Sunday, April 28, 2013

You Never Know about a Poem

When I was in the ninth grade, Mrs. Billman announced we’d be reading poetry and passed out mimeographed sheets fresh off the press.  We held them to our noses, sniffing the sharp chemical odor, becoming momentarily light-headed.

She’d given us ee cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”  It begins: 
                        anyone lived in a pretty how town
                         (with up so floating many bells down)                    

Mixed-up punctuation.  Misaligned parts of speech.    I thought I’d finally damaged my brain, something we were warned about from breathing that damp purple ink.  Nothing made sense.  Surely the Correct Police would storm in and seize these pages.

But no one groaned. 

No one complained. 

No one whispered that cummings was an idiot. 

We were spellbound. 

For the next hour, she performed a teachable sleight-of-hand, asking questions with no apparent right or wrong answers.  She had us suggest possible punctuation changes.  She asked how a pronoun could be a name.  She asked why it mattered.  Hands flew into the air.   

We forgot that we hated poetry.

In Manchester Junior High School, in the far right front classroom in this picture, my world cracked open.  I understood the power of unexpected words in unexpected places in unexpected patterns.  Mrs. Billman explained that breaking grammar and syntax and punctuation rules required knowing them first.

I was skeptical. 

After class I asked her if cummings really knew how to use a comma.  She assured me that he did and that he’d made deliberate choices by avoiding rules.  “Writers know what they’re doing, Karen,” she said.  

I think she knew I would become a writer.  She wanted me to feel every last page-tugging option that awaited me.  She knew the tiniest comma or the shortest adjective could whisper in my heart, posing a beautiful possibility.

Only a ninth grader bent on learning how to craft a meaningful sentence would have asked that question instead of rushing to lunch with everyone else.

Maybe that’s why I love picture books where boundaries crumble.  Sentences float.  Phrases peek.  Words skate up and down the page.  It’s a matter of artistic and editorial choices.

And I learned the value of those choices from e e cummings.

And Mrs. Billman.    

Friday, April 19, 2013

Second Grade: Winning The Lottery

After reading about my kindergarten experience, a mother wrote to me because she worried that her own kindergarten daughter might be learning to coast as I did.  I told her my second grade experience made up for the lackluster beginning.  It was definitely a winning lottery ticket.

Mrs. Miller was cutting edge for the 1950s at Sherman Elementary School in Ohio.  In first grade, we sat alphabetically in wood and wrought-iron desks, complete with ink well holes, in bolted down rows.  In a requisition coup that must have stunned her colleagues, Mrs. Miller got those antiques removed from her classroom.  We sat in clusters of desks with independent chairs, and she switched us up all the time.  I was constantly with different kids.

Brace yourself.  It gets more outrageous.

We were allowed to talk to each other.  We could move freely around the room.  We could go to a hallway drinking fountain on our own.  We knew we'd been given an inch.  No one was crazy enough to take a mile.

She pushed the piano in the hall into our classroom every day.  We wrote songs, inventing melodies and lyrics.  Then we'd figure out dance steps and hand motions.  We were up and hopping and twirling and laughing while composing.  She loved following our lead.

Surely Broadway Bound, she announced we were good enough to write a play about nutrition.  We were divided into food groups.  I still remember our overture's tune: We are some of The Seven Basic Foods.  Eat us every day.  We are very, very good for you.  We help you run and play! (Big finish.  Form two quick rows with the front row dropping to its knees.  Jazz hands.) I was bread, and I still remember the huge, oddly formed piece I drew on paper with its rich, brown crust.  We researched from library books she brought in on a rolling metal cart.  Who knew wheat and yeast could be fascinating?  No slice ever danced with more meaning.

Then there was the memorable day she asked us to start bringing in boxes.  For two weeks we stacked them at the back of our classroom, imagining the wonders ahead.  Finally she took us on a walk through the neighborhood.  We visited a grocery store, the fire department, a variety store, a park, and a soda fountain.  She took pictures of each site and put us in groups to construct our assigned place from boxes.  We studied those photographs for colors, shapes, and details that would have left Frank Lloyd Wright beaming.  Every spare moment was devoted to working on those boxes, taping and stapling and painting our locations.  Then we placed them on a gigantic grid of streets and sidewalks.

I'd give anything for a picture of our project.  I'd love to see just one of our class plays.

But I carry their joy, along with dozens of other second grade adventures.  Over fifty years later I remember our ambition.  Our inventions.  Our faith in ourselves.  And I can see Mrs. Miller smiling, proud as punch to be in that room with us.  

In her creative hands, school wasn't inflicted on us.  It was created with us.

And to think so much glorious education could come from a shoe box.   

Friday, April 5, 2013

Still Sorting and Folding

I know SCBWI members haven't wondered what happened to me after my first essay appeared twenty years ago in their bulletin (Read my previous post.).  For those who are thinking about giving up on writing, it might be worth knowing, however, that I finally got published.  So, yes, it's possible.

Money and awards don't roll in.  Editors and agents don't call. Hollywood hasn't offered a movie deal.

Well, what was the point, then, you might ask.  I wondered that myself for a while.

Shortly after I wrote that 1992 essay, I found a new editor in the bulletin's "Publisher's Corner" and began sending her picture book manuscripts.  She asked to see more, finally found one she loved, and called.  I was thrilled, but after many, many, many months, it was clear the project would never happen for complicated reasons.  She wrote me a beautiful letter, urging me not to stop writing despite the disappointment.

But I stopped.  I was heartbroken. I couldn't see the point anymore.  Also, my life had dramatically and gloriously changed because we'd adopted a baby girl from China.  It was easy to shift my focus to her.

Then when she was in kindergarten, she asked, "Mama, did you ever want to be anything?"

She caught me.  I thought I'd been successfully hiding behind play dates and bake sales, but she'd been wondering about me.  I explained I'd wanted to be a writer once and actually read her that almost-published story.  "It's good," she said.  "Write another one."  She believed so completely in me that I started again.  I had, in fact, been wondering about her, too, and the mystery that brought us together.  I began writing a fanciful journey for her.  My picture book, Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010.

When I sat in the Random House lobby after meeting my editor, I understood success had nothing to do with my fame or fortune or mahogany paneling or a crisp white blouse--the details I'd envisioned in 1992.  My success was about showing my daughter how a person collects the pieces of a broken dream and tries again.  That was the point.

At a bookstore signing, a little girl said I was the only famous person she'd met.  She told me she wanted to be an author and asked me what writing was like.  I told her it was like doing laundry, only you sort and fold words daily.  She smiled and agreed.  She said she wrote stories about her friends all the time.  That was the point.

When I read my book at a school assembly, an adopted Chinese girl announced, "I'm the real sweet moon baby."  She had found a metaphor to hold in her heart.  That was the point.

A mother bought my book to support local authors but was puzzled when her young son, who was not adopted or Chinese, repeatedly wanted her to read it at bedtime.  She asked him why and he explained, "I like how all the animals help the baby get home.  I would help her, too."  That was the point.

Now I understand why books for children matter.  I understand why I write them and that the point is far greater than my own success.

I just keep doing it.

It's that easy.

It's that hard.

Whether I ever get a second book published or not.

I mean until I get a second book published.