It seems to go like this, in publishing: everything needs to happen quickly, and then… you wait. I’ve been told this is completely normal, but it still feels so strange to have all this excitement that can’t go anywhere. So, it was great this week to have made two exciting, big steps somewhere.
Firstly, I’m really excited to have launched my author website thanks to the wonderful Jenny Medford at Websy Daisy. She transformed my vision of “something that should conjure up connection – between people, and with the natural world” into a lovely, user friendly design that can grow with me and my career.
And secondly, I heard from my editor. She sent me my author bio which was rendered in the publishing house style (so surreal!) and told me I would soon get a sneak peek at the cover image for my debut picture book. And, she said, it is going to be stunning.
This past week I attended a craft webinar hosted by The Writing Barn called, “Using Your Anger to Write Multi-Layered Realistic Fiction with Ann Braden & Nancy Paulsen.” Ann Braden is the author of middle grade novels The Benefits of Being an Octopus and most recently, Flight of the Puffin and she spoke about how her own anger was the initial fuel for both of these stories. But the interesting thing is, her characters weren’t angry. That wouldn’t work, because it would be giving a child adult anger. Instead, she writes so that the characters feel the consequences of the thing that has caused her own anger, and aims to leave the reader with hope and able to see the possibilities forward.
This morning I read the picture book Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua. In this story, Amy’s teacher shares books with her class that feature all sorts of dragons acting fiercely: they hoard treasure. They blow fire. They fight knights in gleaming armor. When the students are asked to draw their own dragons, Amy draws one with a long, thin body and with horns like a stag and claws like an eagle. It is an Eastern dragon, we learn at the end, but in the meantime her friends Sam and Willa tell her that her dragon doesn’t look like a dragon and Amy ends up doubting herself and drawing a whole series of Western dragons. We learn, “None of them work. None of them feel quite right.”
Now, I have no idea if anger was an initiating emotion for author Kat Zhang, but as an adult reader I felt angry that Amy had to second-guess her own dragon. That she and her classmates were only shown one kind of dragon through the books that were shared. But Amy is not filled with this adult anger. Instead, Amy is sad. This is the consequence of the thing that causes me, as an adult, to feel angry – it seems as though there is no room for Amy here. Interestingly, the adults in the story don’t get angry, either. Amy’s grandmother notices her sadness and tells her and her friends stories about Eastern dragons. Perhaps keeping that adult anger in check helps keeps the power and agency with the protagonist, because Amy uses her grandma’s stories as encouragement to take her own steps to solve her problem. Later, Kat Zhang uses the backmatter to compare and contrast dragons from the two traditions, but all the while leaves space for the reader – both adult and child – to do with it what they will. Since it stuck so closely to the child’s viewpoint, nothing in this story feels heavy, yet I think both adult and child readers still come away having learned something that has heavy implications.
After having read this story as an adult reader I am reminded to consider whether I’m seeing something only from my own worldview, and to wonder what other points of view I might be missing. And the child reader? I imagine they would learn that there are lots of kinds of dragons, and that some are fierce and some are wise and just. But mostly, I think a child would feel happy along with Amy when, at the end, she shares her own Eastern dragon with her classmates. Illustrator Charlene Chua shows the joy on the faces of the teacher along with the students – this is an inclusive space where Amy can express herself. So most of all, I imagine the child learns that spaces where you can be seen and express yourself freely are good, happy spaces.
If anger was even a tiny fuel in the writing of this story, it has clearly been transformed. For both adult and child readers, there is hope and possibilities forward. And all while keeping true to the child’s viewpoint.
Have you transformed adult anger into hopeful stories for children? What has and hasn’t worked for you?
Day one: Getting back into the habit of daily writing after 8 months of teaching.
This is what happened when I timed myself doing 20 minutes of freewriting today, in the spirit of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. At first there was a great disconnect between my head and my hand – one I did not remember – with thoughts slowed, filtered, edited. Then the two linked up, the writing became illegible, and I think I may have fallen asleep. Since writing is likened to dreaming, I will count that as a good thing.
It is an unmatched thing of beauty to have people in my life who are writers. I can talk honestly with them about my characters and they aren’t concerned for my mental wellbeing. I can share with them in the ups and downs of productivity, fears, passion. There is, however, one thing I have found that is hard to talk about – that’s process. Perhaps it’s because I’m a new writer, and I don’t have “a process” to speak of. Perhaps it’s because I fear restricting myself in that way: “this is my process…” when it may just be my process for this particular story. Perhaps it’s because I fear that I should have a process, and don’t want to admit that really, I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. Just when I think I have my story nailed down, I’m back in the thick of it again.
