Jewell Parker Rhodes's Blog
July 19, 2013
“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after…”
From Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
I remember reading Tuck Everlasting to my daughter at bath time. The Tucks are a fictional family who unlocked the secret of living forever—by accident. Following a long and lucky life, they realize that they cannot die, either naturally or by violence. They live in the woods with an immortal horse, at the edge of the property of a little girl named Winnie, who stumbles across their magic on a summer day. Over the course of the story, Winnie helps protect the Tucks from a shadowy villain, representing the cruel and practical world, who would sell their secret spring for venal ends.
Winnie saves the Tucks from the shadowy villain. By the end of the story, she is the only person on earth who knows their secret. But it isn’t safe for the Tuck family to stick around. They decide to pack up their horse and move on. But before they do, the Tuck’s seventeen-year old son Jesse begs Winnie to drink from the spring when she is a little older—a teenager, like himself. Jesse’s wiser father frowns on this, but leaves it up to Winnie. They promise to return for her after enough time has passed for the town to forget. If she has tasted the spring, then she will still be alive to travel with them. She has seen their loneliness and their grandeur and must consider this choice: will she step off life’s ferris wheel and live forever, or will she keep her place in the human circle, and die?
When my daughter and I reached the final chapter of Natalie Babbitt’s masterpiece, the bath had gone cold and my daughter’s hands were pruning. We were both in anguish. But I wondered, what could someone so young understand of the temptations and sacrifices of eternal life? After all, as a professor of literature I’ve had some practice with existential questions. I know what Sartre would tell Winnie. I know what Winnicott might say. But Kelly’s cultural experience was as shallow as the bathwater. And yet, she understood the premises set forth by the book. The story had deftly guided us down a path of self-contained logic so that she might understand the question asked of Winnie.
The Ferris Wheel
The fact that my daughter was struck by this story signifies to me that we are innately attuned to the resonance of certain philosophical questions. In other words, we are all born small philosophers. Socrates felt that the role of children was to be educated by carefully curated parables, to be taught the basics of citizenship in the most straightforward way possible. Children’s literature, in other words, should tell them what is right and what is wrong, but should not encourage them to think about it too much. I believe, however, that children’s literature is important not because of any answers it provides (I have never liked the idea of children’s books as purveyors of pure, quasi-religious drops of wisdom) but because the questions it asks gives us a philosophical foundation that we continue to build upon for the rest of our lives.
In Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt struggles with the question of mortality’s value. She also asks, what is the view of mortality from childhood, from the breathless moment of suspension at the very top of the ferris wheel, before we fall down? What does children’s literature say about philosophy and childhood?
Thomas Wartenberg, author of A Sneetch is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries: Finding Wisdom in Children’s Literature and a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke, has been studying the intersection of philosophy and childhood for years. His undergraduate students actually teach philosophy through children’s books to a second-grade class.
Wartenberg sees Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a module for thinking about epistemology; The Giving Tree as an exercise in ethics; and Harold and the Purple Crayon as a work of metaphysics. In this video of the class, you can see children exploring issues aesthetic, ethical, and ontological with as much urgency as any undergraduate.
Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5wuHRyHez0.
Play with this question, too: Are there limits to children’s ability to think philosophically? And if so, are they cognitive or cultural?
The post The Small Philosopher: How Children’s Literature Poses Big Questions, and What Kids Can Do About It appeared first on Lanesha Says....
July 15, 2013
I have a soft spot for a children’s television show called Ninjago.
The title is portmanteau of “ninja” and “Lego.” Legos, of course, are those brightly colored rectangular blocks—about the size of your little finger—that children use to construct houses and trains and ships on the living room floor.
Reading as constructive, creative play.
The fact that Legos remain popular in this digital age is evidence to me that children want to create more than they want to consume. Who can doubt that children are natural builders? Dollhouses, tree houses, model airplanes, and pillow forts are the stuff of childhood, and a rehearsal for what we will one day create as members of the human community.
Watching television is more about consumption than creation. It is not at all like building model airplanes or playing with Legos. But I argue that reading is like these games. Reading is a constructive, creative act.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry tells us that children in the United States watch an average of 3 to 4 hours of television a day, which adds up to 28 hours a week—and yet, they are eerily silent about what they see. With a few notable exceptions, they don’t talk much about the dozens of programs they consume.
