Picture Books · Reading

Cornucopia: Picture Books for Autumn

It’s been a while since I’ve done a picture book blog, and since a-something like twenty of my former students had babies in the last year and b-I love fall, I’ve decided to collect some seasonal books that don’t have snowfolk or reindeer as protagonists.

  1. “Little Tree” by Loren Long. When all the trees are little, everything is great, but when fall comes, one won’t let his leaves fall because he’s afraid of the cold. The problem is that stunts his growth, and once he establishes the pattern of holding on to stuff too long, it’s hard to break. I feel personally called out by this picture book, so I love it and need to share.
  2. “Room on the Broom” by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. This is such a great book: it’s Halloweeny, but just because the character is a witch. It’s mostly about finding your tribe and protecting your homies. And when your homies are all adorable critters, that’s awesome.
  3.  “John Pig’s Halloween” by Jan L. Waldron and David McPhail is the first Halloween book my son had, and we all loved it. I’m a sucker for good verse, and John overcomes his fear by making friends with monsters, so I feel like that is a win all around. The verse is so catchy we practically memorized the whole thing, and 18 years later, we still find ourselves using a line or two in conversation when it’s appropriate, which is more often than you’d think.
  4. “Thanks for Thanksgiving” by Julie Markes and Doris Barrette is our requisite Turkey Day book, in part because of the wonderful fall-toned illustrations that include wonderful family moments but also school and play. It also includes a blank page at the end for families to write in what they’re thankful for, which makes my Bullet Journaling heart happy. Train ‘em young, I say. You want them to read? Then read. You want them to be grateful? Then be grateful. And write that stuff down, so you can remember what it was like to be grateful for Thomas trains and Fairy Fudge.
  5. “The Giant Cabbage” by Chérie B. Stihler and Jeremiah Trammell. This one is adorably illustrated by Trammell and a sweet fable about coming together for a common purpose, then sharing in the fruits (or vegetables) of that labor. Fall is all about abundance, after all.
  6. “Persephone” by Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee, speaking of abundance… and what comes after the harvest.  This is a solid version of the myth of Persephone and her mom, about seasons and sorrows and cycles and the bond between life and death.
  7. “Georgie and the Robbers” by Robert Bright is not overtly a fall book, but it must take place in the fall, if one uses the illustrations as a guide. And since it’s about a ghost and an owl and a cat, it has an autumnal feel to it. It remains, after thousands of books, my very favorite book to read aloud. Part of that may be nostalgia. I had it as a kid and remember reading it when I was little, and then I read it to my kids. But when I read it to my kids, I realized how delightful the music and drama and character building is when you read it aloud. It’s amazing. It’s hard to find now, but if you want to borrow mine, or even better—ask me to read it to you—I’m down.

Happy Fall y’all.

Teaching

It Takes Twenty (or Thirty) to Tango–In Praise of Students

I teach two classes in the morning and then have office hours, and do another class in the afternoon.
Last Friday I was dead tired, and as I slouched in my office before dragging myself to the last class of the week, I was thinking I wouldn’t make it. It’s a General Education class (so a mix of English majors and lots of other folks) on folklore and fairy tales, and for that particular meeting, we read two essays on how folktales work. There was no magic or jokes inherent in the text to help me. I figured I’d do my best to lead to them through the essays they read for class, and let them go a few minutes early. There are some perks to university teaching, and I am grateful.
We went over time.
Not because I’m a good teacher; I was not on my game Friday. Because I have amazing students.
I think students place too much emphasis on the instructor when it comes to thinking about how successful a class is. I often hear them in the hall (or in my office) gushing about their favorite classes, and how fantastic the professor was.
To every student who ever thought your class was awesome (or terrible) because of the professor—I charge you to think about the rest of the humans in that class. The best planned class falls flat if the students don’t come to the party. And the best students can lift a peaky prof right out of the doldrums.
We started with an essay by folklorist Alan Dundes that describes how folklore differs from authored literature. They loved his grouchy attitude, and when I gave them a bit of context and biography, they loved him even more. They defended his defensiveness, sympathizing with his marginalization by more traditional, ivory tower, literary scholars. They kind of loved his personality as they saw it filtered through his argument. And they came up with the longest, subtlest list of distinctions between folk and literary tales we’ve ever produced, in all the years I’ve taught this class.
I love my job.
I love that every class is different, composed of entirely different humans, with different experiences and backgrounds, in a different mix each time. I always have certain things I want to cover, certain things I want to say, but if I’m honest a huge chunk of each class session is pretty unscripted. I react to what they like and know (and don’t know and don’t like), and we talk about what needs understanding until the time is up.
Whenever students ask what they missed, I refer them to another student for notes. I can and do sometimes supply an outline for what I wanted to accomplish, but I only take in a page of notes on any given day, and it’s only a starting point. It only scratches the surface of what we end up doing and thinking and learning.
My favorite thing to write in letters of recommendation for former students is that they “contributed substantively to the success of the class.” They did. Without them, I’d just be a reader.
Writing

Cleaning the Writing Pipes

I have written academic prose for a number of years now—mostly about teaching, but also about literature. It is a mode I still don’t find natural, despite (cough) over two decades experience. I can do it, but it takes effort. When I argue, I do not sing.

