Ten Books

August 20, 2014

 

Books

A friend tagged me on Facebook to list 10 books that had had an impact on my life. Or words to that effect. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my answer. I just stood in front of my book shelves and noted the titles that resonated the most. Then I narrowed the list down from 20 to 10. Here are the ones I choose, and why.

 

Time of Wonder (Robert McCloskey)

Of course I love Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Homer Price and the Donut Machine. But none of them got inside me that way this gem did – in large part, I think, because of the way my mother read it to me. I could tell that she loved it, and implicitly understood why: the sound of the language, the wild New England coast, the reverent attention to the sounds and sights that signal shifts in the weather, and in the season. This book is one of the main reasons I write picture books. It’s also the reason so many of the texts that are closest to my heart meet with rejection, always on the grounds that they’re too “quiet.”

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Before I could read, I pored over Garth Williams’ illustrations. When I learned to read, I learned to seek out any book in my school library that was illustrated by Williams. He was instantly recognizable, and never steered me wrong. I had a hard time choosing among the many Williams-illustrated books that I loved, but in the end this it was a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Fern’s courageous defense the runt of the litter? Templeton the Rat’s relish of discarded fair food? Wilbur’s hopeful innocence? And then there’s Charlotte. I have re-read this book more times than I can count, and have never failed to weep at the ending. “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s what I want them to write on my grave.

 

Animal Family (Randall Jarrell)

Love makes a family. I learned that lesson from this lovely fairy tale about the love between a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and a little boy. It’s a lovely story, and also a lovely book, from poet Jarrell’s mesmerizing language, to Maurice Sendak’s lush “decorations,” to the thick, soft paper the pages are printed on and the size and weight of the volume. This is my sister Rachel’s book, but at some point I absconded with it. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Required reading for 14-year-old aspiring Dead Heads in 1971. Nuff said.

World According to Garp (John Irving)

When I was a student at Hampshire College, Irving was teaching writing up the road, at Mt Holyoke. In my freshman year I took his writing workshop, and in my junior year I did an independent study with him. I would have tried to study with him my sophomore year, too, if he hadn’t been on leave, writing Garp. It’s not my favorite book in the world, but of the various writers I studied with, Irving was hands-down the most encouraging.

 

Machine Dreams (Jayne Anne Phillips)

Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Pigeon Feathers (John Updike)

Family relationships. Complicated characters. Resonant descriptive details. Utterly absorbing. I read all of these just after college, when I was trying to figure out how to keep writing while holding down a day job. When I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll sometimes pick up one of my favorite books and read a few sentences, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do, and why. These three are among those I go to most often.

 

Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schultz)

Isaac Bashevis Singer on acid. That big book of mine that’s still searching for a home might be described as a conversation between Schultz and the three writers above.

Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)

How a book hits you is all in the timing. I started reading this maybe a month before my mother died, and finished it maybe a month after. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a dense read — a personal search for the arcane origins of the Jewish mourners’ prayer. Kaddish was to my 42-year-old self what Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to me at 14.

 

What are your 10?

Final Cut

August 8, 2014

2014-08-07-18-10-46When I went to get my hair cut yesterday, I brought along a bottle of Prosecco in a glittery gold bag. Enclosed was a card congratulating my hair guy Mario and his husband Tom on their 35th anniversary.

In the five or six years since Mario started cutting my hair, we have talked a lot about marriage. Also parents and politics, food and religion, travel and health, hairdressing and writing. And Mario has told me great stories about life in our little village, where he has been cutting hair for more than 30 years.

Yesterday, we didn’t discuss any of that. I didn’t even getting around to asking how he and Tom planned to celebrate their milestone. Instead, Mario discussed an even bigger milestone. At the end of this month, he’s putting down his scissors.

Hairdressing can take a toll on the body. All that standing can get to your feet or your legs. The leaning forward can kill your back. Or, as in Mario’s case, the repetitive snipping motion can a number on your hands. After multiple surgeries, Mario’s doctor has told him to stop. And Mario is listening. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I love my job,” he told me yesterday. “I love hair, and I love my customers. I have been to bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals. This year I went to three 90th birthday parties, for women whose hair I’ve been cutting since they were 60.”

