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One of the challenges of writing across cultures is how to include languages other than English in your text without having to pause the narrative to explain what all those foreign words mean. As a writer, I don’t tend to think of my audience as primarily American or Indian, and I’ve sometimes had to deal with puzzled editorial comments. Of course, it’s the job of editors and copyeditors to aim for clarity, so the default solution in many books (not mine, I hasten to add) has often been the parallel, parenthetic translation. Or the glossary. Or both. Not ideal. Parenthetic translations tend to make even a good text didactic, and they can manage to edit one with potential right into oblivion. It’s enough to give anyone a headache in the espacio between their pigtails.
Juana Medina bursts through this challenge with uncommon entusiasmo. Her irrepressible child character, also named Juana, lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her parents and her canine best friend, Lucas.
The fictional Juana in this cheery chapter book loves fútbol, eating brussels sprouts, drawing, and Astroman. Math is a bit of a challenge, and as for The English, that takes our young hero completely by surprise. She finds the language mind-bendingly difficult—nada de fun! It isn’t until a family trip turns the linguistic tables yet again that Juana applies herself to English, and discovers that she can habla it just fine.
Medina’s lighthearted first person text and lovably wacky illustrations topple the accepted parameters of familiar and foreign and make the reader laugh all the way to understanding. No glossary exists to suggest that reading this book is an academic task, and in fact none is needed. Every single Spanish word is completely comprehensible in the context of the carefully wrought sentences and paragraphs. By the time you take a breath to ask, “Now what did that mean?” the answer breezes into view like a charm.
Winner of the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award. Published by Candlewick Press. These comments are based on a copy borrowed from my local library.
The names we don’t mention matter as much as the names we do. Many of us know the feeling. A book conversation, and the names of the illustrious are among them. And after a while you start thinking, wait, something is wrong here. There are a lot of missing names.
It’s especially ironic when the missing citations are of work that depends on its visibility, on being recognized on the page. It’s why the realization of writer Jacqueline Davies (The Boy Who Drew Birds, Nothing But Trouble) is worth paying attention to. She was at a lecture about illustration during which she had an experience, she says, similar to being infested by bed-bugs. An ickiness at an unpleasant realization:
About the presenter, she says:
He went to an elite art school. He studied. He learned. He graduated with distinction. He was consciously taught by the best of the best. And what he came away with after four years and $200,000—the knowledge he absorbed down to his cellular level—is that male artists matter and female artists hardly exist at all.
It’s an old story, right? Think about all the women missing from history as it’s typically been taught, their talents, when acknowledged, seen as inferior to that of the men they worked with.
Think of the missing women artists at MOMA.
If you made a list of gifted children’s book illustrators, who would be on it?
Yesterday was Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Imagine a world where the female leaders we revere never achieved their full potential because they dropped out of school at the age of thirteen. In the Western world this is challenging to fathom, but for millions of young women globally, this remains their harsh reality for a staggering reason. From sub-Saharan Africa to India, Iran, and several other countries, the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation directly inhibit young women from pursuing an education.
Puberty is universal, and embarrassment is no reason for a girl to quit on herself.
On my shelf is a middle grade short story collection titled Period Pieces: Stories for Girls. The stories were selected by Erzsi Deak and Kristin Embry Litchman. There are thirteen in all, among them “White Pants” by Linda Sue Park, “The Gentleman Cowboy” by Cynthia Leitich Smith, “A Family Sandwich” by Jane Kurtz, and my own story, “The Gift.” I haven’t looked at this book in many years. Here’s an excerpt from Kris Litchman’s piece:
“All girls bleed. You can’t stop it.” Madeline certainly sounds positive.
“Don’t the boys have to bleed?”
“That’s not fair!”
“That’s the way it is.”
Fifteen years later, this rather surreal short Hindi film from India poses that very question: What if boys had periods? How would society handle them then?
If it’s uncomfortable viewing, that’s intentional. At long last, the world is being forced to deal with the inequities surrounding what should be a normal developmental life event.
[Uma] Where did the narrative voice in The Underneath come from? What did it take to bring it to the page?
