London Literature Festival

My wife and I attended two events at the London Literature Festival: readings by Carol Ann Duffy (the Poet Laureate,) ‘and friends’; and an interview with Salman Rushdie, both at the Southbank Centre, London

Carol Ann Duffy was the last of four readers; the other three were Imtiaz Dharker, Keith Hutson and Mark Pajak.  Ms Duffy, born 1955, is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly gay to hold the position.  Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in an accessible language that has made them popular in schools.

Carol Ann Duffy

Of the four poets, I liked the readings of Mark Pajak best.  His poems were quite ordinary in their subjects – the one I liked best was about removing dead birds from a hen battery – but he has a way of expressing emotions with unique yet powerfully descriptive phrases.  This is a talent which I aspire to emulate.  Mr Pajak is quite a young poet, currently completing an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.   My wife’s preference was Imitiaz Dharker, a Pakistani-born, English poet in her mid-sixties.  Ms Duffy’s concluding poem was a bad-language rant against the corrupt elite using seven key words.  It was intended to be clever but for me, it came across as bombastic.

Salman Rushdie was interviewed by Erica Wagner, and American-born (1967) author and critic, who was literary editor of The Times from 1996 to 2013; she has written several books, including a novel, a collection of stories and a biography.  She has served twice as Booker Prize judge.

The discussion with Salman Rushdie began with Midnight’s Children, which he characterised as a history.   He made the point that one writes an historic novel, one must have a road map of places and events to be covered before one starts writing.  This road map makes the task of writing quite different than when one starts with a character-based novel, and lets the development of the characters control the flow of the novel.  He confessed to being very torn between Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight.  After writing both titles down repeatedly on a sheet of paper, he woke up the next morning and realised that Midnight’s Children is the better title.  He said that while in Italian and Spanish, there is a similar choice between the two constructions, in French there is only one, so one has to be attentive to the advice of translators.

He confessed to be a reader who is ‘not anxious to turn the page’, and this confession reminded me of my criticism of Rushdie’s writing: that it is sometimes too verbose.

The narrator of his latest novel is a young man called René, and he made the point that it is an important decision for an author to select the narrator: there have to be good reasons for the selection.  I agree.  He then spoke about the difficulty for a seventy-year-old writer in getting into the head of a hip young New Yorker – though he didn’t mention his technique for the transformation.

Much of the dialogue with Ms Wagner was about The Golden House, Rushdie’s most recent, which is a parable of American politics, written after the Obama inauguration.  There is a Trump-like character who likes to refer to himself as The Joker.  Rushdie said, “In a deck of cards, only two of them don’t behave properly: One is the trump and the other is a joker.”  He read from The Golden House: “It was the year of The Joker in Gotham and beyond, as America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe. . . Suddenly lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny.”

Suggesting that perhaps Donald Trump, The Joker is insane, Rushdie said, “people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.”

Most of The Golden House was  written before Trump was president, so it was prescient in predicting the outcome. “The book knew,” Rushdie joked.

Having met on several occasions, Rushdie and Trump are acquaintances, though there is some doubt that Trump has read the novel, not being much of a reader.  “I’m still waiting for that tweet.” Rushdie said.

Writing a Negative Review

Susan Violante, the Managing Editor, of Reader Views, places a post with this title on the Reader Views blog.  Since, as you know, I like to write reviews, and have occasionally been quite critical of what I have read, I was interested in what she had to say.

“Let’s face it, being a reviewer does not mean liking all books. There is a big chance that a book will not live up to the expectation of a reviewer, and thus result in a negative review. Other books simply do not even meet publishing standards in writing, editing, or production, in which case reviewers have trouble even completing the book. Being an author and a reviewer, I get both sides of the coin, and I have written many editorials from the author’s point of view about receiving a negative review of their title. This time, I want to focus on the reviewer’s end in hopes of helping reviewers write honest negative reviews, while remaining respectful and professional. Here are some tips on writing negative reviews:

“Do not let it get personal or be biased.  Actually, reviewers pretty much review only what they choose themselves. There is no need to take the author’s opinions personally and reflect that in the review. A review should be just an opinion of the storyline, the writer’s craft, and the book’s production.