In the relatively short time that I have been going to Mario, I’ve gotten glimpses of that history. The shop itself, which Mario shares with his business partner, Joel, doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened, with its wood-panel walls and paintings of clowns and landscapes. I’m not their youngest customer, but just about. And I get the feeling that the younger customers have been coming since they were children. Conversation is constant and intimate, full of references no one has to explain.

Mario and I have had our own understanding. We were thrilled to run into each other at a Marriage Equality rally at the Statehouse a few years back, and I was thrilled to see Mario wearing his Marriage Equality button on his apron until the law finally passed. We no longer have to talk about my hair, because Mario knows how I want it (naturally gray and as easy as possible to deal with). But he has taught me a thing or two about how to be a woman who goes to a hairdresser.

For example, appointments. For years, getting one with Mario felt as hard as gaining admission to a private club. The sign outside the shop doesn’t indicate what sort of business it is. It just says Bucarr, a combination of Mario and Joel’s last names. They’re not open every day, and they have no answering machine (“Why should we?” Joel once said, when I complained. “That would just mean we’d have to return all those calls.”).

Flummoxed, I improvised my own solution. When my hair got so long that it irritated me, I would start strolling past the shop, hoping to find it open. If it was, and if Mario was there, he would put down his scissors and open his appointment book. If it was open but Mario wasn’t there, Joel would tell me when to try next.

Last May, I finally thought to ask, “Do most of your customers schedule their next appointment before they leave?”

Mario smiled. “I think I have two who don’t.”

“But how can I tell when I’ll need my next hair cut?” I asked.

“You get your hair cut every three months,” Mario said.

“I do?” I said.

“You do,” he said. And he opened his book to show me.

That’s when we made my August 7 appointment, and he told me it was his anniversary. At the time, neither of us knew that it would be our last appointment.

It was a sweet half hour. Joel wasn’t working, so we had the place to ourselves, and the conversation flowed more freely than ever. Mario, who is usually such a great listener, did most of the talking.

“I have never dreaded coming in here,” he said. “Not once. Even after a vacation, I have always been glad to be back. I love what I do.”

“You’ll surprise yourself,” I said. “You’ll love the freedom.”

“Oh, I know I will,” he said. “But this month is so hard. Every day, it’s like going to a funeral.”

“Who will cut my hair now?” I finally got around to asking. “Joel?”

“Joel is moving to Florida,” Mario said. “You didn’t know?”

Our 9:00 was over. My hair was done — exactly the way I like it. But Mario didn’t seem to have a 9:30, and we weren’t done talking. So I stayed a while longer. When at last I did get up to go, I wanted to say, “Keep in touch.” But I knew we wouldn’t.

Never mind who will cut my hair now. I will miss Mario. And I will miss being a part of that secret slice of my adopted village. Mostly, though, I will miss Mario.

Interference

May 6, 2014

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We told the swans not to build their nest there. Seriously? We said. You really want to be this close to the parking lot, right off the foot path? You think this is a nice place to start your family, this corner of the harbor where all the trash washes up – food wrappers, water bottles, soda cans? Not my idea of a birthing center. But would they listen?

Sure enough, the next time we walked to the park in the village, the nest was done. The pen was sitting on top, and the cob was tucking a few last reeds into the side. We kept our son’s dog back, so the swans wouldn’t freak out. But we worried that not everyone would be as careful.

The town had stretched an official-looking fence between the nest and the path. But they didn’t include a sign warning against feeding wild water birds.

 

On Sunday, I took a friend to visit the swans. The pen was settled down for the count  — a blob of white feathers, a curve of neck, head hidden under a wing. A pair of mallards and half a dozen Canada geese were hanging out nearby. No sign of the cob.

“See? She’s sitting on her eggs,” a man was telling his little girl. “Want to feed her? She needs food, because she has to sit on her eggs.”

He tossed a slice of bread – not a torn-off crumb, but a whole, hulking slice – over the fence. It hit the bottom of the nest. The pen raised her head, looked around and reached for the bread. Too far.

