Coloring wildly outside the box.

Often as adults we forget the carefree enthusiasm of our childhood as we feel compelled to remain inside the lines, blindly and faithfully doing what we’re told the same way we followed what “Simon said” to do when he instructed us to place our right hand on our head or our left foot behind us.  But, what if (oh- there is that inspirational phrase “what if?”) we don’t stay within the lines, but rather- we color wildly outside the box splashing bright colors of red, orange and yellow all over the blank page until our work turns into something beautifully abstract and unique.  Is it possible to turn an innocent curiosity into a passion for life or for some aspect of life, such as love, friendship , family, a sport, hobby or craft?

Last month when my youngest son asked for my help with his English assignment for which he was to write about Emily Dickinson’s “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle” my first step was to research the analysis’s written by experts in the field.  After all, I knew I was not an expert on Emily Dickinson, therefore I couldn’t possibly expect to come to a sound understanding on my own that could be “correct” enough.  However, after reading over many essays and articles I felt disappointed to find only the same boring response repeated over and over by each critique, which in my view, was the obvious one to which anyone would conclude; “the poem is about how a fierce storm can destroy things”.

Notwithstanding, upon reading the poem several times- that simple description fit like an uncomfortable pair of jeans, therefore; I had no choice but to toss it out and come up with another one. 

Consequently, I decided to be brave and examine Dickinson’s poem my own way, viewing its meaning the way I saw it instead of the way I thought everyone else would or should.

While the poem certainly illustrated that a natural storm has the ability to cause great damage, there are other dangers that have the same power.  Because Emily Dickinson wrote this poem around the time of the 1961-1965 Civil War, I viewed the poem as a subtle portrayal of war and the devastation that war causes to those left behind in its awful wake.  Like nature, man-made dangers contain the same powerful ability to reek havoc on lives and on the world to the same degree to which nature does, if not even a greater ability.

Yet, incredibly, in the end after the dust falls away, the ocean continues to sweep up against the sand in high and low tides, the grasses continue to sway with the peaceful breezes on the open prairies and suburbia back yards, and the nearly 5, 000 year old methuselah bristlecone pine tree in California’s White Mountains proceeds to grow as one of the worlds oldest trees.  Despite the dangers we fight and the tragedies, calamities and obstacles we face each day of our lives the world goes on and with it- life.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem, some saw the danger of the storm and I saw the poet’s need to sort through her emotions toward the many other dangers we might fear, and further, that although we can often feel powerless or hopeless, there is always the wonder of life and the drive to survive that continues to empower us.  Now, if only we can find a way to reignite the sometimes lost carefree enthusiasm we cherished as children- in order to trust ourselves more.  We might do this not only through the telling and reading of  big stories written simply but through “big life” felt deeply, with meaning.  Emily Dickinson knew that and so should the rest of us as we allow ourselves to let go enough to finally feel free to color wildly outside the box once and for all.

You can’t light a fire with a wet match.

With regard to the questions taken on by a story- to the extent each are answered depends on the power of the story. This power comes from the author’s ability to draw in, inspire and sustain the interest of the reader.  By lighting a match to invite that first spark a fire will emerge, powerful and strong.

In Jonathan Aldridge’s February 2015 interview with Warren Adler for The Writer, Mr. Adler states, “there is no way to address the big questions without first captivating the reader’s emotional interest”. But, how does one do that? 

Whether in simple children’s stories that open a child’s eyes in wonder or whether in large adult stories that influence readers to peel away the layers, think deep or dispel confusion over the meaning of life, death or love, there are questions that need asking.

For instance, in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina old patriarchal values that support the landowning aristocracy contrast with the newer freethinking values of westernizers and their obsessions with technology, rationalism, democracy, and freedom, all of which beg to examine differences in values and beliefs, or conversely, with which to identify. Why must there be different classes within one society? Why can’t everyone treat one another with the same care they treat others?  Is there a cost to freedom?

