How does Mr. Ocax fly?
How does Mr. Ocax fly?
How does Mr. Ocax fly?
There are many of us who write stories with animals as their chief protagonist. I’ve just published Old Wolf, and there are novels like The Good Dog, and the Poppy books. All of these books, and others by other writers (like my favorite, The Wind in the Willows) are anthropomorphic stories, with a variety of animals as conscious, talking creatures, often interacting with humans. Indeed, animal stories (with a few exceptions) are thought of as often exclusively in the domain for young people.
I have just read a remarkable book: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, [Holt, 2015] by the scientist Carl Safina. He asks not, “How are animals like humans?” but rather, “How are humans like animals?”
The scientific evidence and stories he presents are both fascinating and moving, and even as his research changed his way of thinking, I promise it will change your way of thinking. The work is also sad, and disturbing, in terms of the way humans treat other animals. It becomes clear that in many respects humans are not at the highest level of … well, humanity.
It should be also noted that the book is wonderfully readable.
But what has this to do with books for kids?
What Safina has to say about animals, I suspect, is something young people instinctively know, that they come to think of other non-human creatures as lessor beings only by being taught so, even as they are taught racism or sexism.
In short, all those animal stories for kids have been getting it right. We adults might do a good thing by rereading those books and relearning what we have forgotten.
A young reader recently wrote to me:
“We [my sixth grade] thought your book [Never Mind] was really good, but at times it was hard to imagine. If it was made into a movie we could visualize the characters better and how they reacted. For example, Harry Potter is a series of books that were turned into a movie. Since the movie follows the books, it is easier to comprehend what was going on in the book.”
It is commonplace to refer to the modern age as one of intense visualization, TV, internet, film. And while it does not make me happy to acknowledge it, young people are far more likely to look at images than words on a page. As suggested by the young reader above, it is one of the reasons why readers struggle with reading books.
There is a solution: More illustrations for middle grade and even upper grade fiction. There are wonderful illustrators these days, and they should not be confined to picture books. I have absolutely no doubt that the success of my Poppy books, may, to a vital degree, be found in the illustrations by Brian Floca. His art doesn’t just illustrate the texts, they are a significant part of the stories. Consider Brian Selznick’s work. Consider the popularity of graphic novels.
In short, there are countless ways to illustrate fiction. Publishers do themselves (and their readers) a real disservice by not illuminating fiction. More art may mean even more reading of text.
People often ask me for the origins of a particular book or story. In fact, the other day I was reading to my wife a short story I had written. When I finished my reading she told me she liked it and then asked, “How did you get the notion for that?” I had to admit I had no idea where it came from. That can’t be said of my latest book, Old Wolf, which has just been published.
We had a much-loved family dog, an Alaskan malamute, named McKinley. In fact, he’s the primary subject of an earlier book, The Good Dog. As will happen, the dog grew old, almost reaching fourteen years. At that point he became overwhelmed with ill-health, pain, and he died, much mourned.
The story is about an old wolf who has suffered a wound, even as he seeks to lead his pack to food during the early spring, the “Starving time.”
Into the story is woven something I’ve long been fascinated by, the relationship of wolves and ravens. Wolves are very intriguing and ravens are quite remarkable creatures in their own right.
The other main thread of the story is the boy, Casey, whose knowledge of death comes through video games. My youngest son played them a lot, and I was always staggered by his casual “killing,” of men, beasts, and monsters. But in video games while there is a lot of killing, there is no real death.
So here, in Old Wolf, is a wounded old wolf, a smart raven, and a boy who would like nothing more than to be a hunter and kill something. And—for his 13th birthday, he has just received a bow and arrow set.
In Old Wolf, Boy, Wolf, and Raven meet.
And by the way, they meet in the forest that surrounds my home, high in the Rocky Mountains. My good friend, Brian Floca (Caldecott 2014), who did the illustrations (and the gorgeous cover) visited us and was able to capture much of my world.
Anyway, new book, Old Wolf. Hope you enjoy it.[Thank you for reading the essays on my blog. As a small treat, we have 10 large (17″ x 22″) posters of the Old Wolf cover to give away. Go to this page to be entered into a random drawing for one of these posters with Brian Floca’s beautiful drawing of Nashoba. Enter before Friday at midnight MT, September 25, 2015.]