And overconsumption is not good for us. Children who habitually watch television are more likely to be overweight; have lower grades; read fewer books, and spend less time exercising.
But what are we building when we read? Why does reading a book call on us to create, when television does not? Let’s look at this description of a summer day from Charlotte’s Web:
“The early summer days on a farm are the happiest and fairest days of the year. Lilacs bloom and make the air sweet, and then fade. Apple blossoms come with the lilacs, and the bees visit around among the apple trees. The days grow warm and soft. School ends, and children have time to play and to fish for trout in the brook. Avery often brought a trout home in his pocket, warm and stiff and ready to be fried for supper.”
Lovely, isn’t it? The words themselves are deeply evocative. But I guarantee that the summer day you see is not the same one that I have conjured. The memory of your own childhood; the weather you’ve known; how you understand the meaning of flowers; your experience with and interpretation of the key words bloom and warm and apple blossom; the very mood you’re in right now—these are just some of the cognitive tools you use to paint your picture of summer.
Who could doubt that you are a co-creator of this passage, though E.B. White has penned it? After all, it is your mind that brings it to life, and without the active engagement of your mind, the book may as well be shut—the bees are silent, the lilacs are in hiding, and all is dark.
Not so the television screen. This is because someone else has done the work of imagining it—or a good portion of it. The best television digs furrows for your imagination, is rich and engaging. But much of television programming seems to have an intended audience of cauliflower, summer squash, and assorted other vegetables. Children must read for the same reasons they must play—it is a time to practice creation, to practice imagination. When reading, you activate the same type of thought that allows engineers to imagine bridges, doctors to visualize cures, and leaders to conceive of nations. With television, on the other hand, images are ruthlessly fired at us. The practice of winnowing images down into their important parts is a cognitive skill, too, I won’t argue otherwise—but let’s agree that it’s less important and less nuanced than the construction of something out of little, or nothing. Let’s agree that we need more practice in creation. Let’s agree that our children should be practicing this skill and delighting in it at every possible opportunity. Just look at the Lego. What possibility there is in the simplest of tools!
December 9, 2012
Click on the link above for more info on my newest book, SUGAR! Like in NINTH WARD, SUGAR celebrates a spirited girl who through her courage and resilience, thrives and makes the world a better place.
I haven’t been blogging lately because I’ve been busy writing and traveling. But today, I’m celebrating what is to come—SUGAR, and I’m also reminding myself that a “writer writes.” Which is exactly what I’ve been doing! I’ve been writing about “Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson. Maddy, for short.”
It’s so lovely having characters live in the world. Lanesha in NINTH WARD is more relevant than ever before given Hurricane Sandy. (During disasters, children are called upon to be brave and strong, too.)
My heroine, Sugar, is getting ready for her literary debut. She can barely contain herself! She’s funny, spunky, and smart.
And, dear Maddy is just being born. Each day I’m discovering more and more about her. She’s tiny, eight going on nine. She has “bird bones,” her mother says. But like a bird, she soars. Literally! There’s magic in her heart.
So, dear readers, look for more posts to come. More writing news. I’ll be blogging about why boys are so important in my novels, sharing my writing techniques, and exploring more children’s historical fiction. Send me comments, questions, and, by all means, your advice on what books I should read.
Happy, Happy Days to Come!
October 3, 2012
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires
Below I’ve written a critique of this wonderful book. I am always interested in the relationship between children and works of art. The essay below is thick on the scholarly stuff, so proceed at your own discretion! (If you haven’t had any coffee yet, you might want to come back later.) For an example of really amazing children’s literature scholarship, check out David Beagley’s podcasts (ITunes U) on ITunes! He discusses everything from the origins of children’s books to its genres. I talked about him before, when I put up a post on historical realism. I’m also mentioned in an article at LaTrobe University!
Not A Creature Was Stirring…
Some novels are so wonderful they remind me why I write in the first place. The Mouse of Amherst, by Elizabeth Spires. Her children’s book (beautifully illustrated by Claire A. Nivola) tells the story of a little white mouse who takes up residence in the wall of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom! While there, she and Emily strike up a correspondence, passing poems back and forth. The story of their connection mirrors the experience of the writer’s connection to the reader.