Likewise, providing fuel to spark a fire, Tolstoy drops further suggestions to debate the appeal or outrage of women’s rights, the fading tradition of arranged marriage argued against the potential to find happiness in marriage by choice, or the institution of traditional family and the happiness versus unhappiness associated with it, as well as the limitations of freedom, and the idea that faith, happiness and family life can all be aligned with one another.  Why must the rewards of family be compromised by dysfunction and unhappiness?  Is this something we bring on ourselves or is it a natural consequence?

Each question stirs intrigue through story lines and plots within large adult depictions of aspirations, failures or successes. These questions are deep yet simple at the same time. We can find universal questions taken on by small, simple stories written for children just as easily, opening doors to new and exciting worlds and opening minds to new beginnings in which to explore new found friendships, secrets and adventures. After all that is where it begins for all of us at some point in time…..in the innocence of our childhood when our minds were open and eager to learn.

In another one of my personal favorite childhood stories, written by Mildred Myrick in 1963, three boys form a friendship born of innocence, curiosity and the natural innate desire for adventure. “The Secret Three” I CAN READ book centers on a lighthouse and boats and a secret club, writing things in code and messages in a bottle- all the adventurous things children find enchanting. Even the title is mysterious and intriguing for young readers, imploring from them questions of possibilities and “what if’s”.  In fact, I have no doubt Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer would have sought escape and adventure with Mark, Billy and Tom and their quest for escapade, thrill and friendship.

The Secret Three is certainly a simple early reader story, but heartfelt and as real and big to children as are the advanced adult story lines explored through Tolstoy’s and others adult authors’ famous classics.  From the ‘I CAN READ” books of my childhood. to the big giant adult masterpiece classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,  Mary Shelley’s Valperga and Steinbeck’s Of mice and men,  readers are drawn to the “fire” by their passion to seek life’s answers to the questions that drive them as humans.

As in life, the largest and most lasting fires begin with a small spark and it is the writer’s pledge to provide that flicker by encouraging questions, desire and interest. Regardless of whether those questions are answered it is the power to open the reader’s mind to wanting to know that matters. But, of one thing I am certain- there is little chance to light a fire with only wet matches.

Accepting ourselves for what makes each of us special, regardless of our differences.

Children’s books provide for valuable stepping stones that promote enthusiasm and comprehension in a child. While picture books typically consist of large illustrations accompanied by a few lines of simply written text on each page, there may be a universal theme running through the story that sends a powerful message of love, family, hope, belonging or any one of a vast number of valuable lessons. One such idea that has been around since the beginning of time is the objective to accept ourselves for who we are and while doing so to appreciate the differences of others that make us all so unique and special.

In Else Holmelund Minarik’s children’s book; “Am I Beautiful?”, illustrated by Yossi Abolafia, the author tells the story of a young hippo who ventures out to play while his mother takes a quick break to wallow in the mud on a hot day.  As he proceeds on his journey he encounters other young animals playing with their lion, heron or human parents. The hippo overhears the parents exclaim how “beautiful” their children are and he asks each of them if they would consider him to be “beautiful” also. Because it is difficult for these parents to recognize his difference that makes him special as a hippo, they encourage him to “ask someone at home” for that answer. Finally, when he does end up back home his mother confirms what all the other parents tell their own children; “Sugarplum, all hippos are beautiful. And you are the most beautiful of all, because you are mine”. And the kiss she gives him is the “most beautiful”.

That charming and delightful story was published in 1992, the same year in which my oldest son was born, which is the reason I still have the book.  I accumulated a vast library of books for my children over the years because I believe so strongly in how important reading is for the soul, yet I haven’t been able to get rid of my favorites, therefore; they’ve remained a part of my own large library.  Subsequently, like a box of chocolates full of flavor surprises, these books continue to surprise and appeal to me because of the wonderful themes and messages hidden inside.

However, despite the charm in the hippo’s story, there is a subtle aspect in which one could argue that points to the way the lion, the heron and the human in the story could not seem to validate the hippo’s own beauty because they were preoccupied in what was familiar to them.  Although I do not believe that was meant to be the focus of the story, in this present day I could see some critics making that reference, not understanding that the parents never told him outright that he wasn’t beautiful. Rather, they simply directed him to find the most logical and realistic  way to confirm what they assumed was true.

