beth_shulman: (stock: open book rose)
...I write my books on what I call "The Pizza Model." Fifty years ago, pizza was a strange exotic food, the subject of ethnic slurs. Now, not only does it have coast-to-coast acceptance, but American chefs and eaters have made it their own: in Italy you would be hard put to find a Cajun-blackened-chicken pizza topped with mango salsa on a whole-wheat sourdough crust! In the same way, I think of [A Single] Shard as an "American" novel. Its setting and characters may be twelfth-century Korean, but its author was concerned with the search for belonging and the drive to innovate, both very much part of the American experience. This strikes me as a fine parallel to both the Newbery Award itself — named for an Englishman, yet now wholly American-and to American culture as a whole. It is one of our great strengths that we have such a richness of cultures from which to draw in the continuing evolution of our own.

Is it important that I am the first Asian American in seventy-five years to have been awarded the Newbery Medal? In some ways, yes. Seventy-five years is a long time — three or four generations. We all know now how important it is for young people to see themselves reflected in positive images from the culture around them. And I think it is even more important for those in the majority to see images of people of color in a variety of contexts, to move away from seeing them as "other."

However, I was pleased by Kathleen Odean's comment that the book's multiculturalism was not a factor in its selection. Certainly I did not write the book with an overt political agenda in mind. It has also been difficult for me to deal with the idea of becoming a sort of poster child for Korean Americans and for Asian writers in general.

I feel strongly that the author's bio should be kept separate from consideration of the text itself, so much so that for my first three books I declined to have my photo printed on the back flap. I wanted the books to stand or fall on their own, without help or hindrance from information about my ethnicity. And I still believe that this is the goal — the ideal we must strive for, But the response from Koreans and Korean Americans demonstrates that we are still a long way from inhabiting that ideal world. I was stunned and humbled to learn what the award for A Single Shard means to so many people, young and old, complete strangers, who have written to tell me how proud they are that a book set in Korea by a Korean American had won this award — how they now feel "included" in a way that they did not before...

Susan Cooper

  • May. 30th, 2012 at 7:23 PM
beth_shulman: (book: wizard heir)
I have been attempting definitions, but I am never really comfortable when writing about "fantasy". The label is so limiting. It seems to me that every work of art is a fantasy, every book or play, painting or piece of music, everything that is made, by craft and talent, out of somebody's imagination. We have all dreamed, and recorded our dreams as best as we could.
beth_shulman: (book: wizard heir)
Despite his faults, Taran, hero and Assistant Pig-Keeper in The High King, somehow manages to find enough courage and wisdom to go through the most difficult and perilous ordeals. In an equally difficult and perilous undertaking, whether his author will manage to do the same is open to serious question. For a man who has loved the English language and tried to serve it well, at this point I can only ask: Where is it when I really need it?

...Beginnings are always frightening - for a child at the first day of school, for an author at page one of a manuscript. Beginnings are signs of life and a chance for growth. The actively creative garden is plagued with its own crab grass of anxieties, doubts, and difficulties. But, as handsome as laurels may be, they are uncomfortable to rest on.

I'm speaking in terms of beginnings instead of endings for this reason )
beth_shulman: (book: meg powers)

…Philip Pullman has said that your life begins when you are born, and your story begins when you discover that you have been born into the wrong family by mistake.

But when does the life of a storyteller begin?

Mine began when I was about six. Up until then, I had half-believed that my mother could read my thoughts. But at some point during first grade, I realized that I was completely alone in my own consciousness. I used to regularly freak myself out by sitting still, closing my eyes, and asking myself the same question over and over until I was in a sort of trance. The question was, How am I me?

What I meant was, How did my particular self get in here? Again and again, I would close my eyes and plunge myself into this existential angst. Why did I do it? I think that, like someone alone in a dark room, I was feeling around for a door. Because I really, really did not want to be alone in there.

And I did find a door, eventually. )
beth_shulman: (stock: black and white tree scene)
...We all know that the events that happened under the regime of the Third Reich were the most huge and horrible events in the history of mankind.

But when I asked Annelise to describe her childhood then, she didn't describe anything huge and horrible. She said things like: "I remember being cold."