“Too bad,” the man said.

A mallard swam over and waddled up the side of the nest, coming after the bread. The pen raised her neck as high as it would stretch and opened her beak.

“Did you hear anything?” My friend asked. I hadn’t. But it seemed clear that she was calling for her mate.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Off getting a beer,” my friend said.

Meanwhile, the man tossed over another slice, missed again, and ended up feeding the mallard again.

“Darn,” he said, and threw another slide, this time hitting the swan. She grabbed the bread in her beak , tipped her head back, and swallowed. We could see the bulge moving down the length of her neck.

Enough already, I thought.

But the guy wasn’t done. We watched him throw in slice after slice.  Mostly he missed, but sometimes he didn’t. With each toss of bread, more Canada geese and ducks moved in, and the pen grew increasingly disturbed. We kept waiting for the man to stop throwing bread, or for the cob to show up and and chase the other birds away.

When we left, the man was still throwing bread, and the cob was still a no-show.

Idiots, I thought.

 

As we were walking away, my friend mentioned something she’d read about economic development – how often our attempts to fix a problem end up making it worse. She was thinking the same thing as me, of course – that the man’s hapless attempt to help the swan was actually endangering her eggs.

Later, when I told the story to my husband, I said, “We didn’t say anything to the man.”

That was the first it occurred to me that we might have done something other than just watch. And judge.

 

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We Need Diverse Books Because…

May 3, 2014

There’s a campaign happening online to push for more diversity in children’s books.  Children’s authors and illustrators and editors and librarians and so on are posting  pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “We need diverse books because [fill in the blank.]”

It’s an issue I believe in, and one I think about a lot when I write. But I missed the memo about the campaign. I guess I’m not in the right social media circles. Also, I don’t do Tumblr. And anyway, I’m not much for taking selfies.

But then I was browsing through the children’s department at my local public library today, and I came across Big Snow, by Jonathan Bean.

Big Snow is about David, who can’t wait for it to snow. His mother tries to distract him with one indoor activity after another. But everything David does reminds him of snow, and he can’t stop checking the weather until the storm he’s been waiting for finally arrives. The story is lively, warm, and universal. The text is perfectly structured, with illustrations that alternate between cozy indoor scenes and zoomed-out double spreads that show the progressive  tableaux of David’s neighborhood as the day darkens and the snow falls, accumulates, and drifts.

The pictures are packed full of fun details to discover, from the bird feeder blowing in the wind and the snow-plow clearing the road to the darkening sky and the rising snow drifts. But what I’m interested here are two details that have nothing to do with meteorology.

The first, and much more obvious, detail is the color David and his parents’ skin – medium brown. (Their hair is black and curly.)

The second detail I didn’t even notice until I’d gone through the book a couple of times. It’s the menorah in David’s next-door neighbors’ window.  (It remains unlit until the final spread, when keen-eyed readers will learn that it’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. And there’s a Christmas tree inside David’s house, by the way.)

But wait. This is a book about snow, not religion or race. Why throw in those extraneous details?  Because not every kid is white and not every kid is Christian (or non-disabled, or growing up in a household headed two biological, heterosexual parents).

We need diverse books because kids who don’t fit the dominant demographic need to see characters like themselves. And because kids who do fit the dominant demographic to see characters unlike themselves.

It’s important to have books that explicitly address famous African-Americans, say, or Jewish holidays, or other topics that specifically focus on experiences that makes different kinds of people different. But it’s also important to have books that show people who don’t fit the dominant demographic living ordinary, everyday lives. Because guess what? Jews and blacks and people who use wheelchairs or are adopted or have two dads spend most of their time living ordinary, everyday lives.  And kids need books that show just how every-day and ordinary that is.

Neighbors

May 1, 2014

 

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I used to pass the house that used to be here several mornings a week, driving to and from the gym.

I like to take the scenic route, a tree-lined suburban parkway that curves beside the bay. The houses are substantial, the lawns and gardens well-kept.

Except for the house that used to be here.

I noticed it right away, the first year we lived here. Three stories. Yellow vinyl siding. Attached, two-car garage. Fenced-in yard.

