Monday, April 30, 2012

Re-Viewing a Piece on National Poetry Month

It's April 30th and that means another National Poetry Month comes to a close.  It also means it was my turn to blog again but a number of issues this week got in the way of my completing my assignment.  I wish I could say "My dogs ate my homework," but since I do my "homework" on a computer and my dogs are not interested in technology, that excuse just ain't gonna fly.  So, if you don't mind, for this week I'd live to revisit a post from April, 2008. 

 I think it's still relevant: 

Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse's popular and Newbery Award winning  novel-in-verse (Scholastic, 1997), provided the impetus for a future plethora of poetic tomes by children's authors. (How's that for using alliteration and consonance during National Poetry Month?)

I generally enjoy reading novels-in-verse. They are quick reads for a person who has difficulty finding time to read for pleasure and, I believe, the added white space is encouraging to the child who experiences reading difficulties. For many kids, reading a page is an accomplishment. Being able to read many pages in a short amount of time is a triumph.

I also like the tightness of the form. Poet/novelists describe emotion, setting, and character in the fewest words possible--and, they are usually the perfect words. Writing a novel in verse--even free verse--is intellectually challenging, sweaty work.

Some books have succeeded more easily than others. Ron Koertge's The Brimstone Journals, (Candlewick, 2001) for example, takes us quickly and efficiently into the minds and lives of high school students. Their complicated assumptions about how life's problems must be solved break our hearts.

I had a bit more difficulty with the Newbery Honor book by poet Marilyn Nelson: Carver a Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001). This is a biography in verse and as such, must not only give us a sense of a George Washington Carver's world but include enough facts to allow the reader to march across the timeline of the famous teacher/scientist's life. I found this part lacking. Like many people, I knew only the very basic elements of why Carver's name is familiar. He is the man who found multiple uses for the peanut. Nelson helps us realize that he was so much more. Biographical footnotes are included in some of the pages and I found them to be extremely helpful. I sometimes felt lost when references were omitted. I wasn't always sure what event the poem depicted. If I was confused, I wondered how children read these sections.

The best part of the novel-in-verse is the way it combines both sides of the writer's brain. True, writers are generally thought to be creative, right-brained types. But there is also a logical, left-brained method to the sequencing of a novel. The reader sometimes has to work a little harder to read a novel written in verse. That's part of the fun.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Poetry Friday--"The Beat"

It's lilac time again, although with the mild winter and early spring, the lilac blossoms are a few weeks ahead of normal here in New Hampshire. I'll take them, though, whenever they're offered!

Here's a little poem from Hayden Carruth, a New England poet who also appears to love lilac time.
The Beat

Well, I'm too much of a musician
To throw away the beat. After all
It's running in my head, that
Tsep-tsep-tsep of the tenor drum,
The bass riding easy beside it.
Obviously it's not the only
Way to walk, but it's how I
Walk, trucking along the land
Of lilacs in the springtime.

Get outside and enjoy the lilacs before they're gone, but, also, take some time to visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference for this week's Poetry Friday Round-Up. I'm willing to bet we're not the only blog celebrating spring and its flowers in poetry!


Photo © Diane Mayr, all rights reserved. As pretty as the white lilacs are, I think the purple ones have a richer scent.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Women of Wednesday - Peggy Hull: War Correspondent

Henrietta Goodnough wanted to be a reporter, so in 1905, at the age of sixteen, she walked into the offices of the Junction City Sentinel in Kansas and asked for a job.  They gave her one.  As a typesetter.  It wasn’t what she wanted, but at least it was a newspaper.  She could always work her way up. 

One day, a fire broke out in town and not one Sentinel reporter could be found. Henrietta was sent, and her life as a newspaper reporter began.  But Junction City was a small town, and not much happened there.  At least, not the kinds of things Henrietta wanted to write about.  After four years with the Sentinel, she left the small town for the big city, and somewhere along the line, she began calling herself Peggy.  A year later, she married a reporter named George Hull and Henrietta Goodnough became Peggy Hull.

For the next six years, she worked at newspapers all over the country, including Hawaii.  Unfortunately, she was often relegated to the women’s pages, writing about food and fashion, and offering up cleaning tips to housewives.  It wasn’t what she wanted, and she flitted from one newspaper to another, hoping for the chance to write news stories.  Big news stories.