I argue that The Mouse of Amherst is not only a wonderful children’s book, but also a work of literary criticism that interprets Emily Dickinson’s poetry as commentary on the nature of literature. So far, my argument goes like this:
1. The purpose of literature to pass culture, tradition, compassion, and knowledge from person to person; and from one generation to the next. The first time I read Emily Dickinson, I was in college. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul– I felt like I was reading a message from a fairy godmother. Emily was reaching out to touch my hand. It was exhilarating. I was alone, spending my nights studying beside the window with a little lamp on. She was alone, too. Life and death were always on my mind. Life and death was on her mind, too. Ah, Emily Dickinson, Patron Saint of Graduate Students!
2. We write to find kindred spirits. Even poor Emily, all alone, was connecting with something as she wrote, some vision or dream that inspired her. She was writing a letter to someone–maybe herself. Or perhaps she really was corresponding with a gentle mouse. She was certainly corresponding with all the American poetic tradition that anchored her (and which she electrified). Written words are whispered secrets. Books whisper secrets to us.
3. We write for children to help them find their kindred spirits. Do you know a little girl who would love Anne of Green Gables? Do you have a child who lives for Harry Potter? Of course, these are children’s books; Emily Dickinson writes pretty serious poetry.
With that awareness, Elizabeth Spires delivers the little mouse as our avatar. We watch her writing notes to Emily, while Emily returns those notes in kind. The little mouse brings us one step closer to an understanding of Dickinson.
4. Children’s literature began with Robinson Crusoe, say some. Yet Robinson Crusoe was written for adults. Children’s books these days are easy, sometimes even facile. We have to remember that children can, and should, be challenged by the classics; these classics make up our culture and help us understand the world. Children can come in contact with the great adult writers of our time. Maybe they will find themselves in Flannery O’Connor; maybe Twilight. But they should try everything, and wander into every room.
5. “It must have been Fate that steered me to choose Emily’s bedroom for my own.” With something like faith, we discover the books that change us forever, the books that hold the key to a garden in the mind, the books and authors that form and un-form and transform us. How wonderful to have a book like The Mouse of Amherst to help children discover the wealth of Dickinson! This children’s book ushers us into the world of Emily Dickinson, and gives children the tools to understand her.
Books Like Letters to Readers
My favorite part of Spires’s book is when Emily and Emmaline, the little mouse in her wall, start to write poems to each other. Emily’s first poem goes like this:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain / If I can ease one Life in Aching / Or cool one Pain / Or help one fainting Robin / Unto his Nest again / I shall not live in Vain.
All writers write letters to readers. The letters are intimate and heartfelt. Emmaline’s face turns ”crimson, as if I were reading someone else’s diary.” I know that I, for one, hope to reach just one child with my books, to add hope and excitement to their world, and maybe ease their pain.
Emmaline responds to Emily’s poem with one of her own:
I am a Little Thing. / I wear a Little Dress. / I go about my Days and Nights / Taking little barefoot Steps. / But though You never notice me / Nor count me as your Guest, / My Soul can soar as High as yours / And Hope burns in my chest!
Doesn’t this poem reflect the wish of all readers to have an emotional experience in reading despite not knowing the author? To feel the impact of that letter? The intimate but anonymous relationship between reader and writer is reiterated when Emily writes another poem for the mouse, a poem that begins: “I’m Nobody! Who Are you? / Are you–Nobody–too? The writer and reader of a book are a pair of nobodies. Their identities are submerged in the poetry.
Writing back and forth with Emily, our little mouse comes to the conclusion that, despite being “a Little Thing,” “It matters what we think, / What words we put in ink. / It matters what we feel, / What feelings we conceal.
Finally, it matters what we think. Isn’t this the message we want to impart to children about reading? What has been recorded in books matters. So get reading!
For more on young readers, poetry, and Emily Dickinson check out this link.
September 25, 2012
So, the novel is done—you’ve finished the book and laid it all on the table. Given it your very best. It’s done!
Your editor has accepted the book. Yippee!
Truth is, finishing the draft means there’s a lot more work to come. Beyond my wonderful editor, Liza Baker, there is a fine team of book designers, copy editors, more copy-editors who engage you in a dance of details, details, details.
Even as the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) is being printed, you’re still being asked questions about consistency and searching for typos. The goal is to make the book as perfect as possible by the time it is published.
My manuscript was accepted in March 2012, and I just finished the last stages of proof-reading after ten drafts. I should be pleased. I am pleased.
