Taking on someone else’s perspective temporarily, allows us to identify or create our own.

It has been suggested by some that writing for kids should be easy, especially for the very young age group.  However, they warn; “the key is to grab the child’s attention with the very first sentence;  if you do not interest him from the get-go, he will quickly turn the page or worse, discard the book for a video game or the television.”

Looking through my own book shelf lined with childhood favorites, with that thought in mind, my eyes rest upon the blue and white copy of Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear.  This particular edition was published in 1957 by Harper & Brothers (later changed to Harper & Row), with “pictures” by Maurice Sendak (not illustrated by– as it is described now), slightly yellowed, the cover- corners frayed and peeling, with a bit of wear along the spine. 

As the first “ I CAN READ book”, and the first book in the Little Bear series, it remains one of my many favorite stories, despite its simplicity- both in plot and character names.  Little Bear’s friends are simply called Hen, Duck and Cat, and his mother is referred to as  “Mother Bear”, while he is known simply as  “Little Bear”, and yet it is this very simplicity, in my view,  that helped capitulate the story of Little Bear into one of the most beloved childhood story book characters of all time. 

The relationship between Little Bear and his mother is loving and real and significant, a relationship perpetually sought after and cherished by children (and adults) of all ages.  While Little Bear’s father is away most of the time as Captain of a great big old ship, the reader observes the closeness between mother and son and the many examples depicting the special bond they share and the lessons he learns. 

Maryanne Wolf once said that “…childhood stories provide the foundation of the most important social, emotional, and cognitive skills a human being can learn: the ability to take on someone else’s perspective”.

Seemingly, despite that some say writing for children should be easy, I tend to think not.

It is at the tender young age of innocence, vulnerability and yearning that human beings decide who they would like to become, therefore; the task of writing for this very young audience entails introspective observations of ourselves and those around us- before any attempt should be made to weave messages or lessons into story- writing for children.

All one has to do is spend a quiet afternoon in the company of Minarik’s and Sendlak’s chubby, fur-coated Little Bear and his ever supportive Mother Bear to understand that “writing for kids” is not only NOT easy, but holds the potential to mold perspectives of who we are and who we can become long after our childhood is left behind us like footprints in the sand.

In childhood, stories share the promise of hope and the magic of believing that dreams truly can come true.  For the child drowning in a sea of despair, or the child overwhelmed by fear or loss, or the child who feels abandoned or alone, or the child who simply feels confused or curious, the ability to take on someone else’s perspective has the power to save him, to transport him outside himself -even if just for a little while.  Likewise,through stories- the child who easily laughs at jokes or recognizes that the sun will always reappear, or feels secure in his fortunate role as a child loved by two parents, -empathizes with the deprived or lonely child who fears someone or something, or has reason to feel sad or lost in a world a little too big and sometimes even too cold.

In my view, it can’t be easy to,- through writing, give a child that magical ability to become someone else when she most needs to escape her own reality, or to open her eyes to a world she never knew, or to place hope where there was only emptiness or longing before.

Taking on someone else’s perspective through stories allows for the young reader (or any reader for that matter) to find and create her own perspective -of who she feels she might be now and who she wants to become, and whether or not those two perspectives are in line with one another,  or perhaps what is most important in her life and who she needs to become in order to attain that, even if it could mean realizing she is fine the way she is.

Surely, to be able to do all that through story- writing for children- can’t possibly be easy at all.  And like anything else worth doing in life, it takes passion and hard work, but in the end the results are always worth it. 

The Beauty and Tragedy of Generosity

     Now that my children are not really children any longer, but young men on the edge of adulthood with gaining responsibility and independence, along with inevitable heartaches, disappointments and failures and hopes for achievements, success and happiness, I wonder if they might view things differently from the manner in which they saw life when they were young and innocent, when they had an excuse to think and behave naively or selfishly. But first, let me explain where I am coming from and where I am going here as I reflect on another classic children’s story that once again creatively captures aspects of human nature that resonate with so many of us.

     In Shel Silverstein’s “ The Giving Tree”, readers follow along on the daily escapades of a little boy who is loved by a tree. When he is young and innocent, the boy gathers her leaves for crowns, climbs her trunk , swings on her branches and eats her apples.  The boy and the tree play games and bring comfort, joy and love to one another. But as always, time intervenes and the boy gets older and the tree spends more time alone.

     Eventually, after several years, the boy returns to the tree asking for “money” and the tree gives her apples to him to sell, with the hope this will make him feel happy again. Over time, with each of the boy’s rare visits the tree gives up more of herself; her branches so that he can have a home and finally, her trunk so that he could sail away in a boat.  At the end of the story- the boy, as an old man, comes back for a final visit and the tree tells him she is sorry but she has nothing left but a stump.  The boy tells the tree he doesn’t need much anymore, just a quiet place to sit and rest.  Of course, the tree offers herself,- the last of herself, to him; “…well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest”.  And the boy did and the tree was happy again.

     When I read this story to my four young children at night before bed or in the backyard as we sprawled across our picnic blanket- tucked between piles of picture and early reader books, I saw only the beauty of generosity that the tree gave to the boy.  I believed the tree was genuinely happy to give up all that she had for the boy despite his growing selfishness and his inability to recognize the tree’s sacrifices for him.  I viewed the book as a beautiful story of love and the connections formed through loving relationships.

     However, now as an older adult with growing children, who are not so much children any more, I find myself occasionally identifying with the tree in a different way.  Although my boys do not mean anything by it, they tend, at times,  to possess the typical “selfishness” that all adolescents/ young adults seem to perpetuate. The maternal rewards I received when my boys were small have slowly changed shape, absorbing the parenting stress that comes with handling unruly school behaviors and academic struggles, financial pressures, health challenges and other parenting obligations and sacrifices.  Of course I still feel rewarded while I watch each one of them grow into young men as they learn the value of attaining goals, working hard, treating others well and making good, sound decisions, but it has become more work than play at times and a bit one- sided, rather than the steady two- way unconditional display of affection we once sustained.

     And like the tree in Silverstein’s story, I sometimes find myself feeling like an old dried up stump who has given away all her apples, leaves, branches and trunk for loneliness, “financial drain”, and always for love.

     Recently, I read a related, reflective article titled “ The uncomfortable truth in THE GIVING TREE”, written by Elissa Strauss.  In her article, she refers to the boy in the story as a “narcissistic taker and the tree as the compulsive enabler.”  Are most of us mothers compulsive enablers if it means making sacrifices and giving up parts of ourselves for our children, or for those we love?  Are most children considered to be narcissistic by taking and taking, without recognizing the giver’s sacrifice?  Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

     In a simply written story in less than 625 words, the author of the Giving Tree effectively illustrates to readers the true life sacrifices of love.   Whether one views the story as “a parable about the beauty of generosity, and the power of giving to forge connection between two people” or conversely , as an “irresponsible tale that glorifies maternal selfishness, even as the maternal figure is destroyed in the process”, the story does convey a glaring message of love with its associated surrender and forfeitures. Is generosity to this degree an act of beauty or is it an act of tragedy? 

     I believe it is what all mothers (or parents) are meant to do, and therefore; in my view, the Giving Tree conveys the beauty of generosity, while the tragedy is in not understanding that love is about sacrifice and giving of oneself.

     I like to think the boy, as a grown man, finally understood and appreciated that in the end, and knowing that is what ultimately made the tree most happy.

Sources:

Silverstein, Shel, The Giving Tree, (1964), Harper and Row

Strauss, Elissa, The Uncomfortable Truth in The Giving Tree, (10/17/14), The Week Publication

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!