What About Story? A Conversation With Jean Lee

A few weeks ago, Jean Lee and I started a conversation about storytelling and its purpose in our lives. While it began as a debate, the viewpoints that we shared had more similarities than differences. Note that “AJ” signifies my replies and “JL” marks when Jean is speaking. My sincerest thanks to Jean for coming up with this idea.


  1. What purpose do you think stories have?

JL- For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of the reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

2.  With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment truly involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make all the adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

3.  Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

My favorite children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

4. Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading, and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

5. What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- LOL! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

6. Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

7. What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue; but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

8. Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

JL-Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

9. How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture, however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the forceable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

10. Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

How a Forgotten Journal Helped Me Move Beyond a Painful Past – Cat Michaels

Whenever I visit schools visits, some dear child inevitably raises a shy hand to ask how to become a writer. I urge her to write. Keep a journal of your thoughts and what you see around you, I say. Keeping a record sharpens your writing skills and helps you find story ideas.

Children are surprised to learn that I started journaling decades ago as a teen-ager. I let them know my journals provide precious insights into my teen years as I look back on them as an adult. Kids don’t understand this yet. Such wisdom comes with age, I guess.

I stumbled across my first journal recently when cleaning out the attic. Startled to re-read the tiny handwritten scrawls of an insecure adolescent after all this time, I addressed my entries to older darlin’ — the future ME! How did I know capturing my thoughts would offer insights to unravel future challenges and help me move through life! And I can’t tell you why I wrote in slang, but I transcribed my journal, warts and all, faithfully as written.

It’s not easy for me to read Teen Cat’s journal as she pours her heart out. It brings back painful high-school years as if they were yesterday, when my middle-class upbringing and my father’s occupation as a teacher put me on the wrong side of the popular clique tracks in an affluent Connecticut suburb. The timing of this journal, started days before my youngest sibling’s birth, also offers context for my confusion and seeking solace in journaling.

I think there could be a YA coming-of-age story here — if I can find the rest of my journal stashed somewhere in the attic and steel myself to page through so many tender memories.

Please read on and meet Teen Cat. Then encourage the kids in your life to start their own journal. And if YOU haven’t started yet, what are you waiting for?

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===========TEEN CAT’S JOURNAL======================

Page 1 – Introduction

November 1

 

Let me tell you about myself. I’m 15 ½ years old, 5’-1” tall, 113 lbs., brown hair and eyes, a big mouth, but that’s not all. I’m starting this account of all these events for two main reasons.

  1. I can’t tell everybody my problems and
  2. I’ve got to have some way to let out my emotions.

When you finish reading this, older darlin’, if you do finish this and there is an end to these unrelated tales, you can finish the but that’s not all business yourself.

Oh, I suppose that in a few years from now when I read this, I’ll think what a dope I was to feel like this. Remember, older darlin’, in all your wisdom, don’t knock us younger kids. We have feelings, too.

Where did it all begin? I suppose I started the change from a quiet, shy, fat, intelligent girl into a noisier, still shy, and not so fat and not half as intelligent young lady. No, I dislike that word intensely– young lady. I’m young, but a lady sounds so old! What am I really? I’m not that young, but certainly, in the eyes of parents, I’m a mere babe in arms.

Parents…Now there’s a word. If there’s any one thing or any people, who have complete lack of understanding, they’re it. “Do this!” and “Do that!” “What did you say? I’m your mother, not she!”

Know what I say? To h…. with parents!

I gather you think I’m mad. Well, you’re right! Parents think this new generation is so wild and rotten. They go around citing statistics on juvenile crimes, teenage car accidents, and illegitimate pregnancies. Got news for ya, all you parents: it’s all your fault! Who can kids turn to if they have problems? Parents? Don’t be crazy.


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November 3

Had a usual Sunday. Went to church and Sunday school. I was really quiet today. Muriel kept askin’ me what was wrong. I really think this thing [journal] is helpin’ me. What a mess if they [parents] find it.

Oh yes, I saw Scott [at church] today. I think he thinks I like him. Maybe I used to and I could, but not now.

Why do I make such an ass out of myself? I’ve got a big mouth, but it gets me places. Is it good for helpin’ ya be popular? Maybe I should try bein’ quieter.

I wonder what everybody’s opinion is of me? Do they call me giddy or boy crazy? I don’t want that. They must say, ‘Oh, God, here she comes again!” Maybe I should try to act older, not too terribly old. Or I just would smile and shut up and don’t say or do crazy things?

