A conversation with Australia

This week, I had the good fortune to talk to a group of grade six students from Melbourne, Australia. We used FaceTime to talk, and they had lots of questions.
They learned a little about me beforehand. They knew I’m totally blind, and that I lost my sight in a car accident as a kid. They knew I teach at a university, and they knew I spend much of my time reading kid’s books.
This is a perceptive group of kids. Some of their questions surprised me.
Here are some of the questions, and my best approximation of the answers.
Q. How long did it take you to learn braille?
A. It took about three months. I was in the hospital for several months after my accident, and someone came in a couple of times a week to teach me.
Q. Do you use braille to read your books?
A. No. I always found braille hard to use. I read audio books, and I have a voice program on my computer called JAWS that I use to read anything electronic, such as student essays. I also read books on my IPhone and my IPad.
Q. What was it like in the hospital? Were people nice to you?
A. Yes, people were nice and generally helpful. It only got hard once I was out of the hospital and back at my old school. I went to a special class with other visually impaired kids after Christmas, but then I was back in my old school for grade seven the next fall. It was hard then because many of the other kids didn’t know how to treat me anymore. Kids can sometimes be mean to one another, so there was lots of teasing.
Q. What do you see, or do you see anything at all?
A. that’s a good question. Close your eyes, and tell me what you see.
— I see darkness but bits of colour and dots and things.
— That’s what I see, if I choose to pay attention.
Q. How do you understand beauty?
A. that’s another good question. I think of lots of things as beautiful. It’s fall here right now, and often at this time of the year we can have snow. But we’re having a warm October. I walk a lot, so when I’m out enjoying a walk, I think of the fall as beautiful.
Q. Do you have any hobbies?
A. Yes, I do pottery. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years. I make bowls and cups and other things. I also carve in soapstone. Carving soapstone takes longer, and I can only carve outside because it’s so messy, but I like to make birds and whales and other animals.
Q. what kind of music do you like?
A. Well, lots, I suppose. I listen to lots of folk music. Do you guys like U2? (a chorus of agreement). I like U2 as well.
Q. Do you have a favourite movie?
A. Not really. I like to watch movies. I like watching films that are adapted from books, like the Lord of the Rings movies or the Narnia films.
Q. What is your favourite book?
A. That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I can say that I have a favourite book. I have lots of favourite authors, like Tolkien and Lewis. I like reading series as well. One of my favourites in the last couple of years has been the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud. I just finished a series by Brandon Mull called Fablehaven, and I’m reading another series by an Australian author called Trudi Canavan—The Black Magician Trilogy.
We talked like that for almost an hour, and they had many more questions. I was gratified to spend time with such an interested and perceptive bunch of kids from another part of the world. No doubt we could have found many other things that we shared if we’d had more time.  Unfortunately, their schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Perhaps one day we can talk again. 