“Being a reviewer is not all about reading; it has a lot to do with communication and the ability to express an opinion to an audience in writing. The success of a reviewer is actually measured on the size of their following audience, not on the number of reviews under their belt. This indicates the importance of the quality of their writing skills. If a reviewer communicates honestly and skilfully, the audience will look for that opinion before deciding to purchase a book. Readers want an impartial opinion about titles that will communicate to them the positive and negatives of the book as a product, so that they can decide whether to buy and read it.

“Enjoy reviewing. There are two kinds of reviewers. The ones that read because they love it, and get into reviewing; and the ones that won’t read unless they are reviewing. To the second type I say, please just stop. As a bookworm (writing and reading), I got into reviewing because I not only love to read, I also love to write, and even more, I love talking about what I read! Because I am having fun doing reviews, I will always find a positive and a negative in everything I read. Actually, sometimes I only find positives…but my point is that since I am reviewing only what I like to read, I will always be able to find a positive worth mentioning in my reviews, even when writing a negative review.

“Even if the book had flaws, or did not live up to the reviewer’s expectations, a reviewer needs to be respectful of the author’s efforts by choosing their words carefully when pointing out those flaws. There is no reason to be offensive when being honest, and reviewers who are passionate about books and reviewing will enjoy the process of writing a review that will be honest, yet respectful.”

I agree with what Ms Violante says.  I would add that keeping the format of the review professional can also keep a distance of professionalism between the author and the reviewer.  I usually start out with why I selected the book, and then give a summary of the story line in neutral language.  After the summary, I begin with what I liked about the book, followed by what I saw as its weaknesses.  It’s on the subject of weaknesses that tact needs to come into play: if in mentioning a weakness, I feel fairly certain that the author would understand and agree, I simply state the weakness using neutral language.  If I sense that it is just my opinion, or that the author might well disagree, I will say, “In my opinion . . .” or “It seems to me that . . .”

I usually end the review with a general positive recommendation, but if I don’t think that would be honest, I will say what kind of readers would like the book.  As far as I can remember, I’ve written only one one-star review, and that one ended without a recommendation.

 

Achieving Superpersonhood

My latest novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, has just been released.  Three young, black East Africans, Kamiri, Dorothy and Hassan, of dissimilar backgrounds, struggle with hard times and become friends in their intersecting searches for a demanding yet satisfying personal identity – what Nietzsche called ‘super personhood’.  Two voices are heard throughout: the One, likely the voice of God, and the Other, probably Satan’s voice, as they offer conflicting guidance on achieving alternative identities.

The synopsis:

                Kamiri, a dirt-poor, but likable and intelligent migrant, who was raised in the tribal faith, is drawn to the city where he joins his brother in the drugs trade.  Disgusted, he finds work in an abattoir, but his comradeship with Hassan leads him into professional football.  Kamiri’s jealous brother, Warari, turned terrorist, shoots him in the knee, ending his athletic career, and he returns to the solace of the wilderness as a park ranger.  Accidentally, he kills an ivory poacher and faces prosecution until Hassan’s older, half-brother hires him to work as a ranger in an up-market safari park.  Can Kamiri become the park’s general manager, and can he marry Dorothy?

Dorothy, a college graduate from a professional, middle class, Christian family is an impatient idealist who is unsure whether her future lies on politics or medicine.  As an intern working for an MP, she becomes involved in a sting on corrupt exploitation of a diamond mine. Realising that the low ethical standards of politics are an obstacle for her, she opts for medicine, only to be raped by a senior doctor.  Her faith in medicine is also shaken, but she mounts a civil suit and media campaign in retaliation for her humiliation.  Can she find success and happiness as a doctor, and whom will she marry: Kamiri or Hassan?

Hassan, of doubtful parentage, is the youngest child in a rich and powerful Muslim family.  Lonely, insecure and drifting at university, he joins Dorothy in a political protest which goes wrong for him: he receives a two-year suspended jail sentence.  While helping Dorothy in the mining sting, he trespasses on a claim, and fearful of being sent to prison, he immerses himself in suspect Islamic studies and is misled into a terrorist organisation.  Appalled by the terrorists’ values and deeds, he escapes to Kamiri who provides him with a safe haven while he considers his options.  Hassan’s father is able to place him in the Army’s officer candidate school.  Will Hassan make a good Army officer, and will he marry Dorothy?

The setting is current in the startling diversity (cultural, economic, social and political) that is East Africa.

If you would like to read Achieving Superpersonhood, I will send free copies to the first twenty-five of you who send your postal address to bill@williampeace.net.  What I ask in return is that you write a review.  Happy reading!

Judging a Book by its Cover

In the May/June issue of The Independent magazine, there is an article Converting Book Browsers to Book Buyers by Kristin Fields, Associate Editor.

Kristin Fields

The article is quite lengthy, but the part that I found particularly interesting concerned cover design.

Ms Fields says, “There are two deeply held misunderstandings about the nature and role of a book’s “cover” in trade publishing. First, that its main purpose is to be “liked,” when, in fact, its primary role is to motivate browsing. One of the “ugliest,” least liked covers Codex has ever tested was Tina Fey’s Bossypants (featuring Tina Fey with what appear to be massive, hairy, man arms), and yet it had phenomenal browsing impact and became the #2 overall bestselling book on Amazon for its publication year.

“Second, it’s essential to understand book buyers use the cover as the book’s message, relying heavily on it to tell them what the book is, why they should be interested in it, and to judge if it’s worth the effort of browsing—very similar to the role of a strong campaign slogan in politics—conveyed through word and image combined.

“Book publishers consistently make the mistake of undervaluing the cover as simply a piece of decoration, when in fact the data is very clear that it’s the combined impact of title, subtitle, reading line, author name, blurb, and design that together either move, or more often dissuade, a book consumer from browsing. We have to continually remind ourselves that book people are “word people”; they love and respond to words first and foremost. Nearly 15 years of Codex testing has consistently shown that a book’s title, subtitle, or reading line copy are in fact almost always the most important conversion factor in a book’s cover, not the art. While great cover art brings a very important added dimension, amplification, and visual recall to a book, great cover art alone rarely drives the book consumer to act, except in breakthrough examples like Bossypants.

“Here are some examples of past Codex Preview testing case studies to provide additional insight into some key findings on book conversion (buying decision):

“In a rebranding project on the For Dummies series, for example, two message options were tested: Staying Young for Dummies and Healthy Aging for Dummies. Because the Dummies brand audience skewed 55+, the “Healthy Aging” message spoke more powerfully to that audience, best fulfilled the brand’s values, and had the highest conversion.

 

“In another Preview test, when it comes to blurbs, less can be more. While one test version of the cover for The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe was plastered with over a dozen “blurbs to die for” from some of the biggest names in thriller writing, category fans were skeptical, less hype with a single quote and an emphasis on the title.

 

“Using faces on a book’s cover can also be unpredictable. The biography of Apple co-founder and inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak, is a good example. Codex results confirmed that few book buyers were even familiar with the author’s name, let alone his face. One test treatment featured a photo of a young Wozniak from the 1970s, which motivated far less browsing than a text-based presentation that emphasized the message “The Inventor of the Personal Computer Speaks at Last” highlighted by Apple’s iconic rainbow stripes. Faces can be unpredictable conversion drivers because of they may be unrecognizable, distracting, or unrelateable. It’s best to pre-test before committing if you’re unsure.

“While publishers and designers are deeply involved in a cover’s development over weeks or months at a time, it’s important to remember that a book browser typically relies on just a split second gut reaction to make a browsing decision.”

For the indie author, whose books do not usually appear in bookstores, the issues are slightly different, because decisions are not quite so instantaneous.  But, the indie author should still be trying for a cover which says, “Here’s what I’m about” and “Read me!”

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.

Reading: A Different Kind of Medicine

In the autumn 2017 issue of the The Royal Society of Literature Review, the is an article with much the same title, and it’s discussing the therapeutic benefits of shared reading.  The idea – a simple one –  is that great books or poems are selected and read aloud in groups of two to twenty.  But the results might be called bibliotherapy.

Louise, a volunteer in Oswestry said: “From the three sessions I’ve been involved in so far I have been staggered by how much individuals, people I’ve not known previously, are prepared to share their feelings, emotions, thoughts – it’s been a privilege and although I often come away quite exhausted, I’m also full of joy at the power literature has on people. One woman told me: “I always thought I was stupid at school because I couldn’t take things in quickly. Today, because we have read slowly, I understood it. I’m not stupid.” Another said that having a story read to her made her feel sad because she’d not had that as a child but at the end she said: “Please come back, I want to do that again, it has made me feel lovely.”

Zena, a volunteer in Kent said:  “I think a lot of people see reading as something educational or out of their reach, I really want people of all backgrounds and abilities to see that reading can make a difference for their health and well-being. I don’t have a literary background, I hope that helps my group members see reading as something accessible to everyone.  I had a wonderful moment with an individual in the domestic abuse group I deliver while reading Jenny Colgan’s A Very Distant Shore. A group member who usually doesn’t say much asked what a refugee was, when I explained, they replied “that’s like me, I’m escaping something and starting again.” You could really see them thinking about it, processing the idea – they made a wonderful and very powerful connection with the story.”

Stephen, Phoenix House, Wirral said:  “The books, stories and poetry, whilst not necessarily dealing with my own problems directly, raise issues similar to my own which I have found myself addressing vicariously, assisted by the thoughts, suggestions and ideas of other group members. It has brought structure to my life, something that disappeared because of job loss and drinking.  Discussions, raised on points from the story or poem, often range far from the subject matter, but are just as important for me as they encourage me to think and interact on all levels. Without the Shared Reading group, I don’t feel that my recovery would have been possible. Listening to someone tell a story, read a play or recite a poem holds my attention for far longer than anything else can, giving me food for good thoughts and distracting my attention away from my issues and addiction triggers.”

The Reader, a charity started by Jane Davis, and RSL member in 2008 has trained over 7,000 people in the Shared Reading model, and there are currently 300 weekly sessions across the UK, with 53 of the groups in 32 different criminal justice settings.  Other settings include rehab clinics, refuges, and care homes.  Shared Reading reaches out to people who were not committed readers, or who could not read, or left reading behind when they graduated, or who believe that reading is a luxury well beyond them.

For those of you who would be interested in leading a reading group, there is training available.  See www.thereader.org.uk.

 

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.

Kids Books Should be a Little Sad

In my post on March 12, 2018, I covered a story from Time Magazine about Matt de la Pena, a writer of children’s books, arguing that it’s OK for there to be a dark aspect to children’s books.  In a follow-up to that article, there is another on the Time website by Kate Dicamillo, an award-winning author of sixteen children’s books.

Kate Dicamillo

The connection between the two authors is this: Matt asked Kate whether it is the job of a children’s author to tell the truth or to preserve innocence.

Kate answered with a question: “Have you ever asked an auditorium full of kids if they know and love Charlotte’s Web?  In my experience, almost all the hands go up.  And if you ask them how many of them cried when they read it, most of the hands remain unabashedly aloft.”

(Charlotte’ Web is by E B White with illustrations by Garth Williams.  Its Amazon site says, “This is the story of a little girl named Fern who loved a little pig named Wilbur and of Wilbur’s dear friend, Charlotte A. Cavatica, a beautiful large grey spider. With the unlikely help of Templeton the rat, and a wonderfully clever plan of her own, Charlotte saves the life of Wilbur, who by this time has grown up to be quite a pig.”)

Kate says she asked her best childhood friend, “What was it made you read and re-read that book? Did you think that if you read it again, things would turn our differently, better?  That Charlotte wouldn’t die?”

“No,” she said, “It wasn’t that.  I kept reading it not because I wanted it to turn out differently . . . but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently.  I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew it was going to be OK somehow.  I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then when I read it again, it was all so beautiful.  And I found out that I could bear it.   That was what the story told me.  That was what I needed to hear.  That I could bear it somehow.”

Kate told another auditorium story: “A boy asked me if I thought I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been sick all the time as a kid and if my father hadn’t left.  And I said something along the lines of I think that there is a very good chance that I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today if those things hadn’t happened to me.  A girl raised her hand and said, ‘It turns out that you were stronger than you thought you were.”

“When the kids left the auditorium, I stood at the door and talked with them as they walked past. One boy – skinny legged and blonde haired – grabbed my hand and said, “I’m here in South Dakota, and my dad is in California.  He’s there and I’m here with my mom.  And I thought I might not be OK.  But you said today that you’re OK.  And so I think that I will be OK, too.”

Kate continued, “E B White loved the world.  And in loving the world, he told the truth about it – its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty.  He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth come comfort and a feeling that we are not alone.”

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.”