It was a house that had started out very much like its neighbors, but it had fallen on hard times. The lawn was never cut. The cars in the driveway were rusty. The chairs set outside were indoor chairs.

I started watching for it, gathering whatever clues I could catch at 35 mph. I wondered about the people who lived there. I only saw them once, sitting out front on those indoor chairs. I want to say two men and a woman, maybe in their late twenties or early thirties. But I might be remembering wrong. I do know, for sure, that the day I saw them sitting out there was the first time I saw that a Confederate flag they had tacked to the vinyl siding, between the living room windows.

The next time I drove by, I saw that the attic windows were masked with what looked like metallic foil. One of the windows was outfitted with a make-shift vent, sort of like a clothes-dryer vent. But sort of not. I had to wonder what they were cooking up there.

The fire happened not long after that. It didn’t burn the house down, but it did melt the vinyl siding. I want to say the worst damage was on in the attic but I might be making that up to fit my theory. I want to say there was police tape. But I could be making that up, too. It’s been five years, maybe six, and I’ve had other things on my mind.

I do remember that plywood replaced the broken windows, and that a series of official notices came and went from the front door. At least a year after the fire, the garage doors were replaced with heavy metal plates that looked like they were meant to secure a vault.

Driving by, I was glad I didn’t live next door and across the street. I thought about police investigations. Insurance claims. Estate settlements. A tangle of bureaucratic procedure keeping the house in a state of suspended animation, with no end in sight.

And then, the other day, it ended.

I missed the actual demolition, but I did see a shovel scooping cement rubble into an enormous dumpster. Today, all that remained was the garage floor, the garage foundation walls, and five concrete steps.

I wonder who owned the place before life there fell apart. I wonder about the people were who put up the Confederate flag. What was going on in the attic? How did the fire start? Where is everyone now – Locked up? Dead? Baking designer cupcakes for the princess-pink bakery that just opened in Pawtuxet Village?

I could ask the lady at the post office or the guy who cuts my hair. This is the sort of place where people know, and talk. But I’m afraid that the answers they’ll tell me won’t be nearly as intriguing as the ones I’m imagining.

Some Poems for Passover

April 15, 2014

IMG_6311The power of the Passover seder lies in the fact that it’s always the same. And always different.

 

In our family, certain foods are non-negotiable – Big Grandma’s matzo ball soup, Little Grandma’s chremsels, Manischewitz. Other parts of the menu vary. Lately I’ve been substituting Yeminite charoset for the Ashkanazik standard. I’ve eliminated tzimmes and added matzo crunch.

 

Likewise, each year, our family uses the same Haggadah we’ve been using for years. The set was handed down to me in the 1990s, when my parents updated to a newer edition. We wouldn’t abandon these old books for the world. The pages are stained with the wine and charoset of Passovers past, and four separate volumes are marked up with the names of the loved ones, many long gone, assigned each year’s parts – first in my father’s hand and then in mine. You couldn’t ask for more tangible connection to tradition.

And we would never dream of changing or omitting the core texts, like the blessings, the four questions and Chad Gadya, to name just a few. But lots of the translations and footnotes feel dated, or just like missed opportunities to explore something more.

So while we stick with the old, I sometimes add something new. This year it was poetry. Early Monday afternoon, between cooking the chicken and setting the table, I scoured my bookshelves, and picked out four poems to augment the traditional seder text. I marked the pages, and scattered the books around the table, alongside the Haggadahs, and at the appropriate time, asked someone to read.

Karpas

The first thing you eat at the seder is a green vegetable dipped in salt water. In our house, it’s parsley. Sometimes at this point we read the note in our Haggadah about springtime and renewal. Sometimes we read lines from the Song of Songs about winter being over. This year, we read this: 

 

The First Green of Spring

David Budbill

 

Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,

This sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting

To a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

 

Harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching

on this message from the dawn which says we and the world

are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

 

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we

will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here

now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.

