Saturday, April 18, 2015

Masters of their crafts—two etherees #NationalPoetryMonth

This book can change parents!
Each year, I read a freight truck full of picture books.  I head straight to the Rose Room when I enter Powell's. There, I pick recommendations off the shelves, plop down at the wooden kiddie tables, and explore that fertile backyard where words marry pictures and make babies together.

Like all babies, picture books are perfect. And like all babies, everyone feels the need to weigh in on how best to raise them. Everyone seems to know the only way to make the best ones, and they will not hesitate to tell you the ways in which author/illustrators succeed or fail.

And like child rearing methods, The Rules on how to best make picture books seem irrefutable. Until, of course, they change over time. Public opinion swerves and swims in synchronicity like schools of barracuda.

Today, everyone knows that picture books writers should use words sparingly. Everyone knows that illustrators must fill each page with lush color. It is understood that the protagonist must be a child (or child-like, anthropomorphic animal or ugly-cute monster).  And most important, the protagonist must grow and change from start to finish. These are the current cardinal rules, and they have been for some time.

But God—how I love the rule breakers!

Ruth Krauss was one such mess maker. Like Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon), she worked on her craft at the Bank Street College of Education Writers Lab. She published at least thirty picture books, none of them formulaic, each one different from the last, and all of them questioned by those in the know, namely marketing departments. Krauss's editor Ursula Nordstrom staunchly defended her ability to morph her style and concepts so completely from one book to another, and groomed marketers to pitch her genius to booksellers.

Krauss was a master of her craft. Of all her works, The Carrot Seed is my favorite. Her husband Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon) illustrated this timeless story about a boy who plants a seed and knows it will grow, despite the naysayers who tell him otherwise.

Krauss didn't make the boy change. She didn't even make the naysayers change. All that changed in the story was that carrot seed. It changed into a plant with a giant orange edible root.

But outside of the story? Every time I read that book to children, I change.

A switch flicks on inside me and by the end, I am reminded that I should, at a minimum, allow room for children to experiment. Let them try things without telling them what I think will happen.

Furthermore, like Beverly Cleary has said about children's stories, we shouldn't expect kids to ruminate on themes when they read. They should just be allowed to enjoy them. I agree with her entirely. When I read and re-read The Carrot Seed as a child, I didn't change at all or ponder the meaning of the tale. I simply loved the fact that the boy in the story had been right all along.

So, inspired by the works that Ruth Krauss and other rule breakers have given to children here's an etheree* to ward off formulaic publishing in kid lit.

Picture Books

are not—
never  were—
stories for children.
Don't make kids grow faster
than they need to. Don't force them.
Don't press them to give away things
that comfort them, that lull them to sleep.
It's the parents who must grow from these tales.

I'm lucky to have Judi Korpi Webb join me in this exploration of both etheree and masters of their craft. Judi is not only a poet but also a professional ASL (American Sign Language Interpreter.) She was inspired to write a poem about her hero, the legendary interpreter and master of her craft, Sharon Neumann Solow.

An etheree after being in the presence of an interpreting legend
Show what you know
Not scared, excited
Sharon Neumann Solow
Be genuinely joyful
How can you thank us? We thank you!
Legendary and approachable
We see ourselves reflected in your eyes

*An etheree is an unrhymed, unmetered 10-line poem, in ascending syllable format, from one syllable to ten. Like a cinquain, there's limited real estate in which to construct your message. Want to give it a try? Share it with me in the comments. Thanks!

Judi Korpi Webb with her hero, Sharon Neumann Solow

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You and I are on the same page about this!