Process is the way in which a story is birthed. We all do different things in order to conceive of a story: Sharon Darrow wrote about hearing a voice that comes from a specific place and how those are inseparable; Ingrid Sundberg is a proponent of method writing and inhabits her character, even dying her hair if need be. L. Marie is also doing a series about writers’ processes, and so I think it’s safe to say that we all do things differently. I have made origami birds, surrounded myself with bird photos, poems. Taken long walks in the forest. This has been helpful to me in terms of story conception, but birthing – birthing is a different matter.
Last week I wrote very little. But what I did write was fierce, and it was resonant. And after I wrote it, I felt a sense of relief and closure. I even said to a writing friend, “I think I have it now! I think I have a full arc!” What I realized, though, was that while I do now have a full arc, it is not mycharacter’s arc. It is my arc. I have figured out where this story comes from in me. But now I have to move this thing from MY story to THE story.
And so I wonder – when we’re muddling through our works in progress, do we need to find our own closure before we can shift and find closure for our character? Most of all I wonder – am I now in a place to surrender to my character? I feel like I’ve been in a tug of war, and I think I’m dropping my end of the rope. But, I’ve said that before 🙂
I hope she takes that rope and runs. Who knows, this time I might pick up my pen and follow her.
In parts 1 and 2, I shared the beginning of an essay about the apparent lapse Kevin Henkes had in keeping to the cardinal rule of letting the protagonist solve his or her own problem. I was perplexed by the emotional resonance of his stories, and wondered how this was achieved.
Here’s the last part of my essay:
Robert McKee identifies a variation of the typical protagonist structure that he calls the plural-protagonist. Here, “all individuals in the group share the same desire, [and] in the struggle to achieve this desire, they mutually suffer and benefit. If one has a success, all benefit. If one has a setback, all suffer . . . motivation, action, and consequence are communal” (McKee 136). It appears that Owen and his parents may be plural-protagonists – they both have the desire for the happiness and security of Owen, and this can be achieved when Owen gets to keep his blanket. We see through the pictures that the parents are just as distressed as Owen at each of the attempts to rid him of the blanket, thus the suffering is communal. And when the mother solves the problem, they all benefit. The story is empowering, and resonates with the reader because of this plural-protagonist set-up.
In Sheila Rae, The Brave, Louise and Sheila Rae may act as plural-protagonists. While Louise does not appear in the text for six pages, we see from the way Henkes draws her eyes and positions her body that she is truly frightened while Sheila Rae performs her brave feats. We can tell right away that Sheila Rae’s desire is to always be brave. But when Sheila Rae calls Louise a scaredy cat, Louise whispered, “Am not,” thereby showing the reader that her desire, too, is to be brave. What is not so clear is how success and setbacks are communal in this work. It almost seems that when Sheila Rae is brave, Louise doesn’t have to be, but when Sheila Rae can’t be brave, Louise can be. At the end Louise states that they are both brave and fearless, and they fearlessly walk backward into their home together. It’s as though at first there is not room enough for both to be brave, but in the end there is.
While initially all three of Henkes stories appeared to have protagonists who were short-changed of their own empowering ending, it is clear that Henkes tweaked the typical protagonist norms to achieve reader satisfaction in both Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave. He did this by linking two sets of characters together in a way that allowed them all to benefit. The beauty of this technique comes from the fact that Henkes eludes to an interconnectedness and sense of community in his work – and this resonates with the reader.
There you have it – my essay in three parts. To me, the idea of plural-protagonists opens up a world of possibilities. I believe in community and connectedness, and am excited to explore how emotional resonance can be achieved when characters work in tandem rather than alone. What thoughts, questions, or possibilities has it opened up to you?
In part 1 I introduced Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae – three of Henkes’ creations. It appears as though, in each of these stories, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing for children: that the protagonist should solve his or her own problem. But there is still emotional resonance in them – how did he do this? Perhaps the protagonist is not who we think they are…
Conventionally, the protagonist of the story is introduced first. His or her desire is shown to us upfront along with a concrete
problem they have to solve. They overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and they resolve the problem. In Owen, the reader sees how important the blanket is to him through text and pictures. We see that the parents don’t mind that he carries around this blanket, judging by their neutral expressions on the third page. The parents are introduced into the text on the fourth page, along with Mrs. Tweezers, and suddenly Owen has a problem, but so do the parents. Could they be the protagonists of this story?
Like typical protagonists, the parents try to resolve the problem, and each attempt fails. Then the mother gets the idea to cut up the blanket. She solves the problem. And so it seems that two possibilities exist: 1) Owen is not the true protagonist. This story is about the adults and how they are influenced by Mrs. Tweezers, but how they care enough for Owen to find a creative solution to the problem, or 2) there are two protagonists, and as long as one of them solves the problem the ending is satisfying.
