Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Ya-Ya-Hoo, Anyone?

Kids love animal sounds in stories.

When spelling out animal sounds, we aim to approximate. After all, MEH is not exactly what the sheep says. WOOF is not exactly what the dog says, and MEOW is definitely not what a cat says. Just talk to any of mine, and you’ll know what I mean.

When I first drafted my picture book, (THERE’S A TURKEY AT THE DOOR) I was determined this turkey was not going to speak English. While she was relatable, this was not the sort of story where an animal says, “How are you today” and “Where's my kibble.” I had had my fill of anthropomorphic animal stories after reading hundreds of them to my kids. This turkey was going to remain, well, a turkey.

I posted a question on a kid-lit writers board asking for suggestions as to how to spell the sound of a wild turkey. I got the ever-helpful links to actual wild turkey sounds. Before posting the question, I had already listened to such and couldn’t figure how to make the sounds in English spelling, so it was not very helpful. One writer only said, “This is the oddest question ever posted on this board.” That didn’t help, either.

I was stuck. I had the story, and I had the character. But my character needed to speak Turkey. (Not Turkish 😊)

A few months later, I visited the zoo with my kids. In the petting zoo section, a large turkey hen kept following me around. She talked the whole time and wouldn’t leave my side. I saw it as a sign to get back to my story. But I still couldn't spell words out of her calls.

A tall woman in zoo worker uniform smiled at me. “Ya-ya-hoo has taken to you,” she said.
“Ya-ya-what?” I said.
“That’s her name,” the petting-zoo keeper said. “Kind of the sound she makes.”
I listened.
If you stretched and twisted your ear, it was an almost-sort-of-not-quite the sound my new turkey pal was making.
I mean, not really. But when we returned home, (without her) my fictional turkey had her sound.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Choosing Animals with Care

I’ve been reading and giving feedback to many aspiring authors lately, and one issue has come up repeatedly to irk my otherwise want-to-be-generous reading self. It’s the way kid-lit writers use animals in stories.

There’s an old tradition of using animals as human stand-ins. Aesop did it, and even the Old Testament has a donkey who talks. (Numbers 22:28) But in every case, the storyteller chose the animal because something about its species conveys an essential character trait or function in humans, of which the story is really about.

This is most clearly articulated in this fable, about the scorpion and the frog. The frog is the one who can swim (and real frogs do) and the scorpion is one who can’t help but sting (and they do.)

Conversely, in recent picture books, some writers use an animal character humorously, as one who grossly doesn’t fit its species characteristics. Think of Olivia the pig who wants to be a ballerina. Every one of us humans has experienced this “not fitting the mold.”  Ballerinas are supposed to be lithe and graceful, and this is not how we experience pigs.

This way, a cat character who loves to get dirty and stay dirty, much to the consternation of his feline friends, could work. The writer chose a cat specifically because cats are always cleaning themselves. The choice has to do with something of the real animal.

But more and more I’m reviewing drafts with anthropomorphic animal characters chosen for their novelty, (there are no other stories on the market with a Sugar Glider, so there) or their cuteness, (I like bunnies, so there) or just because why not.

This isn’t a new thing. Puss in Boots, anyone? But it seems more like an epidemic in the drafts I’ve been reading lately. Animals are chosen for the wrong reasons or no reason at all.

To this reader, this is not use but abuse of this venerable tradition of anthropomorphic animal-tales.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Writers Need More Readers

With official summer around the corner, some think it the season for pleasure reading.
After all, when else will career busy folks put down their technical must-read-for-work books? When else will school children pick up books they want to read but don’t have to?

Turns out that a whole nation embraces creative writing, and we now have a National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a NaNoWriMo every November. But as more people are writing novels than ever before, fewer are reading them.

