Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My other kid

My teenage son, Isaac, came up to me a couple of days ago with a funny look on his face; after pausing for a few moments, he finally asked, "Why don't you ever write about me on your blog?"

While this isn't entirely true—he was mentioned in the posts Mea Culpa, Dinnertime conversations in an eccentric household, and Urban legends and bad poetry—they're all from last year.

The simple answer is that I didn't think he'd want me to mention him, especially in my recent posts about children's books. Yes, he sometimes listens to children's books in the car with me and his eight-year-old sister (usually as a captive audience), but I didn't think he'd want me to broadcast it. And, because he is gearing up to go to college next year, I guess I was granting him more independence, in my mind, than he would have as fodder for one of my blog posts.

The more complex answer is that I view his comics and short stories and doodles as his own creative/intellectual property, not something I can distribute without permission or that I should even ask permission to distribute.* They are his to do with as he wishes.

This begs the question, though—why do I feel that I can upload Emily's drawing and ideas but not his?

I suppose the main reason is that she doesn't have access to the Internet or other forms of distribution that he does, should he choose to share his stuff. I made that decision for her, then, when I shared samples of her Smiley Book Club and I'm not sure I entirely have that right. But I know, from past experience, that the titles from the Smiley Book Club are likely to disappear or rip or disintegrate in the next few years and be forgotten, and it was a way to preserve a sample of them electronically. And it was so perfect, to see the Smiley Book Club suddenly appear out of her backpack right after I wrote about listening to Andrew Clements' books. I hadn't known that his books (particularly Lunch Money) had had that much effect on her.

If blogs had been around when Isaac was young, I imagine I would have at least occasionally posted samples of some of his political cartoons and comics, particularly if they had been inspired by something he/we were reading. But the time has passed when I can post his childhood drawings—I don't want to embarrass him retroactively. And eventually, I suppose, Emily will want me to keep her drawings and books off my blog. I wouldn't want her to fear that showing them to me would risk their appearance on the world wide web.

So I have mentioned my son in my blog now. Perhaps this will be the last time he'll want me to mention him again, at least for awhile. But I'll certainly link to anything he chooses to put on the Internet in the future, proud mom that I am.

(* Addendum: Shortly after I initially posted this, Isaac suggested I add a picture of him as an illustration; he chose the digital self-portrait that now appears at the top of the post, which he drew this summer).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Smiley Book Club

A few days after I wrote my post on children's books, my eight-year-old daughter cleaned out her desk at school and brought home a collection of little books she has been writing whenever she finishes a test or task early. She calls them the "Smiley Book Club" and checks them out to her friends if they sign a take-out slip or promise to write a review on the back page, e.g., "This is a good book!"

Except for the fact that she is lending them out for free, her book club is reminiscent of Andrew Clements' Lunch Money, which we listened to in the car this summer. In the book, Greg Kenton creates the Chunky Comics book club and sells the comics to all his friends. His initial desire is to make money, not to be an author, but he discovers his creativity along the way.

She said her inspiration for "Chuckie Cheader" came from a combination of Chuckie Cheese and The Tale of Despereaux, which her dad was reading to her at night. I asked her why the mouse in the picture on the second page of her book repeats the text and she said, "Mom, that's a caption." I didn't know she knew what a caption was.

The inspiration for another book, "The Kings Wonderful Singing Dumplings," came from her love of Chinese dumplings and a fairy tale book that's in her classroom. "I tried to follow the fairy tale style," she says. In the book, the king finds his favorite dumplings sitting on the counter singing:

He picked one up and put it to his ear. Laaaaaaa!! He droped it with surprise. La La La La Laaa. The king was astoded. The dumplings were singing the most beautiful sound. He picked up the bowl and ran to the prime minister. "Listen to this!"...

