Epistolary Day: The Reading Circus

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From Letter Two, Reader, Come Home

Today I’m replying to Chapter Two of Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home with a letter. Because–well, how else, really?

Dear Maryanne Wolf,

You made me think about a single word in an entirely new way. Tracks.

T-r-a-c-k-s.

You reminded me that reading isn’t hardwired in my brain, that my brain’s “plasticity within limits” is the wondrous principle that has rearranged my circuits to make reading possible. You made me aware of the multiple acts by specialized neurons that release meaning within single letters, combinations of letters, design, prefixes and suffixes and plurals, probability and prediction, context (verb or noun or something else?), and then the next layer still, memory and association and emotional meanings. A kind of “Circuit du Soleil,” you said, thus imprinting that image indelibly.

All this happens in the single moment, when my eye lands upon that word? I felt the same awe that comes to me when I think of the chemical communications of tree roots or the nests of cliff swallows. Who needs miracles? Being alive in the world is miracle enough.

Your choice of word, too, is particularly apt. You could have picked any word. It seems, on the surface, as if any word will do. But this one has connotations that lift me up from the last chapter and transport me into the next, so that Letter Two becomes itself a track upon with my circus train starts to rattle on towards its next destination.

You write:

Anyone who still believes the archaic canard that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.

When I revise my words today, I’ll do so with a new respect for the work I’m asking my readers’ brains to do.

Sincerely yours,

Your Reader

The Reading Brain, Kindness, and Contemplation

Proust and the SquidRemember Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s 2007 account of how humans learned to engage in that seemingly unnatural activity we call reading? How the brain was changed by that unprecedented development and is now on the brink of changing yet again?

Here is the follow-up to that book. It’s epistolary in form, consisting of a series of letters to readers.

It’s titled Reader, Come Home.

Speaking for myself, I can’t resist a good invitation. I am now reading a letter a day from Maryanne Wolf to–me!

ReaderComeHomeOr at least that’s how it feels. This line, for example:

To be sure, when I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood.

That was the child me. I have ended up living a life of words, a life built around reading but I sometimes wonder if I have lost the ability to leap into a book and lose myself, the way I did as a child, when the boundaries of the real world just dissolved and I was impervious to all distraction.

Proust and the Squid fascinated me and left me with questions about the young readers I write for and whether reading would be changed by emerging media. Now, more than a decade later, those questions have coalesced into worry, as we find ourselves deeply entrenched in a culture of digital media with all its bells and whistles, quickness and instant bling.

I’m delving right now into the last round of edits on a middle grade nonfiction project that is definitely all about the long haul, about thinking deeply and embracing kindness. That potential reader, 8 or 10 or 12 years old, is never far from my thoughts. For many reasons, this book seems particularly timely.

There’s something about the format of the letter that is at once anachronistic and entirely appropriate to the subject. A letter invites me to pause, to think about a point, to feel in communication with the writer. Wolf cites Rainer Maria Rilke’s kindness in Letters to a Young Poet as a source of inspiration. She writes about Aristotle’s good society with its three lives–knowledge and productivity; entertainment and leisure; and contemplation–and suggests there are three kinds of reading lives as well. She wonders if that third life of contemplation is in danger from the sequestered kind of reading that everyone does nowadays, reading only what we agree with, reading only in easily consumable bites.

The reading brain, she says, is the “canary in our minds. We would be the worst of fools to ignore what it has to teach us.”

Rilke writes in the first of his letters:

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.

Wolf warns us against losing that very ability to “go within.” It’s a skill we’ve spent millennia acquiring. It seems a shame to toss it away now.

Standing Up for the Landscape

The Whanganui River in New Zealand was declared a person in 2017. Here is an article about what that means.

Excerpt:

The great River flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the River, the River is me.”

With these words, the Maori tribes of Whanganui, New Zealand, declare their inseverable connection to their ancestral river. The river rises in the snowfields of a trio of volcanoes in central North Island. The tribes say that a teardrop from the eye of the Sky Father fell at the foot of the tallest of these mountains, lonely Ruapehu, and the river was born.

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View from Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 2018

I knew Ruapehu as the first mountain climbed by Edmund Hillary when he was only 16, when Everest had not yet lodged in his heart and mind as the dream and life’s focus that it would become. I have been fascinated for years with Everest, the Himalayas, and the role of mountains as Earth’s sentinels.