Her big break came in 1916.  She and George had divorced and Pancho Villa, a Mexican general, was invading Columbus, New Mexico.  Peggy wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time, and they sent her off to Texas to cover the Ohio National Guard as they patrolled the Texas-Mexican border.  While she sent off human interest stories to the Plain Dealer, she also wrote news stories for the El Paso Morning Times and the El Paso Herald.  And it was there in El Paso that she met General John J.  Pershing, the man sent to capture Pancho Villa.  Peggy and Pershing became friends and Peggy quickly said goodbye to the National Guard and joined Pershing in his quest for Pancho.  This was the kind of reporting she had always wanted to do.

A year later, Peggy was still in El Paso and working for the Morning Times.  Pancho Villa had become old news, and the new news was America’s entry into World War I.  Peggy asked her editor to send her to Europe.  He refused.  The battlefield was no place for a woman.  Peggy went anyway.  She got herself a uniform, paid her own way, and landed in France, only to run into her old friend, General Pershing.  He got her into an artillery training camp where she had an up-close-and-personal view of army life.  She marched with the men, ate what they ate, slept where they slept, and carried the same equipment.  She never asked for special treatment and the men liked and respected her for it.  She wrote stories about them and the war and sent them home to the Morning Times.

Her stories became so popular, other newspapers began carrying them, which didn’t thrill her male peers.  They began to complain.  Reporters needed a correspondent’s pass issued by the War Department to go to the front lines and Peggy didn’t have one.  Why was she allowed to go?  It worked.  She was sent back to Paris. 

Peggy wasn’t about to sit out the war in Paris.  She went home to El Paso, did some leg work, and headed to Washington DC determined to get her correspondent’s pass.  And now she ran into another old friend – General Peyton March – who she had met while at the artillery camp.  He spoke up for her at the War Department and helped her get her accreditation.  She was the first woman to do so.

But now she needed a new gig.  She got the Newspaper Enterprise Association to sponsor her and send her to Siberia where she covered the American Expeditionary Force as they protected American interests there during the Russian Revolution.  Peggy made friends easily and, while there, she became friends with a Japanese Admiral who didn’t think she should be anywhere near a battle.  Before he left Siberia, he gave her a short note written in Japanese.

After a year in Siberia, Peggy moved on to China, writing for the Shanghai Gazette.  In 1922, she married an English Sea Captain named John Kinley.  Because of the laws at that time, Peggy lost her US citizenship and had to fight for years to regain it.  The Kinleys moved to New York and Peggy, still keeping her first husband’s name, became a freelancer.

By 1932, her marriage to Kinley ended and she returned to Shanghai to cover the Japanese Invasion for the New York Daily News.  While there, she and her driver got caught in a bombing raid.  They ran from the car and ducked into a nearby bomb shelter, and as they peered out, they saw Japanese troops approaching.  The driver ran and was shot.  Peggy let her hair down and pinned a scrap of paper to her chest, then walked out of the shelter with her hands held high.

The Japanese saw she was a woman and didn’t shoot.  When they saw the paper pinned to her chest, written in Japanese, they took her away – to the Japanese Admiral who had given her the note over ten years ago. 

“If you do not give up your war corresponding, you will surely end your life on the battlefield,” he told her.  He let her go and she returned to Shanghai and continued writing about the Japanese invasion.

In 1933, she married her editor at the New York Daily News, Harvey Deuell.  He died of a heart attack six years later.  The year he died, Peggy helped found the Overseas Press Club, which has grown into a huge organization that supports journalists in all media and offers financial aid to students hoping to become foreign correspondents.

By the time World War II began, Peggy was fifty years old.  She wanted to cover the war in the Pacific but the War Department thought it would be too dangerous.  Peggy fought for the right to go but, in the end, she was only allowed to visit islands that had already been taken from the Japanese.  So that’s what she did.  She wrote about the native people and what they had seen and gone through.  When the war ended, she was awarded a Navy Commendation for her services.

Peggy reported on war for thirty-one years.  Her last war was with breast cancer which, sadly, defeated her in 1967. She died at the age of 78 at her home in Carmel Valley, California.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mentor Monday - Props

We all know what props are. Charlie Chaplin had his hat and cane, Maxwell Smart had his shoe phone, and Harry Potter had his wand. A prop can be anything at all - clothes, food, tools, animals, even another person. If it exists in your character’s world, then it can be used as a prop.