How cool that is, to be inspired and then just go and draw or write something without worrying whether it is good or where it will be seen or what its purpose is. Children have a natural license to be creative. How do we lose it when we grow up? The only adults I know who have that capability are artists and writers—and maybe bloggers. I think that is why I choose to blog these days rather than writing pieces for publication. I'm inspired, I write, I put it on the computer and walk away. It is the process of getting something down, transforming a thought into words that matters. It is a form of elation.

(Note: The books were drawn with pencil on notebook paper and are hard to see unless you click on the picture and see them enlarged.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The writer, reading (listening)

“Read a lot” or “read widely,” writers are often advised. But most of my reading these days takes place in the car, with books on tape, and most of the books I listen to are children’s books. My daughter does not want to hear fiction written for adults—or any of the Teaching Company lectures (on Mark Twain, on great books, on the history of music, etc.) I was able to listen to when she was a baby and couldn’t complain about it.

She also likes to read one author at a time, everything they've written in order of publication, or all books in a series in exact numeric order. And so, over the course of a year, we listened to every Little House book. We listened to all the Beverly Cleary books that were available on tape, and I read the rest to her (first the Henry Huggins books then the Ramona series), a chapter at night before bed. She has been on an Andrew Clements kick lately and I sometimes find myself just as eager as she is to get in the car and see how the child protaganist(s) will figure out how to right things before the end of the book.

The thing about listening to books on tape instead of reading them is that, in my mind, the voice of the narrator often becomes the voice of the actor performing the book. When I think of the Little House books I now hear the raspy, slightly twangy voice of Cherry Jones (she of "24" fame). Ramona's story comes to me in the matter-of-fact delivery of Stockard Channing now. I'm not sure this would be a good thing for most people, but for me it has extended my repertoire of interior voices I hear when I read--I used to hear Dan Rather's voice when I read the newspaper, or the voice of a generic professor when I read anything philosophical. Now I am inspired to hear fictional characters in more than one voice when I read in silence, and I try to give them more individuality when I read aloud to her.

I've come to appreciate the complex simplicity of children's books (though my appreciation hasn't yet compelled me to attempt writing one). The plots may be simple, but the best writers really capture what it is like to be a child and/or present what it is that children want to hear. I am amazed that Beverly Cleary, already a responsible adult, was able to sit down and write about being seven years old. That Clements could take his experiences as a teacher and turn them around so that the children are at the center of his stories—the teachers are just there for occasional guidance and reaction. And, that the Little House books continue to present a world, as a teacher of mine in library school said, that children can relate to because it is one where children matter.

And so we ride along the streets, immersed in stories. Who knows what the other people sitting at the traffic light are listening to—talk radio? shock jocks? light rock? We are rehearsing for a holiday concert, struggling to survive in a prairie cabin, or walking to school in our new rain boots. And, sometimes, when we delve into fantastic tales like the Spiderwick Chronicles, we can almost see the fairies flying by.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The illustrated journal as art/the blog post as illustrated journal

A short article in this month's Smithsonian magazine has inspired me to look at blogging (and also, perhaps, journal keeping) in a new way.

The article, Drawn From Life, describes how the museum's Archives of American Art has acquired artist Janice Lowery's lifetime collection of illustrated journals (a page from one of them has been inserted above; click on the photo to see it whole).

I read the article shortly after a friend of mine commented that "I always seem to read your blog when you're talking about writing." I didn't know how to respond to her comment—I've tried to restrain the discussion here to creativity/writing ever since a workshop speaker told me I was doing this all wrong because my previous blog couldn't be described in five words or less. (Writing and creativity is still a wide net, though, compared to such blogs as The Brian Williams Tie Report or The Truth About Cars, et al.).

But seeing pages from Lowry's journals has inspired me to incorporate more visual aspects to this blog and to my irregularly updated, offline journal. I've taken photographs that will never go in a gallery, so why not post them here? I'm not saying the blog will be entirely visual, or necessarily go beyond the usual small illustration at the top of each post. But I now have the inspiration to do with the page and the blog post box what I will.

(For more pages from Lowry's journals, see the Smithsonian page, Journal 101.)