 

Nov. 10 19xx Sunday 10:50 p.m.

I’m in a snot mood.   First of all, I went off my diet. Yesterday, I went shopping and bought a black sweater that doesn’t fit. The only good thing that happened was “The Diary of Anne Frank” was on Saturday Night at the Movies. It was absolutely terrific. I couldn’t stop cryin’ at the end when the Gestapo came to get ‘em.

 

November 11

Lynn came over yesterday and we went for a walk and we got lost. Then she gave me a perm last night   I guess it came out OK, but my hair smells of that Alberto VO-5 junk I put on it to make it less frizzy.

I have no desire to go to school tomorrow. There’s nothin’ for me to look forward to. Maybe if I fixed up my hair really pretty and wore something really sharp, I’d feel a heck of a lot better. My black sweater and knee socks with a gray kilt should be okay.

I just decided to have a mad, passionate, silent unrequited crush on Vinny E. Now wait, maybe I could just go to school for once and not like any fella, couldn’t I, older darlin’? Sure, why not?!?! Go to school with a free mind. Maybe I’ll just happen to like somebody and he’ll like me back. That’d be really sharp!!! What ya say to that, older, darlin’? Think I could?

========================================

 

Yes, indeed, insecure, desperately searching for identity and belonging, Teen Cat. Yes, indeed. You can do that and tons of even more awesome things. Sending hugs, kisses, and oodles of affirmation that you’ll turn out just fine.

Xxx,

Your Older Darlin’

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About Cat

Cat Michaels writes The Sweet T Tales, chapter books for beginning readers that tell of every day life with a twist of magic and mystery. A former special educator, communications manager for a high-tech company in another lifetime, and enthusiastic digital-dabbler, Cat lives with her family and writes in North Carolina. She is working on her third book in the Sweet T Tales for publication in winter 2016.

Find Cat’s books on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Cat-Michaels/e/B00GEAJQTQ

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EXTREME cautionary tales! – Jean Lee

This is part 3 of commentary from Jean Lee. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.


I don’t pretend to know the vast wealth of children’s literature available to today’s kids. My idea of a classic is NOT another’s; I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories at the age of 8, and my father even read them to me at bedtime. (Link to Jean’s article.) But I also read more age-appropriate fare, such as the Ramona Quimby series and the Chronicles of Narnia.

But in a recent discussion with AJ Cosmo over “how dark is too dark?”, two particular authors arose: Roald Dahl, and Philip Pullman. AJ felt that “Dahl wrote for adults and kids happened to like it.” I can’t help but wonder that in his switching back and forth between stories for kids and grown-ups, he found himself a grey area and plunked down there every now and again to write.

Goodness, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that Dahl did write for adults: Some Time Never, Kiss Kiss, My Uncle Oswald…yowza. And even the cover series seems to blend the lines a little. If you visit the official Roald Dahl website, you’ll see that the latest cover illustrations aren’t limited to the kid’s books. Going Solo is Dahl’s account of his early adulthood, which includes war conflicts and a plane crash.

Appropriate material for one on the cusp of puberty, I suppose, but not for one my daughter’s age. And if one’s a beleaguered parent on three hours of sleep snatching up pretty-looking covers like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, what’s to stop her from grabbing Going Solo?

Then there’s the stories themselves. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is well-known by all, with two film adaptations, to boot. Children get to read/watch other children be squished through tubes, shrunk, turned into fruit, attacked by squirrels (in Tim Burton’s version, anyway) and sent towards an incinerator, all in a magical factory full of sweets. This is barely one level up from a gingerbread house and a witch determined to throw kids into an oven. The Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” was told as a cautionary tale, and I wonder if Dahl didn’t have that same mindset as he wrote: parents, tell your kids to beware of too many sweets. Of wanting too much. Of staring at the tv too long. Of being too competitive. Of stealing. Dahl WANTED kids to be scared.

Don’t agree? Have you read/seen The Witches? If ever a story scared me s***less, it’s that one. People threw a huge hulabaloo over Suzanne Collins’ description of a child getting speared in Hunger Games. The witches of Dahl’s story are kidnapping children, never to return them into the proper world. One child is magically inserted into a painting inside her family’s house. Her family gets to watch her live the rest of her life in the painting. She dies, in. The. Painting. How is that NOT horrifying?

Philip Pullman gives his villains an equally horrific task in The Golden Compass. In the primary world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, protagonist Lyra and other human beings are born with what are called daemons—an animal-like creature. It has its own thoughts and speech, but it can’t help but reflect the inner nature of its companion human, too, especially children, for it morphs into creatures that befit the child’s maturity and/or mood. It is the human’s soul, and companion. Upon first reading this, I thought it a very creative, cool move on Pullman’s part.