And: "I remember wearing mittens to bed."

Those were exactly the kinds of things — the small, almost inconsequential details of a child's life, from day to day, that I realized, quite suddenly, would tell a larger story.

I would be a terrible newspaper reporter because I can't write well about huge events. They use the verb cover in newsrooms. They send reporters out to "cover" things. But if they sent me out to "cover" some catastrophe, I would stand there watching while flood water carried away houses, and flames spurted into the sky, and buildings toppled, and victims were extricated by the hundreds. I would watch it all, and I would see it all. But I would write about a broken lunch box lying shattered in a puddle.

As a writer, I find that I can only cover the small and the ordinary — the mittens on a shivering child — and hope that they evoke the larger events. The huge and horrible are beyond my powers...

When I asked Annelise to describe, through the eyes of her own childhood, the German soldiers themselves, she said: "I remember the high shiny boots."

...As all writers do, I had to sift and sort through the details and select what to use. There were some that I had to discard, though I didn't want to. The image of wearing mittens to bed was one of those that eventually I had to let go of. The events about which I wrote took place entirely in October — it simply wasn't mitten weather yet. But I would ask you all tonight, sitting here as we are in great comfort and luxury, to remember that in the winter of 1943 a little girl wore mittens to bed because she was cold.

I certainly did use — and use and use — those high shiny boots. )

Esther Forbes

  • Oct. 7th, 2010 at 10:43 PM
beth_shulman: (Default)
I've several times spoken of my interest in how people felt and thought as being greater than in what they actually did; I suppose one of the most fundamental groupings of novelists is into two classes: those who primarily want to know what is done, and those whose interest is largely in why. For better or worse I belong to the second group. I was anxious to show young readers something of the excitement of human nature, never static, always changing, often unpredictable and endlessly fascinating.
beth_shulman: (book: meg powers)
Not long ago a kid in a group I was speaking to raised his hand and said, "Where do you get all that stuff?"

I looked out into a library full of cross-legged floor-sitters, their eyes wide, mouths agape, all wondering the same thing, their classmate having put his finger on their second most pressing question - the first being, of course, "How much money do you make?" I pointed to them all, and I smiled, and I said, "You. You're where I get all that stuff." 

The expressions didn't change. They weren't buying it.

"Look," I said, "what do you think I do, make up all this stuff? I get it from you. I get it from the me that used to be you. From my own kids, your age-mates. For my first two books, I didn't even have to look outside my own house."

And I told them how I found Space Station Seventh Grade early one morning in my lunch bag, my fried chicken having been reduced to bones by one or more of the six sleeping angels upstairs. I told them that the warfare between Megamouth and El Grosso in Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush ... was nothing compared to the real battles between Molly and Jeffrey in my own house.

I pointed to them again. "You're the funny ones. You're the fascinating ones. You're the elusive and inspiring and promising and heroic and maddening ones. Don't you know that?"

I looked over the faces. No, for the most part, they did not know. And just as well. How regrettable if they did know, and thereby ceased to be themselves. 

From Neil Gaiman's Newbery Acceptance Speech

  • Sep. 21st, 2010 at 12:31 AM
beth_shulman: (book: meg powers)
In case you were wondering what I'm doing up here--and I think it's a safe bet that right now I am, so that makes at least two of us--I'm here because I wrote a book, called The Graveyard Book, that was awarded the 2009 Newbery Medal.

This means that I have impressed my daughters by having been awarded the Newbery Medal, and I impressed my son even more by defending the fact that I had won the Newbery Medal from the hilarious attacks of Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, so the Newbery Medal made me cool to my children. This is as good as it gets.

You are almost never cool to your children...

It was 5:45 in the morning. No one had died, though, I was fairly certain of that. My cell phone rang.

"Hello. This is Rose Trevino. I'm chair of the ALA Newbery committee ..." Oh, I thought, blearily. Newbery. Right. Cool. I may be an honor book or something. That would be nice. "And I have the voting members of the Newbery committee here, and we want to tell you that your book ..."

"THE GRAVEYARD BOOK," said fourteen loud voices, and I thought, I may be still asleep right now, but they probably don't do this, probably don't call people and sound so amazingly excited, for honor books ...