But I am also, as always, incredibly scared. Every single time the printed text is set before me, my heart races. Stress courses through me like electricity. I am haunted by past iterations of the text. I dearly miss a character I had to cut, and I wonder if the first sentences are better now that I’ve revised, or if I’ve somehow made them worse.
Did I do enough? Explore enough? Write well enough? How will I know I’ve finally come to the end?
Your Brain on Revisions
“Okay. Take the comma out.” ”No, put it back.” ”Take it out.” Wait three days. Decide the comma stays. Catch that Sugar always says “nuthin,” so on page 245, she can’t say “nothing.” Cut a repetitive line. Double-check accuracy: is it crocodiles or alligators? (Neither. It’s “gators” in Sugar’s world.)
Reading and re-reading my words, I crawl back into the creative place. Can’t I just relax and have a cup of coffee? No, I can’t. My characters are depending upon me, even as I grow ever more neurotic. All the wonderful folks at Little Brown are depending upon me. Imaginary and real people—both grown-ups and youth—are depending upon me. Just as I depend upon them.
I sometimes think of myself as a castaway on a desert island, writing through sun and storm. My fear comes from the fact that, from the bottom of my heart, I want readers to be as moved by Sugar as I have been.
This young girl on the sugar plantation–she is about to go into the world. Once the manuscript is typeset and bound, it becomes its own creature, and must face the world alone. I hope that by the time I write THE END, the book is good enough to reach the hearts of strangers, even across an ocean of separation.
Closing the Book
Through the chaos, I must remember to be grateful, to say thank you. So, thank you, Sugar, for speaking to me. Thank you, LBYR folks who have helped shape my book down to the finest detail. (Any remaining errors are all mine.) Thank you, future readers, for being in this world. SUGAR won’t be complete until you read it.
September 16, 2012
Oh yes, I’ve been writing many years and it’s true: just as being a child is different from being an adult, writing for children is not the same as writing for adults. The literary tradition is different (Charlotte’s Web vs. Moby Dick) and thus, so is my writing style. The audience is different (8-year old vs. 40), and requires something different.
I call it The Halo.
Creative writers are benevolent beings. After all, they record the most important stories of our times, portray a diversity of life experiences, and add beauty to the world. Children’s writers also have the satisfaction of writing for these wonderful creatures–children. Trust me, when you’re telling stories for the most exuberant members of our society, you are awash in the golden glow of the Children’s Writer Halo. It is a warm caramel feeling.
But, the work is hard. If you’re writing your first book for children, buckle your seat belts and get ready for a fantastic ride.
Lanesha’s Tips for Writing Children’s Books
1. Be honest. Life isn’t always coming up roses, for them or for you. Kids aren’t afraid of the hard stories. They’re not afraid of sadness, fright, or death in their books. Don’t pretend the hard truths aren’t out there.
2. Look for beauty. Despite the hard truths, the world is a beautiful place, and kids are very aware of it. After all, everything is bright and everything is new when you’re young. E.B. White said: “All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world.” And of course, if the Shakespeare of children’s books did it, then you know it’s a good idea.
3. Read children’s Books. And I mean LOTS. You probably did take a children’s literature class to get that degree in English. Sadly, Children’s books are not a priority of the liberal arts curriculum. And anyway, you grew up. So many new books to explore! Close Wuthering Heights for now and pick up Peter Pan. You have some questions about how to get back to Neverland.
4. Spend time with children. Skype your six-year old nephew. Volunteer at the local library. Smile at babies. Recall the days when your children were young or stop to appreciate the days while they still are.
5. Eat chocolate. It’s okay, you’re a kid again! Writing sometimes calls for a little method acting. So spend a day sprawled on the couch with a book, oblivious to the world. Cannonball into the pool. Eat your ice cream with lots of whipped cream and sprinkles.
6. Know your character. If your character is a child, as in most children’s books, you must work extra hard to tell that child’s story. This is not the time to worry about your voice as a writer. Find the voice of your character, for only she can transport you to the world of childhood. She, not you, sleeps with a nightlight and worries about monsters in the closet. She, not you, wants more than anything to be the very best in Double Dutch! She, not you, worries about that bully at school. Whatever her hopes and dreams, they are the hopes and dreams of a child.
7. Follow the action and excitement! Camu’s L’Etranger doesn’t go over well with the under-sixteen set. Kafka’s Metamorphosis might be okay, if you trim some of that language down! Those sentences are like briar patches! For kids, cut through the winding clauses of existence. Childhood is a time for dinosaurs and space ships and action, action, action! This doesn’t mean what you’re writing isn’t profound. Let’s just say, in the world of children’s books, the most profound thoughts are often inscribed by a spider, or drawn with a purple crayon.
