Cracking a Writing Chestnut

One of the most prevalent writing chestnuts is “Write what you know.” I heard Jonathan Odell speak before I read his book, The Healing. In his own self-deprecating humor, he called attention throughout his talk to his own description as a middle-aged gay white man who grew up in a Southern segregated community. The protagonist in The Healing, who is telling her own story in the days before and after The Civil War, is an African American mid-wife.

Transported into the reality of her time and experience as I read, I didn’t think to wonder about the irony of the “write what you know” idea until I was finished. Instead, I became caught up in that time and place and in the wisdom of the  elders –
•    Gran Gran: Creation is filled with soul-sick folks, colored and white, never knowing where they belong. They tangle everybody else up in their grief.
•    Aunt Sylvie: Tying a scrap of red on a straw broom don’t make it no Christmas tree.
•    Aunt Sylvie, on talking when one should be listening: Flies can’t fall in a tight-closed pot.
•    Polly Shine: When God wants to punish us, he gives us just ourselves to care for.
•    Polly Shine: A flapping tongue puts out the light of wisdom. And that tongue of yours could put out a house fire.
•    Polly Shine: Can’t do it in your hand until you see it in your heart. Like going to a river to fetch water without a bucket.

So is the old chestnut wrong? Not really. While Gran Gran is almost as totally opposite to Jonathan as one could get, he did write what he knew. He knew from years of research that he said was more enjoyable than the actual writing. He knew from sitting listening to an elderly African American woman who had stories stored in her mind and heart waiting for someone to ask. He knew from choosing as his first readers those who came from that culture and paying attention when they told him he got it wrong. The result is a story that is not Jonathan Odell’s but Gran Gran’s.

A few years ago, I recommended a book by an almost unknown author to our library and to any friend who would listen. I was one of many who joined that bandwagon, proving the wisdom of another writing chestnut, “The best kind of publicity is word-of-mouth.” That book was The Help. I’m predicting a similar fate for The Healing. And if you should have a chance to hear Jonathan speak, take it.


Gang Aft Agley

These are some of the few that bloomed.Blog Plan A called for gloating over Longfellow who had to wander lonely as a cloud to find his host of golden daffodils. It included showing a picture of the mass of daffodils that I can see right outside my door arcing the southwest corner of my yard every year.

I knew my plan was in trouble when a friend who watches for them on her route each spring asked, “Where are the daffodils?” The plants sport healthy green leaves, but only one segment bloomed this spring. Those were not the ones she could see as she passed.

You see, we missed winter here. I think the daffodils are saying, “Look, without my nap, I am not blooming!”

Other strange phemonema that I’ve noticed this year include dogwood and Bradford pears that are putting out leaves before the flowers are finished instead of waiting for their turn. Right here in mid-March, my daylilies have started blooming and purple spiderwort wildflowers blossom by the road. Even the fauna are out early with yellow sulfur butterflies flitting around and yesterday’s little black snake greeting me in my flower bed. We missed winter. Now it appears we shall miss spring as well.

So what happens to Blog Plan A? I’m switching poets. Mama introduced me to Longfellow’s daffodils in her poetry read-alouds. She also introduced me to the “Immortal Robbie Burns.” In my first memory, I just loved the sound of his Scottish words without having much sense of their meaning.
    “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
        Gang aft agley,       
    An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,
        For promised joy!”

Life has given me understanding and a lot of experience in plans gone astray and in moving to Blog Plan B. So Longfellow can gloat as he wins this round. Blog Plan B is to enjoy the day lilies.




In 2008, my friend on the Newbery Committee asked me to do her a big favor. She wanted me to read books and give her my opinion. Just look at the sacrifice she asked me to make: 1 – I had to read. 2 – I had to give my opinion. Out of the goodness of my heart, I agreed. I didn’t read nearly as many books as the committee members, and I didn’t have the burden of getting this right since that award makes a book an unending part of the children’s literature canon. However, I took it seriously and read about 50 books. One of those was The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.

Now, Kathi had to overcome a couple of things to get me involved in this book. First, I am not a cat person. Secondly, for pleasure I choose historical fiction – not books with shape-shifters. But she hooked me with her first line, “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.”

I followed that hook at once with my first reading. I read quickly from beginning to end, anxious for the animals in the “dark and holy” Underneath and for the shape-shifters in the Caddo woods bordering Little Sorrowful Creek. Compelled to finish in a sitting, I breathed a sigh of relief when the ends were tied together into a satisfying close.  So what did I do then?

I immediately turned the book back to the beginning and read slowly. I read the first time as a reader. This time I read as a writer, looking to see how Kathi Appelt worked her magic. I saw her move back and forth from the forest to the Underneath, from the animals to the shape-shifters. I was reminded of weavers on a loom, plying their threads over and under and around until a beautiful pattern emerges. I relished description made me settle into the darkness and safety of the Underneath, feel the warmth of the goldy sun, or shudder in the midst of the storm.