"... just won ..."

"THE NEWBERY MEDAL," they chorused. They sounded really happy. I checked the hotel room because it seemed very likely that I was still fast asleep. It all looked reassuringly solid.

You are on a speaker-phone with at least fifteen teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise, and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo Award. This was a wise thing to think because otherwise huge, mighty, and four-letter swears were gathering. I mean, that's what they're for. I think I said, You mean it's Monday? And I fumfed and mumbled and said something of a thank you thank you thank you okay this was worth being woken up for nature.

And then the world went mad... )
beth_shulman: (book: meg powers)
Read Mary Poppins, and you get a good glimpse of upper-middle-class family life in England a quarter of a century ago, a family that had basis in fact. Besides Mary there were Cook and Robertson Ay, and Ellen to lay the table. The outside of the Banks' house needed paint. Would such a household exist in a middle-class neighborhood in a Shaker Heights, Ohio, or a Paramus, New Jersey? Hardly. There would be no cook; Mother would be subscribing to Gourmet magazine. Robertson Ay's salary would easily buy the paint, and Mr. Banks would be cleaning the leaves out of his gutters on a Sunday afternoon. No one in the Scarsdales of this country allows the house to get run down. It is not in the order of things to purchase services instead of paint.

Read The Secret Garden, and you find another world that I know about only in words. Here is a family living on a large estate staffed by servants who are devoted to the two generations living there. Here is a father who has no visible source of income. He neither reaps nor sows; he doesn't even commute. He apparently never heard of permissiveness in raising children. He travels around Europe in search of himself, and no one resents his leaving his family to do it. Families of this kind had a basis in fact, but fact remote from me.
I have such faith in words that when I read about such families as a child, I thought that they were the norm and that the way I lived was subnormal, waiting for normal.
Where were the stories then about growing up in a small mill town where there was no one named Jones in your class? Where were the stories that made having a class full of Radasevitches and Gabellas and Zaharious normal? There were stories about the crowd meeting at the corner drugstore after school. Where were the stories that told about the store owner closing his place from 3:15 until 4:00 P.M. because he found that what he gained in sales of Coca-Cola he lost in stolen Hershey Bars? How come that druggist never seemed normal to me? He was supposed to be grumpy but lovable; the stories of my time all said so.
Where are the stories now about fathers who come home from work grouchy? Not mean. Not mad. Just nicely, mildly grouchy. Where are the words that tell about mothers who are just slightly hungover on the morning after New Year's Eve? Not drunkard mothers. Just headachey ones. Where are the stories that tell about the pushy ladies? Not real social climbers. Just moderately pushy. Where are all the parents who are experts on schools? They are all around me in the suburbs of New Jersey and New York, in Pennsylvania and Florida, too. Where are they in books? Some of them are in my books.
And I put them there for my kids. To excuse myself to my kids. Because I have this foolish faith in words. Because I want to show it happening. Because for some atavistic, artistic, inexplicable reason, I believe that the writing of it makes normal of it.
beth_shulman: (Default)
...I write for the child I was and the child I still am. Like countless other lucky adults, I have much in common with children. We daydream, wonder, exaggerate, ask "what if?"--and what we imagine sometimes is more true than what is. We like to play with squishy things--mud, clay, dough, words--and we make stuff out of them. We like kids, animals, rain puddles, and pizza, and dare to love silly things. We don't like Brussels sprouts, the dentist, or books with great long passages of description, flashbacks, or dream sequences. We like happy endings - or at least, hope. And we love stories.

As a child I wrote constantly but never thought about growing up to be a writer... We didn't own many books; in school I suffered through basal readers, but before long I discovered the library. Then chances were if I could reach it, I would read it... Writers, I began to think, were people who had all the answers. I didn't have all the answers; I didn't even know all the questions. So I stopped writing, for a very long time, and for years endured the painful search for a place to belong. Some times were great, some empty and awful, but there was always something missing.

Finally, the day my daughter began filling out college applications, I sat down to write, for myself. I still didn't have the answers, but I began to know some of the questions: why? what for? what if? how would it be?

