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Posts Tagged ‘children’s literature’

Posted originally on March 24, 2010.

In times like these men should utter nothing for which they would not be willingly responsible through time and in eternity.

                                                                       –  Abraham Lincoln

I have at least a hundred and ten places in the world, big and small, I’d love to visit one day. They are anywhere from Egypt to Ireland to Turkey to Japan to Greece — the list goes on and on. And most of those places have sneaked into my list because of the books I’ve read over the years.

Isn’t it amazing how the image you have of the world is shaped, among other things, by the books (or any printed material) you read? That realization makes the act of writing that much more daunting – forget about how hard the craft itself is.

When it comes to writing books, non-fiction has more rules. Authors of non-fiction are expected to be cognizant of the subject at hand, and they are relied upon to include only proven facts in their books.

Not so fiction.

When writing fiction for adults there’s more leeway, because they are capable of discerning right from wrong. That’s the general belief, at least.

Writing for children? That’s an entirely different beast. Books are one of the cheapest and most commonly used tools to help shape young minds. And children  are more impressionable, and hence susceptible to persuasion.

It is well and good to keep books real. I’m all for it. Up to a point.

My problem is when books get gimmicky, all for the sake of sales or some other self-serving need of the creators of the book, and make the depraved characters in it look really cool. Is this really necessary?

Let’s say someone writes a book that has a strong subliminal message that it is okay to make a cheap buck by cheating someone else. And for whatever reason, that book goes out of print after only some hundred copies are sold.

Where do those hundred-odd copies end up? On bookshelves, where they will continue to live for a number of decades. Even if each one of them gets read by one child in each generation, that’s a lot of children brainwashed over the years. And they grow up into adults who affect more children by their beliefs, opinions, and actions. And hence the sphere of influence of that one book keeps growing.

Every book has a message in it, whether it’s an obvious one or not.

As a writer, the bottom line for me is: Would my conscience remain clear even if only one reader embraces the message in my book?

How do you keep your writing responsible?

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I sat in my idling car at the tail end of the school’s carpool line, with an open book in my lap. My mind was elsewhere, mulling over this and that.

I noticed a bright flash of color through the corner of my eye and turned to my left. I saw a little girl, clad in a pale pink blouse and a pink-and-blue plaid skort, streaking down the short flight of steps at the front of her house and down the sidewalk. Where is she going all alone?

As I watched, mildly interested — in that way we do when our mind is engaged somewhere else, but it still registers the sights and sounds around it, with a bemused nonchalance – the girl skipped up the steps of the house next-door. She rang the doorbell twice, pressing it hard. She then turned her back to the door and began to worry the bracelet on her wrist with jerky, little movements. The jaunty, orange imitation of a hibiscus in her wavy-blond hair fluttered in the afternoon’s breeze as if signaling its wearer’s emotions.

A few seconds later, the door cracked open a little and out peeked two identical-looking girls attired in brightly-colored leggings and black t-shirts with messages scrawled across them. The girl in pink turned around tentatively and spoke to them. One of her feet hovered over the threshold and the other was planted firmly outside. They carried a soft conversation, and then the three of them skipped outside and continued their dialogue.

A fourth girl – in a white skirt and a sparkly black blouse, with shiny black pumps to match, no less  :-) — waltzed out of nowhere and joined the little group. She was received by the identical girls with squeals and hugs, while the first girl stood slightly apart, looking uncertain. It was obvious that the girls, all of them, were friends. But, the girl in pink, even though she was part of the circle they all formed now, stretched the circle into a sort of an oval; as if she felt just a bit removed from the situation and her friends.

Curiously, I felt like I was viewing a miniature rendition of the complex mechanics of an adult world. What are they talking about? What is it that made the one girl seem somewhat aloof from the rest?

The carpool line gobbled up a few students at the head and moved on sluggishly. My car, too, slithered ahead, away from the curious happenings in which I was by then fully immersed.

It was not really an incident to write home about. So, I wondered later, what made me pay that much attention to such an everyday, innocent thing?

I realized it must have been because of the book I’d been reading earlier, called “Autumn Street” by Lois Lowry. It’s narrated in the point of view of a precocious six-year-old, who, along with her mother and her sister, has to go live with her grandparents for a year, because her father has gone away to do his bit for the war effort.

