Tuesday, April 24, 2012

World Book Night 2012

"They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life's inequities was a lesson for me. Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened."

"The custom of letting obedient children be seen but not heard was so agreeable to me that I went one step further: Obedient children should not see or hear if they chose not to do so."

"I thought of myself as hanging in the Store, a mote imprisoned on a shaft of sunlight. Pushed and pulled by the slightest shift of air, but never falling free into the tempting darkness."

"Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives."

Maya Angelou ~ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


Yesterday, I had the privilege of giving away copies of an incredible story. Some people I know went out into the wide world to give away books, which would have been much more challenging and scary, but, as stated on my application, I chose to give books at the school I work for. Though I'm new, I've been there long enough to learn how the students respond to literature, how they write their own literature, and what kinds of stories mean the most to them, so it was really important to me that they be the ones receiving this particular story. I wish I'd had enough copies for everyone, but I picked up some early reader children's books and took them along too (luckily it's a small school) since I couldn't afford 20 more copies of Maya Angelou and since most of the students have children and grandchildren. Along with the books, I had a big bowl of chocolate candy, and by the time classes started letting out, all the books were gone and lots of the chocolate with them.

I don't suppose I'll be able to do justice to Angelou's story, so I hope you'll read it yourself. But I will say that it's beautifully written. In the same way we remember our own lives, the story is represented in brief episodes that, for one reason or another, matter. In childhood, these episodes aren't so much forks in the road as changes forced upon us by something outside our control, and there's a comfort in reading about someone who faced and survived trials many of us only experience in nightmares. Moving from scene to scene in rich but raw, honest, and straightforward detail, Angelou is heartbreaking and funny and lovely and tragic, but never pitiful or overdone or manipulative or formulaic. She simply...tells her story.

I'm sure everyone who's read the book has made a speech like this one, but I want to add to the other voices and say, I'm glad she shared this story with the world, and I'm honored to have had the chance to give it away to others.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Free books!

Tomorrow is the first ever World Book Night in the United States, and I'm in the mood for giving! (If you've followed the link from Facebook, don't care about World Book Night, and just wanna know which free books are up for grabs, scroll down past the second picture.)

Over the last so many months, volunteers from all over the country have applied to be Book Givers. That means they chose a book out of the 30 titles that the World Book Night folks are giving away and filled out an application detailing where they'd like to hand out books and why. The books were recently delivered to local bookstores or libraries where the Book Givers could pick them up along with some cool bookmarks and stickers. On April 23 (UNESCO's International Day of the Book), all those volunteers across the country will give the books out to the public! For free!

I'm really excited to have been chosen as a Book Giver on this inaugural year of World Book Night in the US (it's been done successfully in the UK before) and will be handing out my 20 free copies at the university where I teach. The book I chose, because my students so often respond strongly to shorter pieces by the author, was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Tomorrow, after I've given my little box of books away, I'll report back on how it all went. But for now, I want to make an offer to those of you who won't be getting a great piece of literature for free. In the spirit of giving, and in the excitement of sharing stories, I went to Barnes & Noble (one of the companies helping cover shipping and production costs for all those free books going out tomorrow night) and bought new copies of 5 of my favorite books of all-time, and I'd like to give them to you.

I'll cover the shipping cost and everything, and I'll even slip in a cool bookmark. All you have to do is 'Like' the link to this blog post on my Facebook page or make a comment below. Tomorrow night, I'll draw 5 names from those who 'Liked' or commented, and I'll mail out a randomly chosen title to those drawn. If your name gets drawn and you get a book you've already read, just give it to someone else! Or if you see books someone you know might like, by all means, put your name in the drawing and give the book away the second you get it! Or get your book in the mail and take it straight to town and leave it on public transit. Or on your neighbor's doorstep. Or with your grandmother at the nursing home. Or wrap it up for your nephew's birthday. It doesn't matter to me! It's all about sharing stories.

Here are the 5 books I chose, and if you know me, you won't be surprised that they're all considered to be children's or young adult literature even though some of them are really and truly adult books. Either way, all of them are enjoyable stories for all ages and are books that have, in one way or another, changed my life.

Happy reading and good luck!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My friend in Italy

Though I didn't get to see much more than the inside of hotel rooms in Italy, my friend and mentor Peter did. He's kindly agreed to describe his experience here, and has done it in his characteristic way. His style, I think, is one that, though it's entertaining in voice and form, forces you to pay attention, which I appreciate as the reader, because in speaking to his audience intelligently, he seems to assume we've got the intelligence to follow. You know those people who use normal adult voices to talk to babies and animals rather than doing that squeaky baby/puppy talk? He's one of those.