8. Don’t forget the dog! Is it a cliché, or an honored trope? Who cares, it works! Animals have a special place in children’s books since Aesop’s Fables. Check out my posts on the role of animals here.
9. Add humor. Humor is a weak point for me, but children’s books benefit from humor in a special way. Humor brings levity to dark events, and laughter is a huge part of childhood! Do you remember how you used to laugh until your sides split at sleepover parties? Do you remember how stairs were once meant for sliding down the rails? I’m not a naturally funny writer, but I think TaShon and his dog Spot (“why Spot?” asked the Lanesha, “he doesn’t even have any spots!”) brought a sense of the lightheartedness that marks the best of childhood, even when childhood is hard.
10. Delight in language. Turkish delight, anyone? Children’s books are full of beautiful description and language. Don’t ignore the details. Do make your words delicious. Some beautiful sentences:
“All worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” –CS Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia.
“So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.” –Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass.
“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” –Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting.
Well, that’s all for now, folks. There are no hard and fast rules for writing in any genre, but these are some of the useful tips I picked up while writing and preparing to write my first book for kids. Now I have a few questions for you:
1. What tip might you add to the list about writing for children? It may be something you’ve learned from reading or from writing. In any case, I’m eager to hear about it!
2. How many readers out there are currently writing for children, or interested in doing so? I ask because I’d like to know what content will be most useful to you on this blog! I can talk about writing till the cows come home. I’m also happy to talk about more amazing children’s books! In any case, thanks for reading Lanesha Says.
September 14, 2012
Hello everyone! Lanesha (or rather her online avatar, me) has created a Listmania! list on Amazon dedicated to the books discussed on this blog. I love the Listmania service on Amazon. It’s a great way to get information about people’s favorite books. There are a number of lists dedicated to Amazon user’s favorite books from when they were children, which is a testament, I think, to the power that these books have over us our entire lives. You can find the list here: http://www.amazon.com/lm/R35OO6ZBVVHY9N/ref=cm_pdp_lm_title_1, or search for “Lanesha Books: Children’s Historical Fiction” in the Listmania search box. I’ve only listed books that this blog has covered or discussed in-depth. I’m excited to see the list grow!
Keeping Lists and Virtual Book Shelves
The truth is, I love lists, and the internet is a great place to keep them. After many moves, I don’t have the luxury of seeing my favorite books on a physical shelf anymore. I’ve donated many of them or had to send them to Goodwill, so that my house doesn’t crumble or disappear into bookish dust. I also own a lot of new favorites in digital formats like Kindle. My daughter loves her Kindle, which is lucky since she lives in a 365 square foot walk-up in New York City (oh, to be young!).
I like to look back on what I’ve read on Goodreads. If you don’t have a shelf on Goodreads yet, I highly recommend it! You will find a wonderful community of readers in your favorite genre there, too.
September 12, 2012
I too was moved to write about the hurricane. I was glued to my television when the levees broke. The home of my imagination, of so many of my books and characters, was under water. I wanted to save the city I knew from the flood. Many of the Katrina books for children that I have written on previously reference its music (the young boys play horns, clarinet or trombone), its food (gumbo and sweeter things!), and the magical influences of creole and the diaspora.
These books also reach out to the children–whose faces one could glimpse on the television but were never featured. These children, like the students of Biloxi, harnessed great strength to survive. I watched the footage and saw that this hurricane shaped the history of America. It spoke of our values and our injustices. At the same time, it spoke of personal heroism and the power of place. Though Louis Beach Armstrong wonders if New Orleans is gone forever, there was never any danger of this. New Orleans lives forever. Its culture survives in part because New Orleans is the sort of place that moves musicians to sing, dancers to dance, and writers to write.
Narrative helps us understand our lives. My narrative flowed from my character, Lanesha, and her vision. But I was also greatly inspired by Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, the story of a young boy who must survive alone in the wilderness after a plane crash. Like the I Survived series, I wanted to write a story about an individual’s struggle, because historical fiction only draws us in to show us, teach us, and heal us if we connect on an emotional level. Lanesha was my connection to the hurricane. I hope those who read the book feel connected to the children of New Orleans through her.