On Writing for Kids, or, Machine vs Snot-Monster

After I lost my sight in a car accident at age ten, I had an aunt who took it upon herself to record some books for me on tape. Two of those books were The Runaway Robot and a collection of short stories called Tomorrow’s Children. I must have read both a dozen times. I haven’t reread the runaway Robot since, but a couple of years ago I found a copy of Tomorrow’s Children: Eighteen Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The book is   a collection of stories about children of the future, but written by people who don’t normally write for kids. I didn’t know this about the book at the time, and it was only my years of reading and teaching that showed me ways this book was even more interesting than I had first thought. Reading the book as an eleven-year-old, of course I didn’t care.
I recently found a story that reminded me strongly of this collection: Machine vs Snot-Monster by Edmonton’s Thomas Wharton.
The story is dedicated to Ray Bradbury, which tells me something about both the story and the author. Machine vs Snot-Monster fits into this category of stories about kids that aren’t necessarily for kids. It’s about a boy who wants his caretaker to tell him a story. But the caretaker is a machine. It can only recombine elements of plot and character; it can’t create. At the end, the machine says to the little boy, “Tell me a story.”
Story lies at the heart of Wharton’s fiction, and he’s one of those authors who writes for both adults and kids. Some writers of adult fiction turn to writing kids’ books because, after all, writing books for kids is easier than writing for adults—isn’t it? The market for kid’s books is also hot, which must represent a significant attraction for many. But writers who can cross easily back and forth between writing adult books and writing kid’s books are rare. Ursula Le Guin can do it. Wharton is another.
Wharton’s The Perilous Realm series—The Shadow of Malabran, The Fathomless Fire, and The Tree of Story—is now complete after the publication of the final book in the fall of 2013. This is a series about story. It begins with Will Lightfoot, one of the two main characters, who finds his way into the Perilous Realm after stealing his father’s vintage motorcycle while he, his sister, and his dad drive west to a new home. Will and Jess’s mother is dead, and the family is starting a new life. But Will is angry—naturally enough—and he rebels by taking his dad’s motorcycle while they are stopped at a campsite. He wants to go back down the highway to find a tacky carnival called The Perilous Realm.
The opening of the series has Will tearing down the highway on a stolen motorcycle, helmetless, with the cops not far behind. Quite the opening for a kid’s book. Will crashes the bike, and finds himself in another world, where he meets Rowen, a girl about his own age, but one who wears a red cloak and knows her way about a dark forest.
The Perilous Realm is the world of Story. It’s populated by characters from fairy tales, and Will has to discover his own story in order to get home. The threat to this world is Malabran, the Night King, who is intent on devouring all stories so only his own remains, which is one of destruction and terror. The series follows Will, Rowen, and their various companions, until Will and Rowen have to venture into the Shadow realm itself to find Nicholas Pendrake, Rowen’s grandfather, and to stop the Night King before all of the stories disappear. The final confrontation around the great Tree of Story redefines such endings in kid’s fantasy, but you will have to read your way through to find out what happens.
The series is epic in proportion, and it follows in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis—but sharing more with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. It’s medieval in flavour, and has some interesting bits that even hint at steampunk. The series centres on Will and Rowen, but it has an impressive cast of characters
Not every writer can write for kids, and many writers shouldn’t. Some writers can write about kids, or can represent the experience of the child—often from an adult perspective. But that’s different from writing for kids.
Wharton is able to write for both adults and children. Everything for Wharton resonates around story, which is why he moves easily between one genre and the other. From Icefields and Salamander, his first and second novels for adults, to The Perilous Realm series, it all comes down to story.
In an editorial published in On Spec Magazine, 2011, Wharton writes: “First and foremost, a good story makes a reader want to read it.” Such a point is noteworthy because it draws attention to the story as something told and something heard. Somebody is telling it, but somebody needs to hear it.
Wharton continues: “The craft of fantasy is at its core the same as the craft of any fiction: a good story it grabs a reader’s attention and sustains it. When you sit down to write, don’t forget you’re a storyteller.”
But the storyteller is only half of the equation; at heart, story is the interaction between the teller and the listener. The good storyteller knows his or her audience. If that audience is a kid, then the storyteller better watch out. Kids can spot condescension a mile away. They may not know how to use big words, but they get narrative. Sometimes it’s the snot-monster who will call out the machine. And if the machine finds it in himself to ask the snot-monster for a story, then story becomes the place where everyone can meet—telling stories, turn by turn. Either way, it’s the interaction—the telling and the listening—that brings the story into being. Happy telling, and happy reading.

