Monday, July 20, 2009

"Just One More Story"

In second grade, I went to three different schools. (Ah, the joys of being an army brat.) In one of these (which I attended for all of three weeks), a classmate asked me to save her seat. I did my job and efficiently told the girl who appeared at my side, “Sorry, this is Tammy’s seat.” She was like, “I’m Tammy.” Whoops.

By high school, my friends had begun referring to my habitual lapse as “JM’s face recognition problem.” I remember being entirely confused by the movie Dead Poets Society, because I never knew which brown-haired white boy was the one who’d been in the scene prior.

In short, I am emphatically not a visual thinker. Put me in a building, and I could not point to the front. Put me on an unfamiliar road, and I will not know east from west; I will not know the direction from which I just came; I will never be able to get home without divine intervention.

I was a straight-A student but for art and home ec. Geometry was a nightmare. Can I blame all this on the fact that my mother never read me picture books? Surely not. But to this day, I have to remind myself to look at the pictures.

During my stint in the MFA program at Vermont College, I focused almost exclusively on novel-writing. I knew I lacked appropriate appreciation for the picture book form and most especially for small children, having spent little time with them and feeling especially clueless as to how they think.

Now I spend my whole day with small children and still have only the vaguest notion as to what goes on inside their little heads. But I have probably read them thousands of picture books in the last four years.

Lacking any parenting instincts, I have also read dozens of books about child-rearing. Peruse any book about kids’ sleep (the most important thing you can read as a new parent), and you will note the importance placed on a bedtime routine. Being a rather hapless and harried sort, I can’t say we have a great routine in place. The one thing (sadly) we never relied on is the sacrosanct ritual of the bedtime story.

If I ask my daughter to pick something to read before bed, she will deliberately choose the thickest tome – Richard Scarry’s 365 Stories For Bedtime or Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers. If I suggest something short and sweet (i.e., Ruth Krause’s The Carrot Seed), she will protest. The point of the story in her mind is not to ease into a state of happy slumber; rather, it is to stall.

The other day, we compromised on a medium-length book that I had purchased for my own enjoyment – Madeleine L’Engle’s The Other Dog. As I started to read aloud, I realized that not only would my daughter not find it funny – she wouldn’t “get it” at all. She did maintain cursory interest throughout and asked appropriate questions. But when we were finished, she did not request another story and went to bed without a single protest.

A few days later, she said, “You know that book about the dog with the pointy nose? I don’t like that book. Could you take it out of my bookshelf? Could you take it downstairs?” And finally, “Could you hide it?”

I used to think those “rules” about writing brief picture books were ridiculously stringent. Now I wish they were more stringent. My son, at age two, lacks the attention span to sit through more than 50 words. Meanwhile, so much of what we read is just plain BAD. All those books with flaps and pop-ups and scary rhymes that well-meaning adults seem always to pick up in thrift stores for 99 cents – how do these get published? And why do my children like them? My daughter had been repeatedly asking for The Scary Sounds of Halloween throughout the month of June.

Of course, interactive books and novelty books are popular with kids for a reason. And I must say, Pat the Bunny is just genius.

At any rate, yes, I can write an entire episode of Days of Our Lives in a day or two (6,000 words), and of course I can write a picture book on my coffee break. My latest is only 45 words long. Of course, even 36 revisions later, it is not ready for prime time. And even if it were – finding a home for it in this “soft” market, finding an illustrator to work his/her magic and turn my manuscript into an actual book would take years.

As a TV writer who leaves all the visuals to someone else (actors, directors, set designers), there is a certain wondrous thing about having an illustrator flesh out that which is not in my own mind. I hope it shall happen someday.

In the meantime, I am in Vermont this week at an alumni mini-reunion in hopes of recapturing the inspiration that I found here. I especially appreciated hearing a quote from the great Phyllis Root, who once advised in a lecture that a picture book should be about “one true thing.” So very, very true.

My little inspirations
Montpelier, VT
A Ford family fave

1 comment:

Tara McClendon said...

My son is a big fan of the stall tactic, and we made the mistake of buying several children's books collections. I find myself asking way too often how certain books got published.