Then come the Magisterium, the powerful theocratic force throughout Lyra’s world. On the surface they are simply bureaucratic and awful. But when Lyra’s hunt for her kidnapped friend takes her up to the snowy north, she discovers a secret facility run by the Magisterium, where they perform intercisions. What are intercisions? We learn when Lyra meets one of the practice’s victims in a forest:

He spoke, and Iorek Byrnison said: “He says that isn’t the not the only child of that kind. He’s seen others in the forest. Sometimes they die quickly, sometimes they don’t die. This one is tough he thinks. But it would be better for him if he died.”

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon (her daemon), with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

Later Lyra is kidnapped by the Magisterium and joins other children being held for intercisions. Nurses there call it “just a little cut” to help them grow up and ensure their daemons don’t change. Only the daemons turn ghost-like, and the children, worse. Beware the church, children, I could see Pullman say. It will take your soul, and leave you lifeless.

Did I mention Lyra is only 11 years old in The Golden Compass? Stories with kid protagonists are usually marketed to the age group slightly younger; that means kids not much older than my daughter are meant to read about children literally being severed from their souls. How is that not terrifying?

Yes, different children can handle different levels of darkness, just as some kids need nightlights and some kids don’t. A friend of mine would see Golden Compass as “full of talking points” to have with her daughter. Perhaps your child is capable of discussing soul severance and witches snatching you from your doorstep. Considering the state of today’s world, these talks are certainly worth having. But please, do consider when you start that talk. Know your child. Nurture her bravery, wit, and spirit. Only then, when she can walk over the separation from reality to story and back can you, as parent and child, face the darkness together.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

A Different Sort of Alphabet – Sarah Steele, Fellow Fridays

I met Sarah through on online writer’s group. Shortly after my blog imploded, Sarah was kind enough to help me re-start Fellow Fridays. So please give her a warm welcome. 😀


Our children are learning daily in school that there is one right answer. One way to write their numbers, one date for each event, one character that was the hero. And there is certainly a place for the one right response! But when it comes to art and the imagination and entrepreneurship, children need to be encouraged to think outside of what is expected, to look at the world with eyes, fresh and unassuming. We (the ones with the old, assuming eyes) need them to do this! And this is why my husband and I collaborated on our first two children’s books—to give us all an opportunity to look at ordinary items in unusual ways.

Our first book, The Shoephabet, features colored pencil illustrations of shoes formed into letters (shoelaces are quite helpful in this endeavor). Each shoe has a rhyme that highlights its personality. Children are constantly trying to place their own shoes into letter formation while they read this book, and in fact, we encourage this. Shoes will always only be accessories worn on the bottoms of feet unless we gain the ability to look at them in different ways.

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Our second book, The Monsterbet, is much sillier and downright Seussical. From the creative monsters and hilarious rhymes to the bright colors and monster font, this whole book shouts for kids to engage their imaginations and to let this book only be the diving board into the world of the unusual, the inventive, and yes, even the slimy. And the repetitive phrase “The ABCs do not scare me!” is sure to keep your kids actively participating while you read together. (While our books are officially targeted to ages 3-7, we have found that no one is too young…or too old to be entertained by shoes and monsters.)

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As a one-right-answer girl myself, I found The Monsterbet much more difficult to write. (We wrote these books backwards to many—illustrations first and then words.) The shoes in The Shoephabet were easy to identify and had clear roles—the steel-toed boots worked hard, the wrestling shoe wrestled, the ballet slipper danced. Even the more ambiguous ones still obviously walked or played. But when I came to the creatures in The Monsterbet, I found my box expanding or better yet, disappearing altogether. What does a monster do? The answer was always…anything! So I took my cues from some of their unique characteristics and started making lists upon lists of adjectives, nouns, and verbs that pertained to each individual monster. (The snot and slime also pushed me out of my usual comfort zone and deep into the middle school boy section of my brain. Who knew that even existed?!)

Because of these books, my own children now look at trees and clouds and blades of grass to see what letters they can find all around them. So if your child has a great imagination or one that could use some prodding (or if your own imagination could stand to be stirred), you will surely find inspiration enough in these two alphabet books, The Shoephabet and The Monsterbet.

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Check out my website for free coloring pages of the illustrations in both of these books!

