essays

Not Presidents or Queens

—From If I Had A Million Onions, art by Yayo

I lived down under for almost a decade. It changed everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a Canadian and almost everything I thought I knew about "Americans" and taught me even more about being human. We had neighbours -good ones-- who voted opposite each other. That was an eye-opener. Then again, I've always been wary of generalizations. Everyone loves their children and all that.

Except, it matters who wins this election. It does.

Folks can analyze the debate 'til the cows come home but it's pretty simple  to me—Obama said it last night. He's not perfect and never promised to be perfect. Last night, he wasn't. Last four years, he hasn't been.

If the Americans gave George Bush a second term after they discovered the lies about weapons of mass destruction, lies which were the basis of justifying a war that killed thousands and the economy and any faith in American foreign policy, surely they can give Obama a second term. Yes, he needs more time to find some jobs and restore hope. Time to inspire more faith in a re-visioned future of re-humanized (not de-humanized hard bottom line) America—a country the world can start to like a tad better if never love—maybe he can even chip away at some of the historical hatred that does exist and finish up the hard task of cleaning up the mess he inherited.

Today I kept thinking of the TV sportcaster Earl Ross who, every night when I was growing up, would finish his report, throw his pen in the air and say—remember folks—it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.

Politics is one very nasty game. 

I do not get it. At all.  

I thought I wrote that poem for my child. Then I realized  I wrote it for myself. I think now I wrote it because asking "what does it mean to be human" is the question I ask every day.

Fitchness Tips: Writing For Children

Poet John Ciardi describes writing for children as 'serious joy'. I read those words thumping my desk and saying yes, yes, yes, that's just it! In a perfect two-word combo he articulated how I felt. I still can't-or maybe won't- call writing my 'career'. It's my chosen profession and my passion. It's my (life's) work and play. I take it seriously. It might even be the basis of my-theological understanding: to begin again as a child.

Whenever I'm asked to offer advice or give tips about writing children's literature, (Whether plays, poetry, fiction or educational) I start with a qualifier. Even after twenty-five years, every time I sit down to write "for children" I learn something more about the art and the craft of writing period. I'll never know all there is to know about writing any more than I will ever know all there is to know about what it means to be human. It's an ongoing process of discovery: exhilarating at times, excruciating at others.

That's not very useful however, when I get letters or phone calls or facilitate writing workshops for folks who are aspiring children's writers. What follows are some scratch the surface fundamentals. Experience tells me it's necessary to revisit these maxims frequently in an ongoing striving for excellence in the field of literature I love most. I'd encourage everyone to develop his or her own.

1. Simple does not equal easy.

Standards of literary excellence don't droop and sag because children are the audience. They deserve nothing less than the best we can create. Writing for children is an art and a craft. (The mystical, the magical and the technical.) How do you determine excellence? That's extremely subjective but, in a word: READ! A study of what's been considered "the best" over the ages is a good place to begin. But trust your own preferences and wisdom. Try to pinpoint for yourself what you think excellence is and be prepared for that to evolve and change.

2. Think deeply (seriously and joyfully) about the nature of childhood.

As the never ending apprenticeship in craft and technique continues, there are philosophical questions to consider. Let's call it developing a "kinder centric vision." That's probably not a word that would make the OED but I'm referring to a child-centered frame of reference. Could you reach a light switch when you were five? Remember the child you once were. Not just stature wise of course. But not candy apple nostalgia, either. No looking over children's heads from your adult point of view and writing from that skewered place. Use the rich emotional experience of whatever ages you can connect with, add imagination and observe today's children in their worlds. Times change! There never has been, is, or will be, (I fervently hope) some universal child through which all children see or speak or feel or understand. The number of candles on the birthday cake is not a sure fire indicator into the exasperatingly unique characteristics of any one child. So how do you find an authentic child voice for your story or poem? (You don't talk baby talk or dumb down vocabulary, for starters. Maybe start with the meaning of the word authentic.)

3. Context matters.

Yes, so do form and content. A rural child is not an urban child. Cultural influences shape perspective; family situations differ and offer complexity. Historical fiction and non-fiction demand research and accurate detail. The genre in which you are writing will impose and/ or suggest certain boundaries or is it opportunities? As for setting? I hardly feel an expert on this. It's only the last five years my roots are beginning to show. Before that I always said I wrote in the country that is childhood, from the landscape of the imagination on the planet of WHAT IF.

But along with and after all that thinking?

Fugudabout "the rules!" And WRITE.

Tell the story you're burning to tell, write the book you need to write, or if poetry—listen to the music inside your body itching to get out that refuses to go away. C.S.Lewis said that he wrote for children because it was very simply the best art form to say what he had to say. Indeed!

Of all the sets of technical tools in the workbox a children's writer has, keep these ones near and dear.

Wander and wonder on sensory alert.