The book is all about how that year affects her whole life. It’s one of the more honest and empathetic — though the diction is at times incurably adult even for such a smart girl. I mean, what child uses words like interstitial and viscid? — peeks into the bigger-than-life wonders, joys, and fears of childhood, all colored and outlined by the undercurrents of those times.

The book reminded me of the complicated world that children’s minds reside in, and how indelible an impact the actions and (sometimes careless) words of adults have on them.

I’ll leave you with one beautiful passage that Lowry uses to ‘show’ both the empathy and naughtiness of the main character at the same time. The ‘he’ in the passage is the MC’s grandfather, the head of the family in the real old sense of the word, who has recently suffered a stroke that took away most of his faculties.

Carefully I sprinkled cinnamon on his damp fingertip and lifted it to the wet black shape that had once been his fine proud mouth. It touched his tongue, and with his mouth he shaped what I understood to be a smile. I dried his finger with the hem of my dress, put his hand back into his lap, and crept away. Grandmother never knew.

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That title caught your attention, didn’t it?

Did it make you think that there was an editor and an agent dueling for my manuscript? Ah, a woman can dream aspire, can’t she?

But that is not at all what’s happening. I happened to go to a conference last weekend, held by our local chapter of SCBWI. It was an Agent/Editor Day.

Rachel Orr, a literary agent from Prospect Agency, and Margaret Miller, an editor from Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA, came to our chapter, and spent valuable time:

  • providing critiques to some local writers of children’s literature and
  • providing information and encouragement to a roomful of writers

It was a very interesting day for me. I hadn’t been in a room choking with so many like-minded people in a while. Whichever way I turned, I could, without much effort, decipher the looks in the eyes, and the words spilling out of the mouths.

Nobody had to explain the jargon to anyone, and nobody had to stop and ask “You know what I mean?”

It was as if there were a hundred of me (looking and sounding as different I as I could get) aspiring for the same thing. It was most inspirational and uplifting and humbling all at the same time.

My Impressions of the guest speakers:

I haven’t had a chance to meet with either of them in person and hold a conversation, but from having heard them address us all, I’d say they are funny, witty and quite down to earth.

Prospect Agency’s web site says this of Rachel Orr:

Rachel Orr joined Prospect Agency in 2007 after eight rewarding years editing children’s books for Harper Collins. She enjoys the challenge of tackling a wide variety of projects and is particularly looking for middle-grade and YA novels right now, as well as the next big picture-book illustrator.

Rachel values her close relationships with authors and believes that nothing feels as good as a fresh, clean line edit.

Rachel chose a wonderful topic, and a very timely one for me, since I’m in the midst of a revision for my novel. Here are my impressions from what she had to share with us:

Topic: Character and Voice

The character in a book should be:

– Likeable: Make them likeable, but not entirely good and picture-perfect. Make the antagonists agreeable, too.

The characters should be likeable enough to make the reader want to go on reading the book.

– Changeable: Books should show how the characters grow. The change in them could be driven by one of an internal, external or a global change.

Original: Make the characters well-rounded and not flat.

–  Believable:  Characters should be true to their age, gender and the time period in which they live.

In a nutshell: The more the author understands a character, the more the reader will.

Voice: The voice of a character is what sets it apart from the others in the book.

– Catch phrases, rhythm and dialogue, when used in the right manner can help set the voice of not only the characters but the book.

Margaret Miller also chose a very interesting topic to share with us:

Working with an Editor: Your Bill of Rights.

I’m going to share with you all my impressions of her topic, next week.

I’m going to end today’s post on a small anecdote (if it can even be called that), that you all may appreciate.

Four of us were returning to the conference venue after lunch, when suddenly, one friend exclaimed, “This is why writers get killed all the time!” I was startled out of the discussion I was having with the other two ladies, and quickly looked around.

She was right! The four of us were so immersed in our own world that we had stopped dead, as one body, in the middle of the road and were swapping stories with each other oblivious to how we were offering ourselves up for possible annihilation.

Okay, so annihilation was just a little dramatic, but hope it helps make my point.

Not just writers – isn’t this the case when any two meet, who are of the same mind?