Hansel and Gretel, or, The Way to start your own Franchise

Once there was a brother and sister who lived with their father and stepmother at the edge of a great forest. Their names were Hansel and Gretel. Hansel was a short, round boy, who loved to wander in the forest. Gretel was tall and lanky, and she was interested in ways of making money, as the family was very poor. The father was a woodcutter. You would think that in a time when most people heated their little homes with wood fires that he would do all right. But he didn’t. He piled the wood he gathered from the forest in untidy heaps, and when people came shopping for wood, they saw the mess, and politely said they were just browsing.
Gretel was frustrated with her father. “Presentation is everything. Don’t you get it?”
But the father didn’t understand. He simply looked bewildered, and went into the forest to cut more wood.
“We have to do something,” said Gretel to her brother one evening. “We need a marketing plan. Father is never going to sell any wood this way.”
“Hush,” said Hansel. “What are they saying in the other room?”
The children listened, and much to their horror, they heard the stepmother plotting to get rid of them.
“Children are so expensive to raise,” said the stepmother. “Soon they’ll be teenagers, and then there will be no end of costs. Have you thought about all the stuff they’ll want? Have you thought about university?”
The father said nothing.
“Tomorrow,” said the stepmother, “I want you to take the children into the forest and leave them there. That way, we can have our own lives and not worry about having to pay for two lazy children.”
“Lazy,” muttered Gretel. “Look who’s talking.”
But now that Gretel knew of her stepmother’s plot, she had a plan of her own. “Tomorrow, before dawn,” she whispered to Hansel, “we get out of here.”
“All right,” said Hansel, but he couldn’t help a tear from rolling down his plump cheek at the hardness of the world.
The next morning, while the father and stepmother were still sleeping, Hansel and Gretel slipped out of the house. As Hansel was the one who knew his way about the forest, he led the way.
“Make sure and cover our tracks,” said Gretel, as they walked along.
“Don’t worry,” said Hansel. “They’ll never find us.”
When the father got up that morning, he found that his children had run away, carrying their few possessions with them. In spite of his wife’s exclamations of joy at the disappearance of the children, the father searched through the forest, hunting high and low. But he never found them, and he assumed his children had been eaten by wild animals. He went home and sat by the fire, for he was sad, and in spite of all her nagging, the husband refused to cut anymore wood.
As for the children, they wandered through the woods, never seeming to get anywhere. They stopped once to eat the bread that Gretel had stolen from the pantry, but by the time the Moon was shining high overhead, the children were so tired that they just lay down Beneatha tree to sleep.
“We’re lost,” said Gretel to her brother, as she stared up at the Moon. “Nice going, genius.”
“Don’t worry,” said Hansel. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring.”
And the children fell fast asleep in the forest.
The next morning, the children got up and wandered on through the trees. Soon, they came to an open space, and standing in the middle of the little meadow was a tiny house made of gingerbread. The posts that held up the porch roof were made of sugar candy, and icing dotted with gumdrops coated every surface.
“That doesn’t look suspicious at all,” said Gretel.
But Hansel had already run forward, and was scooping icing and gumdrops into his mouth. “Tastes good!” he cried, breaking off a bit of gingerbread from a windowsill.
Just then, the door opened, and out hobbled an old witch. Of course she was a witch, and she caught Hansel by the neck and stuffed him into a sack she carried in her other hand.
“A tasty, tasty treat,” said the old witch, in a voice that crackled like a fire. “Now just you come here,” she said to Gretel, “and you can join your brother.”
But Gretel wasn’t as stupid as all that. “Please don’t eat my brother!” cried Gretel, in her best afraid-little-girl voice. “If you agree not to eat my brother, I’ll work for you. I’ll do all of your chores and keep this place spick and span.”
The witch peered at Gretel out of red eyes. “Perhaps,” she murmured. “How about you come inside and show me what you can do?” The old witch was really planning to get Gretel into the house so she could cook her, but she was too used to easy prey, and didn’t know what she was getting herself in for.
Gretel came into the house and looked around. She saw the possibilities at once. It was a snug little place, and out back was a wide patio, where the witch kept cages for her victims.
The old witch had thrown Hansel into a cage, sack and all, and locked the door, chuckling and smacking her old lips.
Hansel poked his head out of the sack and stared wildly around. “You just let me out of this cage!” he shouted at the witch.
“You keep your shirt on,” said the witch to Hansel. “Your sister says she’ll work for me, and if she’s a good girl, then maybe I won’t eat you.”
She turned to Gretel. “I have this pan of brownies ready for baking. You just put your head inside the oven and see if it’s hot enough.”
Gretel rolled her eyes. Was the old woman kidding?
But in her sweetest little-girl voice, Gretel said, “I’ve never done that before. Can you show me once so I understand what you mean?”
“Stupid child!” cried the witch. “Like this.” And she yanked open the oven door and stuck her head inside.
Quick as a flash, Gretel caught the old witch by the neck. “Now listen here, you old hag,” said Gretel, through clenched teeth. “Your baking days are done. There are going to be a few changes around here.”
And there were. Gretel let Hansel out of his cage, and she stuffed in the witch. She kept the old woman locked up until she agreed not to trap and eat kids anymore.
Gretel swept and cleaned that little cottage. She found heaps of gold in the corners, and she used it to by a new oven and a barista machine. She ordered tables and chairs for the patio, and she got rid of the cages. When she was ready, she had signs pointing the way to the cottage. They read: Treats by “Gretel.” And in no time, she was open for business.
The old witch worked as a server, while Gretel baked, made candy, and ran the barista machine. People came from miles around to sit on the patio, sip coffee, and sample Gretel’s treats. Even the stepmother and father eventually found their way to the shop. Gretel didn’t feel much like forgiving them, so she hired them as her cleaning staff and put them to work.
And as for Hansel, he wasn’t much interested in Gretel’s business, but he came regularly to visit. He didn’t much like the manic gleam that Gretel got in her eye as she ordered about her staff and counted up her profits. But he decided not to worry about it. He mostly liked to wander the forest, getting to know the trees and the habits of the animals. And really, after a day of wandering in the forest, there was nothing like coming back to Gretel’s shop for a quiet coffee and a slice of her key lime pie.