What sets my novel apart from the wonderful books I’ve read about Katrina is that it is a ghost story.
Lanesha sees ghosts.
She sees the ghost of New Orleans past, but she also sees her mother. With help from her mother, and Mama Ya-Ya’s wisdom, Lanesha takes strength from the past to fight for her future. Ultimately, my story is a coming-of-age, the classic story of middle-grade fiction folded into this disastrous event. It was also my first book for children. Why?
For me, Lanesha’s coming-of-age echoed the events. The ghosts of the city were flooded over, their structures destroyed; but their wisdom remains, and propels the city towards a renaissance that continues today. Lanesha wants to be an engineer. She wants to build bridges. I hope her voice is a bridge across which children can walk into the lives of those less fortunate, into the lives of the people of the Ninth Ward, or simply into meaning. When I heard her voice, it began to structure for me (though I didn’t know this at the time) a way to cope with the trauma of Katrina. On the other side of the novel, I realized that I was also writing about my own family’s experience in the 1996 Northridge earthquake.
Before Mama Ya-Ya passes, on the night of the hurricane, she predicts that Lanesha will face great trials. She must escape from her attic, and then find a way to save herself and TaShon. She sees a rowboat tied to a house. She has to get the rowboat! With courage I can only dream of, she dives into the dark and murky water to umoor it.
We write books when we dream of courage. We read books when we need courage. I hope Lanesha brings a warm light to all those who find her.
To My Readers…
I am so lucky to have written a children’s book! The children’s literature community is one of the most welcoming and wonderful communities in the world.
And then, of course, there are the children, who are the very best readers an author could wish for.
My advice for new writers of any genre: write a book for children. Listening for the quiet, child’s voice, and trying to reach out to the child’s heart is an experiment in empathy from which everyone can learn.
Thank you, everyone, who has supported Lanesha and Ninth Ward.
September 4, 2012
Based on True Events!
When you know that something is “based on true events,” as the movies and the covers of books sometimes tell us, it lends a certain authority to the work of historical fiction. But we have to remember the work is still fiction. These true events are still being interpreted!
I want to nod to two books from this specialized strain of the historical fiction genome. The first is a better fit for young adult and adult readers. Last Bus Out: The True Story of Courtney Miles’ Rescue of Over 300 People in hurricane Katrina’s Aftermath is gritty, full of adventure, and definitely, verifiably true. And yet, the story of Courtney Miles, though more carefully documented, is not so different in essence from the middle-grade books that feature kind people venturing out in lifeboats to rescue people and animals. Their lesson and their tribute is the same.
Another true story that I highly recommend if you love cats and dogs (like I do!) is Two Bobbies: A True Story Of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival. This is a beautiful picture book by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, and its use of animal protagonist will help younger children understand, in smaller terms, what happened during the storm. You may even have seen the two bobbies (one cat and one dog, both called Bobby) on CNN. They became representatives of the trauma suffered by animals and animal lovers, when pets couldn’t be taken to the Superdome, or were too much trouble to evacuate. From the Afterword of the book:
Like thousands of others, the Two Bobbies lost their family and everything dear to them when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. After they came to live with Melinda and Gus-Gus (their adoptive parents after the storm), their veterinarian discovered debris and grit deep inside Bob Cat’s ear canals. His right eardrum was broken. Did Babby snatch Bob Cat from the dirty floodwaters that had filled New Orleans? No one will ever know. But it is very likely that a blind cat like Bob Cat would not have made it without Bobbi’s protection. In turn, Bob Cat’s friendship may have made the Bobbies stronger and giver her a reason to go on.
Bobbi and Bob Cat survived hurricane Katrina.
They did it by lending each other a paw.
Where Truth is Made
As the authors makes clear in the afterword, though this story is based on true events, it required an act of imagination to bring those events to life. The story chronicles the trials of the cat and dog and everything they face together during the storm, even though there is no way to know what really happened to them. To me, this is the perfect object of historical fiction: to imagine what we can never know is deeply satisfying, and often gives meaning to tragic events. Animals are wonderful, because we must use all our empathy to guess what their experience may be.