But now the snows of Everest are threatened and the waters of our rivers are polluted beyond recognition.

7483.groundswell-indigenous-knowledge-and-a-call-to-action-for-climate-change.main.b3rw6d6drl.pngIt is past time to turn to Indigenous peoples for help in untangling the horrible mess that colonization, industrialization, commercial farming, dams, fossil fuel extraction, and so-called “forest management” have wreaked upon this planet.

 

Edited by Joe Neidhart and Nicole Neidhart, Groundswell is a collection of stirring and heartfelt essays from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. It highlights Indigenous knowledge for teenaged and adult readers and issues a call to action for climate change.

Perhaps the naming of rivers is a place for non-Indigenous people to recognize that a groundswell is what we need, if we want to stave off ecological disaster in our children’s lifetimes, if not our own.

Sharing Space in Foreshadow

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My VCFA colleague and friend Nova Ren Suma is part of an Internet labor of love, Foreshadow, a project of the heart dedicated to offering “a unique new online venue for young adult short stories, with a commitment to showcasing underrepresented voices, boosting emerging writers, and highlighting the beauty and power of YA fiction.”

Years ago, I worked with a student who wrote short stories all semester long. From her very first packet, I knew I’d struck gold with Rachel Hylton. Rachel was one of those intuitive writers with an unerring instinct for revision. I’d send her long letters detailing all my questions and listing all the points at which I’d wondered where she might be taking me. She’d fix a word or two and the entire story would settle into place, with all my bullet points magically addressed.

I’m more than happy to be sharing space with Rachel Hylton in the current issue of Foreshadow. Her story, Risk, was selected by none other than Laurie Halse Anderson. You have to read it. It is one of those pieces that needs every one of its words to express its essence. You couldn’t sum it up. It’s Kafkaesque in the manner of David Cerny’s sculpture.

Right away we find out–this:

We were there for Marnie Vega long before she became a lobster.

And then there’s this line:

Marnie was different—she wasn’t fake, she was authentic.

That’s Rachel. Each word perfectly laid out, crafted with loving care. Authentic to the bone. I hope some editors are paying attention.

There are two other stories in this issue: Pact by Mark Oshiro, and my story, Affinity.

Thank you, Nova Ren SumaEmily X.R. Pan, managing editor Diane Telgen and all the wonderful writers and editors who help give life to this project.

 

A Child’s-Eye View of History: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

On the day in 1947 that she and her twin brother turn 12, Nisha yearns for her mother: “It was the day we came and you left…” She begins to write a diary each night. In it, she composes letters to her mother, even as the country around her fractures in the historical event known as the Partition of India.

Veera Hiranandani (see my 2012 Process Talk with her) has created a sensitive, watchful child character in Nisha, who embodies the fracturing of the country, because her mother was Muslim and her father and his family are Hindu. It is a month out from the independence days of the two newly created countries, and Nisha’s letters unpack her uncovering of family secrets, the relationships they leave behind and the perilous journey they must undertake to escape a place that is no longer home.
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At another level, the simple, direct first person narrative in these letters delicately probes a young girl’s dawning understanding of how the world works:

I didn’t want the new India. I wanted the old one that was my home.

As well the letters document the events unfolding around Nisha, as she sees how hate can raise its ugly head readily in a place where it didn’t exist before. Or did it? Was it always there, waiting for the machinations of governments and politicians to give it permission to grow? At its most personal, this is a story of a sister and brother fleeing with their doctor father and their unwilling grandmother, facing along the way the hazards of starvation, illness, and frenzied mobs fueled by religious hatred.

History writ small in this way reels us close into itself, with passages like this:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Here is a fictional rendering of the author’s family history. Its epistolary form makes it intimate and tender. It renders one of the world’s great tragedies accessible to young readers. In the end, this Newbery Honor-winning novel reminds us that love can be present even when it isn’t verbally expressed. It can bind people together. It can give rise to generosity and kindness in the midst of suspicion and hate.

 

The Greening of an Old Tale

In 1841, John Ruskin, eminent English art critic and social thinker, wrote a children’s book for a twelve year old girl, Euphemia (Effie) Gray, who would later become his wife, staying married to him for some six years and disrupting his life considerably in the process. From such unpropitious beginnings, remarkably, Ruskin’s only children’s story has survived.