Writing was still hard work - hard to begin, hard to stop. But it also became a passion, and that made all the difference. "To sum it all up," Ray Bradbury said, "if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling... I wish for you a wrestling match with your creative muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories . . . Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days and out of that love, remake a world."

I read that, and I said, "Yes." And out of my passion came Catherine, Called Birdy, my first book. I wrote it despite my own doubts and the "don'ts" of others, because I needed to find out about things, about identity and responsibility, compassion and kindness and belonging, and being human in the world. How could I learn them if I didn't write about them?

...As children are what they eat and hear and experience, so too they are what they read. This is why I write what I do, about strong young women who in one way or another take responsibility for their own lives; about tolerance, thoughtfulness, and caring; about choosing what is life-affirming and generous; about the ways that people are the same and the ways they are different and how rich that makes us all.

Katherine Paterson, whose books, both fiction and nonfiction, have inspired me more than I can say, wrote, "It is not enough simply to teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations--something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own." ...

"The goal of storytellers," Russian poet Kornei Chukovsky wrote," ... consists of fostering in the child, at whatever cost, compassion and humaneness--this miraculous ability of man to be disturbed by another being's misfortunes, to feel joy about another being's happiness, to experience another's fate as one's own."

Such is the importance of stories. This is why I write. And what can be more important in this world?
beth_shulman: (stock: violin)
…there are people who believe that stories for children should not have darkness in them. There are people who believe that children know nothing of darkness. I offer up my own four-year-old heart, full of treachery and deceit and love and longing, as proof to the contrary.
      Children's hearts, like our hearts, are complicated. And children need, just as we do, stories that reflect the truth of their own experience of being human. That truth is this: we all do battle with the darkness that is inside of us and outside of us. Stories that embody this truth offer great comfort because they tell us we do not do battle alone...
      This is the other great, good gift of stories that acknowledge the existence of darkness. Yes, the stories say, darkness lies within you, and darkness lies without; but look, you have choices. You can take action. But none of these things, none of these shining moments, can happen without first acknowledging the battle that rages in the world and within our own hearts. We cannot act against the darkness until we admit it exists...
      And this, finally, is the miracle of stories: together, we readers form a community of unlikely heroes. We are all stumbling through the dark. But when we read, we journey through the dark together. And because we travel together, there is the promise of light.
beth_shulman: (book: wizard heir)
...My problem is one aspect of the Newbery familiar to those of you who have attended this ceremony before -  the fact that the winner, accustomed to solitude as a hermit to his cell, can traditionally be expected to stand up her, before two thousand faces, absolutely rigid with fear.
     I did think I'd found a way to overcome this problem. I happen to be very, very short-sighted. I should need only to remove my glasses, I thought, to be unable to see anyone of these unnerving faces. I might even see something quite different. As on of my fellow-sufferers, James Thurber, once said, "Those of us who are half blind are luckier than you think. Where the rest of you see a paper bag blowing down the street, we see an old lady turning somersaults."
     I gave up the idea about the glasses when I realized that if I couldn't see my audience, equally I shouldn't be able to see my speech. But Thurber's remark stuck in my head. He might just as well have been talking abut another kind of minority group than the myopic: those of us who write books - like The Grey King - which are classified as fantasy. We live in the same world as the rest of you. Its realities are the same. But we perceive them differently.
     We see around corners. It's a little like an abstract painting, or poetry - and not at all like the realistic novel. The material of fantasy is myth, legend, folk tale; the mystery of the dream, and the greater mystery of Time. With all that haunting our minds, it isn't surprising that we write stories about an ordinary world in which extraordinary things happen.
     Nor is it surprising that we should be read, today, mainly by children. Most of us, mind you, have no idea whether we are writing books for children or for adults. We write the book that wants to be written, and let our publishers tell us what it is... But even though more adults are reading fantasy these days - in a flight, perhaps, from the realities of the machine back to the older realities of myth - even so, children are the natural audience for fantasy. They aren't a different species. They're us, a little while ago. It's just that they are still able to accept mystery.  They don't bat an eye when you present them, within the framework of the world they know, with things like a flying horse, candles which burn bitter cold, a house in which yesterday will take place tomorrow. Nothing shakes them. Experience hasn't yet interrupted their long discovery. They still know the essence of wonder, which is to live without ever being quite sure what to expect. And therefore, quite often, to encounter delight.
     ...The whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music... You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing - and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it all.
     Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Maeterlinck's Hall of Night, where the creative imagination hides? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once? Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog - suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance. Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and that shadowy cave in the mind.
     But none of us will ever know why, or how...
     My generation, especially in Britain and Europe, was given a strong image of good and bad at an impressionable age. We were the children of World War II. Our insecurities may not have differed in kind from those of the modern child, but they were more concrete. That something might be lurking in the shadow behind the bedroom door at night wasn't, for us, a terrible formless bogeyman; it was specific - a Nazi paratrooper, with a bayonet. And the nightmares that broke into our six-year-old sleep weren't always vague and forgettable; quite often they were not only precise, but real... I don't think the sensation of threat, of an incomprehensible looming menace, ever went away.
     The experience of war, like certain other accidents of circumstance, can teach a child more than he or she realizes about the dreadful ubiquity of man's inhumanity to man. And if the child grows up to be a writer, in a world which seems to learn remarkably little from its history, then the writing will be haunted.
     Haunted, and trying to communicate the haunting. Whether explicitly, or through the buried metaphor of fantasy, it will be trying always to say to the reader: look, this is the way things are. The conflict that's in this story is everywhere in life, even in your own nature. It's frightening, but try not to be afraid. Ever. Look, learn, remember, this is the kind of thing you'll have to deal with yourself, one day, out there.
     Perhaps a book can help with the long, hard matter of growing up, just a little. Maybe, sometimes.

Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1976 - 1985
Compiled by the Horn Book
beth_shulman: (meg powers)
Most reviewers have remarked on the clever name of the main character, Stanley Yelnats, whose name is spelled the same frontward and backward. That's not clever. That's just spelling a name backward. I did it because I was so caught up in creating the story, I didn't want to stop my train of thought to think of the main character's last name. So I just wrote his first name backward, and went on, figuring I'd change it later...

People often ask me how I managed to tie everything together at the end, but that wasn't the hard part. I knew how everything was going to fit together. The hard part was laying out the strands throughout the story; of telling the story of Kate Barlow, and of Elya Yelnats, and Elya's son, without it getting in the way of Stanley's story. And then trying to make Stanley's story interesting, when all he does is dig holes, all day, every day. How many times did I write, "He dug his shovel into the dirt"? ...

So what exactly was I trying to accomplish with Holes? That's something else I've been asked by a number of different reporters over the last several months. What do I want kids to learn from the book? What was my message? What morals am I hoping to teach children?

I seemed to give a particularly good answer when I spoke to the Houston Chronicle. The reporter reported that I said, "The best morals kids get from any book is just the capacity to empathize with other people, to care about the characters and their feelings. So you don't have to write a preachy book to do that. You just make it a fun book with characters they care about, and they will become better people as a result."

I always have a difficult time answering interviewers' questions - especially on TV where I'm given thirty seconds to tell the audience what my book is about - but I also have trouble with newspapers as well. So I was proud that I was able to come up with a good answer to that question, and, in fact, I believe it's true. I think I heard Jim Trelease say it once. But that certainly was not on my mind when I was writing Holes. I was just struggling to write the story.

It's hard to imagine anyone asking an author of an adult novel what morals or lessons he or she was trying to teach the reader.

But there is a perception that if you write for young people, then the book should be a lesson of some sort, a learning experience, a step toward something else.

It's not just reporters who feel this way. Some teachers and possibly even the students themselves believe this. Some fan letters read like class assignments. I received one recently that said something like, "Your book taught me that the acts of your great-great-grandfather can affect your life." Here, it seemed, the teacher required the students to write a letter to an author and say what lessons they learned from the book.

Well, I didn't write the book for the purpose of teaching kids that something their great-great-grandparents did long ago might have cursed them and their descendants for all eternity. I included the curse only because I think most adolescents can identify with the feeling that their lives must be cursed.

The book was written for the sake of the book, and nothing beyond that. If there's any lesson at all, it is that reading is fun.