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Sarah’s books are available on both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com

Visit Sarah at here website: http://bysarahsteele.com/

Or connect with her via Linked in!

How dark is too dark in kid’s lit? – Jean Lee

This is part 2 in a series from Jean Lee. You can check out part 1 here.


As my daughter’s sixth birthday drew to a close, my husband Bo revealed one final present: a tattered paperback titled Bunnicula. “This was one of my favorite stories when I was a kid,” he said as Blondie jumped into bed. She studied the cover showing a shaggy dog, wide-eyed cat, and red-eyed rabbit with pointed teeth. “Oooo, it’s a vampire bunny!” she squealed.

My copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Wild Robert was quickly forgotten. Any request to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with me was met with a, “Those books are weird.” But vampire bunnies? Totally acceptable.

Still, I sighed, it’s a good Daddy-Daughter time. Let’em be.

Bunnicula devoured, Bo dug out Howliday Inn. The cover itself is quite a change: Chester the cat’s hair stands on end as Harold the shaggy dog cowers behind him. A house reminiscent of Psycho looms behind them while lightning flashes across the sky. It’s literally darker, and spookier.

The content even more so. Just two nights into reading, Bo steps out during Blondie’s prayers with a worried look on his face. “Maybe I should’ve skimmed through this first.”

I look up from grading. “Why, what’s wrong?”

“Chester’s accusing some dogs of murder, and another pet’s talking about husband’s murdering wives.”

Uh oh. “Is Blondie okay?”

“She just sat quiet, like normal, but…eesh.” He went back to finish prayers with her. I listened to Blondie carefully the next day: no play-talk about murder, or questions about murder. She understood death as much as a little kid can (her grandfather died when she was three), but “murder” had been just a word in a story she knew to be made-up. And the story itself focused more on disappearing pets than on murder…until the end, where Chester explained he felt certain the human culprit behind the disappearances planned on exterminating pet parents after selling off their valuable puppies.

Yikes! We’re reading this to a first-grader!

Now our Blondie, and many other children, can handle this level of darkness just fine. They see a stark separation between “story” and “reality,” so if something unpleasant happens in the story, they know it won’t directly affect them. It’s when that separation thins that we get into trouble with such kids. For example, my kids finally saw Wall-E for the first time a month ago. After the fourth viewing Blondie started inserting her own commentary. “Look at that planet! It’s EARTH! It’s covered in garbage! Our earth could never be like that.” When I told her that actually, if we don’t take care of our earth, it could very well look like that, she grew solemn. “But Wall-E isn’t real. It’s just a story.” Yes, but it’s a story that reminds us we need to be careful so the real earth doesn’t look like that. She thinks again. “Wall-E is real, but it happened a long time ago.” Sigh, no, I didn’t say that, but I was doing something she wasn’t used to: I was thinning the separation between story and reality. Wall-E is a delightful science fiction adventure, yes, but it’s a cautionary tale, too, one that not all kids are prepared to handle.

Other authors push the limits into darkness, too, if you care to hear me out next week.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

Sandra Bennett, Australian Children’s Author- Fellow Friday

Picture Books Are Wonderful Conversation Starters

Have you ever been afraid of the dark?

Frightened of monsters hidden under your bed or in your wardrobe?

Picture books can be a wonderful way to start a conversation with children about ways of facing those fears or sorting through other emotions.

Why not read a picture book and start a discussion today?

I realized the power of picture books and their potential to start a dialogue when I was teaching a year 5 class one day. It was one of those moments when I needed an impromptu lesson, so I grabbed a picture book out of my trusty resource bag and began to read aloud. The initial class response was stunned silence. What was I thinking reading them something with pictures and very few words! It didn’t take them long to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience. After reading the story, the real work began. A lengthy conversation ensued that lead to some amazing writing of their own. I had re-opened the world of picture books to 10 and 11 year old students.

 

Curtin South Preschool

What was this amazing picture book that enlightened and brought so much wonder to our classroom? One of my favourites, “Diary of a Wombat” by Jackie French. Written so simplistically, yet capturing the character of a wombat so magnificently.

Since then I’ve now written two Australian picture books myself. My goal, is to introduce unusual Australian creatures to children around the world while opening opportunities for conversations with parents and teachers. Through my stories children can learn a little about Australia’s environment, the animals that call it home and something about themselves along the way. Each book finishes with a few fun facts about the characters contained in the story.

My newest release is “Frazzled Freya.” A rather timid frill neck lizard so scared of shadows and unknown monsters she is too frightened to join in all the fun and games with her desert friends. Set in the harsh Australian Outback, the vivid yet earthy colours used by my illustrator, Dianna Budd, depict perfectly the heat of the sun Freya is desperate to avoid.