Academic writing takes research and planning and more planning, and then writing, then revising, then editing. So does writing fiction. But somehow one feels like work to me, and one feels like play.
In fact, writing fiction feels so much like play that I haven’t let myself do much of it. I’ve needed to get a job, to get tenure, to get promoted, and fiction hasn’t figured in to that. And now that I have reached a point in my career when I can write what I want, I still put up roadblocks.
In the worst sort of self-sabotage, I now feel like I’ve built a career writing academically:  how will I remember how to write creatively? So here’s how I have done it—am doing it:
I’ve read books about being creative, and finding time to fit creative work in around a career. I’ve taken an online coaching class for creative folks who feel blocked. I’m reading and workshopping with The Artist’s Way. And once, last fall, I participated in an all-day write-a-thon whose goal was to produce sample fairy tales, folktales, and fables for a collection aimed at elementary classrooms.
That was an exhilarating nightmare. And it unclogged my writing pipes.

The setting was a room full of tables and laptops, and about twenty writers. Over the course of the day, each writer produced nine pieces, in thirty minute time blocks, on themes and subjects that were assigned on the spot. “Here’s your topic. Write a story. Go.”
For fairy tales, we had to retell a tale we remembered from our childhood in our own words–in thirty minutes. We had to tell one about a princess that started traditional and ended postmodern–in thirty minutes. We had to concoct a ghost story for the folklore section based on a tabloid headline we drew at random–in thirty minutes. You get the idea. Nine texts.
I do not envy the editors their job of clean-up and presentation. I am not proud of all those pieces; there is one, even that I would be truly mortified to see in print.  But the process of cranking out story after story really got my head in to a whole new space.
The experience was invaluable. For someone who doubted her ability to write creatively, I had nine texts to show for myself. Some had come in part from stories I knew, but some were utterly original—about subjects I had never considered. I learned that I had enough story-stuff in me to pull together when I needed it, AND if I needed new material, I could be counted on to produce it.
I had not written against a clock since my last grad school midterm, and then I knew what I had to say; it was just a matter of writing it down fast enough. This was an entirely different experience: making things up that I didn’t have a plan for–and making them presentable–was trying in ways I could not have predicted. It was physically exhausting also—the drive home from Los Angeles is a blur.
The journey to viewing myself as a creative writer is long and winding and not over, but I took some giant strides forward that day. It is my fervent hope that others don’t make it this hard on themselves, but I suspect many do. Is it our culture of productivity (despite being fraught with early death and stress-related ailments)? Some vestige of a Puritan work ethic that says we shouldn’t enjoy work too much? Just a personal fear of letting ourselves “play” as adults? Do we worry that an art career doesn’t come with a 401K?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is I’m kicking all of that to the curb. And whatever else I have been or am, now I am a writer too. And I’m finding my singing voice.
(The Artist’s Way is by Julia Cameron, and there has recently been a 25th anniversary edition released.)
Teaching

Folklore and Facebook

or Quizzes and Character 

The fall quarter started today, and I met three new classes’ worth of readers.  I always spend a few minutes on the first day getting to know the students, and introducing them to the subject.  My folklore students were pretty eager, really.  They came in thinking it sounded fun, so we talked about why.  What are some of the fundamental differences between folk literature and authored literature?

Folk literature is orally composed—people tell stories they have heard told, but each version is legitimate to a folklorist.  Orally composed texts tend to focus on plot, not character, and use stock scenes and characters to build up a narrative.  We stopped there for a while.  One of the fundamental differences between folktales and novels, say, is depth of character.  Folktale characters are bare-boned.  Novel characters are developed, fleshed out, or what E.M. Forester called “round” (as opposed to “flat,” which folktale characters definitely are).
Folktale heroes and heroines have very few identifying traits, as a rule.  Nice, young girls and clever boys populate this world.  All we know about Little Red Riding Hood is that she’s young and beloved.  All we know about Jack is that he’s poor and clever.  The effect of these sparsely developed characters is that anyone can identify with them.  There are so few details, they tend not to hamper our seeing ourselves in them.  We can quickly insert ourselves in to the story and focus on the plot: live the adventure.
Novels are different, as are modern television or movie characters.  These, we read (or watch) for character development, and they don’t disappoint.  Anyone who reads The Great Gatsby has a crystalline vision of that character.  Scarlett O’Hara—very clear.  Any character we spend that much time with, we get to know, and if they’re well-written, “round,” we know them very well.  This actually makes it harder to identify with completely.  We may be like them in some ways, but some of their actions or emotions make it hard to identify completely.
This is why that recent Facebook trend, to post pictures of the three fictional characters who define you, requires three.  When it comes to fictional characters, one won’t do it.  There’s always some detail to the character, or some lack, that keeps us from identifying fully.  But if you could choose three… that makes it easier. I chose Molly Weasley because I am a goofy-but-fierce mom and wife. But there are some qualities about her I don’t embody, some actions she takes that I wouldn’t. I chose Mole from The Wind in the Willows because I am an incontrovertible optimist who finds reasons to be joyful all around me, but I’m not, you know, a mole. Or a male. I chose the Lorax because I speak for the trees; I am a nature nut, a tree- hugger, a hiker, a bird watcher, and an environmentalist–and because I sometimes sound self-righteous and priggish.  But if I left any of these out, the picture would be hopelessly incomplete.  Molly Weasley wouldn’t address the teacher in me; Mole leaves out my protective Molly-ness. The Lorax, without some Moley and Molly would be insufferable as a person.
Human beings are more complicated than the roundest of characters.  And in the wave of Facebook quizzes and people asking to be told who they are, this one feels refreshing.  We choose (I had help from my family), and we get to be complex, multiple.  Instead of a Facebook quiz spitting out one ‘80s song or aura color or spirit animal for you to believe represents you, you get to choose your own, and you get to choose several.  Narratives inform our lives, but it takes a lot of narratives to come close to containing us.  And so we keep reading—searching for and finding more of ourselves in each book.
That was just the first day.  It’s going to be a good quarter.