King_Golden_River_PLC_CC2018.inddSet in a “valley of the most surprising and luxuriant fertility,” The King of the Golden River is the story of 11-year-old Gluck, a kindhearted underdog whose two wily older siblings, Hans and Schwartz, work him to the bone, withhold food, and subject him to incessant cuffs and punches. When Southwest Wind, Esquire, pays Gluck an unexpected and, it must be said, inconvenient visit, Gluck nonetheless feeds him and puts up with him, unwittingly acquiring a powerful ally.

Gold and greed figure in the story, as does a king entrapped by magic, the promise of transformation through three drops of holy water cast into a river, and more.

The twists and turns of story lead to a happy ending for Gluck, with rewards given for kindness and generosity and punishment duly meted out for cruelty and selfishness. At a deeper level, this is a fable about how humans treat the earth. (“They killed everything that did not pay for its eating.”) It links social and environmental justice in quirky and astonishingly modern ways. The one note that rang false to me in today’s social context was the unthinking equation of black with evil in the naming of the ill-fated wicked brothers.

Still, it is just possible that the passage of time, since Ruskin’s penning of this tale, allows us tap some of its essential truths in new and powerful ways.

Cliff Swallows and Building Narratives

The architecture of stories fascinates me but I think of it in terms that are organic rather than designed, springing from a mental landscape. And sometimes, truth be told, I miss the landscape of the desert. So here’s a reprise of an old post about cliff swallows in New Mexico and the creation of story, maybe because I want to return if only briefly to a moment that was purely joyful, purely sufficient unto itself. Those moments feels rare these days. The world intrudes far more than it seemed able to do just a few years ago.

The cliff swallows nested just down the road from where I lived in the desert. I’d been watching them every summer for over a decade.

All those years, I’d drive past, slow down to glance at the swarms of birds overhead, feel the smile breaking out on my face in the way that bird-swarms make a person smile. Then I’d go on my way. I’d think, I ought to stop and take pictures. Really. Someday I will.

For some reason it sank in at last that those somedays didn’t just stretch forever into my distance, so one day I decided to act on my impulse.

The swallows came pouring out with flapping wings and shrill, squeaky cries, perhaps in response to me and my blundering around at the foot of their cliff palace. Life just burst out from that rock. In contrast to the extravagance of sound and motion, look at those nests. How perfect they are, a whole community on this rock face, built one little dollop of mud at a time, flown up from the riverbank a couple of miles away.
They remind me of Nader Khalili‘s ceramic homes.
What can we learn from swallows about form and structure? A lot, I think. There’s a deep sense of the organic and whole about this little colony of homes, each little cavity containing a bobbing beak or two. Nothing wasted. Everything with a purpose. Who needs heaven? Perfection is right here.

Think about building memory. I no longer live down the road from that cliff. The birds in my neighborhood are different ones, the cliffs in the region volcanic rock rather than sandstone. But the little mud houses painstakingly clustered on the cliff face evoke a place and a time–and they return me briefly to the person I was then. Story builds that way too, with that kind of care and concern for setting and context, space and sky, river and rock, that intensity and life force driving the whole endeavor.

Rajani LaRocca on Midsummer’s Mayhem

Midsummer's Mayhem final cvr.pngRajani LaRocca‘s Midsummer’s Mayhem is a marvelous mashup of two things you might not think were capable of working together–Shakespeare and fusion cooking! I asked Rajani:

[Uma] How did Shakespeare and fusion cooking come together for you?

[Rajani]  I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was a child. I played Cassius in our (very abridged!) 5th grade class production of Julius Caesar, and that sparked my interest. The next year, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was smitten with the tale of feuding fairies and the hapless humans who got ensnared in their mischief. And there is a connection to India that I noticed as a child and remembered as an adult when it was time to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM!

My greatest joy—my half-Indian, half-Italian, all-American family—is fusion personified. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with flavors, but writing this book made me take this pastime to a new level, translating favorite foods from my own childhood into tasty baked treats.

[Uma] Your Mimi’s charm comes largely from her uniquely quirky eccentricities. Tell me how you went about developing this most endearing character.