The practice of empathy is good for the soul and good for the novel. Dogs and cats are the voiceless. Because much of history is also speechless, unless we give it voice, animals make natural characters in historical fiction. I’ve always wanted to write a book with animal characters–but I’ve never done it. In fact, I think it is extremely difficult to narrate those lives in a way that seems not too saccharine or precious, but truthful. I will save that challenge for my twilight years…
August 31, 2012
The I Survived series for the middle-grades takes a child’s perspective on disasters like the Titanic, The Shark Attacks of 1916, and, as I read recently, 9/11. The question raised on the back of the book is: Do you have what it takes to survive?
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this simple series book. It was simply written, but did not exploit the disaster in any way. Instead, it did what all good historical fiction must do–create a character with whom we sympathize, whose point-of-view guides us to meaningful thought. I recommend this book especially for reluctant readers because it is action packed! Barry, the protagonist of the book, is evacuating with his family when his sister gets sick. She is too sick to travel. They go home, but are soon flooded out, washed onto the streets. I should mention that this is the scariest children’s book I’ve read about Katrina. Take, for instance, the moment water begins to flood their attic:
Dad crawled to the darkest corner of the attic. He started back with what looked like a stick. As he got closer, Barry saw what it was: an ax. “Gramps always said there’d be another bad storm,” Dad said. “He kept this ax up here for forty years. And he made sure I knew about it.”
It took Barry a minute to realize what Dad was going to do with that ax.
“Keep your heads down,” Dad said.
Dad heaved the ax over his shoulder. With a mighty swing, he smashed the blade into the ceiling.
Scary, right? But the book did its research. People in New Orleans literally had to cut themselves out of their homes. He is also threatened by a water moccasin, which Gramps always warned swam in the streets after the last hurricane. After he is separated from his family by a great wave, he clings to trees, furniture, whatever he can get his hands on. He is washed into a house, and has no choice but to stay inside. That’s where he meets Cruz, the dog his friend called a “real killer.” Except he isn’t a killer.
That dog was crazy. What if he came after Barry?
Cruz barked some more. Barry had to get out of here!
But then there was a noise–a whimpering howl. It rose above the wind, and it was the saddest sound Barry had ever heard. Sadder than Cleo’s sobbing. Sadder than the song Dad had played at Gramps’s funeral. Sadder than Barry’s own sobs…Help me please, he seemed to be saying. Help me please.
Barry and Cruz have to survive together. We are reminded of the sad truth: there were no pets allowed in the Superdome. Now, a dog also plays a prominent role in our other piece of middle-grade fiction, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach. In the eye-witness accounts of The Storm, however, a dog appears in only one recollection:
My mom was sad because a friend’s mom asked us to take her dog, but we didn’t and now he’s dead. Andy Latimer, grade 5.
In the adult world, dogs and cats mattered only so much. The Superdome only had so much food and moms and dads had other things on their minds. Children had to accept this in reality, but in fiction, they need their dogs and cats to remind them that there are creatures even more helpless than they feel. They need something to take care of. Taking care of Shadow and Cruz make both Barry and Saint Beach heroes. In fiction, it is not enough, in fact, to simply survive. One has to learn something momentous, as in the wilderness survival book Hatchet, or save someone else (a dog, a cat, a little sister). Boy (or girl) vs. nature almost always ennobles the child in children’s fiction.
As an example: in Saint Louis Armstrong Beach, a helicopter comes for Beach, his dog, and Miz Moran, but it only has room for one. Miz Moran wants Beach to go, but Beach won’t leave his dog, and sends her instead. This self-sacrifice in the face of disaster is part of the fantasy that children have of being in control of their circumstances.
We all read books to feel in control of circumstances. Fiction weaves the disparate threads of events into something meaningful. Children struggling to understand the world need this sense of meaning most of all.
Community and the Individual in Historical Fiction
Saint Louis Armstrong Beach uses the neighborhood and community of Treme to tell the story of Katrina. I Survived is a tale of individualism, man vs. nature. These are two modes often seen in historical fiction. Beach learns that New Orleans will always be part of him, no matter what destruction befalls it, while Barry learns that he has the courage within himself to weather any storm.
However, these books are kin in important ways as well. The theme of music runs deep in each: Beach is a musician, and so is Barry’s father. Familial love is emphasized. And then, there are the dogs. Both I Survived and Beach reach for the essence of New Orleans. They both refer to its song. The Storm reminds us that this song is mostly in our minds. We wrote it together to give this disaster some meaning. The song may not be real, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
This is the essence of historical fiction. We get to the truth buried in real events. We seek out desire in eye-witness accounts like The Storm. We find beauty where it seems no beauty can be found.