A Textbook for the Study of Picture Books

Salisbury and StylesMore than halfway through 2018, I’m taking stock of my writing and teaching year. A novel draft half-done. A short story taking shape in my mind. Waiting for an editorial letter. Some travel. Some relaxation. It feels like a great balance.

The semester off from teaching stretches ahead, but I know it will rush past, so this is also a good time for a little advance planning.

I’ve agreed to teach the picture book semester when I return to Vermont College in January 2019, which reminds me that I need to decide on a common text, something that offers an overview of the form. I’ve looked at a few options and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some are too market-driven, others offer formulaic paths to the intricacies of the form. One is brilliant, if dated–more on that in a minute.

And then there’s Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by British academics Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.

In my mind this book that offers a solid background to the picture book form wins hands down over the how-to manuals. While the historical section is arguably Eurocentric–where, for example, is Buddhist narrative art and Japanese scroll painting?– the account of contemporary books is optimistically international in scope, including American and British classics but also a number of titles that have gained recognition in Europe. My students will gain from thinking about how to extend this reading list by adding books in translation from Asia, South America, and Africa.

A chapter on how children respond to picture books offers an opportunity for questions and discussion. Material on the interplay of text and illustration will help writers find ways to decode the layers of meaning in picture books. Pictorial text, the widening of material deemed “suitable” for children, digital impact on art–these are all good places to begin a semester-long conversation about picture books.

I may still ask students to read the opening chapters of Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures and just skip the badly dated section on publication and production.  In all, however, Salisbury and Styles offer aspiring picture book writers a common vocabulary, a clear introduction to key concepts, and a contemporary framework for looking at this art form so central to children’s literature.

 

The Singular Case for “They”

In the last century, back when I first began daring to think of myself as a writer, I thought I knew how gender was supposed to play out in language. I had grown up speaking Tamil at home. It’s a language that is set up quite logically, with a neutral gender assigned to inanimate objects. I’d struggled mightily with Hindi, in which common nouns are gendered, there is no neutral gender and you’re just supposed to know that a chair (कुर्सी), for example is feminine and your glasses (चश्मा) are masculine.

IMG_2066But I thought I knew the rules in English. Pronouns were supposed to correspond to the referent, whether that was male, female, or genderless. When you dealt in plurals, however, the male, rather illogically, was supposed to embrace the female. That posed a minor problem for me, if truth be told. Still, (we’re talking about America in the 1980s here) I was determined to follow the rules in order to be recognized as literate. In order to make people stop saying to me in surprised tones, “You’re from India? But you speak such good English.”

[Brief aside: Rule-following did not help that cause. Some people still say that to me. These days I reply: “You don’t do too badly yourself!”]

So I spent a lot of time dancing around the noun-pronoun-gender minefield.

Then I read Ursula Le Guin’s afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness. And realized that the little unease I’d always felt about that embrace situation–well, maybe it wasn’t so irrational after all. Men have spoken for women for centuries, not to mention embracing them without asking permission. How natural it was then for the language of Empire to reframe suppression and erasure as inclusion.

Still, whenever I could, I tried to write in plurals. I’d torque myself into twisty sentences, or clip them all into many short ones, in order to make that gender connection unnecessary. But it was when I was reading students’ work that I really began to doubt my own adherence to a rule that had begun feeling more and more archaic to me. Susa Silvermarie’s critical thesis on gender fluidity eventually led me to question, among other things, some of the building blocks of grammar that I’d taken for granted.

In 2016, NPR offered this update:

Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun “they” their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”

As ordinary as it is, that use of “they” has always been a bit disreputable — you might say it, but you wouldn’t want to write it down. But now it’s a pronoun whose hour has come.

So there. I’m burying my gender pronoun hatchet at last. If anyone calls me on it, tell them to worry about something else instead.

How about apostrophes?

 

Marion Dane Bauer on”Writer Air” and Mentoring

ph_smMDB01_150dpi.jpgIt's my great delight to talk once again with Marion Dane Bauer. Marion is a beloved writer and teacher. Her blog is a source of inspiration for many. She's a founding mother of the mother of all MFA programs in writing for children and young adults, a Newbery Honor author and a woman of humor and heart.  I got to talk to her about a new mentoring program she's launching.

[Uma] You’re offering something new just for women writers, Marion. You describe it as “occasional brief—Monday through Friday—one-on-one writing retreats for women in my St. Paul, Minnesota home.” It’s nothing less than the gift of your time, mind, and presence. I remember being at a writing retreat years ago and freezing up in the first few days, experiencing an unexpected terror at the solitude and the work ahead. But the presence of a mentor dedicated to me and my project, dedicated to meeting me where I am…it’s astonishing. Just the thought of such an experience makes me focus and take my own work more seriously.