I find it most exhilarating when I look into a pair of eyes, not my own, and surprise the dream – the same one that I have been cherishing – smoldering in them, patiently biding its time.

 

P.S:

  • I have a topic quite as interesting, but of a very different sensibility, lined up for you this Thursday. Please be sure to tune back in!!

 

  • I’m going to blog only two days a week from this week onwards – every Monday and Thursday. I enjoy blogging, almost a little too much, if I have to be honest :0). Lately, I have realized, however much you may deny the fact, that there are only 24 hours in a day.

And there are only so many words within that time period that your brain can willingly put to paper. The time has come for me to divert a little of that time and some of those words into finishing my novel.

Hope you’ll all forgive me this indiscretion and still keep popping by my blog, as you so kindly have so far, and continue to root for me? Thank you!

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Publisher’s Weekly has released year 2009’s hardcover  and paperback frontlist and backlist bestsellers.

Here’s a definition of backlist and frontlist from Google:

                A backlist is a list of older books available from a publisher, as opposed to titles newly published, which is sometimes called the frontlist.

My Impressions from the list:

Three facts jumped at me as I read the list:  

  • Notice anything in the pictures I have included in this post? Every book (including those that don’t feature in the photos) in the top ten list has a dark cover (and a theme filled with doom and gloom), except for the two Wimpy Kid books.  

Does that mean we are raising (by providing them these books as brain-fodder when they’re especially at the cusp of adulthood) a generation of possibly emotionally confused, dark-side worshipping humans?

Not so pleasant a thought, is it? But something we may need to mull over…

  • The book industry needs more (especially older) boy books: Writers, take note! Many people in the publishing industry (editors, agents etc.) want to disprove the myth that ‘boys over a certain age do not read’.

I think that’s a laudable goal to work towards. As I look at agents’ submission requirements, I come across more and more of them saying: “I would like to see humorous books, especially for boys” or “Interested in graphic novels” or something to that effect.

  • Unfortunately, there is no non-fiction book (not counting one about how a movie is made from a book) in the list.

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Continued from Enid Blyton -1

Soon, I graduated to the Famous Five series. These books feature the four cousins Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog. (I can hear the tune in my head as I’m writing these words: that was how part of the title song went for the TV show made in the UK based on these books, in the late 1970s.)

Most of the adventures in this series took place on the sea or close to it, where George lived with her parents and Timmy. The four cousins – none of them older than sixteen, if I remember it right – could take a picnic hamper and row in a boat by themselves to the small island (called Kirrin Island, and owned by George’s father, incidentally) in the middle of the sea, which had the ruins of a castle on one side of it and the remains of a shipwreck on the other. They could camp away for days inside an old and abandoned lighthouse or pack themselves into a caravan and travel to the Mystery Moor, all without any adult supervision.

Can you think of anything more adventurous and attractive for a ten-year-old reader?

Blyton wrote numerous books and series targeted at toddlers all the way up to teens. After Famous Five, I barely skimmed through one series called Malory Towers. None of the other books she’d written were available in the libraries where I lived, so I never got much into any of the other ones written by her.

Her books are readily available in the bigger book stores in India (and probably in various countries in Europe, too? I’m not too sure), but, sadly, not so in America. Very few have even heard of Blyton in the U.S. To the best of my knowledge, none of the bigger chains of book stores have her books on their shelves. You’d have to buy them online or borrow from those public libraries that carry them.

It is with some reluctance, at this point, that I bring up one thing about Enid Blyton’s books. They are not politically correct, at least for this day and age  – the narration sounds as if girls are supposed to behave a certain way and boys need to be given upper hand by default. For instance, as you read the books you can’t help but perceive that the prim-and-proper Anne’s actions are approved wholeheartedly, whereas tomboyish and headstrong George (christened Georgina, but shortened to George by the girl who hates being a girl) is tolerated with patronizing indulgence.

However, given the time period that she wrote these books (1940s to 1960s), those were probably the sensibilities that were in vogue. As a child, I just took it in stride and never bothered about it much. Being a girl myself, my reasoning was simple: those were the author’s opinions about the subject. That didn’t necessarily mean that I had to agree with her. It didn’t take anything away from the books for me, so why fuss over it?  

