering Raesha, and the one thing she can control is whether or not she eats. This book is what I read during breaks at work. I am still reading, relishing the beautiful language and rhythm ("Our house breathes/In creaks and groans at night/Even my moccasin slippers/Make the stairs complain....") so I don't know whether the ending is hopeful, but I do know I look forward to more by this author. BTW, I have been known to look ahead at the ending, especially if a pet is involved, but not this time. I think it is imperative to feel the tension of this one.
By now you're probably thinking, "How can she keep all those books straight in her mind? Doesn't she get confused?" No, I don't, unless the books are too similar, which has happened with two murder mysteries or two travelogues. But combining an Impressionist, a wolverine, a headstrong sixth-grader, a teenager desperate for help, and the Renaissance is no problem. It's like living with a houseful of family, all of whom want to tell you their escapades. You hear about Aunt Matilda's delight with the new scarf she got at Goodwill while you're fixing a sandwich, and your little brother's fury about the referee's call at the basketball game while you're setting the table for dinner, and your mother's excitement about being called for an interview while you're fixing your hair, and your grandfather's memory about an old army buddy who just passed away while you're watering the plants. They're all family, and they all have stories that need to be told. and heard and passed on. Just like I'm passing these on to you.
And now, I shall re-engage with the snow shovel. But not the rake. The rake is dead to me.
It's still snowing.
I Say Airplane, You Say....
It was storytime. Specifically, it was storytime for toddlers. I had a room full of curious, energetic 18-16 months-old children with their care givers, approximately 60 total. The music of Laurie Berkner was playing to get them in the mood for stories about cats. "The cat came back/We thought he was a goner...." Sounds morbid, but it's actually quite fun, a remix that invites dancing and silliness. There's a lot of silliness at my storytimes, and today would be no exception with my French-speaking cat puppet named Sapphire, a bag full of big cat stuffed animals for them to guess, and action rhymes that got us all licking our paws, chasing our tails, and pouncing on imaginary mice. To say nothing of the fun of "Goin' On a Lion Hunt," when we all swam through a lake, climbed a tree, and tiptoed into a lion's cave. Of course, there were books, too, including I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein, which gave me the opportunity to use many different voices, and Mama Cat Has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming, which gave them the opportunity to "read" along with me the repeating phrase, "Boris naps."
My blog today, though, is not about the storytime itself, but about something significant that happened before storytime. While I was arranging my books, felt board characters and rhyme sheets, one of the attendees came up to my chair and handed me what you see in the photo above. "This is for you," she said as she placed it into my hands. "I made it." I do get wonderful gifts from time to time. Squished dandelions, overly decorated cookies, thank you cards with unidentifiable scribblings by the toddler. I love them all, and keep many of them (except the cookies) in my when-the-day-is-going-downhill-fast file. One look through those treasures and I have no trouble remembering why being a librarian who gets to do storytime for kids is one of the best jobs in the world. Maybe THE best job.
I held the object carefully in my hands and said with great joy, "It's an airplane!"
Without missing a beat she said, "No, it's a butterfly." And then she proceeded to explain the color pattern--"See, it's blue, green, blue, green. I colored it." I thanked her profusely, she returned to her mother, and I carefully placed the butterfly on my table. What I wanted to do was smack my brain for having forgotten the proverbial response when a very young child hands you a piece of her artwork. "Thank you for sharing it with me. Please tell me all about it." But I didn't say that and she kindly corrected me, highlighting all the details that made this butterfly so beautiful in her eyes.
When my daughter was three one of her favorite words was, "venture," as in, "I'm going on a 'venture." I believe this came from how her grandmother and I would introduce a day's outing. It might be to search for sand dollars on the coast, or hike the Painted Hills of Oregon, or get a new beta fish at the pet store. She caught on to the excitement of the idea, and began to create 'ventures of her own. She would sit in her orange car and scoot herself around the back deck, declaring that she was grocery shopping, or visiting a friend, or going to the ocean. When she was four she drew a map of one of those adventures, and I am still intrigued by all the discoveries she imagined along the way.
What a joy to be a child, to create butterflies, correct adults, and go on 'ventures that lead you to lions or the ocean.
Then we grow up. We are told, "No, that's not right," or, "You made a mistake," or, "Don't." We are evaluated at work, declined after job interviews, rejected by soulmates. We aim to please others so often along the way that we can sometimes stop pleasing the hearts of ourselves. I am reminded of this as I struggle to get my first teen novel published. My three published books are educational, focusing on early literacy and storytelling. But now, I'm writing for teens. Two are finished, one of which is making the rounds of being sent to agents that I hope will say, "Oh, it's a butterfly!" So far all they've seen are airplanes. It is disheartening, to say the least. It can lead to a variety of illnesses, such as the headache of writer's block, or the self medication of chocolate. What is particularly hard is that agents don't have the time to individually respond to each query. So you either get a form email--"Thank you for sending us your manuscript. Unfortunately..."--or no response at all. This is after an average of waiting for 6-8 weeks, and why many writers turn to self publishing.
I believe in agents and editors, all of whom help the author make the book the absolute best it can be. So if a rejection comes I read the first two sentences, delete, and search out another agent who can see what I see. I can't quit because someone just wasn't in the mood that day for historical fantasy, or already contracted with someone else for a book about prejudice. Like selling a house, it only takes one.
A writer is a writer is a writer. So I keep on writing. I recently read an interview with some author whose first novel was being very well reviewed. She said, "People talk about this being my first novel. But I have eleven others in a drawer, all the victims of rejection." Well, I have two in the drawer. And a third one that's just been born, working its way out of my head and onto paper.
That's my 'venture.
All My Hats
Manager of Youth Services in public libraries for 40 years. Avid reader.