For me, the voice always begins with the landscape. Each place has its own inherent sound, and what creates the sound for me is the mixture of voices that arise from it. When I was working on The Underneath, I paid attention to how the wind in the trees made a kind of baritone harmonic hum that created a basis for the other sounds to pop up and reflect against. There were the sounds that the various animals contributed—purring, howling, growling, screeching, hissing, etc. And then there were the deeper sounds of those who had once lived in those marshy lands—the Caddo and Hasinai. I listened for their footsteps, for their campfires, for their laughter and sighs. And of course, there was also the sound of their absence, maybe the most heartbreaking of all. I also paid attention to what I think of as regional sounds—the music of the bayou for instance, a kind of zydeco beat—as well as my own southern dialect, the one I grew up with, with its soft extensions of the vowels and its tendency to mush consonants together and expand one syllable into two. And over all of those came the bird calls, with their wings beating against the air—also a kind of thrumming, humming sound.
So, all of this together creates what musicians would call a “sonic landscape,” or maybe a “soundscape.” (I think a great example would be Aaron Copeland’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” Listening to it always takes me right to the Canyon).
I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture the voice that encapsulated that landscape and its denizens. And one of the things that occurred to me is that there was no real hurry there, so I slowed down the rhythm of it and allowed the pacing to reflect that lumbering slowness. This gave me room for repetition and chanting and at least a little background humming.
I hope this makes sense. I really do believe that place, and all that it holds, is where we find the voice of a story. Of course, each character will have his or her voices, but they are overlaid against the setting. My flat, grassy backyard sounds very different from that mountain in your backyard.
“Who would look out for them? Who would stand watch?”
You, that’s who, I’m thinking. Is that a fair read? Can you talk about how you as writer stand watch and bear witness?
Alan Lightman‘s brief novel, published in 1993, begins with a prologue in which a distant clock tower calls out six times and then stops. A young man slumps at his desk. In his hands are twenty crumpled pages, his theory of time which he will mail today to the German journal of physics. The rest of the novel is a series of vignettes unfolding in incandescent prose, playing with time. In some of the dreams time is circular, in others it is frozen, in yet others people cling to it, thereby stalling their lives. The final poignant scenario takes place just before the distant clock tower strikes eight, reminding us of exactly how much time has really passed.
… this flock of nightingales is time. Time flutters and fidgets and hops with these birds. Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops. The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within.
In truth, these birds are rarely caught. The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time. For the children, time moves too slowly already. They rush from moment to moment, anxious for birthdays and new years, barely able to wait for the rest of their lives.
Lightman is a physicist by training and the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world, specifically through housing, education, and leadership training. In this book, he is really after the nature of the mind. Each short vignette is written from an omniscient and rather distant point of view, yet each is able to tap the inner needs and longings, dreams and failures of the people inhabiting its dream world, as well as the young Einstein himself. Time is infinitely variable, the novel tells us. The whole thing is an impressionistic meditation on what makes people tick, and a reminder of how very small we are in the greater scheme of things.
In Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, this year, I saw grey whales from so close that when one of them spouted, a great fountain of moist air and, shall we say nostril contents, showered over all the people in the boat. What astonishing life-forms they are! Their size puts us humans in our place. The pangas, fishing boats that work for the whale watching tour companies, take visitors out into the lagoon, then shut their engines off and wait. The whales appear. It’s a humbling experince.
This one came up under the boat and surfaced on the other side. If it had intended to tip us over, there is no doubt it could have. From the panga, we could see the barnacles encrusting the rubbery, marbled skin. We could even spot the tiny eye before a sudden dive rocked the boat and the whale, seeming to laugh at us, slapped its tail-fluke and was gone.
So I started thinking, how do we portray whales in books for young readers? It turns out that if you look at children’s nonfiction over the years, the public misinformation of generations shows up. This Hakai Magazine article plots the delivery of inaccurate science to kids. Excerpt:
In a 2016 article called, tellingly, “Cetacean Frustration,” four British scientists surveyed picture books that feature whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of the nonfiction books also contained errors.
Part of the problem, of course, is that children’s books often hang around for generations. Parents tend to buy their kids the books that they themselves loved as children. But with nonfiction, those books get dated really fast. And in a world where these giants of the ocean are seriously endangered by our irresponsible behavior over the centuries, don’t we owe young readers the facts as best we know them, in all their beautiful complexity?
Teenaged Zanele plots secretly against the apartheid-era South Africa, government on the brink of the Soweto uprising. Her best friend, Thabo, has joined a gang and extorts protection money from a local Indian store owner. The store owner’s daughter, Meena, keeps a wary eye on the world outside the door, her curiosity gradually turning to sympathy for the protesters. On the other side of town, in the wealthy white suburbs, Jack lives in comfort, insulated from the troubles of black South Africa.