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Parents, teachers and children can read along and discover Freya’s journey to triumph as she conquers her fear with a little help from a few unusual desert friends. The story provides an excellent opportunity to begin talking to your little ones about facing their fears, trying new experiences and stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Emma the Eager Emu,” tells the tale of a very unusual bird who can’t understand why she is so different from all her friends at flying school. She is desperate to learn to fly and be just like everyone else. An assortment of colourful yet different species of Australian birds come to Emma’s aid. Through her tenacity to never give up, Emma eventually learns the significance of individualism and discovers her own special way of doing things. This is another wonderful conversation starter as children struggle to fit into peer groups at school and learn to understand and embrace their own unique qualities and differences.

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Is there a topic you feel you would like to discuss with your child? I’ll bet you can find a picture book to help lead you into the conversation. So, pick up a picture book today, snuggle with your child tonight, share the book and read aloud together. If you’re a teacher, don’t be afraid to use a picture book in a middle grade classroom. You just might be surprised by the conversation it helps start.


Sandra’s Website

Sandra’s Facebook 

Grab your copy of Frazzled Freya here or Emma the Eager Emu here

 

Rosie Russel, Author Interview

Hey everyone. Today I’d like to introduce you to friend  and a fellow Kidlit author Rosie Russel. Just to change up the format a little bit, this was an interview. I kind of liked the power! 😉


When and why did you start writing for children?

I worked as a substitute teacher in elementary and middle school classrooms in our district for fifteen years. The one thing I loved the most, was spending time reading to the children. Also, helping them write their own stories was a thrill to me.

When our grandson was born, it was time for me to be close by to help out with him. During that time, I spent many hours reading to him, just like I did when our sons were young. I knew I always wanted to try writing my own children’s stories. When I set my mind to it, it was not hard at all to come up with my own tales. I love it when I can use real life situations, memories, people I know and love, and items in my stories. They all have a special meaning to me.

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Most of your books are pre-school to first grade, what are the pleasures and the challenges of writing for this age group?

Yes, four of my titles are Early Readers and two of my titles are for third grade and up.

Many people will say to me, “writing children’s books must be easy?” It is in some ways, but many times, it’s difficult. The sentences have to be rich and very precise. For children learning how to read new words, comprehending, and learning punctuation, it has to be as perfect as possible. Also, not telling the reader everything is hard, as you want them to arrive at their own conclusions. Two of my titles are very repetitive, which are my “Beasley” books. It’s my hope that the reader will “own” the words by the time they are done with those two stories.

Who does your illustrations?

I illustrate all my own books using a Wacom Pen Tablet. I have around four different kinds of programs to help me get the right look for each story. I have watched many videos on how to draw faces, hands, expressions, and so much more. Some of the programs I use have added features for me to include. I’m very picky on the final result and sometimes will work as long as a week or more getting one page exactly the way I want it. It just takes a lot of hours of practicing. I encourage everyone to give digital drawing a try, it’s a lot of fun!

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Do you have a goal to your work, a personal statement or a grand purpose?

My personal statement is “Engaging young reader’s one book at a time.” My goal is for children to read books and to be engage in the story. I feel if a child loves a certain story or even the illustrations, it will draw them back to more books and more reading. I worked with many “struggling readers” over the years and I always could tell what stories took and what stories didn’t. If a book is not clear in the meaning, they may give up.

What is your favorite thing that you have created? What is your least favorite?

I am partial to all of my stories as each one of them holds a special memory or situation that has really happened. (Just for the record, the Maggie, Millie, and Merrie” tales did not really happened.) The first one was based on a dream I had when I was young. The second one is based on something fun my sister and friend played growing up. I’d better stop before I give anything away.

The “Avi and Jackson Best Friends” title is a rhyming book based on our sons growing up. I wrote it just for them and never intended to even sell it. After we discussed it, I was thrilled they didn’t mind for me to make it public. It didn’t take long before I knew this was something I wanted to do full time.

What advice do you have for other authors out there?

I would suggest to other authors to always keep learning as much as they can every day. At first I felt frustrated because I felt like there was so much to do and not enough time. So now I say to myself, one step at a time.

Also, building a platform for yourself and your books is important.

I would also suggest for authors to visit with other authors and share ideas and situations that arise. Most all of the authors I have met are very supportive of one another and it’s a great feeling knowing you are not alone.


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