In comparison, in Keiko Kaska’s “A Mother for Choco”,this point becomes more obvious when a little bird named Choco sets off to find a mother. When he comes across Mrs. Giraffe and asks her if she is his mother she tells him; “Im sorry, but I don’t have wings like you.”  Similarly, after asking a penguin who tells him she doesn’t have round cheeks like him, and a walrus who tells him she doesn’t have striped feet like him, he finally meets up with Mrs. Bear, “who he knew couldn’t be his mother” because she didn’t look like him.  After all, hadn’t he learned that lesson through all of the rejections he received so far? But, when he begins to cry “I need a mommy” Mrs. Bear overhears him and comes running. After he tells her what kind of things he would think a mommy would do, like hold him, kiss him and sing and dance together, she holds him tightly, kisses him and they sing and dance together.  Ultimately, she offers to be his new mommy.  Choco is surprised by this “You? You don’t look like me?” Finally, at the end of the story Mrs. Bear takes Choco home to meet her other “adopted” children: Ally the alligator and Piggy the piglet.  “And Choco was very happy that his new mommy looked just the way she did.”

Interestingly, the Choco story was originally published in 1982, ten years before the hippo story. By recognizing our differences but acknowledging that those differences do not really matter and in fact, that those differences are what make us all unique and special, we have the ability to bring love and happiness to individuals like Hippo and Choco, who seek acceptance and love the same way everyone else does. While the world would be a better place if all parents saw the beauty in their own children, and made the effort to make sure their children knew and felt that love, it would be even better if there could be more Mrs. Bears in the world who saw beauty in everyone regardless of what is on the outside.  After all, it is what is inside us that matters.  All it takes is a way to look deeper.

 

 

The need to belong.

All individuals have needs that usually resonate similarly within all of us. The needs range from the basic physical need “to survive”, to the need  “to belong” -whether to be accepted by family, peers or friends, community or by society in general.  Individuals  also need “to achieve” or become successful in doing or being something important.  This provides a sense of worth and elicits respect.  Additionally, individuals need to “feel secure or safe”, -physically, materially, emotionally or spiritually. This can be achieved by providing a way for the character to feel free from fear, worries, sadness , or pain.   Moreover, many individuals need “to know”, to fulfill curiosities or learn something new.  And of course, individuals need to “feel loved”.

Threading any one of these needs into the storyline will draw the reader in and hold her there because that basic need driving the character through the story’s plot is also the reader’s need.  Emerson once said “ The universal  does not attract us until housed by an individual.” 

By connecting the reader’s needs to the needs of the characters, the writer allows for the universal to become personal. This idea is relevant to stories for both adults and children.  In children’s stories, adults have the ability to uncover the delicious lessons of life that resonate within all of us.

In Helen Lester’s “ A Porcupine Named Fluffy” we see a porcupine struggle for identity as he tries to mold himself to fit the name his parents gave him.  Not until he crosses the path of a new friend who shares his own frustration or  “need to belong” , and further, who does not reject the porcupine despite the strangeness of his name, does our little pointy protagonist Fluffy finally accept who he is.

Likewise, in “Two Good Friends” written by Judy Delton, two unlikely friends struggle with one another’s disparities;  “Bear” being messy but a good baker, and “Duck” who is a wonderful housekeeper but a horrible baker. Finally, as they learn to embrace one another for who they are, despite their differences, they learn the value of acceptance and friendship and how important it is to respect differences in order to fulfill what is far more important, the need to be loved and the need to belong.

Seeking change is good, but remember to be careful what you wish for.

Our characters should seek change, whether consciously or subconsciously, in the form of a tangible goal; to acquire a monetary reward, or to escape evil or to do something extraordinary such as to rescue someone, or conversely, to capture someone, or to win a prize or a relationship , or to seek a change in someone or some place the character loves or dislikes, or perhaps even to seek  change within himself. 

     Yet, sometimes, we should remember to be careful what we wish for.