E. L. Konigsburg

  • Jun. 20th, 2010 at 12:02 PM
beth_shulman: (Default)
...Let the telling be like fudge-ripple ice cream. You keep licking the vanilla, but every now and then you come to something richer and deeper and with a stronger flavor.

Lois Lowry

  • Jun. 20th, 2010 at 11:59 AM
beth_shulman: (black and white tree scene)
The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.
It is very risky.
But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things.

beth_shulman: (stock: violin)
I’ve always told myself stories, and as I got old enough to write them down, I wrote them down. My stories happen to me; I bump into them, like pieces of furniture; and they are clear and plain to me — like pieces of furniture; and they were clearer and plainer to me now than when I was a child, for which I am grateful... years later, and thousands of words later, of practice words and practice stories, the flicker of Story on those cave walls I more easily read because I myself throw fewer distracting shadows...

One of the first questions — after what do I eat for breakfast and what color is my typewriter — that I had seriously to consider as an author speaking to a reader came about at my first public-speaking gig, at my old prep school, Gould Academy, where I had been invited back as a graduate who seemed to be doing something interesting with her life. A sophomore boy, having been compelled to read Beauty, said grimly, "They’re always talking to us about themes and symbols. Do you put that stuff in?" The answer is no. I don’t put much of anything in consciously, except commas, and my copy-editor takes a lot of those out again. The stories are there; I am only sorry, every time, that I can’t do a better job by them.


Neil Gaiman

  • May. 25th, 2010 at 4:46 PM
beth_shulman: (Default)
“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things…”
beth_shulman: (Default)
...We can’t just sit down at our typewriters and turn out explosive material. I took a course in college on Chaucer, one of the most explosive, imaginative, and far-reaching in influence of all writers. And I’ll never forget going to the final exam and being asked why Chaucer used certain verbal devices, certain adjectives, why he had certain characters behave in certain ways. And I wrote in a white heat of fury, “I don’t think Chaucer had any idea why he did any of these things. That isn’t the way people write.”

I believe this as strongly now as I did then. Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.

Do I mean, then, that an author should sit around like a phony Zen Buddhist in his pad, drinking endless cups of espresso coffee and waiting for inspiration to descend upon him? That isn’t the way the writer works, either. I heard a famous author say once that the hardest part of writing a book was making yourself sit down at the typewriter. I know what he meant. Unless a writer works constantly to improve and refine the tools of his trade they will be useless instruments if and when the moment of inspiration, of revelation, does come. This is the moment when a writer is spoken through, the moment that a writer must accept with gratitude and humility, and then attempt, as best he can, to communicate to others.

A writer of fantasy, fairly tale, or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his own knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him. I know that this is true of A Wrinkle in Time. I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice. And it was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.

Very few children have any problem with the world of the imagination; it’s their own world, the world of their daily life, and it’s our loss that so many of us grow out of it. Probably this group here tonight is the least grown-out-of-it group that could be gathered together in one place, simply by the nature of our work. We, too, can understand how Alice could walk through the mirror into the country on the other side; how often have our children almost done this themselves? And we all understand princesses, of course. Haven’t we all been badly bruised by peas? And what about the princess who spat forth toads and snakes whenever she opened her mouth to speak, and the other whose lips issued forth pieces of pure gold? We all have had days when everything we’ve said has seemed to turn to toads. The days of gold, alas, don’t come nearly as often.

What a child doesn’t realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairy tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture. Many Newbery books are from this realm, beginning with Dr. Dolittle; books on Hindu myth, Chinese folklore, the life of Buddha, tales of American Indians, books that lead our children beyond all boundaries and into the one language of all mankind...

...But almost all of the best children’s books do this, not only an Alice in Wonderland, a Wind in the Willows, a Princess and the Goblin. Even the most straightforward tales say far more than they seem to mean on the surface. Little Women, The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn --- how much more there is in them than we realize at a first reading. They partake of the universal language, and this is why we turn to them again and again when we are children, and still again when we have grown up.

Up on the summit of Mohawk Mountain in northwest Connecticut is a large flat rock that holds the heat of the sun long after the last of the late sunset has left the sky. We take our picnic up there and then lie on the rock and watch the stars, one pulsing slowly into the deepening blue, and then another and another and another, until the sky is full of them.

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.



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