I loved her poetic rules and their refrain:
•    Do not cross his angry path. Do not.
•    Do not look into that mouth of cotton. Do not.
•    Do not get in front of the man and his rifle. Do not.
After I finished my second read, I suggested that our Oak Grove Library buy a copy and they did.

So why did I read The Underneath a third time? Missing is a theme in the book, and I felt it myself. It’s been four years, and I missed Ranger, Sabine, and Puck. I missed the Alligator King, Grandmother Moccasin, and Night Song. I even missed Gar Face a little bit. So I returned to the library this month and checked it out. I was pleased that the book was no longer in pristine condition – not from being treated roughly, just from having been read often.

Had the choice been mine, this would have been the winner of the Newbery. This is not the first time that I have preferred an honor book over the winner. Truth to tell, after the cream rises to the top in each year’s selections, good arguments can be made for any of those books. I am really glad the burden of that right choice is not on my shoulders.

Just the same, I will conclude this blog with an important admonition:

Do not miss this book. Do not.


Driving Richard Peck

As time nears for the annual Faye B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi, I manage my wait time by reminiscing about festivals past. For several years, I’ve been a driver for one of the guests. I can’t remember exactly how this started, but I have suspicions that it may be similar to the way I handled pesky kids who hung around my desk by giving them something to do.

One of my favorite memories from this assignment comes from the year I drove Richard Peck. USM had finished making the campus pedestrian friendly by closing off several streets that used to run through the campus. On our return from supper at the Alumni House, I took a street that had become a dead end. With cars parked on both sides of a narrow street and another car behind me, I proceeded to rock my car back and forth to get turned around.

About halfway through this process, I invoked the name of what may be Richard’s most beloved character from his books. “Richard, before this is over, you may wish that Grandma Dowdel was driving.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “She can’t drive either.”

The laughter from the two back seat passengers drowned out his assurance that he was kidding.

Besides having a quick wit and being a genuinely nice person, Richard also gave good advice to attendees at the festival:
•    You have to read 1,000 books before you write one.
•    The Great American Theme is coming-of-age.
•    You always learn the most from the experience you would have avoided if you could.
•    You can only write by the light of the bridges burning behind you.

This month’s Horn Book Magazine gives another quote from him, “We write in admiration of better writers than we are.” For me, one of those is Richard Peck.


Ex-Kid? Maybe

Jacob Ezra Katz began life on March 11, 1916 as a scrawny immature baby, starting his life in an incubator. The neighbors who came to see him when he was big enough to come home immediately asked, “Do you think he will make it?” The future didn’t look promising for a child of Jewish immigrant parents struggling to eke out a living in Brooklyn. If they could only have known…

Ezra didn’t stay scrawny and immature, but he did stay sickly all his life and enhanced his real health problems with a touch of hypochondria. He didn’t even stay Jacob Ezra Katz, changing his name as an adult to Ezra Jack Keats in response to an anti-Semitic environment.

His venture into the art world began when he was a toddler scribbling on the linoleum floor and eating his crayons. This venture continued as a preschooler who decorated the kitchen table all the way around with ink drawings, an award-winning art student as he passed through school, and an adult who struggled to make a living with his art. He came into his own in midlife when he began to illustrate for children’s magazines and books. His real breakthrough came with the publication of the first book he both wrote and illustrated – The Snowy Day – now celebrating the 50th year since its publication.

The book was significant for children as the first full color picture book to feature a Black child as the protagonist in a non-stereotypical way. But he went on to write many more, including in his books the children of the many ethnicities he had grown up with in his Brooklyn neighborhood. They had fun and solved problems common to all children everywhere, confirmed by the many languages into which they were translated, but he continued to use the city tenements of his childhood for his favorite setting.

Keats enjoyed many recognitions from libraries and cities that had Ezra Jack Keats Days and named reading rooms for him. He won the Caldedott Medal for The Snowy Day and received a medallion given by the University of Southern Mississippi for his body of work. He came a long way from his fragile beginning.

For all his awards, I think Keats would be most pleased that his book The Snowy Day is still being chosen for things like my friend’s literacy project in North Carolina where the book will be featured in a reading fair for children who don’t have access to many books of their own. My friend knows my interest in all Keats things and asked me for ideas. She will read from a large copy of The Snowy Day with the children using their own smaller copies. I would like to have a periscope that sees from Mississippi to North Carolina to watch them enjoy the book – and perhaps make their own collages afterwards. Maybe she’ll send pictures.

Someone said Keats’s continuing appeal to children came because he was an ex-kid. The “ex” is debatable. I think the kid was still alive and well inside him until the day he died. My plan for his birthday on Sunday is to find the kid inside me, read the anniversary edition of The Snowy Day, and sing happy birthday to Ezra on what would be his 96th.