When Autumn Pivots into Winter

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20171117_093517.jpgAs October slides into November, pagans experience a thinning of the veil between this world and the next. That’s why Samhain or Halloween is full of ghosts and ghouls, witches, and warlocks—and why All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1st) and La Dia de Los Muertos (Nov. 5th) follow soon after.

What is the intersection between poetry and writing for children? To me, the underlying themes of life, death, and loss are the same. With its use of metaphor and rhythms, poetry telegraphs the deepest human emotions. It cuts through extraneous verbiage and gets to the heart of being human.

In my middle-grade fantasy WIP, poetry provides language for magical creatures—both demonic and benign. Helpful sprites speak in simple iambic tetrameter, while frightening demons express themselves in more complex, anapestic rhythms—reminiscent of the galloping beat used in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, Moriturus, a poem about death.

Poetry with its compelling rhythms roots us in time, mimics the ticking of the clock, the pounding of the heart, the silence when a poem—or a life—ends. Children instinctively understand these rhythms. I include poetry in a blog about children’s book writing because it serves as the basis of my creativity, and fuels my prose.

A few years ago, a deadly October blizzard underscored the fragility of life and inspired the following poem. Last week, after returning from 70-degree days in Aqaba, Jordan to subfreezing weather in New York City, I revised Magnolia Leaves, which appeared on my blog: Poetry: Drinking from the Well. It seemed like a good time to revisit it.

 

Magnolia Leaves

 

Magnolia leaves clatter

like salad plates

onto bluestone walkways.

Chipped and brown,

the wreckage stacks up

while we wait for spring.

 

Temperatures plummet.

Icicles smash from rooflines.

 

Winter’s coming and Elizabeth

(our magnolia hybrid) shakes

her mustard yellow skirts,

bares her mouse-brown arms,

and folds her hands quietly.

 

She will gestate, patiently, coolly,

through twelve weeks of winter.

 

Her bowl-like blossoms

(butter-yellow in April)

will unfold from tapered buds

the shape of paintbrushes.

Each branch’s tip unfurling,

like velvet origami:

tender, triumphant.

 

She will gestate, patiently, coolly,

through twelve weeks of winter.

 

Picturing those massive yellow blooms

gives us strength to see

another season through

to its conclusion.

 

Temperatures plummet.

Icicles smash from rooflines.

 

In Buffalo, nine feet of snow fell

over three days. Twelve people died—

frozen in cars, or crushed

under buckled roofs.

Whole nursing homes evacuated.

 

Picturing those massive yellow blooms

gives us strength to see

another season through

to its conclusion.

 

Not everyone makes it to spring.

But I hope we do.

 

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A magnolia tree illustrates the uncertainty of life and death and the hoped-for rebirth of Spring. How do you deal with mortality? Are there particular metaphors you use to describe the cycle of life?

Please leave comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

Expect the Unexpected from Children’s Book Illustrator Tomi Ungerer

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IMG_20150506_050515.jpgIn the 1970s, talented French illustrator, Tomi Ungerer was living in New York City. I still remember his brilliantly funny ad campaign for the Village Voice: Expect the Unexpected. Ungerer’s posters featured images like a stork delivering a baby to an elderly couple—the man was wheelchair-bound. Another showed a bare-chested man wading in the ocean and holding an open-mouthed fish that was about to swallow a yellow submarine.

 

Tomi Ungerer was born in Strasbourg, France, during World War II—a traumatic childhood, to be sure. I know this experience shaped Ungerer’s artistic images and sensibility. There’s an edge to many of his works—even his children’s books, like No Kiss for Mother, which is full of dark humor and pathos. Ungerer was also known for the public relations campaign he did for his native city, wherein, he produced scores of startling images like the famous Strasbourg Cathedral turned upside down to form the heel of a fashionable shoe!

A few years ago, I spent an exhilarating hour at the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg, which, according to the website, opened in 2007 and houses 8,000 pieces of his work, including children’s books like Flix (cover art shown above), and Ungerer’s collection of antique mechanical children’s toys (below). IMG_20150506_050057.jpgThe museum, also known as Centre International de l’Illustration exhibits Ungerer’s erotic and semi-pornographic works like Kamasutra des Grenouilles (Frogs’ Kamasutra), as well as works by fellow illustrators Saul Steinberg, Ronald Searle, and André François.