The most obvious use for a prop is to tell us what your character does. Harry’s wand lets the reader know he’s a wizard, so we can expect to see some magic. The kind of wand he has also tells us what kind of person he is. Harry’s wand is sturdy and strong and similar to Lord Voldemort’s, so we can expect it to be powerful, which makes him powerful. Ron’s wand, on the other hand, is a hand-me-down, and at one point, broken and taped back together. We don’t expect any serious magic to come from it, or Ron. Ron’s wand relegates him to sidekick and comic relief status.

How your character treats their prop also discloses information. A teen-age girl with a brand new hot pink cell phone might spend more time wiping her fingerprints off the phone than using it, or she might toss it wherever when she’s not using it. A poor child living in a home with a broken window stuffed with newspaper might complain about it, live with it, or try to fix it. Each option creates a different type of character.

Props also help create emotion in your story, and in your reader. Let’s say Jack has been stuck in detention for something he didn’t do. When he finally gets out, he misses the bus home and has to walk. It starts to rain. Every step makes him madder and more aggravated. He reaches home and checks the mailbox for an invitation to Tommy’s pool party. It isn’t there and he realizes he hasn’t been invited. He opens the door and sacks out on the couch and thinks about what a lousy day he had. Pete was a jerk for getting him in trouble, and Mrs. White was unfair in giving him detention, and why’d it have to rain anyway.

What is Jack feeling in this scene? Well, he might be mad or he might be feeling sad, or disappointed. It isn’t quite clear. And what did you feel reading it? Probably not a whole lot.

Now add a prop. We’ll give him a dog. So now, after all his travails, he opens the door and there’s his dog, tongue lolling, tail wagging, behind wriggling, eager for some love.

Jack kicks the dog.

Now what do we know about Jack’s feelings? We know he’s not only mad, but he also has a cruel streak in him, which wasn’t evident in the previous scene. And what did you feel? Did you smile at the dog’s description? Were you taken aback when Jack kicked it?

Jack could just as easily have knelt down and hugged the dog, which would have created a different emotion in him and the reader, and would have shown him as a different kind of person. In any case, using the dog as a prop helps show who Jack is in a more effective way than the writer saying, ‘Jack could be a cruel boy when he got angry.’ Or, ‘No matter how angry Jack got, his dog could always cheer him up.’

And finally, props keep your story moving. If we go back to the above example, nothing is really happening as Jack lies on the couch. He whines and feels sorry for himself, but that’s about it. Once you add a prop to a scene, it forces yours characters to act and react because the prop is tangible. It’s there and has to be dealt with. If Jack had walked in the door and ignored the dog completely, (which is a reaction) it still would have added more to the scene and his characterization than if the dog hadn't been there at all.

The whole purpose of a prop is support. It aids and helps, whether in the real world or in fiction. Find one in your character’s world and put it to use. Even imaginary characters can use a little help now and then.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Poetry Friday--"Time and the Garden"

At the local used book superstore I came across Garden Poems, edited by John Hollander, part of the "Everyman's Library Pocket Poets" series. I snagged it for $2.99! What a deal! But even at list, $13.50, it's still a bargain. I'll be mining it for many Poetry Friday entries in the future, I'm sure.

For today, here's a poem by Yvor Winters:
Time and the Garden

The spring has darkened with activity.
The future gathers in vine, bush, and tree:
Persimmon, walnut, loquat, fig, and grape,
Degrees and kinds of color, taste, and shape.
These will advance in their due series, space
The season like a tranquil dwelling-place.
And yet excitement swells me, vein by vein:
I long to crowd the little garden, gain
Its sweetness in my hand and crush it small
And taste it in a moment, time and all!
These trees, whose slow growth measures off my years,
I would expand to greatness. No one hears,
And I am still retarded in duress!
And this is like that other restlessness
To seize the greatness not yet fairly earned,
One which the tougher poets have discerned—
Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Raleigh, Donne,
Poets who wrote great poems, one by one,
And spaced by many years, each line an act
Through which few labor, which no men retract.
This passion is the scholar’s heritage,
The imposition of a busy age,
The passion to condense from book to book
Unbroken wisdom in a single look,
Though we know well that when this fix the head,
The mind’s immortal, but the man is dead.
Spring here in New Hampshire has not quite reached the "darkened with activity" stage. We're still in the blinding newness stage, but, I certainly feel how "excitement swells me, vein by vein." Personally, I wish the poem had ended at "And taste it in a moment, time and all!" I think the lines after it are superfluous. What do you think?