     Change can be scary, and yet it can be exhilarating. The key to finding which type of change works for our characters lies in our own beliefs and values, both as the creator- the writer, and as ourselves in the minds of our characters.

     In fact, in my own current quest for change, I’ve decided to modify the direction in which my blogs will flow -for now, as opposed to the direction they’ve headed over the last four years since I began this creative journey.  Rather than draw material from the experiences and point of view of the adult, I prefer for right now, to drill down into the minds of children, or as adults before we grew up.  After all, that innocent, curious, ‘“ready to take on the world”  point of view should ring true for all of us at one point of our journey and if it doesn’t or never did, that is another topic in itself!

     Most of us carry with us the remnants of our childhood dreams and wishes; they’ve simply faded at the hands of “time villains” who make it their objective to destroy our dreams or change them.  But, luckily there will always exist wise characters who rise from the ashes of their failures or misgivings, to climb the beanstalk toward the unknown once so far out of reach, in spite of the judgement of others, and the doubts or fears within themselves.

    For the next few months, or perhaps longer, my blogs will metamorphose into the dreams of innocence and passions we possessed as children, when “anything was possible”.  Mickey mouse was real and we knew beyond doubt that Santa worked all year long to ensure that we would wake up on Christmas morning to find our hearts desires wrapped around the bottom of our family’s colorfully decorated christmas tree, despite what our older siblings or peers told us.

     For instance, in Virginia Lee Burton’s timeless story; “The Little House”, as children we were drawn into the “mind” of a charming, little pink house that sits on the hill in a countryside she loves.  In fact, her builder pledges that she “shall never be sold for gold or silver and will live to see great-great-grandchildren’s great-great grandchildren living in her”.  As the little pink house watched the countryside around her change through the seasons,  she was happy.  “Day followed day, each one a little different from the one before… but the little house stayed just the same.”  Yet, then, as the reader turns the pages, we find out the little house, despite her happiness, can’t help but feel curious about the city, as she wonders what it would be like to live there. As time passes, we learn that eventually, while the countryside changes through mankind’s perpetual hunger to innovate, improve, and seek change, no one wants to live in her any more, and because “she couldn’t be sold for gold or silver, she just stayed there and watched.”

     Ultimately, as her curiosity about the city was fulfilled, and her desire for change diminished, she decides she was better off the way she was before, in the country where she could watch the seasons turn, and  feel the sun on her shingles. And, as anyone who has read this charming book knows, she is eventually moved from that spot, to a new place on another hill far away, where she once again settles down on her new foundation in the country, to enjoy what she recognizes as a simple and peaceful way of life. The way she lived before change happened. 

     At least until the next bulldozer arrives, since the one thing that will always remain the same is change itself!

     The reason I explore this story as a way to illustrate my contrasting ideas of change, is to illustrate that while change and curiosity is good, in some situations we may be better off recognizing what we have now -the simplicity, and the peaceful quietness of the moment, of what we started out with in the innocence of our childhood or of our former selves,- might have actually been the best it could be or would ever get and that sometimes, as we seek change we should keep in mind that we should be careful what we wish for since it may not be any better than what we had to begin with!

Teaching a child to be human

     I still have a collection of children’s books from my own childhood, yellowed and worn, my name and childhood address scrawled across the inside cover in my nine year old handwriting, as well as a few shelves of favorite picture books, chapter books and other story books, that I have read over and over to my four children before bed each night, and on summer afternoons as we sprawled across a blanket in our back yard.  Like magic, each one of those books takes me back in time, the same way an old song conjures up forgotten memories.  Instantly, I am drawn inside the story, walking alongside a stuffed brown teddy bear who is missing a button from his overalls, or I am watching from the side of the railroad tracks on a hillside as a little engine who knew he could chugs along reminding himself and me never to quit, or I am standing at the edge of my best friend’s front yard, excitedly waving to the big red dog who calls himself Clifford as he marches past me with a girl named Emily riding on his back! 

