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.

Picture Books Enrich the Vocabularies of Children

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For all of us who write, illustrate, and/or read picture books to children, here is proof of its power:

On Jan. 12, 2015, the New Yorker, published “The Talking Cure” by Margaret Talbot. She reported on a new initiative in RI to teach parents how to talk more with their toddlers.

Here’s an amazing letter response by Dom Massaro of Santa Cruz, Calif. (New Yorker, Feb. 2, 2015):

“Encouraging parents and caregivers to talk more to their babies more often is certainly important, but we must also consider how to expand upon the limited vocabularies of many caregivers. One solution is to read picture books. In the psychology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, we recently carried out a large replication of a classic study showing that print has a richer vocabulary than speech. We found that the variety of words in picture books was more extensive than that of parents talking to their children. Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; this result was found regardless of parents’ social class. Even the language quality of two adults talking to each other fell below that of picture books. Given the fact that word mastery in adulthood is correlated with early acquisition of words, a potentially powerful leveller of family wealth and class may be as simple as engaging in picture-book reading with babies.”

As a writer I find this Santa Cruz study inspiring.

What about you?

Poetry: Drinking from the Well

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Not Writing

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

–Jane Kenyon

The other day, I spoke to good friend and writer, Janet Greene. She asked how my book was going. When she heard my lackluster reply, she dubbed it “writing fatigue.”

Saturday is usually a day when I dig deeply into my manuscript for three hours, editing it or coming up with new material. But after hosting a crowd for dinner in my kitchen, I was simply fagged out.

Rather than tackle my book, I worked on a poem that has been circling for days, trying to land.

In The Poet’s Companion (1997) Addonizio, K. & Laux, D. suggest that one writes poetry out of a sense of fullness. “While you’re full to overflowing you write poems until you’re empty, then you wait around while you get filled up again.”

(Jane Kenyon’s poem serves as an epigraph for Addonizio, K. & Laux, D.’s chapter on Writer’s Block. Brett Wright, Assoc. Ed., Bloomsbury Children’s Books pointed this out in his May 2014 talk to SCBWI members.)

This afternoon I had the opposite experience to the one the authors describe. I was so physically and mentally fatigued, that if I tried to dig into my book I knew I’d just spin my wheels in the dry dust of old ideas and tired-out phrases.

As I stared glassy-eyed across the room, I decided to work on an unfinished poem, instead.

Poetry for me is a primal source of inspiration. Poetry is a deep well of language, metaphor, and musical rhythms. It forms the basis of epic tales, lullabies, hymns, and the catchy refrains we hum when standing in line at the grocery store.

If I drink deeply from the well of poetry, I know my writerly self will be replenished.

This is what I came up with so far:

Magnolia Leaves

Magnolia leaves clatter
like salad plates
onto bluestone walkways.
Chipped and brown,
the wreckage piles up,
while we wait for spring.

Temperatures plummet.
Icicles smash from rooflines.

Winter is coming and Elizabeth
(our magnolia hybrid) shakes
her mustard yellow skirts,
bares her thin brown arms,
and folds her hands quietly.

She will gestate, patiently, coolly,
through twelve weeks of snow.

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 snow.

Picturing those massive yellow blooms
gives us strength to see another winter
through to its conclusion.

Temperatures plummet.
Icicles smash from rooflines.

In Buffalo, nine feet of snow just 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 winter
through to its conclusion.

Not everyone will make it through to spring.
But I hope we do.

–Emily Damron-Cox

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What strategies do you use when you feel high and dry? Please post your comments, ideas, or feedback, below. I’d love to hear from you.

Emily Damron-Cox