I didn't know anything about the poet, so I found a bio on The Poetry Foundation site. Click here to read it. I like this quote from Hayden Carruth, "...Of course, Winters is as insane as the rest of us, but he has made a whole career out of covering it up..." It reminds me of Mark Twain's "For business reasons, I must preserve the outward sign of sanity." Who can't relate?

I'm doing the Round-Up this week at Random Noodling. Stop by!


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Kristelle Lavallee and Children’s Media

Our families come to us not only by birth but by choice. Along with having my own three (adult) children, I am also the proud “Mom” of nieces, nephews, and the children of friends.

Many of you know how it is. Bonds are formed and we find ourselves attending the games, plays, concerts, and presentations of our friends’ kids with the same enthusiasm their parents have. We ache when they are hurt and are filled with pride at their accomplishments.

And so, I present one of my other “kids” as this week’s Woman of Wednesday: Kristelle Lavallee. Kristelle is one of those people who truly prepared for the future. The job she trained for in college didn’t quite exist yet. No matter. When the world was ready, so was Kristelle.

Kristelle wanted to work in children’s media. She worked her way through a Masters’ Degree and even got to intern on the PBS television program, Word Girl. While she would have liked to continue working in television, mentors advised her to first get a few years of teaching under her belt so Kristelle followed their advice and took a position at a private elementary school in Boston.

So, you’re thinking, what’s new about that? Children’s media has been around since The Little Rascals movies. Educational programming started decades ago.

Here comes the interesting part. Kristelle now works for Boston Children’s Hospital Center on Media and Child’s Health. One of the nation’s leading children’s hospitals has its very own “mediatrician.” (You can learn more about Dr. Michael Rich media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health here: ).

Kristelle is now a staff member in a field that, some ten years ago, didn’t have a name. Now there’s an entire field dedicated to how media affects children and their health.

In my last couple of blog entries I’ve been writing about age-appropriate literature. Literature often gets translated into film. Serendipity (and her mother, Sally) brought Kristelle’s recent work to my attention. Her blog entry discusses another version of keeping one’s audience in mind:

Take a minute and read Kristelle’s post. You might be quite surprised to learn who makes the decision about those little rating letters that get attached to films. And, you’ll see why the department Kristelle works for/with is becoming so important.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mentor Monday: More on Age-Appropriate Literature

Last time I wrote that writers for children should keep their audiences in mind as they create. Children, I believe, need to grow into their literature just as they need to grow into any other skill. We don’t expect a toddler to run a 5k race. Neither should we expect a young reader to handle the intricacies of stories meant for people with more life experience.

That is not to say that I feel children should be sheltered from difficult topics such as violence, death, or sex. Rather, I think we should give children the “just enough” needed to keep our reader emotionally vested in a story without overloading them with extra information they might not be ready to digest.

A six-year-old who asks, “Mom, where do babies come from?” is satisfied with the answer “A baby grows in a mother’s tummy” and is not ready to hear all about menstruation, gestation periods, amniocentesis, etc.

Writers can use difficult topics in stories and present them in ways that are suitable for the intended reader. The following three examples show a progression of information on the subject of death. Notice some of the techniques used to describe the death of each character:

From Lois Lowry, p. 129 Number the Stars:

Peter Neilsen was dead. It was a painful fact to recall on this day when there was so much joy in Denmark. But Annemarie forced herself to think of the her redheaded almost-brother, and how devastating the day was when they received the news that Peter had been captured and executed by the Germans in the public square at Ryvangen, in Copenhagen.

He had written a letter to them from prison the night before he was shot. It had simply that he loved them, that he was not afraid, and that hew as proud to have done what he could for his country and for the sake of all free people.

The main character of this novel is 10-year-old Annemarie. The intended reader will be about the same age. There’s a lot of tension in this story of the Holocaust as it played out in occupied Denmark. Young readers learn about the mistreatment of the Jewish Danes, fearsome Nazi soldiers, and the cleverness of the Danish Resistance.

Lowry tells the story in the third person. Using this technique removes the reader from the immediacy of the action because it is happening to someone else, someone we are learning about.

Peter Neilsen is a minor character. His death is sad because he is close to Annemarie’s family. His character comes in and out of the story. He’s mysterious because he’s part of the Danish Resistance. Because he’s mysterious, the reader does not develop the attachment he/she would to the protagonist.

