A beaver’s special waterproof coat gets thicker in the winter, and they continue to be active throughout the season. Their lodges, which are made of mud, sticks, and logs, freeze together and become quite solid. This provides them with excellent protection from predators.
Ecosystem connection: During the winter, beaver ponds may provide shelter for other animals like frogs, turtles, dragonfly larvae, and brook trout. It seems that their lodges even occasionally provide homes for muskrat!
It’s one month away from the spring launch of This is the Boat that Ben Built and I started thinking about what the animals in the book might be up to while I was wintering and preparing. I’ve got my warm coat, mitts, and hat… What are they up to as they await spring? What winter adaptations do they have? First up: fish.
During the winter in river ecosystems, fish do best where there are a variety of different habitat features available to them such as deep pools, long runs with slow currents, and areas where ice conditions are stable. Sometimes fish school in winter. Sometimes they find a crevice to stay in. Their habitat is most stable where ice covers the river early and stays until spring. In deep areas under ice, fish can be more active during the day. They are less secure in areas with patchy snow and ice floes.
Fish metabolism slows in the winter because of the cold temperatures. It’s a good thing it does, too, because food is less available to them during this time of year.
Ecosystem connection: Beaver ponds are great winter habitat for some fish!
Besides waiting for spring, one fish in my life is waiting for This is the Boat that Ben Built.
Calling all picture book writers! My debut picture book group, PB22Peekaboo, is giving away slush pile passes and critiques (including one from yours truly) in its 3 2 1 Happy New PB contest! Writers will have three days to enter between 8AM EST on January 21st and 8PM EST on January 23rd. More details here: https://pb22peekaboo.weebly.com/3-2-1-happy-new-pb
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?