In Celebration of Read In Week

During the years my kids were in elementary school, I did my share of classroom visits. Like any parent, I went in to help out, but mostly I visited their classes to tell stories.
By the time my kids were both in school, telling stories at bedtime had become a nightly ritual. Both of them were readers, but as a blind parent, I had to find some way of involving myself in their experience of books and of literacy. We read together, or, more precisely, they read to me. It was picture books at first. We would sit on the couch in the evenings while they read Robert Munsch, Jan Brett, or the Little Bear books. At bedtime, it was my turn.
I began telling stories to my kids while they were very young—my eldest was just two. She was crying one evening because her new baby sister was monopolizing her mom’s attention, so she found herself having to deal with me. Because I didn’t really know what else to do, I held her and told her a story. It was “Kate Crackernuts,” one that I’d encountered in a children’s literature course a couple of years before. She never made it through the story—sound asleep halfway through.
After that, I told her stories every night, and when my youngest got older, I told them both stories at bedtime.
It gave me what I needed—the ability to be involved in my kids’ literacy. It worked well, but it wasn’t always easy. I was exhausted from teaching and being a perpetual grad student. More often than not, I ripped off elements from anything I’d read to tell a story that was halfway coherent.
My kids were my best critics, too. If they didn’t like something, they let me know. If I was telling a story for the fifth, tenth, or seventeenth time and misspoke a detail, I heard about it.
“She wasn’t wearing a green hat!”
“Okay, what colour was it then?”
“It was orange.”
“Okay, she was wearing an orange hat, and she went out into the world ….”
One of the more memorable experiences at the school happened early on. My eldest was in grade two. I came in regularly to tell stories to the class, and the teacher, Mrs. Finiack, had the kids drawing pictures of their favourite characters from the stories I’d told. My mom was also involved at the school, and she and Mrs. Finiack came up with the idea for a storytelling quilt.
They took the kids’ drawings, and they had them transferred onto quilting squares. With the help of another parent, they soon began assembling a quilt.
The quilt stayed at the school for years, and then one day Mrs. Finiack dropped it off at my house. It was bundled up inside a small garment bag, and it disappeared into my basement, eventually finding a place at the back of a shelf. And there it stayed, forgotten for years.
I had the honour of visiting a grade three class for Read in Week, and it suddenly struck me, what if I find that old storytelling quilt and bring it with me to show the kids?
I found it on the back of a shelf, and then I Facetimed my mom to show her the quilt. She was thrilled to see it, but she reminded me how evasive I’d been in the past as to its whereabouts.
“I knew it was in the house,” I said, a little defensively, holding up the quilt in front of my IPad.
The quilt went with me to visit the grade threes. I told them two stories: “The Three Sillies” And “Goldie Locks and the Three Pigs.” The second story is mine—my first attempt at a fractured fairy tale, before I knew there was such a thing. More like the invention of a desperately tired dad who has nothing else to tell, and doesn’t care about making sense anymore.
The grade threes were a great audience—about forty of them, all curious, interested, and ready to join in at the right time.
“And along through the woods came the …”
After the stories, I showed them the quilt. It’s been eighteen years since I first went into my daughter’s class to tell stories. As I talked to the grade threes, I felt a little nostalgic for the days I spent in my kids’ classes, and the time telling stories. But stories do that. They locate us; they ground us. They tell us where we’ve been, they centre us where we are, and they help guide us to where we’re going. And it’s never just about the telling; it’s about the receiving. It’s about creating a space where dragons talk and giants roam, where heroes win and lose, and where, for a time, you can walk together under a different sky.

Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles, Fanfic or Christian Politics?

I first discovered fanfiction at a Harry Potter con in San Francisco. It was the first session of the conference, and I was curious. As I sat through the ninety-minute session, I realized I was experiencing a world of fandom I had no idea existed.
In some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was a Harry Potter con. People were dressed in costume everywhere. I took a side door out of the hotel to get away from the craziness for a few minutes, and I met there two generic witches and a Severus Snape.
I’ve never identified myself with fandom of any kind, but I appreciate, I think, those who do. At least I understand the desire to engage imaginatively and creatively with a favourite book or author. It took me longer to understand fanfic. I read some posts, and thought, fine. People want to engage the world of Harry Potter in different ways. And again, it’s not something I’ve done, but I understand the desire to use writing as a means of personal expression.
Enter, Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles by Proudhousewife. This one has been popping up variously on the Internet the past couple of weeks, so I finally had a read. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to have a look as well.
Here’s a brief sample from Chapter 7, “Wheat and Chaff,” the sorting chapter: “The Great Hall burst into applause as a red and yellow baseball cap with a lion embroidered on the front appeared on Harry’s head. He hopped deftly off the table and landed on his little feet. He could feel the love of the Lord surging through him; and he knew he had made the right decision.”
In this fanfic, Harry Potter is a good little Christian who makes all of the right decisions. But what’s with the baseball cap? Proudhousewife’s fanfic isn’t just a Christian revision of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; it’s American. If you keep reading, you’ll find a reference to the first amendment in chapter 8. I’m not sure which bothered me more—the Christianity or the baseball caps.
At heart, fanfic strikes me as a means for fans to engage the books they love in a different way. I’ve read Harry Potter fanfics that show same-sex relationships between different characters from the books. Such an engagement is certainly political, as it places such relationships from the books into the context of choices around gender and gender identification.
Political is fine, but Proudhousewife crosses a line. For one, she isn’t a fan. This isn’t just her version of the Harry Potter story that she wrote to safeguard her “little ones.” She has a political agenda riding on the Harry Potter name. And I wouldn’t even call this fanfic. It’s self-serving, reductionist, and preachy. One cap, one Christianity, one lens through which to see the world.
Here’s another example: chapter 6: Sorting Hats! (The exclamation point is there I’m sure so you understand the importance of the sorting—and the fact these are hats, not a hat).
In this chapter, our brave little Christian soldier is meeting other little members of Hogwarts and discovering shocking things about the hats—again, hats, not houses.
Harry is sitting at a table with Ronald, presently unsorted, with countless other redheads wearing green and black baseball caps bearing snakes. Harry discovers to his horror that the Slytherins—yes, they are Slytherins—believe in God but also worship Mary: “the mommy of our Lord.” Harry then turns to a peace-loving, vegetarian Hufflepuff hat (a version of Luna), who says: “We don’t believe in the stuff against fornication and drinking and socialism; but we really like Matthew 7:1 (Matthew 7:1 – Judge not, that ye not be judged); and that’s about it.” And she’s not even eating real bacon: “it tasted like vegetables blended together and died red. Yuck! Harry would take real bacon over that any day of the week.”
These two brief encounters offer some pointed comments. Together, they condemn Catholics, middle-of-the-road Christians, vegetarians, drinkers, and socialists—not to mention fornicators. Harry is the blessed little Christian protagonist of the story, so I’m not sure how to read this any other way. I’m not touching Harry’s comments on the role of women, which he offers later in the chapter to Draco, who wears a Ravenclaw hat. You’ll have to read those for yourself.
When I was twenty, I met a Catholic priest who said to me: “We believe the Catholic religion is the right religion and the only religion.” I was young, not too bright, and lacked the wherewithal to offer an appropriate response. The message I’m getting from Proudhousewife is the same, except this time it’s in the guise of a Gryffindor baseball cap. She can write whatever she wants in order to safeguard her children, but I think I’ll stick to reading J. K. Rowling.