Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dancing at the Children's Literature Prom

When we moved to St. Paul, MN, I joined the Children's Literature Network, an association devoted to reading, writing, promoting, teaching, illustrating, and loving all aspects of children's books for every age level.  An incredibly decent bunch of folks.

Each winter their newsletter appears with a photograph of authors and illustrators who have been invited to speak at the annual breakfast.  It looked like a literary prom to me, and these were the faces of the handpicked court.

Oh, that I should ever be chosen.

In 2013, I was asked to dance.

Because there were 20+ of us, along with other speakers, we each had two minutes.  I practiced with a kitchen timer, trying to cover the brief but meaningful truth about Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale.  In case you don't know this, two minutes pass like a finger snap.   I memorized it so I could look around the room at faces, not down at notes.  I wanted to sound casual, friendly, endlessly charming, and spontaneous.

I am rarely all of these things at the same time.  It took practice and more practice.  Here's how it went.

Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale is based on a true thing that happened.  My husband and I adopted a baby girl from China in 1997.  We did not, however, pluck her from the river like the baby Moses. (The huge screen behind me carried Patrice Barton's beautiful cover of a baby floating in a basket down a river.)  For better or worse, that subtitle can get in the way of this book.  Many people assume it is only meant for certain families, so if your children are not adopted, the story will have no appeal.

But the people in this room know that a book is never about just one thing.

I recently re-read Horton Hatches the Egg, one of my childhood favorites.  I hadn't looked at it in decades, but suddenly I discovered for the first time that it, too, is really an adoption story.  What if only adopted children ever read it?  I would have missed it entirely.

A mother told me she bought a copy of my book to support local authors even though she knew her five-year-old son wouldn't be interested in the story.  She read it at bedtime and put it on the shelf.  The next night he asked for it again and the night after that and the night after that.  Finally she asked, "Why?  You're not adopted.  We've never been to China."

He said, "I like how all the animals help the baby get home.  I would help her, too."

She was stunned.  Not only had her little boy found the heart of the story, a story that wasn't about firetrucks or dinosaurs or baseball, but it truly mattered to him.

But no one in this room is surprised by that.  What child wouldn't want to believe that when you're lost in the world, someone will always help you find your way home?

If Horton were here, he would say, "The boy meant what he said.  And he said what he meant.  Children know best about books.  One hundred per cent!"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Kindergarten PR Lessons

Kindergarten didn’t work out so well for me.

The classroom didn’t have enough room at the tables.  Literally.  The students rotated each week from the chairs to the floor and back again.  Much later in life I learned this was true all over America when the Baby Boomers hit school.  They weren’t ready for us.  I longed for my time in a chair.

But I was skeptical about more than furniture.  I’d decided this half-day approach was fluff.  How could I learn foreign languages in three hours a day?  There were no microscopes.  The toys were cracked and bent.  We had to take turns on the playground swings.  It took weeks of waiting for five minutes of flight on a wooden seat.

Far too often, we were assigned to free drawing, probably because our overworked teacher needed time to breathe, alone in the cloakroom.  I made an important PR discovery with my art.  The teacher loved it when I drew a church.  Sometimes the steeple with a cross was in the center.  Sometimes it was on the end.  I bordered it with tulips or autumn trees or snowy evergreens.  As best I can remember, it’s the only attention I ever got from her.  I’d carefully draw anything that came to mind—dolls or ducks or dresses.  No response.  Then I’d drop that church on her.  “Oh, Karen!  How lovely!” she’d marvel.  I started wondering if she even remembered I’d already drawn dozens of churches.  Probably not. 

When I think back on her, she seemed frazzled and distracted.  I now understand there could have been forty or more students in that public school room.  Bless her heart.

But I was five years old and learning to coast in school.  I was quiet.  I ate my snack without spilling.  I never lost my gloves.  I raised my hand.  As far as standards went back then, I was good to go.  Classmates who consistently failed in these ways received her negative attention, harshly so.  I wasn’t interested in the dark side.

I entered kindergarten with happy ambitions, but I never felt excited about anything that happened there.  I didn’t learn about the world of big ideas that I believed existed if you paid attention in school.  Instead, I learned how to be safely repetitive and cautious to a fault.  I learned how to manipulate the adult in charge when I wanted a little praise, and I learned how to go unnoticed, too.  Somehow even then I knew this wasn’t right.  I could tell there was too much room in the system for mediocrity.

A teacher should have been pressing me forward, challenging me.

Instead, I just kept my eye on the chair I could have every other week.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Kid-food Rituals Are Still Good For What Ails You

For a while I wrote lifestyle pieces for newspapers.  It was a great way to see myself succeeding in print and to feel that Mary Tyler Moore moment--twirling in the street while "You're gonna make it after all!" is sung in the background.  When this essay was published, a reader identified with it so much that she mailed me a vintage box of paper straws when she ran across them in an antique store.  I was stunned.  To know my words could keep floating through someone's mind was a pivotal lesson.

Kid-food Rituals Are Still Good For What Ails You