 

Plagues

There are lots of ways to bring to life the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered before the Israelites fled. I read on Facebook that my rabbi was using ping pong balls to simulate the seventh plague, which is hail. I chose this:

 

Hailstorm

Kay Ryan

 

Like a storm

of hornets, the

little white planets

layer and relayer

in their high orbits,

getting more and

more dense before

they crash against

our crust. A maelstrom

of ferocious little

fists and punches,

so hard to believe

once it’s past.

 

 

Pharaoh: Arch-Tyrant

After we recite the plagues, I like to read a section from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s New Haggadah, in which he expands on the concept of the Pharoah. Kaplan writes, “….Pesach means more than that first emancipation the Israelites won from Pharoah when they left Egypt…It means emancipation wrested from the yoke of conquerors, freedom from the bonds of slavery, and the right of peoples to self-determination.”

 

This year I augmented that reading with this poem:

 

Democracy

Langston Hughes

 

Democracy will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.

 

I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own the Land.

 

I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

 

Freedom

Is a strong seed

Planted

In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.

 

 

Hallel

Shortly before the meal, we recite a series of Psalms praising God. I included my fourth and last poem here.

 

Welcome Morning

Anne Sexton

 

There is joy

in all:

in the hair I brush each morning,

in the Cannon towel, newly washed,

that I rub my body with each morning,

in the chapel of eggs I cook

each morning,

in the outcry from the kettle

that heats my coffee

each morning,

un the spoon and the chair

that cry “hello there, Anne”

each morning,

in the godhead of the table

that I set my silver, plate, cup upon

each morning.

 

All this is God,

right here in my pea-green house

each morning

and I mean,

though often I forget,

to give thanks,

to faint down by the kitchen table

in a prayer of rejoicing

as the holy birds at the kitchen window

peck into their marriage of seeds.

 

So while I think of it,

let me paint a thank-you on my palm

for this God, this laughter of the morning,

lest it go unspoken.

 

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,

dies young.

 

I’m hanging onto these poems for next year. We’ll probably read at least some of them again, just like some of the recipes we’ve added over the years, and have become a part of our tradition.

 

 

Oakland Cemetery

March 31, 2014

 

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Walking home from Roger Williams Park a few weekends back, David and I decided to explore a cemetery we’d passed by lots of times, but had never bothered to check out.

We like cemeteries – the artistry of the stones, the interesting old names, the epitaphs, the morbid semiology of angels, hands, and weeping willows. As an amateur photographer, I love the monochrome stones in their symmetrical rows, the play of light on the inscriptions, the marks that time and weather and human mischief leave on monuments that were meant to be immutable. And as someone who craves narrative, I like to read stories into the stones.

Oakland Cemetery doesn’t look like much from the road. Entering from the park, the first interesting thing you notice is how many headstones vandals have knocked down, and how much trash has blown in or been dropped and not picked up. No wonder Mark C writes on Yelp (who knew that Yelp carries cemetery reviews?), “This dump is an embarrassment…I wouldn’t bury my dog here.”

 

Most of the monuments are between 40 and 100 years old. Walk on, though, and you find a row of stones dating back much earlier.

 

Mr. James Brown Merchant who died Oct 4th 1775 aged 73 Years. He was born in England: a pattern of Industry and an honest Man.

Stephen Rawson died March 14th 1773 in the 50th Year of his Age. He was of a noted Family of great Repute. His Life was Amiable and Strict Integrity with universal Benevolence justly marked his Character.

Alexander Black of the City of Coleraine in the Kingdom of Ireland. Merchant. He came to America in the Year 1748 and died in Providence Rhode Island on the 12th of Sept. 1767 aged 40 Years.

Mrs. Freelove Bosworth 2nd wife of Mr. Lewis Bosworth

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These much older graves seem out of place, and they are. Brown and Rawson and Black and Bosworth and half a dozen of their contemporaries were originally buried in West Burial Ground, in Providence. They were exhumed and reburied in Cranston in 1870, when West Burial Ground was dismantled to create Hayward Park, which was demolished in the 1960s to make room the I-95/I-195 interchange, which was torn down and rebuilt further south in 2013.