[Rajani] Much of Mimi’s personality came to me as if she were a real person whom I happened to meet. For example, I knew that baking was Mimi’s great passion, so I made her point of view very baking-centric: that’s the lens through which she sees the world, and there are lots of baking and foodie terms sprinkled throughout the book. I also knew she was the youngest child in a large family full of accomplished people. Like a lot of youngest children, Mimi tries many of the activities her older siblings love, only to find that they don’t really bring her joy in the same way. Mimi tries to find her place in in the world, and wonders what she can do to distinguish herself. But at her core is her affection and concern for her sometimes exasperating, often wacky, always loving family.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 1.jpg[Uma] Every book you write teaches you something. What did writing this book teach you about writing–or about yourself, if you like?

[Rajani] It took me several years and many revisions to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, and the process taught me so much about the craft of writing a novel, about how to take a story idea and turn it into the book I want it to be. But I’ve also come to realize that Mimi’s story is a metaphor for my journey to becoming a published writer. At any age, there is a gap between what we are currently capable of doing and what we wish we could do. It is uncomfortable to be in that gap, but it’s also where we grow and learn so much about ourselves. Just like Mimi, I’ve learned to appreciate what I have to give to the world. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM inspires young readers to create with their hearts and to have the courage to share those creations

 

[Uma] What’s one joyful and unexpected outcome of writing this book?

[Rajani] Although writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, for me the process of writing and publishing has been about connecting with other people. I can’t count the number of people who have helped me: my first writing teachers who gently guided a newcomer without crushing dreams; my incredible critique partners who read, suggested, laughed, and cried with me; and my tremendously generous, brilliant Pitch Wars mentor, Joy McCullough, who helped me in my final push with MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. The connections continued with my amazing agent, Brent Taylor, and my fantastic editor, Charlie Ilgunas, who helped the book become even better. I’ve become friends with some wonderful fellow 2019 debut authors, and we’ve supported each other through this zany debut year. And in just a couple of weeks, my book will connect me to young readers…and that is the ultimate dream come true!

Congratulations, Rajani! Much luck with this quirky, funny book, and with your future writing projects.

Your Voice Matters: Guest Post by Carmen Oliver

Last month, at the Royal BC Museum, I got to see the IMAX movie about the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the planet’s most spectacular wild places.

Great Bear Rainforest IMAX Trailer from Pacific Wild on Vimeo.

A Voice for Spirit BearsAnd I got to read Carmen Oliver‘s picture book, A Voice for the Spirit Bears, about Simon Jackson, the founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition. What a happy coincidence! The rush of water and the leap of salmon in the IMAX movie, the incredible close views of those amazing bears, and the voices of the First Nations people who are the stewards of that land–all that was fresh in my mind. I asked Carmen to tell me what sparked this story for her. Here is what she wrote:

One Labor Day, as a girl, I watched a muscular dystrophy telethon on television. Many of these kids were younger than me. And their lives were filled with mounting physical challenges but they radiated strength, positivity, resilience, and hope. My mom explained to me that the money raised would help scientists to find a cure. That people all over the world could be a part of the solution. That year a seed was planted in my twelve-year-old mind. So I harnessed the help of my brother and friend Dana to go door-to-door Christmas caroling and to ask for donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I can’t remember exactly how much we raised (fifty or sixty dollars rings familiar) but I’d felt that in a small way I’d made a difference.

Now fast-forward twenty years. In my early thirties, I read an article about a rare type of black bear called the spirit bear. One in ten of these bears are born with creamy white fur and they’re found only in Canada. I’d never heard of them before. As I dug into the research, a young boy’s name kept re-surfacing—David Simon Jackson. At the age of thirteen, Simon learned about the endangered spirit bears living roughly six hours away from his home in British Columbia and he wanted to help use his voice to save their habitat and keep them safe. He was bullied in school and overcame his own stuttering problem to speak out and raise awareness about the many issues affecting their habitat including over-logging. He created a youth run organization (Spirit Bear Youth Coalition) of six million members from eighty-five countries to ensure their survival.

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This story spoke to my twelve-year-old activist heart. It spoke to the shy girl who could relate to being bullied in school and to loving wild life—especially bears. It spoke to the girl who wanted to make a difference in the world. And still does. So when I came across this quote by Simon, I knew I had to turn his journey into a book for children. This is the book I needed when I was twelve-years-old. A book about strength, positivity, resilience and hope.

