(On this album cover, Lee Hays is on the right.)
(On this album cover, Lee Hays is on the right.)
This was first published in March of 2013. On our countdown of Most Read Blog Posts, it’s number 4, in which we look at the idea of reading for pleasure.
The other day I was visiting a high school class. When I was taking questions, a ninth grader asked me how I go about putting symbolism and hidden meanings in my books. When I replied that I do not put hidden meanings and symbolism in my books, the boy’s response was, “But my teacher is always pointing out that stuff in the books we read, including yours.”
There are many things one can teach about a book: its context, language, style, construction, its historical moment, and so forth. The list is long, and productive. But to teach as if a text is written in code—a code only a teacher can decipher—is to tell students that they cannot understand what is being read. It makes readers feel dumb. It tells them they cannot understand literature. Most importantly, if one teaches literature in such a fashion, it robs a student of the joy of reading on his or her own terms and experience.
“You really don’t put symbols and hidden meanings in your books?” the boy asked incredulously.
“Nope,” I said. “I just want you to have the pleasure of reading them.”
“Wow,” he said, as other students nodded. “I wish you would tell that to my teacher.”
As it turned out, unbeknown to me, there was a literature teacher in the classroom. When the kids left, she introduced herself.
I said, “I hope you weren’t offended by my remarks.”
“Oh no,” she assured me, “I suppose one could make a case for reading for pleasure.”
I hope I did.
This was first published in August of 2014. On our countdown of Most Read Blog Posts, it’s number 5. In which we look at the idea of “fun” in connection with writing children’s books.
The other day I was having my annual eye checkup. Lisa, the young technical assistant was going over my basic data sheet.
LISA: It says here you are a writer. What do you write?
AVI: Novels for kids.
“That must be fun,” she says and moves on to my medical history.
“That must be fun” is the most common response folks articulate upon learning what I do for a living. I suspect it conveys a whole range of inferences, such as: since your writing is about kids, the work cannot be hard; that books for young people are about lightweight subjects; that writing for young people means your life is like a young person’s life, which is to say, without much responsibility, ergo fun. This happens, I suspect because what is embedded in adult memory about their reading when young—if they did read—are books which they recall as frivolous.
At an early stage of my existence, the preeminent shared reading experience among us young, would-be writers was The Catcher in the Rye. Moving along a time line, it became A Wrinkle in Time, then The Bridge to Terabithia. No doubt, other writers can reference other titles that caught and held their emotional intellect enough to make them say, “I want to do that.”
In short, the book which provides the greatest impact is the one full of complex ideas, characters, and emotions, a book which articulates and echoes the complex ideas, characters, and emotions of the young reader. There is nothing wrong about books that are fun. More power to them. I do believe, however, it is the hard book that opens the mind and keeps it open.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.“
This was first published in January of 2013. It has been read so often that it’s #6 on the countdown of Most Read Blog Posts. Serialization is a popular form all its own.
Once Dickens made serialization popular, and profitable, it became a 19th Century publishing norm. There was the work of Dickens of course, but think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, War and Peace, Sherlock Holmes, and many, many more. They were issued in serialized form. Recall that most important 19th (and 20th) century magazine for young people, St. Nicholas, which ran serialized novels. Growing up, I read the serialized novels of Thornton W. Burgess in the daily pages of the New York Herald Tribune. All followed the credo of Wilkie Collins, who, when speaking of the methodology of serialization, said, “Make them cry, make them laugh, make `em wait.”
The longest book I’ve written, Beyond the Western Sea, was my attempt to write a Victorian-like saga. At 675 pages there was nothing of that length in the children’s book world in the pre Harry Potter era, 1995. Indeed I decided to write the book in short chapters, with each chapter having a cliff-hanging ending, so as to propel my readers to read just one more, as if had been written for serialization. [In fact, the publisher was so nervous about the book’s length that they issued it in two volumes, which proved to be a mistake.] When the book was done it came to my mind that I might try to do actual serialization in newspapers. That was the birth of Breakfast Serials.
Why did serialization become so popular? In the 19th Century, literacy was spreading among masses of people. Buying serial installments was a lot cheaper than buying a book. More than that, a serialized story means, beyond all else, a shared story. Social reading. Think of the book club experience, but multiply it by thousands! Think what a relief it is (say in a classroom) not to have the fast reader spoil the book for the slow reader by announcing what happens next. They can’t, because no one knows. Readers are always on the same page.
To be continued …
“The cruelest lies are often told in silence.“
—Robert Louis Stevenson
This was first published in June of 2012. It has been read so often that it’s #7 on the countdown of Most Read Blog Posts. Not written by me, it still holds up as sound advice.
Some years ago a young student (I no longer have name or whereabouts) sent me the following “Criteria for a good book.” I believe it was a student assignment. In any case, here it is, just as it was sent (and spelled). I’ve never read a better analysis of what children’s literature is.
Criteria for a good book
“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.“
This was first published in December of 2015, celebrating the book’s anniversary. I’m sure that Team Charlotte hoisted this article to #8 on the countdown of Most Read Blog Posts.
Here’s the story behind the book.
I had been working on another novel; The Man Who was Poe, when I first had the idea for the book. The Man Who was Poe, (which is about Edgar Allan Poe) takes place in Providence, Rhode Island, where I was living at the time. Poe is often credited with the invention of the mystery story, in particular with his Murder on the Rue Morgue. So it was quite natural that I was thinking of mysteries, and in particular of the idea of the so-called “locked room mystery,” in which something inexplicable happens in a locked room.
What, I came to think, could be more like a locked room, than a ship at sea?
In Chapter Fourteen, on page 129 (124 in the paperback edition) of The Man Who was Poe, a character, Captain Elias, is talking to Edmund, the boy protagonist of the book. He says, “Now, Master Edmund, if you’ve got time to hear a good yarn, I’ve one for you. You see, The Lady Liberty had a sister ship. Seahawk, her name was—“
The Seahawk is the name of the ship on which Charlotte travels. Indeed, The Seahawk was the working title of the book. But as I wrote that line, it was the moment I started thinking about The Tue Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. It was to be a murder mystery set on a ship in the mid-Atlantic. I sold the idea to my editor, Richard Jackson.
However, though I began to write the book, I went to Italy (Venice) for a nine month period. As wonderful as my trip was, I found it very difficult to write there. Surrounded as I was by the Italian language, my own English writing became rather inhibited and clumsy. Besides, though I had a portable computer I did not have a printer. To print what I was writing—an important part of my writing process—I was required to go to the University but once a week and leave a computer disk (remember those?) and return five days later to pick up the printed pages. Finding it impossible to write, I stopped. The book was put on hold.
Only when I returned to Providence did I commence writing again. By then the book—in my mind—had evolved. As I wrote the form of the book—a mystery—was partly retained, but my interest (and writing) was about the evolution of Charlotte as a character.
I recall thinking of the title, but was sure it had been used in some form many times. I checked, and was surprised that it had not.
I completed the book. It went through the normal editorial and publication process. By the time book was released from my thoughts, I had found another story that held my attention: A very different book titled, Nothing but the Truth.
Charlotte went on to win the Horn Book-Boston Globe Award and a Newbery Honor plus many other awards.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle will never have a sequel. But the Seahawk, which is first mentioned in The Man Who was Poe, does reappear in the first part of Beyond the Western Sea (since re-titled Escape from Home)
The book has gone through many editions, and has been translated into many languages. Curiously, over the years, it has come to be read by younger readers than was originally the case. A number of people have told me it changed their lives. It has had many, many readers.
I should read it again.