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But Oakland Cemetery isn’t only a place of neglect and displacement. Look a little farther and you see an unexpected jumble of colors cutting through the dead grass. These are graves from the last 15 years, lined up head-to-toe, like a traffic jam of the dead. Beneath the plastic flowers and the home-made crosses, the stuffed animals and miniature Christmas trees, the rosary beads and Red Sox caps, the votive candles and Hennessy bottles and last year’s dead leaves, you notice that the surnames are almost all Hispanic, and a shockingly high percentage of the dead are men between the ages of 18 and 30. Google the names, and another pattern emerges.

John Gabriel Espinal, a 20-year-old dental hygiene student, died in August, 2013 – shot dead by the new boyfriend of Espinal’s former girlfriend, the mother of his 2-year-old child.

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Luis Dominguez, 18, died in July, 2010 – shot dead by a friend who was messing around with a sawed-off shotgun.

 

 

 

IMG_7517Jacob Delgado, a 19-year-old artist, died in December, 2001 – shot dead during an argument that erupted after he jumped the line at a Broad Street chimi truck.

 

 

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Nairobi Acosta, 20, died in November, 2007 – shot dead as he was leaving an after-hours party.

Luis Abreu, 21, died in October, 2007 – shot dead shortly after midnight, as he was sitting in his black BMW outside his apartment.

Omar Polanco, a 19-year-old Walmart worker, died in September, 2008 – shot dead at 3:30 a.m. from a passing car, a few blocks from his family home. The day we visited Oakland, Polanco would have turned 21. Mylar birthday balloons bobbed over his grave.

IMG_7438Among these newer graves is a tall, granite monument carved with the figure wearing an ornate robe. He holds an orb with a cross in one hand, and raises the other hand in blessing. The portrait set into the corner of the stone shows a handsome man with a shaved head, bright eyes and a benevolent smile. Below is an inscription.

Beloved father, son, brother and friend

David J.Catagena

Apr. 13, 1971 – May 31, 2009

Being a streetworker – it’s like being a peacemaker. It’s the thing you want to be.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9.

Cartagena died at 38, in a three-car accident on I-95. A former member of the Almighty Latin King Nation youth gang, Cartagena had a history of hurting people and 15 arrests on his record. In 2005 he joined the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a Providence-based nonprofit dedicated to combating gang violence and youth crime. The Providence Journal described Catagena as one of the organization’s “most effective leaders.”

I’m sure there are more stories like these at Oakland Cemetery. But David and I only stayed so long. It was awfully cold out, and we felt self-conscious, walking around and taking pictures, especially when other people came with fresh decorations for their loved ones’ graves. When does honest interest become disrespect? What’s a public park and what’s a private shrine? What am I to make of that little leap of excitement I felt when I discovered Oakland Cemetery’s story?

I was just starting to consider these questions when the impersonal became intensely personal. David’s dad died. We dropped everything and flew to Colorado – an event still too raw to write about here. Back home two weeks later, I picked up what I’d been working on.

When I went back to check Yelp, I found that a new review had been posted while we were away. “My father was buried a year ago this past march 25th,” writes Juan V, “I went and visit the grave and set some flowers (Plastic from dollar store) and today, Saturday March 29, the flowers are gone, don’t guess me wrong but that only happens in the Dominican Republic, and I know who did it, the person is from that country, what a disgrace, I don’t even want to be part of that community anymore. I feel sorry that my father is buried there.”

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Picture This

February 11, 2014

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When I tell people that I write picture books, the conversation often goes something like this.

– Do you do the pictures, too?

– Nope. Just the words.

– Huh. Well, do you get to decide who does them?

– No. That’s up to the editor.

– Really! But doesn’t it bother you to give up control like that? What if they’re not like what you had in mind?

– With any luck, they’ll be better.

Okay. I never have actually said that last line. But now that I’ve thought of it, maybe I will.

Because here’s the thing. I like looking at art, and when I write a picture book, I absolutely see pictures in my head. I see color and mood and composition. Does it fill just one page, or spill across a whole spread? Is what’s happening sufficiently different from what happened on the last page, and what will happen on the page that comes next?