 

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While majoring in Illustration at Parsons School of Design, I was a great admirer of Tomi Ungerer’s expressive line, his bold palette, and daring sense of humor. Expect the Unexpected pretty much sums up Ungerer’s entire oeuvre, and his illustrations still make me laugh!

Do you have a favorite illustrator who has captivated you? I’d love to hear your comments.

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When the Heart Skips a Beat: Poetic Meter

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Most people would agree that poetry is best read aloud.

I was fortunate to have had a mother who read poetry to me from the time I could walk. Our first shared poems included those of A. A. Milne:

The End

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,


I was nearly new.


When I was Three

I was hardly me.


When I was Four,

I was not much more.


When I was Five,
 

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,
 I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

Having absorbed Milne’s satisfying dimeter, I wrote my first poem. It was an ode to sweet hot cereal.

Brown sugar

all around,

Up and down,

Oh, hear the happy sound.

I can still feel the movement of my spoon shmushing and melting the brown sugar into my cereal. 

Only now do I notice how this early poem breaks the rules by having two beats in each of the first three lines, followed by three beats in the last. At the same time, doesn’t that last line act as a stop to the forward motion of the poem—like a flashing yellow light and clanging bell signals the lowering of the bar for an oncoming train?

I’m currently adapting 19th century poetry by a well-known children’s book writer/illustrator to serve as voices for some of the magical creatures in my middle grade WIP. The original poems employed four feet to a line (tetrameter). Sometimes the rhythm was a bit “off”, but I liked the quirkiness and interest this created. Yet, people–editors, writing groups—warn that meter must be spot on if it’s to appear in a published work for children.

When did children become so picky?

On the other hand, I balk at poems that begin with a certain meter and change into something mushy and undefined. Once established, listeners depend upon a reliable meter—as reliable as a heartbeat, so that when the heart skips or rushes on, or god-forbid, stops—we sit up and take notice.

Two useful guides to poetic meter and stressed syllables:

https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Meter_Handout.pdf

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-terms?category=rhythm-and-meter

Do you think poetry for children should follow a different set of rules than poetry for adults? I’d love to hear your comments.

Thank you for following my blog.

Growing Pains: Combining humor and pathos in children’s book writing

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Illustration by Hans Fischer (1959): Pitschi

It was British fantasy writer, Dianna Wynne Jones who said she would much rather write for children. Because she didn’t have to explain things to them as she did with adults (editors, etc.). Jones was not trying to imply that children were credulous, but rather that they were sophisticated readers. Children could make imaginative leaps that many adults had forgotten how to do.

In late March 2015, the long-awaited fourth book in the Penderwicks series was finally released. I devoured it almost in one sitting. Like Jones, Jane Birdsall is an author who assumes the sophistication of her child readers. Penderwicks in Spring doesn’t land feet first in the middle of the action, as is the fashion today. But along with strains of gentle humor, there is a haunting pathos that runs through the book like a forgotten song. It compels the reader’s attention.

Birdsall opens her fourth book some years later, as 11-year old Batty wrestles with self-recriminations over the natural loss of her dog, Hound–Hound whom readers have come to love almost as deeply as Batty does. As the book unfolds, Batty’s guilt over Hound’s death gives way to an incomprehensible pain, when she learns from one sister of the role she played in their mother’s death. Throughout the book we find young Batty wrestling with huge conflicts—conflicts of a Job-like magnitude.

As with any good work of art, Penderwicks in Spring stayed with me—It resonated so deeply that I felt almost as depressed as poor Batty did, hiding wretchedly in her closet, unable to face the world or her family. I worried that this likeable character might not pull through in the end.

In addition to creating believable characters and endearingly funny scenes, Birdsall is a true master of human pathos. The brilliance of the Penderwicks series, is that in all four books at least one or more characters must navigate soul-wrenching growing pains. Given the sophistication and depth of young readers, it’s a skill well-worth developing for any children’s book author.