As a child, my first official story was a play titled "Santa Claus on the Moon". I gave my brother and sisters parts, used brown car coats for reindeer costumes with cutout round paper noses colored red (Rudolf, of course). My brother was Santa, in red footed pajamas and a beard made out of a paper plate and cotton balls. The Moon was three sofa cushions wrapped in a old yellow sheet with black marker craters. Our production debuted on Christmas Eve at my grandparents house, in front of 30 cousins, aunts and uncles and family friends. It was a great hit--but of course, they loved us! I was nine years old then.
Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
Words are seeds that grow into stories. Images many times give rise to the words, for me. In Strong Moon Tonight, I saw a river, a tree, a father and son, and a mighty moon. I could see it and remember writing that image on a yellow legal pad. I wonder if other writers have beginnings that way? In the Alfalfa and the Omega, it was a voice that spoke so sassy and loud that she made me laugh out loud. In the short stories I have written for adults, I've found that the seed arrives from images and experiences. Then, my imagination joins the clan and off we go . . .
Ever since the NY times posted that article about the "Picture Book is Dead", I have wanted to write about it on this blog. It was the picture book that assured me one-on-one time with my mom, sitting in her lap, listening to the rise and fall of her voice while I had the luxury of "reading" the pictures without interruptions from my siblings. I had favorite picture books; carrying them from room to room, waiting for my mom to be finished in the kitchen or return from dropping my older sister off at nursery school and put my younger brother down for his nap, so I could curl up with her in the rocking chair and rock back and forth with her reading aloud. I loved the pictures and was not in a hurry to read myself. Picture books meant "love" and if I learned to read chapter books on my own, then I was alone-- or at least that is what I felt until I got hooked on Nancy Drew in the second grade and I have been an avid reader ever since.
When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved to Mt. Lebanon, a small suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. I had a wonderful art teacher, Miss Yingling, who noticed my shyness, being the new kid, and who also noticed my passion to draw. At that time the Carnegie Museum of Art had a program where art teachers in the public schools could choose one or two students to attend an art class held in a huge auditorium on Saturday mornings. I remember taking the city bus downtown to the museum, then getting in line with what seemed like hundreds of other 4th - 6th grade students to be given a 11 X 14 masonite drawing board, a sheet of manilla paper, a box of crayons, and a pencil. We took our places in the auditorium and wrote our names, address, and phone number on the back side of the paper in the upper left-hand corner. We used the crayon box to outline a horizontal box and a vertical box for thumbnail sketches, then used the slim side of the crayon box to outline a narrow rectangle in which we used our pencil to shade from dark to light. A color wheel with complimentary colors and secondary colors was drawn-- all of this was accomplished while waiting for all of the students to be seated. Then the teacher, whose name I cannot remember, would use a microphone and an easel and teach us to draw. There was usually a theme and we would watch, then draw two ideas for a picture- one in the horizontal box and one in the vertical box. This was the first hour of the class. The second hour was spent drawing the full-size picture on the other side of the paper in color with crayons. When the hour was done, we waited in line to turn in our supplies and place our drawings on the pile with hopes that our drawing would be "chosen." To be "chosen" would mean receiving a phone call mid-week and asked to come to the stage the following week and reproduce your drawing really big at an easel in colored chalk while the teacher taught in front of the stage. Then at the end of the two hours you would get to go up and speak into the microphone to briefly speak about what inspired you, and receive a pin. All during my fourth grade year, I yearned to be asked up onto the stage. In the fall of my fifth grade my mom finally got the call. I had drawn a kid jumping in leaves paying special attention to hands and feet, as we had learned how to draw them the week before. I remember donning a white painter's smock. There were ten easels on stage as ten students were chosen each week. I remember the feel and smell of the large colored chalk in one hand and holding onto my drawing from the week before in my other hand, referring back and forth as I enlarged it in front of all the other students in the audience. I remember my voice cracking in a whisper and being asked to speak louder into the mike. And then the pin. A little round pin. I felt like a real artist. An official artist. Two more times I went to that stage to draw before my family moved again. And what do picture books have to do with this? It was picture books that taught me to understand and connect to the world around me. It was picture books that inspired me to draw-- I learned about shape and expression, movement and composition that was re-inforced by the lessons I learned at the Carnegie Museum of Art. I no longer have the drawings except in my memory, but I have the three pins-- those three official pins that told me I was "real".
I'm jumping in here a day late. Sorry Mark!!
My first big writing "success" came when I was in 5th grade. We had just moved and when I started at a new school, I was jumped up to the 8th grade writing class for some reason. I truly didn't know why and no one explained it to me. (I was the third child, and I think that by that time my parents were tired of explaining things!) But in that class I wrote a poem about raccoons that won the admiration of the teacher, who made a big deal out of it to my parents. She even framed it for me. In our series of moves, the poem has been long lost, but maybe that's a good thing. I have a great memory of writing a good poem, and actually seeing it might make me think a little less of my accomplishment!! The painting that it was based on is long gone too, but I remember studying the scene of forest animals when it was hung in our family room.
I still love animals, and writing about them, and we even have some raccoons that live in the storm drain a few houses up from us.
The year was 1980. My sister and I spent the summer in England visiting our grandparents. Although we took many a daytrip to castles, cathedrals and various other tourist destinations, we were there for two months, leaving plenty of downtime. At some point during the summer, I decided to work on a novel and so a few days a week I packed up pen and paper and took the bus downtown to the Liverpool library, where I diligently wrote (by hand!) about 100 pages over the course of the summer. (The story itself involved a group of “stoners” at a high school reunion; a reflection of the milieu in Alaska at the time.) While it was not the first writing project I ever attempted, it was my first “completed” novel, and I still remember the pride I felt after I finished the last page and returned to my grandparents’ flat, certain that an adoring public would soon discover my literary talent! Although things did not exactly turn out that way, the experience remains a very fond memory from that summer.
I still have the hand-written manuscript tucked away somewhere for posterity…
I still have the hand-written manuscript tucked away somewhere for posterity…