I think Simon’s story found me. And in telling his story, I want children to understand that every voice matters. They have important things to say. They can make a difference in the world. Their voices are our future.

If I could go back in time and talk to my twelve-year-old self, I’d tell her that no matter how many times people put you down, shun you, make fun of you – you matter. Your voice matters.

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I began this book in 2006. Along the way, I had many people tell me Simon’s story was an article at best. That it would never become a book. But I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I believed a story about a young boy with no remarkable skills or intellect, but armed simply with a passion, can take hold of a cause and unite the world was – remarkable. All change begins with one voice speaking out. Your voice can change the world.

In Simon Jackson’s words:

“If together we can succeed in saving the spirit bear, we will have proved that one young person with no remarkable skills or intellect, but armed simply with a passion, can take hold of a cause and unite the world. After all, we are the voices for the sick, the poor, the children, the dreamers…and the bears.”—Simon Jackson

Here is a video Q & A with Simon Jackson about the book on Canadian Geographic:

Marina Budhos on Mentoring Writers

Whom have I learned from? In whose footsteps have I followed? What have I done to nurture those who will follow me? Having been in this writing business now for some 30 years, and taught writers for about twenty of them, I suppose it’s natural to think about such questions from time to time.

I have followed Marina Budhos‘s work for years, ever since I read her incandescent novel, The Professor of Light.  So when I learned she was part of the WNDB 2019 group of mentors, I asked her if she’d write me a reflection on what mentorship means to her.

Here is what she wrote:

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Photo courtesy of the author

I was recently thinking about mentorship, because I was listening to a writer speak about her own experience.  In this case, she has been mentored by very strong figures—for better or worse—and yet she herself kept a distance from too much entanglement with students.

I never had any clear mentors, and I wish I did.  As an undergraduate student, I dove into writing and some of my professors recognized my seriousness as a writer.  In graduate school, while I had professors who taught me a good deal about writing, I really had no close mentors.  I came to be largely self-taught and self-sufficient. Thus, when I came to New York City and began to publish short stories and sought out an agent for my emerging novel, I was confused and easily discouraged. Indeed the person who taught me the most about developing myself as a writer and making certain career choices is my partner, co-writer and husband, Marc Aronson.

I have been teaching a long time, in many settings, so there is no doubt that I’ve been a mentor to many emerging writers, in different ways.  When I taught in a low-residency program, the structure is much more one-on-one and I developed sustained relationships with those students, some of whom went on to publish and thrive.  I am a professor, so when I notice a gifted undergraduate student, I will pull them aside and put books or stories in their hands; for some of my graduate students, I’ve tried to guide them with their work, and how to start to imagine and envision a finished manuscript and real publication.  Sometimes, with some students, they interest me so much that I will probe and prod and reflect with them so as to open them up to other possibilities in not just their writing, but their thinking and feeling in the world.

In terms of my mentorship for We Need Diverse Books, I have a few aims.  One, I’m hoping that a gleam in my mentee’s eye can become a reality for her.  And I’m hoping I can give her some professional sense of what it takes to write the kind of nonfiction book she has proposed, and what publishers will be looking for.  When I was coming up as an emerging writer, I had no one explain to me the path toward publishing; I had no sense of how to ask for help, or where I should put my energy.  I virtually gave away my first novel to a fledgling press with no proper representation.  I’m hoping that I can provide this, because otherwise writing, and writing to make a project a reality, is so amorphous.

marina_longride.jpgThe other aspect of this, which is particular to We Need Diverse Books, is my aim is to encourage more writers of color to write nonfiction.  So often when we speak about diversity, we’re thinking about fiction, but in my mind, I’d like to see more diverse writers in the realm of nonfiction.  Not only can they bring to the world stories, histories, discoveries that readers have not seen, but simply put, I’d like to see more writers of color conceive of themselves as nonfiction writers too.  I often think it’s an arena that writers of color don’t realize they can succeed in, and the more they succeed, the more editors will come to them with topics or contributions to anthologies.

Marina Budhos’s latest YA novel, The Long Ride, is a story of friendship that builds and sustains three mixed-race girls in the 1970’s era of bussing.