What he's left out of his account below is how much time he spent dealing with me, the poorly American. He hasn't mentioned how helpful he was in bringing me medicines from the pharmacy and crusty bread from one of the countless crusty bread shops he must have seen and bottles of water from I don't know where and still more medicines (from his own stores!) and colorful reports on how things were going outside my four walls. I don't know what I would have done without him there. I was grumpy and whiny and hard to deal with and slightly panicky, but he remained cheerful and helpful and kind and calm. Thanks for the blog post, Peter. But thank you more for being my friend and helping me get well and putting up with my grumpy face(s).

(For more from Peter on children's literature, see this video and the others in the series from Oxford University Press.)

Meanwhile, outside, Peter is wondering what to do with Italy.

But places are all in the mind, even places as emphatically placey as Venice, which is all detail as if a thousand happy designers, without straight edges, had been employed to do whatever they liked for a thousand years.  With a lot of ochre.  But everyone knows that, and I’m a useless tourist on my own - not sure quite what to do with a place. Even sitting almost on the bows of the waterbus, next to two happy French tourists, on a warm March evening, chugging up the Grand Canal and bumping into the pontoons of the waterbus-stops every three minutes, palaces stacked up along the canalside, terraces and tall windows – through some of which I can see chandeliers and wondering what sort of people can be sitting under them; and doors of the solid sagging houses opening onto water-steps; gondolas disappearing into dark alleyways of water.

Sorry, Venice; I can’t get my head around it. Don’t get much further than thinking – would I prefer to be sitting in my study? Well, obviously not. But with no-one to say, ‘oh look’ to, then, why? Venice doesn’t notice.

And then I get lost, late night, between the waterbus-stop and the hotel. This is not surprising, given that there are ten alleys leading off every square - but it is strange. The moment I think, the hotel should be there – but it isn’t – is the moment I notice that every alleyway is empty and absolutely quiet. It’s not quite frightening or threatening, but ethereal. Walls and houses and leaning walls; alleyways that become ledges and then steps and then bridges.

The dark, narrow, inscrutable canals. Small streetlights, black water; studded doors and doorways with low stone lintels. All slightly panic-inducing, especially when you walk down a long alley that ends at a canal. But nobody jumps out or mugs you (which is astonishing). Calm; don’t walk too fast. This would have been fun with somebody.

So it’s undoubtedly unfair to remember Venice by the number of dogs – what a place not to have a dog (do the owners think that what their dogs are doing (most of the time, it seems) is invisible, or elegant?). And then, of course there’s the other people:; coming across St Mark’s square by accident (someone seems to have tossed Venice up in the air since I was last here, and it's come down in a different pattern) - I’ve been to the Cathedral before, and inside it’s like the Mines of Moria – but this time the place seems up to its knees in tourists, so I don’t even venture into the square, in case I get sucked in. And become one.

But there are diverting images. Outside the hotel there is a man who spends half an hour photographing a doorway (I promise that’s what he’s doing).

Venice is detail. Or there’s the gondola-ferry that takes you across the Grand Canal, dodging between launches and ordinary gondolas, waterbuses and boats delivering vegetables, and water-trucks with stacks of boxes that probably contain TVs… and you have to Stand Up on this gondola across the choppy water. Astonishing that nobody seems to fall in.

Then there are the stacks of boards for walking on when the place is flooded…

Then, a couple of hours down the railway line, across a plain with straight lines of farms, is Bologna, which looks a good deal like Venice without the canals (which probably speaks only to my architectural tone-deafness)...

...and the station forecourt is packed with people going to the Bologna Children’s Book fair...

...whence taxis depart for a vast complex of exhibition halls.

Well over a thousand publishers from 66 countries – aisle after aisle after aisle after ... etc...

...of stands - hundreds of thousands of books. And thousands of professionals, signing deals, buying rights. Astonishing (‘Surely,’ I said to my guide, ‘these can’tall be professional book-publishing-type people.’ ‘Why not?' he said. 'Because there can't be that many people in the world with that slightly superior self-confident look' did not seem to be the right answer). But also, to an outsider like myself – I was there to launch a book and talk to a publisher - it’s more mind-boggling than engaging.  After a while it seems that the big publishers, whose vast stands resemble the foyers of banks or airport executive club lounges, are all clones, selling cloned products – and the tiddlers are either book-packagers selling series that merge into each other, or specialists selling beautiful, original stuff – if you have time to discover them,

Back in Venice, however, whiling away a day. Far better to remember sitting in the square in the unexpected sunshine, having a beer and eating gnocchi...

...and pretending to be Venetian; watching the hoards and squads of tourists - and admiring (or being astonished at) teachers herding the classes of school children – what a place to mislay a child or two. 

What a place: is it still there, I wonder? Was it ever?


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Grace and growing pains

I've got no memory of being born. I've got no memory of learning to walk. No memory of creating my first work of art. Or of my first time putting sandy toes into the cold salty sea. There are countless life moments I have no recollection of at all. As important as they were--as foundational--they're not with me in memory. But they changed everything.