Leisure time is precious. Between movie streaming and internet news and animal videos, people have found time to write and encourage each other to publish. But who will read all that output?
Other than committed writers who read and write year-round, (not only in November) and children assigned books at school, most Americans do not read much fiction for pleasure. To illustrate the point, more than ninety percent of book groups are middle aged (and older) women. This leaves out a lot of people, many of whom don’t read a single work of fiction if they don't have to.

I think it’s time for National Novel Reading Month.

The internet tells us there is a National Reading Month. it falls in March, in honor of Doctor Seuss’s birthday. The great doctor should be honored, but this suggests a designation aimed at very young readers only. What happened to all the novels written in November if in March we read picture books? Besides, who’s ever heard of this NaRe[ading]Mo if they didn’t search? Where is the engine that drives this to be an actual national event?

I think July is a better candidate for the honor. But any month will do. 
Just sayin’.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

What Will We Write?

What Will They read?

It’s a big question mark for writers for a post-pandemic period. What will readers read, and hence, what should we be writing?

No doubt, it’s the big five-W questions again.

The pandemic, of course. The one with the number nineteen in its name, though it’s mostly a twenty-twenty event

When sheltering in place and wiping grocery bags with bleach will be in the rear view mirror

Here, there, and most everywhere. But not, in fact, in the same way everyplace.

Human beings on every continents save Antarctica, that’s who L


Religious leaders and some environmentalists already have global moralistic explanations to the "why" of it. I will stay away from such like the plague that this sort of thinking is. The book of Job says it best: we can seek “reasons” but should avoid thinking we ultimately have any handle on moralistic global explanations.

And now, back to the ranch. The place where stories are born and typed, which (for me) is the corner of my room in the corner of my home.

I heard that some people were drawn to stories about plagues. Not me. I had no intention of re-reading Albert Camus’ The Plague, or watching movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion or re-watching Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak. No way. Nah-ah. Not.

In the thick of sheltering in place and leaving home as little as possible to get groceries from markets with empty shelves, all I cared to read, watch, and listen to were stories about normal times. Stories with people who greet each other with a hug, and gather to listen to music in large halls, and go out to restaurants where others’ talking made it necessary to raise your voice for conversation. "Normal," like always.

When we’re back to normal, it may be a modified normal. But stories written before will only need slight changes, not seem downright anachronistic like they do now. Of course, there will be novels with this experience in the background. Stories about how some coped, while others frayed at the seams. They’ll likely include the requisite one person dying in each. But I hope that in less time than anyone imagines at the moment stories will return for the most part to where we left them, way back in the historic time of the Fall of 2019.

©Chaim Goldberg Art

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Can Someone Explain the JOY OF TWITTER?

I took a while (an understatement) to appreciate the connective powers of Facebook. I mean, the first few years I had a page, I looked at it so rarely that my daughter gasped at the un-answered friend requests accumulating on my notification bar.
“Mom, these people will think you don’t like them!”

Who knew that a number next to an icon meant there were messages I was supposed to click on? It wasn’t on the manual. For that matter, I don’t recall being handed a manual for how to facebook in the first place.

But I learned. Slowly but surely, Facebook became a place I check regularly. Facebook groups are water-coolers of surprising high quality. Messenger turned out to be the great connector for one whose phone is not smart.

But Twitter’s charms elude me. The hashtags and twit-speak feel strangely affected, like valley-girl speak of the 1980s. When I post there, I’m in a jungle where I have nary a chirp of evidence the forest animals heard me. You know the old question: if a tree fell in the forest and no one heard it fall, did it make a noise?

Back in the days when my kids thought Facebook was cool, (apparently, since our kind has joined it isn’t so much anymore) they also explained to me that Twitter only makes sense for celebrities. The rest are just riff-raff hangers on, and really, Twitter was for old people. In kid-speak that's professionals in their thirties.
I was not a celeb, and my thirties had passed. But at someone else’s urging, I finally dipped my toes and joined.

And to this day, I’m there but never really there. If anyone cares to explain to me the country called Twitter and how I might like visiting it more, I’m open. Please.