I know that someone else will produce the art that accompanies my words. But if I didn’t imagine pictures to go with them, I couldn’t write a successful picture book.

Without some idea of the images’ color and mood, I couldn’t calibrate the tone of my language – is it funny? Quiet? Suspenseful? Factual?  Fantastic?

If I didn’t imagine some sort of composition, I couldn’t keep track of point of view – who’s telling the story? What does the narrator know? What does the reader know (through the picture) that the narrator doesn’t know, or doesn’t tell? Which details do I need to include, and which will the pictures convey?

Knowing whether a picture will fit on one page or spill across two is crucial for pacing. Should the story slow down here, or speed up? Should the page-by-page tempo be steady, or varied?

Finally, if I don’t have some idea of what each picture will show, I risk writing a story that doesn’t leave room for enough visual variety to hold the reader’s interest.

Back in when I was starting out, I used to make dummies of the picture books I was writing. I would take eight sheets of typing paper, fold them in half, and nest one inside the other to make a miniature book. I would write the title on the “cover,” paste the words onto their proper pages, and draw the pictures I imagined accompanying them.

It was a fun project. But it didn’t take me long to realize that for my purposes, a flat, comic-style storyboard worked as well as a 3D model of the book, and that the pictures I managed to produce were a far cry from the ones I imagined.

It’s not just a question of technical execution – although that’s huge. It’s also a matter of insight. Sure I see pictures when I write. But in the end, they’re secondary to the words I hear. Bringing a visual artist into a project means putting my words in the hands of someone whose whole job is to make the imagined visible, and to visualize images I couldn’t have imagined.

Do I envy those talented souls who can do both? You bet.

Do I worry as I wait to find out what the pictures will look like? Of course.  But writing picture books is an act of faith – and an exercise in ceding control. Once an illustrator takes on a project, it becomes as much hers as mine. Her vision carries as much weight as mine. And while her pictures wouldn’t exist without my words, my words could never fly without her pictures.

That’s what I’m thinking about as I await word on who will illustrate my next picture book. It’s exciting and excruciating. And I’ll let you know who it is as soon I know.

Both Sides Now

December 4, 2013

both waysSometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.

Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.

Sometimes I’m a children’s book author; sometimes I write for adults. I never set out to be one thing or the other, or to be both things at once. It just happened that way. And it works for me.

Writing picture books satisfies the part of my brain that loves listening to language, enjoys the elegance of concision, and gets off on the marriage of words with images (although I don’t do my own artwork). Writing for grown-ups lets me spend longer on and delve more deeply into a topic, write about issues that kids couldn’t care less about, and use a wider vocabulary (with bigger words as well as ones with four letters.) And switching back and forth between picture books and adult fiction helps me stay energized and interested.

Back when I was writing my second cockroach reader, I was also spinning cynical, sexy stories for Seven Days, and composing the occasional sermon to deliver at my synagogue. I would sit down at my desk and have to ask myself, “Which of my voices am I supposed to be using today?”

My writing life is saner these days. I’ll spend a month or more in one genre before switching to the other. But thanks to social media, my writing persona is much more public than it was in the old century. And with a new picture book under contract – for the first time in more than ten years – I find myself taking stock of how I show myself to the world.

On this blog, I have felt free to talk about everything, from therapeutic bloodletting to prayers without God to my collection of disembodied doll parts and the recipe for perfect latkes. Those themes are fitting for Ruth Horowitz, the former Seven Days writer, who has written a novel for adults that deals with sex and religion and grief. But are they the right topics for a children’s book author? What are the rules here? Are there rules?

And what about the business side of being a writer? I’ve always seen this blog as a place to have a conversation with the world — not as a showcase for my books. But with a new children’s book on the way (and with luck more to come) self-promotion has become part of my job.

What to do?

One thing I’ve done is set up a new website: Ruth Horowitz, Children’s Author. It showcases my kid’s books in a kid-friendly, easy-to-navigate environment. My plan is to continue posting here as I have been, including updates on my life as a children’s book author. But if you just want to kids’ stuff, you can find it at ruthhorowitz.com. And while you’re over there, why not pick up one of my books?