See, hear, sniff, taste and touch the world as if you've never seen it before. Become a puppy that frolics in the first snow or a child who learns the smell of roast beef and gravy spells Sunday. That's my way of explaining the old adage show don't tell. But caution here: "balance" is key. I confess to skipping pages myself when overwhelmed with just description no matter how masterfully done. Action ,dialogue, dramatic tension, resolution. Hey, if I want it all, so do the children! It's not just my opinion that the concrete word picture or image lingers longer for most readers than abstract language. Go further: criss-cross the senses and develop a synaesthetic perception. Need a dictionary? Great! Your other essential?

Words, Words, Words. Not puerile or bombastic, pretentious, precious, or unnecessarily mellifluous just because like me you can become obsessed with word music or sometimes think you need to show off vocabulary skills to prove your worth as a writer? The right word. The only word. The cadence of words. Become a logophile. Fall in love with every letter of the alphabet and see how they slide and swoosh together in words. It's not just what you do with words or what they do for you it's what words do for your readers.

Writing is sharing. A little part of you might end up in someone's home, a teacher's classroom or a librarian's story hour.

Serious, serious, joy.

 

From Survival to Thrival

On the road to everywhere
In the midst of the galaxy
I met a child
With eyes that smiled
Here’s what she said to me:
Yesterday I saw the moon!
But it wasn’t in the sky—
It was in a book,
It sounded round,
And the gold in my eye.
Yesterday I learned to read
To read and understand.
I never knew it possible
To hold the moon in my hands.
Yes, now I know it’s possible
To hold the moon in my hands.

The verse above has gone through many revisions since it was first penned for a literacy fundraiser more years ago now than I’d like to admit. A word here, a comma there, a syllable jiggled, a line jumped, another added. Distillation and clarification is never ending; inevitably parts will be tweaked the next time I revisit it.

But the essence remains the same: the moon is just a metaphor for the realm of endless possibilities opened up to those who have the capacity to understand and use both the written and spoken word. It is about lives being illuminated through the world of words. The more children there are who get to hold that moon, the more literate our country will become. The more literate a nation becomes, the better our chances are of moving individuals and society towards a state of OPTIMUM HEALTH AND WELL BEING. I call that thrival. There is no such word except in my notebooks but I dream of the day there is.

I am a poet. I deal in ideals. I want every child to be safe, loved, healthy, and have the chance to shine forth with gifts they were given so they feel their lives have a purpose and they realize their human potential. Again, call it thrival. To dismiss the wish as impossible is to dismiss hope for a better world. The key, and it’s one we all hold, is action. One way to work to ward that end is to ensure effective, accessible literacy education for all.

After twenty odd years as a writer, mother and literacy educator, I’ve seen firsthand the obstacles and heartache of adults who have not had positive early childhood experiences with the 3 R's. Jails are filled with a largely illiterate population. 'Drop outs' are often those who do not come easily to learning through the printed word. They are those who do not learn in an education system still largely set up set up as preparation for further academic studies. It is time to review, revise, and question a lot. Changes in programs and educational philosophy that better accomodate learning diversity and individual needs are taking place. There is much to be hopeful about.

Dr. Richard Goldbloom, who spearheaded the hugely successful Nova Scotia Read To Me program, believes early childhood literacy intitiatives are essential: good preventative medicine. See it as immunizationfighting the dis-ease of illiteracy, a condition some consider still at epidemic proportions in Canada.

It’s time to look at models such as this and make sure there is ongoing support as those children grow.

It is time to act and question.

It’s time for a national coalition dedicated childhood literacy.

To advocate, inform, research.

It’s time for a co-operative model to emerge which brings together all of us who want both survival and thrival for every Canadian child.

Pediatricians have a crucial role to play.

Paging Dr. Read and Dr. Write and Dr. OneTwoThree! Calling All the Blugs and the Snufflewogs, and those who understand language is everything we do.

Literacy is not just about skill development : reading and writing and speaking and numbering. It is about what we do with what we learn.

"Tell us a story with your mouth talking," I’d ask my father. And he would recite poetry or invite me to tell a tale with him.

"Sing me a song," I’d beseech my mother. She’d croon a tongue-tangled lipslippery ditty from the fifties. Over and overuntil I knew the words by heart and could sing along with her. Eventually, I would sing a slightly altered off key version.

On my own.

"The Blug in the Plug in the Tub!" my son exclaimed as the bathtub drained. And we wrote a poem.

I grew up in a house of words where by instinct my parents seemed to know that the world of story and the capacity to imagine were two of the greatest gifts they could give their children. We played with words and learned to have faith in our voices. And yes, a sense that the world could work.

Not every child is so fortunate.

As I revise this, bombs drop in the middle east. Words are no placebo for the powerlessness I feel in face of this. I can only wish for the survival of all those children.

So I ask that we pretend for moment that we have all children safe, loved, healthy. And I ask you to pretend there is a word called THRIVAL.

Literacy education is about making thrival a real word; not just one some poet invented and hoped for. How we achieve this and what literacy means is a complex and ongoing exploration that requires endless revisioning like the simple verse above. Simple does not equal easy. But it an exploration and a challenge which is the responsibility everyone interested in improving the quality of life for children.

It is about every child holding that moon.

Published in Canadian Pediatric Journal. Part of speech delivered at National Conference of Pediatricians) June 2006.