Arushi Raina‘s book brings 1976 South Africa to young readers in a fresh and engaging way. Each first-person narrator has a distinct voice, and the perspective of each is, unsurprisingly, defined by race–at least initially, that is, until their stories start to intersect. That is where heartbreak lies, and revelation as well. There are no easy happy resolutions, the book suggests. All happiness comes at a cost, love and justice mixed with regret and loss. What the ending gives us, however, is a sense of life continuing, of the stories going on even after the last page has been turned. That’s a tough thing to pull off, and Raina’s characters manage to linger in the memory.
Carefully crafted and lovingly detailed, this novel in multiple voices honors the past while drawing subtle meanings for readers here and now. Published by Tradewind Books.
I’ve often wondered at my ambivalence about giving new work to someone else to read. I mean, I’ve done this for years. I do want to know what’s wrong with my draft. I know there’s always something wrong. I know I don’t have the judgment to see it yet. But sometimes, especially with something that’s really new and just developing, I really just want to be acknowledged. Let’s face it. I just want to be told what’s right.
So this post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog really spoke to me. L. Roger Owens frames the whole complicated business of asking for feedback in terms that finally made sense. He begins with an anecdote about his 8-year-old daughter:
“You’re a writer, Dad,” she said. “You can give me some pointers, if you want.” In other words: Here, Dad, take the bait. This could be the last time I ever ask for your feedback.
How easy it would have been for me to declaim on showing versus telling, the importance of eliminating adverbs, writing with specific details (“Did he fall out of a tree or was it an oak?”). And then end my craft talk with a kicker-quote by Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg.
But I didn’t.
He goes on to talk about how to think through what you need at different times when you might ask for feedback, so you don’t need to end up shutting down your inner child. Instead, you just learn to shield her tactically.
I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it.
It’s good to remember that the self who makes me long for praise is the very one whose boundless energy throws up the best ideas for me in the first place. I don’t need to outgrow her, just channel her energy where it serves me best, and acknowledge that sometimes we all just need a little praise.
Dominic Hall is the son of a mother with dreams and a bitter, disappointed war veteran father. Simpson’s Shipyard looms over their town, an occupational sinkhole to trap workers and their families. The borderland location in northern England seems to symbolize the teetering life of its adolescent narrator. The book is suffused with love and grief, ambiguity, contradictory longings and fears. The emotions seem to pour directly from the gritty background of the pebbledashed housing estate and the ever-present shipyard. An ecstatic and enduring first love reveals its myriad complications as young Dominic grows beyond childhood. The story progresses to the beat of his vacillating heart. The first person narrative casts secondary characters in tender detail. As a reader, I felt as if I were witness to something exquisitely private, yet so terrifying in its honesty that I couldn’t look away.
As Dominic and Holly dare to follow the impractical dream of an education, the tight-rope of their shared childhood stretches literally and metaphorically over the pages. Desperate cruelty hovers as well in the person of the brutal and complicated Vincent McAlinden. The tussle of lifestyle and language is underscored by the rich use of dialect, which Dominic weaves his way in and out of, much as his life itself wavers between staying and leaving.
Almond blurs the borders between heaven and hell in this beautiful, unflinching novel, which was first published for an adult audience in the UK and released as a YA crossover book by Candlewick in the US in 2015. I haven’t read the original, so I’d love to know how much has changed between the two editions. The Candlewick edition tilts somewhat towards hope in the end, and therefore feels pretty securely YA to me. Still, it wasn’t an ending I’d seen coming. Closing the book, I wondered, did I want a little more of a different kind of hope? Something to assure me that the dreams of childhood, even deferred, might have stood a chance?
But wait. Returning to the writerly retrospective opening, I can hear it.
I was born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then. It was a three room dilapidated upstairs flat, in the same terraced row where Dad had been born, and just upriver from Simpson’s Shipyard. Rats slunk under the floorboards, mice scuttled in the walls. The bath hung on a nail on the wall, the toilet was at the foot of steep steps outside. The river slopped against the banks and stank when the tide was low. There was the groan of engines and cranes from the yard, the din of riveters and caulkers. Sirens blared at the start and end of shifts. Gulls screamed, children laughed, dogs barked, parents yelled.
All hackneyed, all true.
There it is, the promise fulfilled. Setup and resolution, all in the first paragraph, practically demanding that when you finish this book, you have to flip back at once to the beginning, to see what you didn’t get the first time around.
So simple and brilliant.