There are some who claim that Blyton’s continued success is an enigma because her work is exceptionally poor. Hollow plots, repetitive storylines, two-dimensional characters, limited vocabulary and bland, unliterary penmanship are all evident throughout her 700-plus books**. May be so, but being as they are, her books sold 60 million copies and were translated into nearly seventy languages over the years. Need I say more? (Actually, I do: It is either “To each his own” and all that or “A case of sour grapes”. You decide.)

If you’re an adult who hasn’t had a chance to read Enid Blyton, then snuggle up with one of her books today (under the pretext of reading to a child, if you’re shy about reading a children’s book for yourself). The child will love it anyway, but you may soon find yourself putty in the hands of a masterful storyteller, who makes the craft seem beguilingly simple.

As time went by, many more authors came into my life and took me to a great many places and reinforced my love for the written word. However, Enid Blyton was not going anywhere – she had lodged herself securely into a niche inside my heart.

If the book that I’m currently writing manages to induce the same strength of emotions, at least in one child, which Enid Blyton’s books did in me, then I’ll feel that I have earned the right to aspire to write for children.

** – Excerpts taken from an article in Fiction Circus.

Check out  The Enid Blyton Society that I found online a few weeks ago. It has charming illustrations for her first edition books and all the information you want about the author and her books.

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“Mummy, have you got anything we could have to drink?” asked Janet. “And to eat too? We’re having a Secret Seven meeting this morning.”

“I’ll give you lemons, and some sugar, and you can make your own lemonade,” said Mummy. “You like to do that, don’t you? And you can go and see if there are any rock-buns left in the tin in the larder.”**

This is how my introduction to Enid Blyton came about, and I never looked back. Enid Blyton and I have shared many an adventure together in my childhood. Is she a friend of mine? She very well could have been, for all that I felt for her and experienced with her by my side.

Enid Blyton can be considered probably the most prolific writer of children’s literature (she wrote over 600 children’s and juvenile books over her forty-year career), and she hails from England. I speak of her in present-tense, even though, regrettably, she passed away quite a few decades ago – in 1968, to be accurate. But authors like her never die – they live on in the hearts of generations of readers that come after them.

I happened upon a book from her Secret Seven series when I was seven or eight years old. And my world turned upside down – in the most pleasant sense, though. (Upside down IS good sometimes, isn’t it? You get to view the world in a whole different manner.)

My eyes, and those of my like-minded siblings, would automatically scan for Blyton among the rows of books whenever we came across a well-stocked bookshelf — a habit I retain to this day. I began to find excuses to visit the school library – a large, musty, cavernous hall with tall bookshelves teetering under the weight of books, which were neither well-organized nor well-kept – more often than was allowed.

Soon it got to be where the tall, rail-thin librarian (who had hitherto had an unnerving habit of looking at kids disdainfully down her nose) became my chum. She got into the habit of hunting for Blyton’s books among the mildewed tomes arranged in the forgotten shelves in the far recesses of the library. And on my next visit to her, she would produce for me a moth-eaten, dog-eared copy (of one of Blyton’s books or others that were close to Enid Blyton’s books in genre and setting – I sadly forget the authors’ names now) that I had yet to read, with an air of a wizard conjuring up a rare gem — which was exactly what the book was for me. With each new book that I read, my love for reading strengthened, until it metamorphosed into a desire for writing.

The Secret Seven series is set in a village in England where seven kids, obviously, found a secret society and solve crimes, big and small, in the neighborhood. There is also Scamper, the golden spaniel, who is always tail-waggingly ready to do his part in digging up clues.

In all of Enid Blyton’s books food features prominently, and the characters are always either having smashing teas or settling down to tuck into the contents of laden picnic hampers. The books are sprinkled with references to eatables such as: currant buns, ginger biscuits, meat pies, boiled eggs, scones, lemonade, sausages, egg and lettuce sandwiches, ginger-beer and chocolate éclairs. For a child brought up on a steady diet of idli, chapati, dosa***, and chicken curry, among other things, those foodstuffs were as exotic and mouth-watering as they could get.