Peter’s death is described after the climax of the story and it is told as if we are hearing what a stranger might have told Annemarie and her family. Now the reader is even further removed from the action. The reader is not a “witness” to death but instead, to hearsay. The death has occurred “off-stage.” There is no detailed description of the shooting or its aftermath. It is a truth told in its most succinct way. The scene will probably not elicit serious discomfort in the child reader because the reader has been shielded using the layers of past tense, third person, and the elimination of a minor character. Compare this scene to the death scene from Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

“They found the Burke girl this morning down in the creek.”
“No,” he said, finding his voice. “Leslie wouldn’t drown. She could swim real good.”
“That old rope you kids been swinging on broke.” His father went quietly and relentlessly on. “They think she musta hit her head on something when she fell.”
“No.” He shook his head. “No.”
His father looked up. “I’m real sorry, boy.”
“No!” Jess was yelling now. “I don’t believe you. You’re lying to me!”
pp. 103-104

Jesse, the main character, is in 5th grade—about a year older than Number the Stars’ Annemarie. The expected reader of this novel will be slightly older, too. The reading level is just a bit higher.

Paterson also uses the third person and past tense. The protagonist, and consequently the reader, are not in the moment of death but reading about a moment that has already gone by. The reader is again three times removed from the death but here comes the subtle differences. There is a bit more description of the exact moment of death (“rope…broke; musta hit her head when she fell.”) The main character is being fed the facts of the death shortly after it occurred. The deceased is the person most important to the protagonist. The death is personal. Unlike Annemarie learning about Peter after the climax of the story, Leslie’s death is the climax. The author gives the reader more truth to digest in this novel.

Young adult novels often go even further as in this example from The Hunger Games shows:

“A boy, I think from District 9, reaches the pack at the same time I do and for a brief time we grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.”
p. 150

This passage describes the first death scene in the Games. Suzanne Collins bring her reader right up to the action. She uses first person so the reader becomes the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Collins uses present tense. We are in the moment with Katniss, struggling for the backpack, feeling the sudden discomfort (…blood…warm sticky spray…) We see what Katniss sees when she sees it: the knife in the tribute’s back.

Collins is asking her readers to be there at the moment of death. The tribute killed off first is nobody in particular ("…I think, from District 9…") so we are one step removed because we, like Katniss, have developed no strong feelings for this dead person. The young adult reader should be able to absorb this more graphic description because an older reader has a more developed sense or what is real and what is created.

As you write your novel, think about your reader. He/she will be about the age of your protagonist or slightly younger. Think about children you know or the child you were at that age. Experiment with tense, person, and description when creating difficult scenes and see how the truth plays out.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Marian Anderson

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, I thought it was a good time to remember Marian Anderson.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897 and growing up in the African-American church, Marian’s musical gifts were recognized when she was very young. She joined the junior choir when she was just 6 and moved into the adult choir at 13. She taught herself to play the piano and at one time considered making the violin her career, but it was clear to others that her voice was extraordinary. When she was 15 the Philadelphia Choral Society held a benefit concert to raise money for her to take lessons. (Her father had just died, and Marian and her mother and sisters had moved into their grandparents’ home. There was no money for voice lessons.)

Marian transferred from a commercial track at school to the music program at South Philadelphia high school, but when she began applying to music schools she hit a wall of prejudice that shocked her. With on-going support from the Black community in Philadelphia she was able to continue lessons with a well-known teacher, Guiseppe Boghetti. He encouraged her to continue her career. By the 1920s she was travelling and singing in Black churches and school halls. In 1924 her manager booked her into the New York Town Hall, but the concert was a disaster. Marian proved to be uncomfortable singing in foreign languages and critics wrote dismissively of her voice. Fortunately, winning a local competition convinced her not to abandon her career, and over the next couple of years she continued to develop her voice and her repertoire. She performed a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and the New York Times praised her voice.

Marian went to Britain on a scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1930, and spent five years mostly touring in Europe, where she sang for the kings of Sweden and Denmark and was praised by Sibelius and Toscanini. She returned to New York’s Town Hall in 1935 and was a huge success.

By 1939, Anderson was an acclaimed performer, the third highest box-office draw in the country. She toured across the continent and into Latin America, playing to packed houses while, often struggling to find places to eat and sleep, as so many places refused to serve people of color. In April, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC.