Review: Seeking Father Khaliq

Pat Kennedy has posted this review of Seeking Father Khaliq on the IndieReader website:

“William Peace begins his modern allegory on a common allegorical premise – the quest. Professor al-Busiri is approached by an unannounced visitor and asked to meet Princess Basheera. When they meet, she has one request of him, to find Father Khaliq which she believes can be accomplished if the professor takes the Hajj. With only the advice to trust her and to use his wisdom and intuition, the professor is to take the religious pilgrimage in search of the mysterious Father Khaliq without a physical description of the man.

“What follows is a wonderful discussion of philosophy, religion, and individual motivation. Peace, having done extensive travel in the world, has a great understanding of how the major religions work and how various sects interpret their religious documents. The conflicts within Islam are discussed through various situations and conversation between Professor al-Busiri and fellow travelers as he undertakes his religious pilgrimage. As the professor travels along his path facing dangers and prejudices and encountering different sects and sometimes radical organizations, the reader gets a better understanding of the motives and problems of the middle east.

“Not only does Peace offer insight into Muslim philosophy and thought, through Professor al-Busiri’s memories and thoughts about his dead Christian wife, we’re given insight into the Christian faith in Egypt. Peace is skillful in incorporating the three major world religions into this allegorical writing and unlocking key ideas and thoughts as they are related to the modern Middle East and philosophical thought. The professors two sons represent two extremes of modern Middle Eastern life, with one joining the army and other the Muslim Brotherhood. Everywhere in the Professor’s world he finds conflict and opposing viewpoints. With his unfruitful search for Father Khaliq becoming an obsession, he continues to search for the answers he seeks.

“As the book is an allegory, it would have been beneficial to have included a glossary of terms and meanings. Peace does give a few clues within the text, for example, the surname of Princess Basheera is Chagma, meaning “wisdom,” and all major meanings are defined, but an inclusion of other meanings of names and terms would be an interesting addition. That doesn’t take away from the novel’s overall impact. As allegories do, SEEKING FATHER KHALIQ leads us to question own beliefs, asking if we have sought the right answers. A fascinating look into a world that affects us all.”

This is a very kind review.  I have to confess, that it is not my ‘extensive travels’ – though I have been to Egypt and Saudi Arabia – that have lead to the ‘great understanding’; it is many hours of internet research, including watching videos of the Hajj and Arba’een.  In fact, I spent more time on research for this book than I did on writing it.  This is probably an unusual ratio of research to writing for a novel, but may be quite typical of non-fiction.

I find it interesting that no mention is made of the focus of the book: one man’s search for God.  (Professor al-Busiri is a secular Muslim – an agnostic – ‘Khaliq’ is one of the more obscure 99 names for Allah.)  Maybe it’s out of fashion for reviewers to do God anymore.

“Publishers Live in Marble Palaces”

That is the title of an interview in The Daily Telegraph of James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones by Jake Kerridge, journalist and art critic.

James Daunt

Kerridge writes: “When HMV sold the Waterstones book chain to the Russian businessman Alexander Mamut in 2011, the company was hurtling towards the knacker’s yard. But Mamut made an inspired decision when he appointed Daunt as his managing director. The 54-year-old, the founder of the small but much-admired independent chain Daunt Books, has transformed the company, brought it back into the black, and defied predictions that the mighty Amazon was going to stomp bricks-and-mortar bookshops into oblivion.

“Now, though, the much-loved book chain faces another threat to its existence – from a ruthless hedge fund. Elliot Management, owned by the controversial New York billionaire Paul Singer, announced at the end of last month that it was buying the company from Mamut, sparking fears of asset stripping. Anne Stevens, CEO of British engineering firm GKN (in which Elliott has a stake) has complained that Elliott does not “give a crap” about long-term outcomes, and Singer himself was once described as a “financial terrorist” by the president of Argentina for his ruthless pursuit of debts.

Kerridge asks Daunt what he thinks about the prophesies of doom that blossomed at the acquisition by Elliott.  Daunt says: ‘We’re opening more shops than we’re closing. Some people have this notion that we’re always about to close shops – if we close one we must be going to close a hundred – which I simply don’t understand.’

When asked about future plans from Elliott, Daunt says, “I obviously have asked them why they’re buying us and what they expect, and the answer has been: ‘Carry on as you’re doing. We think that you can grow, and if you do grow, we’ll sell you for a profit’.”

“What Daunt has been doing has certainly been successful.  At the beginning of this year, Waterstones announced an 80 per cent jump in its annual profits.  The stores have become nicer places to visit, with more flowers and comfy furniture. He insists that staff make their own decisions about how their branches are run; every shop has a different customer demographic, so all key decisions – what books to stock, pricing structure, layout – have been left to branch managers. At the same time, readers have fallen back in love with physical books, something Daunt believes has to do with the power of the book as a decorative item.

“I ask him if he is bothered by reports of a crisis in “literary” fiction, with sales reportedly plummeting.  , ‘I’ve been nearly 30 years a bookseller,’ Daunt says, ‘and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything different. We sell astonishing numbers of whatever the latest literary bestseller is, and our bestselling book almost every year is a novel, and a literary novel at that. Publishers wring their hands and say woe is us and the end of the world is nigh. Nonetheless, when I started as a bookseller they were all in small buildings with rickety staircases. Now they’re in marble palaces along the Thames. I shouldn’t mock, but they really aren’t doing badly.”

“He is sanguine about the threat to reading posed by competing forms of entertainment, be it Netflix or social media. ‘Any parent, of which I’m one, who watches their children flick between a million things, thinks: are they going to sit down and read? But then I just think back to my childhood, and my parents were convinced that television was going to be the end of reading. I’m not so worried because books do provide astonishingly good entertainment.’

“After talking to him I have a quick look around and end up so beguiled I spend too much money and am late for my next appointment. Millions of people have the same experience in Waterstones’ branches across the country.”

I think it’s a welcome relief to hear that a major bookseller is growing and making money.  A retail, brick and mortar, bookstore can give us an up close and personal experience of books that no internet site can match.  And it’s nice to hear that publishers aren’t suffering as much as they would have us believe!

 

Why So Few Prizes for Female Writers?

In her Guardian article on 23 January, Stephanie Merritt argues that female authors ‘rule literary fiction’, but receive few prizes.  This complaint, while it may be justified, is poorly documented.

Ms Merritt, born in 1974 in Surrey, is a literary critic, author and feature writer for the Observer and Guardian.  She read  English at Queens College and graduated from Cambridge University in 1996.  Her first novel, Gaveston, won the Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors in 2002.  She has since written six historical novels featuring Giordano Bruno under the pseudonym S J Parris, and a memoir called The Devil Within, which was shortlisted for the Mind Book Award, about her experience coping with depression.

Stephanie Merritt at the 2016 Hay Festival

She says: “On the face of it, the revelation that female writers dominated the UK bestseller lists in 2017 might seem cause for celebration.  According to the Bookseller, only one man, Haruki Murakami made it to the top ten that saw a generation of female writers, including Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Zadie Smith displace venerable fixtures of the literary landscape such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

“But does this really represent a dramatic shift in the recognition of female literary talent?  The Bookseller list was compiled, by its own admission, according to a narrow definition of ‘literary’, limiting its choices principally to authors who have won, or been shortlisted for, major awards.

“Given the well-documented bias of the big prizes in favour of male authors – in 2015, the author Kamila Shamsie established that less than 40% of the titles submitted by publishers for the Booker in the previous five years had been by women – this results in a very small pool of eligible names.

“If you were to take at face value the discrepancy in coverage in major newspapers and journals, you might conclude that men are simply producing more ‘serious’ fiction than women.  But, as Francine Prose pointed out twenty years ago in her essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, this is largely to do with an inherent bias in the way men’s and women’s wok is perceived.  When a male author writes about a family, it is regarded as social commentary; when a woman does, it’s a domestic tale.

“As recently at 2015, the author Catherine Nichols wrote about the experience of having her first novel universally rejected, only to meet with a very different response when she resubmitted it under a male pseudonym.”

I understand Ms Merritt’s complaint, and it is probably quite just, but this article doesn’t prove it.  She says that 9 of the top ten literary writers in 2017 were women, but women don’t receive a fair share of prizes.  Yet she says that one has to be a prize winner or shortlisted for a prize to make the list at all.

She says that less than 40% of the titles submitted for Booker consideration were by women.  All things being equal, this number should be 50%, and therefore, in my opinion, 40% does not result in a ‘very small pool’.

She refers to the ‘well documented bias’ of big prizes in favour of male authors.  It would have been useful to her case if she had cited some specifics.

That said, the points made by Francine Prose and Catherine Nichols appear to point to an injustice.

Review: Waiting for the Last Bus

I saw an announcement of the publication of Waiting for the Last Bus in the newspaper, and thought I would read it as I am working on a new novel about religion, death and growing old.  I was further attracted to Waiting by the fact that it is written by the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway.

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Richard Holloway

Holloway, clergyman, writer and broadcaster, was born in Scotland in 1933, educated at Kelham and Edinburgh Theological Colleges and Union Theological Seminary. From 1958 to 1986 he served as curate, vicar and rector at parishes in Scotland and the US.  In 1986 he became Bishop of Edinburgh and in 1992, Primus (presiding bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church); he resigned both positions in 2000, and adopted an agnostic world view.

Waiting is a brief (156 page), erudite book filled with poetic quotations, and it reads like a rambling valedictory.  It has tones of human optimism as well as pessimism in the loss of loved ones and the doubt of existence after death.  Holloway recalls many experiences of ministering to the bereaved and the dying, ranging from the uplifting to the tragic, but all genuine and thought-provoking.  Holloway quotes from scripture, not to make a point about faith, but to strengthen an assertion about human nature. The spectrum of issues which Holloway addresses is virtually all-inclusive: the history of attitudes toward death, heaven and hell, aging, the fight for survival, the imperative of death, religion as the human response to existence, predestination, forgiveness, near-death experiences, reincarnation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, cryo-preservation, memory and remembrance, the death of a child, the meaning of the universe, obituaries, and grief.

For me, one observation I could take away is Holloway’s assertion that people can be divided into four categories by religious or agnostic vs fearful or acceptance of death.  I put myself in the religious and accepting category (though with a twinge of concern).

And I would have liked to hear more from Holloway about his personal beliefs and why they are what they are.  My curiosity is precipitated by his renunciation of formal religion.  OK, thanks for the in-depth discussion of the issues, now, tell us, wise old man, ex-clergyman, and thoughtful writer and philosopher, what is your opinion?

I have no hesitation in recommending this book.  It is thought-provoking, well-written, balanced in its message and not too long.

 

The Urge to Write

My wife called my attention to Elena Ferrante’s weekly column in The Guardian.  (That tells you something about our respective political leanings: she, being more liberal, is a frequent visitor to The Guardian, while I read The Telegraph.)

Elena Ferrante is one of my wife’s favourite writers; she, too, is Italian and has written the Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume work about two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples.  The real identity of Elena Ferrante – a pseudonym – has been the subject of intense debate and speculation.

In her column on May 12, Ms Ferrante wrote: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. The art of discouraging with kind words is among the most widely practised. Nor should you believe those who say: you’re young, you lack experience, wait. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have traveled extensively.

“Publishing, yes: that can certainly be put off; in fact, one can decide not to publish at all. But writing should in no case be postponed to an “after”. When writing is our way of being in the world, it continuously asserts itself over the countless other aspects of life: love, study, a job. It insists even when there’s no paper and pen or anything, because we’re worshipers of the written word and our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down. Writing, in short, is always there, urgent, and distances even the people we love, even our children who ask us to play.

“The sense of guilt arrives afterwards, when we’re done. If it arises before that, if we can’t repress it – if, in other words, the responsibilities of affection prevail – well, maybe that’s a sign that writing doesn’t have sufficient power, that our vocation is fragile and that, fortunately (yes, fortunately), on the human plane we are better than artists, most of whom are so full of themselves, so egocentric.

“But be careful: we have to refrain from taking our barren, proud, cruel creative deliriums for a mark of quality. The yearning to give written form to the world isn’t a guarantee of good literature. Writing, even when we have a strong vocation, doesn’t necessarily produce memorable work.

“Oh, one can be successful, of course, transforming the fury of writing into a lucrative job. But one can never contain writing within a professional framework, complete with résumé, salary, bonuses. Success and the bit of prestige that comes with it prove nothing, especially if one’s literary ambitions are high. We remain dissatisfied and, successful or not, the writing will continue to remind us that it’s a tool with which one can extract much more than we have been able to. The exercise lasts obsessively, desperately, all our lives. And if others say to us, it’s enough now, you’ve given all you could give, we don’t trust that, we shouldn’t trust it. Until our last breath, we’ll torment ourselves with the suspicion that, just at the moment when we seem to have won, we have lost.”

Many of Ms Ferrante’s comments resonate with me.  When I started writing my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I wasn’t planning to write a novel.  I thought it would be interesting to write down a Sicilian romance, bits of which I dreamt.  But, I couldn’t stop.  It became a whole story that was crying to be told.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about the craft of writing, which is much more that having a lovely story and good English language skills.  (I’ve mentioned these skills in earlier posts.)  Suffice it to say that gaining skills does nothing to extinguish the longing to write – if anything, the longing becomes a craving,

Ms Ferrante says, “Our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down.”  How true!  I find myself lying in bed thinking about how to resolve a character’s particular dilemma, when, suddenly, a near perfect piece of language will come to mind, and my task, hours later, becomes the recreation of that piece.

Poet Laureate

When I think of a poet laureate, the image of an ancient bearded Greek with a wreath of laurel on his head comes to mind.  The tradition was revived in Italy in the 14th century.  Nowadays, some twenty countries and eighteen US states have poet laureates.  Wikipedia says that the laureate “is a poet officially appointed by a government or conferring institution, typically expected to compose poems for special events and occasions”.

In the UK the appointment is made is made by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister.   The role does not entail any specific duties, but there is an expectation that the holder will write verse for significant national occasions.  The position dates from 1668 when John Dryden was appointed by Charles II.  Traditionally, in addition to a financial stipend the appointee received a quantity of good wine.  The current UK poet laureate is Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed in 2009 for a fixed ten year term.  Her compensation is £5,750 and a barrel of sherry.

In the United States, the Library of Congress appoints a ‘Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress’ annually.  The laureate receives a stipend of $35,000 per year, serves from October to May, and is given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a charge to promote poetry.  No other duties are specified.  The current laureate is Tracy K Smith, who in April, 2018 was nominated for a second term by the librarian.  Ms Smith, born in 1972, is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities, has published three collections of poetry, and is currently professor of creative writing at Princeton.  Her poetry collection Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011.

Tracy K Smith

Ms Smith was interviewed in the April 9 issue of Time Magazine.  She was asked why poetry matters today.  Se said, “Poetry requires us to be humble and beholden to something other than our own opinion.  That’s important.  There’s too much in our 21st century lives that is telling us we’re the most important thing, that our initial gut reaction is incredibly valuable and not vulnerable, and that our opinions as consumers are more important than anything else about us.  A poem says, ‘No, no.  You have feelings  You have fears.  You have questions.  Let’s get back to the voice and the vocabulary of being human.”

“What do you feel is your duty as poet laureate?”

“I think it is my duty to say, ‘This is something everyone has permission to do.  A poem is not something you need an advanced degree to comprehend.'”

“What’s next for you?”

“I’m co-translating a contemporary Chinese poet called Yi Lei.  And I’m working on a libretto for an opera with Greg Spears, about land held by descendants of people who were enslaved on that land, and what happens when that land becomes extremely valuable.”

Ms Smith strikes me as a person I would like to sit and talk with about the creative process and how she teaches it.  She is clearly quite an accomplished artist at a relatively young age, and I particularly like her answer to why poetry matters today, because, I think the same answer applies to literature, generally.

Chick Lit Book Covers

Last week there was an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘Chick lit book covers are putting men off, says author’. The article was written by Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent for the Telegraph, though her Telegraph web page suggests she is more Royal Correspondent.   In any case, I agree with her article:

“Pink, glittery book covers are putting readers off works by female authors and should be made more gender-neutral, a best-selling novelist has said.  Jojo Moyes, who wrote Me Before You and its sequels, said the public did not want to read novels that were marketed to women with cliched cover designs.

Chick Lit

“Ms Moyes said she had been ‘lucky to get a wider audience’, thanks to covers that appealed to male as well as female readers.  ‘So many women who write about difficult issues are lumped under the chick lit umbrella’ she told the BBC.  ‘It’s so reductive and disappointing – it puts off readers who might otherwise enjoy them.  If it was up to me, we would all discover things in a huge massive jumble  The boundaries are being blurred, with women writing domestic noir and thrillers.  Supermarkets want things that are easily categorised, but people don’t want to read something pink and glittery.’

“Several female authors have insisted their books are marketed differently. In 2014, Jodi Picoult argued that many books considered great works of art by men would be put within ‘pink fluffy’ covers if they had been written by a woman.  In 2015, Joanne Harris highlighted a ‘growing gender division’ in fiction, which saw a ‘sea of pastel pink in the romance section (as if men were neither interested in romance, nor expected to participate in romantic relationships)'”

When I’m in Waitrose, I frequently glance at the books for sale, and I find they usually fit into one of two categories: last years best-sellers by well know authors or recognisably pink and fluffy chick lit.  So, I agree that supermarkets want their products to be easily recognised.   And, I suppose that if I were a slightly bored female shopper, what might appeal to me would probably be a juicy romance or last year’s novel by Dan Brown.  It would have to be an impulse decision; after all, there is a well-stocked Waterstones on the floor above.

I have discovered that there are literary agents who specialise in chick lit  I was looking on the internet for literary agents who might represent me and my latest novel, which I consider literary in the sub genre of inspirational.  So, I tended to exclude any agents who specialise in ‘commercial fiction’, non-fiction, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers and childrens’ books.  Lots of agents show the covers of their clients’ books on their websites.  And another turn-off for me was the predominance of pink and fluffy covers.  Maybe these agents and their clients are brilliant and maybe they could find me a great publisher, but I felt I would be less likely to be wasting my time by focusing on the agents who want to look at inspirational, literary fiction.

A Civil Engineer’s View of Literature

I recently joined the Royal Society of Literature, and I’ve found that on their website (www.rsliterature.org) there are interesting pieces on topics related to reading and writing.  One piece which caught my eye is ‘Literature Matters: A Civil Engineer’s View’ by Gyan Shrivastava, who received his civil engineering education in India, Britain and the West Indies. He is a Chartered Civil Engineer.  After several years in the construction industry, he joined academia. In 2015, he retired as a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

Gyan Shrivastava

In his article, he says: “I am a retired civil engineer. I worked in practice and in academia. In sum, I belong to the world of concrete and steel. At age thirty, however, I entered into the world of literature: a book, found in an aircraft’s seat-pocket, became a turning point.

“The daytime flight, over an endless blue ocean, was nondescript. I read the book A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. By the time I landed, I saw the world, and my life, through a different lens – a lens which showed me the outcome of self-absorption. Inspired, I read more. In time, the words of Virginia Woolf (‘How Should One Read A Book?’) became a beacon:

“‘—- I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their awards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms – Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’

“Not long ago, I came across The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, Professor of Psychoanalysis at University College in London. His words are telling: ‘Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.’

“Needless to say, literature gave me a purpose in my twilight years: I am writing my own story. Unexpectedly, I find that it is not different from constructing bridges and buildings. Put simply, words become concrete and steel, sentences span words as beams, paragraphs support sentences as columns, and punctuation marks connect as bolts and nuts. Moreover, a civil engineer may even have an inbuilt advantage in the world of thoughts and emotions. That is to say, an economy in the use of building materials can translate into an economy of words!”

I particularly like his quotation from Virginia Wolf that reading is its own great reward.

I haven’t read The Examined Life, but the excerpt above resonates for me – more as a writer than a reader.  As a child, our experiences leave indelible impressions on us, and they are important enough that we keep returning to them, to understand their meaning for us as malleable individuals.  So, in this sense they are stories – stories which we need to tell – not necessarily in their entirety or all at once, but in pieces that can be laid out on a table like a grand jigsaw to be savoured and tested for relationships.  I have found that, as a writer, there are pieces of me scattered about and to which I attach a new meaning.

‘Swiping Left’ on Books

Camilla Turner, Education Editor at The Daily Telegraph, had an article on the April 2 issue of the Telegraph, which was titled: ‘Time to turn over a new leaf as infants ‘swipe left’ on books’.

“Children are swiping on books in an attempt to turn pages, teachers have said, as they are confusing them with mobile phones and iPads,” the article began.

“There is a ‘disturbing’ trend of children in reception and at nursery school picking up library books and trying to ‘swipe left’, delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Brighton were told.  During a debate about libraries, Jennifer Bhambri-Lyte, a delegate from North Somerset, told of “happy childhood memories” of “running into a library, snuggling in a corner with a book, cuddling up to mum, turning the pages, gazing at the pictures”.  She told the conference: “Kindles and iPads are wonderful things, but many of my friends talked about the smell of a book, finding tickets and receipts that someone had left as a bookmark, echoes of all the people that had been there before.”  Ms Bhambri-Lyte went on: “I’ve taught both nursery and reception and I personally still find it disturbing to see a child pick up a book and try to swipe left.” She said that books are a now luxury that many struggling families cannot afford, and that libraries can act as a “pair of armbands”.

“A previous report by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) advised parents to turn to iPads and Kindles to get boys interested in reading, amid fears that large numbers of children are shunning books at a young age.   Their research found that children aged three to five often read for longer and had a better grasp of vocabulary when accessing touch-screen technology. Tablet computers had a particular impact on groups that are traditionally most resistant to reading – particularly boys and infants from poor families, the study added.”

The article went on to complain about the reduction in the number of public libraries in the UK, due to budget cuts.  Quite what the relationship might be between ‘swiping left’ and library budget cuts is not clear.  For some reason, children swiping left in their library reminds teachers and librarians that budgets are being cut.  If one disentangles this strange logic, it seems to me that there is nothing particularly ‘disturbing’ about children swiping left.  They will soon learn that this is not the most effective way to turn the pages of a book.  On the other hand, reducing the number of public libraries is certainly a very poor idea.

Darkness in Kids Books

Last month, there was an essay in Time Magazine by Matt de la Pena, author of the childrens’ books, in which he discussed the importance of writing about painful experiences in the books he writes.

Matt de la Pena

He says, “A few weeks ago, illustrator Loren Long and I learned that a major gatekeeper would not support our forthcoming picture book, Love, an exploration of love in a child’s life, unless we “softened” a certain illustration. In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty old fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable. This discouraging news led me to really examine, maybe for the first time in my career, the purpose of my picture book manuscripts. What was I trying to accomplish with these stories? What thoughts and feelings did I hope to evoke in children?”

“This particular project began innocently enough. Finding myself overwhelmed by the current divisiveness in our country, I set out to write a comforting poem about love. It was going to be something I could share with my own young daughter as well as every kid I met in every state I visited, red or blue. But when I read over one of the early drafts, something didn’t ring true. It was reassuring, uplifting even, but I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity.

“So I started over.

“A few weeks into the revision process, my wife and I received some bad news, and my daughter saw my wife openly cry for the first time. This rocked her little world and she began sobbing and clinging to my wife’s leg, begging to know what was happening. We settled her down and talked to her and eventually got her ready for bed. And as my wife read her a story about two turtles who stumble across a single hat, I studied my daughter’s tear-stained face. I couldn’t help thinking a fraction of her innocence had been lost that day. But maybe these minor episodes of loss are just as vital to the well-adjusted child’s development as moments of joy. Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.”

He went on to say that he was in Rome, Georgia, reading to some school children, when “I decided, on a whim, to read Love to them, too, even though it wasn’t out yet. I projected Loren’s illustrations as I recited the poem from memory, and after I finished, something remarkable happened. A boy immediately raised his hand, and I called on him, and he told me in front of the entire group, “When you just read that to us I got this feeling. In my heart. And I thought of my ancestors. Mostly my grandma, though … because she always gave us so much love. And she’s gone now.”

“And then he started quietly crying.

“And a handful of the teachers started crying, too.

“I nearly lost it myself. Right there in front of 150 third graders. It took me several minutes to compose myself and thank him for his comment.  On the way back to my hotel, I was still thinking about that boy, and his raw emotional response. I felt so lucky to have been there to witness it. I thought of all the boys growing up in working-class neighborhoods around the country who are terrified to show any emotion. Because that’s how I grew up, too — terrified. Yet this young guy was brave enough to raise his hand, in front of everyone, and share how he felt after listening to me read a book. And when he began to cry a few of his classmates patted his little shoulders in a show of support. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved inside the walls of a school.  That’s why I write books. Because the little story I’m working on alone in a room, day after day, might one day give some kid out there an opportunity to “feel.” And if I’m ever there to see it in person again, next time hopefully I’ll be brave enough to let myself cry, too.”

I have to add that the illustration Matt is talking about is evocative.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on line, but is it focused on a grand piano with a small boy, hugging his legs, head down, sheltered beneath it.  His dog is cuddled up next to him.  On the left is a woman, covering her face with her hands, and on the right is a man, leaving the room.  The text says: “But it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover.  And friendships.  And people.”