In the last few years, I've come to appreciate the grace in forgetting and the grace in unawareness. When I say forgetting, I don't mean forced forgetting, like what the brain can do with something too horrible to remember, or like when we love someone and decide to forgive a terrible wrong, which requires a sort of stubborn forgetting. And not like when we forget because something wasn't important enough to remember. I mean, very specifically, the forgetting that belongs to childhood. There are probably all kinds of scientific reasons for our childhood brains functioning that way, but they add up to an experience that shields us from lots of the pain that comes with awareness. When we start to become aware of change, we begin to grow up, and begin to become nostalgic. By the time we realize that change can come in an instant, that life can turn upside down with the ring of a phone, that, good or bad, everything we know can become everything we knew in the decision to turn left instead of right--when we must finally admit that there is an end as sure as there's a beginning to things--then we've lost the grace of not knowing, the grace of forgetting.

Of course, that's not necessarily bad. It's just a trade-off. With awareness comes a worldview childhood can't fathom. It brings a depth of experience and a joy of knowledge completely unreachable to the mind of a toddler. It brings an appreciation of life in light of brevity, reveals the possible depths of the layers of life's mysteries, and it makes unselfish love and friendship possible. Though there's something enviable about living for the self and the present moment and even more enviable about expected irresponsibility, there's also something wonderful about being awake.

I've just come back from an awakening trip during which most everything that was supposed to happen didn't. The plan: go to England for a week to get pictures of children's literature locations and enjoy exploring London, my favorite city; go to Italy for a week to attend a book fair in Bologna and meet with the publisher and co-author of an upcoming project; go back to England for one more week to spend time with friends; and round out the trip with a children's literature conference at Cambridge. What actually happened: I spent a week in my beloved London thinking, "What happened to my beloved London?" (secretly knowing all the while, with a sick-hearted feeling, that I'd done the changing); spent a week in a hotel bed in Italy sick with fever and infection, living on water and crackers and missing all planned events; spent a week with friends in England as planned but skipped the conference on the doctor's suggestion that I find a place and stay in it long enough to get myself better. So, then: no rekindled love with London, no book fair, no lunch with the publisher, no literary conference, no reporting back on the blog about exotic international bookish things.

However!--I did get to spend lots of time, for once, with people. Normally on these trips, I spend most of my time by myself taking pictures and looking around at old things and being a little lonely. Even I know that only so much reflection, especially whilst away from home, is healthy. So it was a very nice change this time to get to know some people better and spend time in friends' homes and learn how different people in different places do things differently. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and kind, and I probably learned more about life and living it by spending time at people's tables than I would have on the planned itinerary, as informative as it would have been. But the really awakening thing about the trip is harder to pin down. It was basically a matter of lots of the pieces floating around in my head lately finally coming together to form a solid idea about what to do with myself at this point in my life. The coming together was a lot due to my getting out of the normal day-to-day for a while, which I highly recommend for everyone.

Do you remember how, when you were little, people always talked about growing pains? They were these mysterious aches us kids were supposed to get as our bodies got bigger. I'd imagine myself having a sudden spurt, at which point my jeans would become shorts and my t-shirt would go tiny and my shoes would be so tight the strings would burst and my toes would pop out the end so I could wiggle them in the fresh air. And I figured it would hurt a lot, but that everything would be okay because it was just growing pains, like the grown-ups had said would happen. What the grown-ups don't tell you is that those moments don't stop happening just because you get older. I'll be 32 in a few weeks, and I find my old shoes are too small. The bad news is, I'll walk around in old shoes till my feet bleed. The good news is, I eventually get where I'm going. It took a while this time, but not as long as last time, to realize I need to make some changes in my life, and this trip was the final push. I won't go into the how and why, but don't worry; it's nothing serious. Just steps on the path. I plan to keep learning, only in a different subject area than I've spent time on over the past few years. I plan to continue exploring the world of children's literature, but from a more love-of-stories than love-of-criticism perspective (not that both can't exist simultaneously, just that I personally need to balance things out--to rediscover a love of stories). I plan to keep traveling to new places and teaching in new ways and making new friends. And I plan to keep writing because, as cheesy as it sounds, to stop writing would be to stop breathing--spiritually anyway.

Speaking of spiritual things...well, they're things I don't talk much about here. And I don't plan to start. But I will say this, it being Easter weekend and my heart being on the mend from the ups and downs of the last few weeks and my tired soul being drawn to the comforts of the foundations of my childhood: Whatever you believe about eggs and bunnies and candy, about sacrifice and rebirth and miracles, about what they have in common; and whatever you believe about pagan traditions and Christian traditions and family traditions, about stories and histories and interpretations of both; and whatever you've been told or learned on your own, whatever you've come to agree with or disagree with--it sure is something to imagine someone perfectly good and perfectly right coming into this mess and not walking away, but instead, at a price we grown-ups understand too well, leaving a small nagging hope even in the most skeptical of us who, though we see the beauty in it, feel somewhat betrayed by the light outside the dark cave of childhood.