     In Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton, recognized the power that story-telling has over children; that it has the ability to teach life lessons through entertaining.  Every day a little boy goes over to see Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, (Mike’s beloved steam shovel), and Mrs. McGillicuddy takes him nice hot apple pies.  As for Henry B. Swap, (who had smiled in a mean way through out the story), he spends most of his time in the cellar of the new (Popperville) town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all. “

     Children’s stories provide adventure, escape, lessons and comfort, as they learn they are not alone in the world.  Every writer has a story to tell, and every child who reads is eager to escape into the world the writer creates for him. Nothing is impossible, or too far away, or too difficult to achieve, or too silly to take seriously, or too anything at all in the world of story-telling.

     Often, life’s greatest lessons can be learned best through the magic of story-telling.  Named after John Newbery, the author of “A Little Pretty Pocket Book” ( 1744), the Newbery Medal is awarded every year for the best children’s book.  Established in 1921 by the American Library Association, this award honors children’s writers for their ability to share the magic of story-telling while teaching a lesson.  John Newbery was a pioneer in creating the concept of entertainment in children’s literature, rather than packing children’s stories with only words of advice alone . Nr. Newbery came to understand what young readers already knew; that lessons are best learned through a good story.

     Through stories, adults, teens and young children reap the rewards of learning about love, relationships, self esteem, feelings, the pursuit of goals and dreams, and the inevitable heartbreaks and failures we are all destined to confront as humans.  Story-telling allows for life’s lessons to touch readers of all ages, but it is in our earliest years that we are most vulnerable and open, when magic is real because we want to believe, and it is then that stories can truly teach a child to be human.

      In the January 2017 edition of Writer’s Digest, Anna Dewdney, New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of the Llama Llama children’s book series, was quoted as follows:  Empathy is as important as literacy.  When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language.  We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: By reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human.”   Sadly, the world lost Ms. Dewdney this year, but we are fortunate that this special part of her- the combination of her passion for writing and her passion for children, remains with us, and if we are smart enough we will connect with that magic in ourselves as we continue to reach out to young readers with our words, forever teaching children to be human.

   

Our goals beckon us

     We have all heard that old saying “If you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them.”  Likewise, if we continue to resist our urges and desires to achieve our goals, we will never get to reach them. By taking one deliberate step at a time, one word at a time, we have the ability to pave the way toward attaining the dreams that began as seedlings in our hearts and minds years ago, when we were young children, innocent and eager.  Along the way, we made a wish upon a star before we climbed into bed at night, or we made a wish against the bright colored candles on our birthday cake each year, yet we failed to take those wishes seriously.  The dreams that lay forgotten inside us were swept off into the wind as we blew out the fires or they lay in shattered pieces, buried deep inside us. Yet, despite all the years that have fled by, through the many challenges that have distracted us, our goals have continued to beckon us.  They won’t let go of us. So….reluctantly we finally look inside ourselves to find those broken pieces of our dreams, the ones that weren’t tossed away, and in time, we see them there, way, way, way down deep, pushed so far down that it is a miracle that we find them at all. Peering harder, we begin to see a distant sparkle, and then gradually a glaring light growing larger, and suddenly that persistent goal becomes clear again.  We remember that we once wanted to become a dancer, a teacher, a doctor, or a published children’s author, but we have not done what it takes to get there.  We have ignored and resisted the urge to write each day because we convinced ourselves that we have no time and no talent. Yet, our goals continue to beckon us. Instead of recognizing that we waste our energy on attaining immediate results at the expense of future payoffs, we continue to muddle aimlessly and stubbornly through the years.

     Ray Bradbury wrote 1,000 words a day when he first recognized that his goal beckoned him. He refused to allow his “present self” to destroy the chances for his “future self” to succeed, so he finally gave in to the perpetual coaxing he had ignored. The small random steps we take each day will eventually lead us in some direction. But, as Yogi Berra once said “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else”, -someplace you don’t necessarily want to be. And so, it is time finally to recognize that each of our dreams, wishes and goals are unwavering, unrelenting and always beckoning, so perhaps it is time to stop ignoring the allure and instead, begin to take one deliberate step at a time, one word at a time, and write that darn book.