New Picture Book Coming!

November 20, 2013

IMG_20131118_0001_NEWHey! Look what just got announced in Publisher’s Marketplace!

Ruth Horowitz’s BEES IN THE TREES, about an apple grower and a beekeeper, and a misunderstanding that escalates into a feud, to Tracy Mack at Scholastic, by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (World).

I am thrilled that my story has found a home at Scholastic, grateful as all get-out for my wonderful agent and friend Linda Epstein for making it happen, and eager to start working with my editor Tracy Mack, as we polish my words to fit with the pictures. But first Tracy and her team have to find the perfect artist to create those pictures.

Making a picture book takes time. How much time?

I wrote the first version of BEES in 1991. We were living in Vermont. My kids were little, and we’d gone apple picking. I noticed that the orchard also sold honey, and started thinking about how bees need apple trees and apple trees need bees. It seemed like the perfect set-up for a picture book. So I began playing around with the idea, and pretty soon it was about more than just bees and trees. It was also about friendship and fences, fuzzy slippers and funny insults. When it felt just right, I started sending the book out in search of a publisher.

Back then, submitting a picture book manuscript meant mailing a physical object. Even if you had no intention of illustrating the book, yourself, you created a dummy to show how the book might look. That meant literally cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with rubber cement), and going to Kinko’s (because in those days, who had a copier at home?). (The pictures on this post are from that dummy — I got a little carried away.)

My buddy Robert Resnik walked over to Kinko’s with me. On the way, I recited my story to him.

“What will you do if it doesn’t sell?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll sell.” I said. How could it not? It was so good! And I wasn’t just anyone. I had already published two picture books, Bat Time and Mommy’s Lap.

The next morning I sent BEES out to the first editor. In those days, most children’s book editors would still consider unsolicited manuscripts from writers who didn’t have literary agents. And even if they returned your manuscript, they sometimes included a personal letter telling you why. Over the next 10 years, I sent the story out to and got it back from 26 editors, and accumulated a fat stack of encouraging no-thank-you letters in the process.

At that point, I set the project aside. By now, Crab Moon and Breakout at the Bug Lab had come out, and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was in the works. But I was starting to get interested in other kinds of writing, for readers who weren’t children. My own kids were nearly grown. I was working for Seven Days newspaper, and had just started on a big, ambitious novel for adults.

Fast-forward another decade, to the summer of 2012. My kids have graduated from college, and my husband David and I have moved from Vermont to Rhode Island.  I have finished my big, ambitious novel and signed with an agent, who is shopping it around. I’m a full-time writer now — no day job — but I’m feeling stuck, creatively. I have all the time and energy I could possibly want to devote to my writing, but I can’t seem to settle into my next project.

Linda and I are chatting one day when she asks, “Why aren’t you writing children’s books anymore?”

“I have filing cabinets full of children’s book manuscripts,” I tell her. (That’s a slight exaggeration – it’s more like folders full. But there are a lot of folders.)

She’s like, “So why don’t you pick out the best ones and show them to me?”IMG_20131118_0002_NEW

And I’m like, “Because they’re picture books, and you don’t represent picture books?”

And she’s all like, “I represent you.”

Thank you, Linda. I go home and start combing through my children’s book manuscripts. I have paper folders full of stories printed out on paper from the days before computers, and digital stories in electronic folders from the days since computers. Some of them are garbage, and some of them are promising, and a few of them are pretty damned good — like the one about bees and trees and friendship and fences and fuzzy slippers and funny insults.

That one is really good. But looking at it now, after leaving it alone for those years and honing my writing skills with all those other projects, I can see how it could be better. By a lot.

So I fuss with it and fix it, and when it feels just right, I send it to Linda – no scissors-and- cement dummy, just my text in a Word document attached to an email. And she does the rest.

If my bee story has a moral, it might be, “It’s dumb to pick fights with your friends.” But if the story of my bee story has a moral, it might be, “Never say never.” Or, “Patience makes perfect.” Or — in the case of me and the world of children’s books — “There’s no place like home.”


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