As I read about: the foggy autumn morning with smoke spiraling lazily up the chimney of the shepherd’s cottage; or the children biking to school along narrow lanes bordered by celandines, violets and primroses; or the gardener dressed in a patched tweed coat and hat working in the vegetable plot in the back of Bramble Cottage on Hawthorne Lane, my heart would ache from nostalgia.

Nostalgia? I was all of seven, for crying out loud, and all I’d experienced until then was only hot and humid tropical weather. What could I possibly be pining for? I have yet to figure that one out, but that was exactly how the books left me feeling.

To me, Enid Blyton is, and always will be, a sorcerer who, with a wave of her magical fountain pen, created a cozy and charming world, populated it with simple, lovable characters and then softly breathed life into the both of them.

To be continued…

** Excerpt from “Secret Seven on the trail” by Enid Blyton.

*** idli – steamed rice cakes

      chapati – unleavened bread

      dosa –  crepes made of rice and white-lentils soaked and ground into a thick batter

Check out Enid Blyton – 2 also. (Edited 3/17/2010 – Link added retroactively.)

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"To go first or not to go first": That is the question with which the two protagonists of my tale are grappling this morning...

 

 

“Finally, you are awake!” Meenagchi exclaimed, as she skipped into my view. “Come on, slowpoke, take this neem twig and clean your teeth.” She held out what looked to me like a small, dark-brown stick in her hand. “Mother refused to let the rest of us have our morning meal until you were up.” She stuck her lower lip out. 

This is a dialogue from my book. (Are you going: “Who talks like that?” The girl who’s talking is from a long time ago in the past — that’s why her speech pattern is quirky and different from ours, and that’s what makes her interestingly different from us, in my opinion, at least. I don’t want to give too much away, because I’m saving parts of my book for another series of posts for a later time.) 

Okay, I have a confession to make: the anxiety of not having any coherent thoughts to write about that I alluded to in my previous post? It’s not an entirely fabricated fear — you know, me being new to this blogging and everything? So, I’m currently hoarding up all the subjects I can think of, sort of like squirrels storing away nuts for the winter. Yeah, that’s what it is: survival instinct! (I just made the connection, too, and my brain has ordered the italics.) There! I feel much lighter, now that I put it all out there… 

Now, where was I, before I digressed and went all over the map? I know I had a point… Oh yeah, those lines at the top. One of my friends who is reading my book, read that scene and sent me an email yesterday, asking: “They are brushing their teeth before they eat?” 

That question just nonplussed me! “Of course they are” was my automatic answer, before my mind suddenly coughed up a memory from about fifteen years ago, when I first came to the U.S… 

I was watching T.V — reruns of “I Love Lucy”. I love that show! Even though I have watched every episode at least twice already, I can still never walk away from an episode, if I come across one while channel-surfing. Oh, wait! Another possible subject for the future – record, check, move on… 

So, I was watching T.V and a commercial for a breakfast cereal came on — I don’t remember which one it was after all these years. In that commercial, they show the kids running down the stairs in the morning with alacrity, sitting down at the kitchen table to gobble up their cereal, and then walking back upstairs to brush their teeth. When I first watched it, I smirked and thought: “The editor for that commercial made such a faux pas and nobody caught it. Now they are airing his blunder every day.” 

Seriously, it never occurred to me that people would eat their breakfast before brushing their teeth. See, where I come from, the very first thing everyone does after waking up is brushing their teeth. We don’t even have coffee on a stale mouth (as a pre-brushed mouth is referred to, colloquially). I can safely say that this is true of almost every country in the Indian subcontinent. (Please correct me if I’m wrong – would love to hear yeas or nays about it.) 

That’s why that commercial flummoxed me, before I came to understand that it was my view – for where I was living by then – that was skewed. And I definitely began to pay better attention to the happenings around me after that. 

See, this is why I love reading books based in different cultures. They are my little windows through which to peek at how the rest of the world lives. (Oops, did that actually come out sounding like the confessions of a Peepin’ Tom? Let me assure you, I’m definitely not one – I don’t have the nerves of steel that are required of one, to begin with.) 

As a reader, I’m always on the lookout, whether in children’s or adult literature, for multi-cultural books. That is exactly why I am writing one, too – in the hopes of getting someone else to experience the same amazement that I do every time I discover one of these little quirks that make us who we are.

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