So can you tell me what led you to this?

[Marion] It’s been a winding journey, and the destination turned out to be both inevitable and surprising, as the ending of any good story should be.  I have taught writing all my writing life, and I love teaching.  Having the opportunity to be one of the founding faculty and then the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults was, for me, the pinnacle of a long teaching career.  I loved the college.  I loved the faculty.  I loved my students.  I loved Vermont.  And of course, I loved teaching!  But the day came when it was all a bit too much  . . . too many students to keep track of, too much travel, too much of a struggle to hear in group conversations, too much time away from home and away from my own work.  So I retired with both regret and relief and settled into simply being a writer, which I’ve always held first anyway.  I told myself I didn’t miss teaching.  When people approached me, asking me to critique a manuscript, I turned them away.

But one day something curious happened.  A friend came to visit bringing a couple of picture book manuscripts she was working on.  She settled into my guest room, and we spent the next few days alternating between work and critique and occasional breaks for play.  And I found myself filling my lungs with what I can only call “writer air.”  It was like getting an extra dose of oxygen.

A few days after she left, another friend, a former student, came to town.  We met for breakfast and she told me about her struggle to get a new novel under control.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world to say, “Come home with me.  I have a room waiting for you.”  And she did.  We spent several days talking through and straightening her too-complex story line.

It was during one of those conversations that I found myself thinking, This is fun!  And then, I’d like to do this more often!  And the idea of mentoring writers in my home sprang to life.

[Uma] As you begin working with writers in this new and very intentional way, what are you finding out? About the process? About yourself?

[Marion] First, I’ve found out some things I already knew.  That I love teaching, that I do my best teaching one on one, and that my ability to pull a clear trajectory out of a story can get a mired manuscript moving again.

Second, in the intensity of this one-on-one exchange I have come to be especially aware how important it is never to intrude on another writer’s work.  I’m learning that I am most effective when I listen hardest and hear most clearly what the writer intends.

And third, I’ve discovered what a deep pleasure it is to have so much of my career behind me.  I’m still writing, of course, but I no longer have anything to prove, even to myself.  Being in that place opens me to real rejoicing over the success that comes to others and that rejoicing gives me energy to help propel those others forward.

[Uma] Can the intention itself be a changeable thing? Can the work sometimes take its own direction and outgrow the writer's original vision for it? Often we need to shed both ego and intention to follow the story's path rather than our own. How does the mentoring context foster honest engagement with a work in progress?

[Marion] My experience is that our stories, if they come from our deepest, most hidden places as our best stories do, speak a truth we are struggling to apprehend.  Sometimes we can get in our own way, in the way of our stories, as we work because we are trying to impose a truth rather than discover it.  A discerning reader, standing outside the story, can often see more clearly than the writer herself the truth she is reaching for.   And that is the moment when working with a mentor becomes gold.

A good editor can be that mentor, of course, but these days for most writers a manuscript has to be almost perfectly executed before that editor will come on board.  And so it can help enormously to have access to a source of objective and committed insight before a manuscript ever seeks an editor.

[Uma] No one knows better than you how teaching and writing can be mutually strengthening, and also how one can get in the way of the other. How do you see the mentoring retreats fitting in with your own writing life?

[Marion] I make it clear to my retreatants that I will be available but still going on with my own life and my own work while they are here, and I do just that.  I also limit the number of retreatants I invite into my home.

But beyond that it’s all gain for me.  Clarifying someone else’s story brings new clarity to my own, and simply talking, day after intensive day, in writer-speak—plot, point of view, voice, motivation—renews both the clarity and the energy I bring to my own pages.  When I live in isolation from other writers, my work begins to lose its legitimacy in my own eyes.  It doesn’t matter how many books I have published, some of the sense that what I’m doing matters slips away.  Talking to another writer, I find the significance of my own work again.  It’s that easy.

That I can do all this without leaving my home couldn’t be more perfect.  Gathering someone into my nest, nurturing her, building a new friendship or renewing an old one, all while helping a fellow writer’s work grow . . .  what better way could I spend the golden years of my career?

[Uma] And what better way to share the love than in this beautiful space? Look what you get for the week: rides to and from the airport, gourmet meals, pampering, company and solitude in the proportions that work for you–all this and manuscript whispering, the Marion way! Lucky writers.

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Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!