Sheila Rae, The Brave
It seems that Henkes did a similar thing with the story of Sheila Rae. The sister, Louise, isn’t mentioned in the text until the sixth page, but the reader can see her astonishment at the bravery of Sheila Rae in the illustrations from the first page. Louise has her own story that is only visible from the pictures – she wishes she could be as brave as Sheila Rae. When Sheila Rae needs her, she’s there, and she shows that she really is brave by leading the way home. Again, the possibilities are that 1) Sheila Rae is not the true protagonist, Louise is, or 2) there are two protagonists and the resolution by one of them results in a satisfying ending. As Owen and Sheila Rae both have their own set of desires and are introduced early in the story, as is the norm for the protagonist, the second possibility deserves further investigation.
In tomorrow’s final instalment, we’ll look more closely at that second possibility, and at what Robert McKee calls “plural protagonists.“
I’ve been looking at picture books again lately, and I dug up this essay I wrote while at VCFA. As it’s somewhat long, I thought it best to split it up into instalments posted throughout the week (I’ll provide references at the end). Part 1 looks at the way in which Henkes appears to break one of the cardinal rules of writing for children:
One of the cardinal rules of children’s literature is that in order for our stories to have satisfying endings, the protagonist must solve his or her own problems. Unfortunately, as Ann Whitford Paul explains, “Too often in writing for children, a wise and well-meaning adult steps in to show the way ” (Paul 111). Kevin Henkes appears to break this rule in his books Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave, yet Chrysanthemum is the only of the three that truly falls flat in terms of a satisfying, empowering ending. How does Henkes pull it off in the other two stories? He does it with a twist: the protagonist is not who you think they are. This essay will first closely examine the breaking of the above rule, and then pinpoint the way in which Henkes managed to deliver a satisfying ending in both Owen and Sheila Rae, The Brave.
The story of Chrysanthemum is about a young mouse who is given the perfect name by her parents. She fully believes this until she goes to school where she is teased and taunted because her name is too long and too flowery. Each day she comes home, downtrodden. Her parents build her up with hugs, kisses, food, and Parcheesi, but each night she has a dream that shows she isn’t quite over it. Finally a new, beloved, pregnant teacher comes to the school and reveals that she has a flower name, too. In fact, if she has a girl she is considering naming her Chrysanthemum. Suddenly, everyone wants a long flower name too, and Chrysanthemum’s problem goes away. Chrysanthemum is a passive observer in this story and does nothing at all to solve the problem of the teasing and taunting. The only thing that can be said is that Chrysanthemum simply “was” Chrysanthemum, and everything turned out all right in the end. Although this speaks to empowering children to be who they are, Mrs. Twinkles still came in and saved the day. Without her, the taunting would have continued.
In the story, Owen, Owen has a blanket that he loves and carries around with him everywhere. No one seems to think this is a problem until the neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, alerts the parents that this isn’t appropriate. The parents try three strategies to get the blanket away from Owen. First, Owen reacts overtly: he stuffs the blanket under his shirt at night when the “Blanket Fairy” is supposed to come and replace it with a big boy toy. His parents could not get rid of the blanket as a result. Then, he ignores the vinegar-dousing trick by sticking the corner of his blanket in the garden and in his sandbox. But in the end, when Owen’s parents say “no,” Owen just cries. He has no other way around the problem. Who takes over? The mother does. She cuts up the blanket into handkerchief-like pieces, and Owen continues to carry the blanket around thanks to her great idea. Mrs. Tweezers thinks this is an acceptable alternative. Perhaps one could argue that Owen’s crying was an active way to get what he wanted, but this is not the case. Henkes is extremely gifted at showing the reader the underlying emotions with cleverly drawn eyes and mouths, and the eyes Owen has when comforted by his parents are sad, not sneaky or triumphant. Here, crying equates to giving up, not manipulation. And so, the mother solved the problem for Owen in this story. For some reason, though, we don’t care.
Finally, in the story Sheila Rae, The Brave, Sheila Rae is depicted as extremely brave and not frightened of anything. Her little sister Louise is shown in the pictures following Sheila Rae around but she is only introduced to the reader in the text on the sixth page of the book. Sheila Rae does not encounter any problem until she decides to take a different route home and gets lost. Then, she has three responses to the problem: first she tries to convince herself that she is brave. Next, she tries to call for help, and then, she cries. Enter Louise, who knows the way home and leads her there, doing all the things Sheila Rae used to do to show her bravery along the way. When they get home, Sheila Rae tells Louise that she is brave and fearless, and Louise says that they both are. Here, Sheila Rae encounters a situation in which she is frightened, and after two attempts to solve her own problem, she gives up, cries, and is saved by Louise. Not an empowering ending, but somehow this book makes the reader feel good.
To reiterate, “the hero must be the instrument of his own salvation” (Lamb 140). This is not the case with any of these books, yet still we find satisfaction in two of them. Henkes must have done something different that flew in the face of “norms” in order to achieve this. What he did appears to relate to the identity of the protagonist.
In keeping with my belief that immersing yourself in good poetry will help make poetic language appear more instinctually in your prose, here is a poem for your day. Enjoy, and, as always, write fiercely.