Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”

 

Review: The Kurdish Bike

I bought this book for two reasons: it won the gold medal for the best regional fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, 2017 (I like to know what other indie authors are doing well); at because its setting in Kurdistan (which is part of Iraq, Iran and Turkey) interested me.

The author is Alesa Lightbourne, who, according to the biography included in her book “has been an English professor and teacher in six countries, lived on a sailboat, dined with Bedouins, and written for Fortune 50 companies.  She lives close to Monterey Bay in California where she loves to boogie board and ride a bicycle.”

Alesa Lightbourne

The Kurdish Bike is the fictional story of Theresa Turner’s experiences as a freelance English teacher working at a remote, but somewhat prestigious school on a hill top in a remote part of Kurdistan.  The school has strict regulation of teachers and students, very tight security – wealthy people’s children attend – and some odd characters teaching and working there.  Theresa obtains a bicycle, as her only means of exploration of the external world; in a nearby village, she meets Bezma a single woman of about 30 and her mother Ara, who is both wise and sour.  Bezma falls in love with Hevar, an egotistical, testosterone-fueled hunk of a man.  There is much to-ing and fro’-ing about the marriage, which eventually does take place.  Meanwhile, Theresa’s stateside finances fall apart owing to the existence of a spend-thrift ex-husband.  The schools manager, Madame, tempts Teresa to stay on for another year, in spite of some emotionally-disturbed management and teaching staff.  The students are, by and large, the only truly likable characters.  There are issues with FGM, which apparently runs at 95% in Kurdistan.  There are two suicides and one murder: plenty of stuff happens.

The Kurdish Bike gives a startlingly real picture of life, culture and the settings of Kurdistan: generally not a place to visit willingly, but the local characters, while extremely drawn in some cases are nonetheless real and captivating.  The story is generally well written.

My main concern is the last couple of chapters of the novel: they seem hurriedly written without supporting events.  One gets the feeling ‘there! everything’s sorted!’  Whereas, there are several crises building up in parallel, and are only resolved in the author’s afterword.  For example, Theresa seems to be thrown a lifeline by the Kurdish government when her contract with the school is cancelled.  This seems implausible since there was little groundwork laid for it.

The tone in the novel, written in the first person, shifts considerably from beginning to end.  It starts out being tentative and defensively emotional.  Toward the end, it becomes cocky, hip and aggressively emotional.  This is more an observation than a criticism; one wonders whether it was consciously intentional, because, to some extent, it is a natural transition for the main character.

One final comment about characters: none of them, with the notable exceptions of Pat, a fellow teacher, and Seema, a female student, are without major flaws, such that you wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them.  The male characters are irredeemable idiots, a reflection, perhaps of Theresa’s attitude towards men, given the choice she made in a husband.

I think that The Kurdish Bike is a good read, and it’s hard to put down.  It is certainly thought-provoking about a very foreign culture.

The Nobel Delay

Amanda Craig has written an article in The Daily Telegraph on May 5 about the one-year delay in awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her website says: “Amanda Craig is a British novelist, short-story writer and critic. Born in South Africa in 1959, she grew up in Italy, where her parents worked for the UN, and was educated at Bedales School and Clare College Cambridge”.  She has worked in advertising and PR before becoming a journalist and a novelist – currently working on her eighth novel.  Her last novel, Hearts And Minds, was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.

Amanda Craig

In the Telegraph article she says:The world of literary prizes is such a vexed and vexatious one, and having rarely been listed for one myself, I may have a jaundiced view of their value.  The Nobel is, due to its sheer pecuniary value, supposedly the Big One, the Everest of achievement and the Moby Dick that has certain Booker winners checking their mobiles every year to see if they have won.

“Does any reader pick a novel because its author has won the prize?  The old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee so often comes to mind that those of us who love reading are often grateful to awards for making clear what or who is largely tedious and unreadable.  Let us not forget that the Swedish Academy rewarded Bob Dylan, who, though a revered singer-songwriter, is literature only to the wilder followers of Professor Christopher Ricks.

“What this absurd scandal – involving not a judge but the husband of a judge – obscures is that, although there are outstanding novelists, from Margaret Atwood to Philip Pullman, there is no great genius of literature currently writing in English.  Not one.  I remember the gloom that would descend of the board of the Society of Authors when, every year, we had to put forward a British author for consideration and could only come up with Harold Pinter.

“The trouble with all big prizes is that they lack definition.  What does ‘best’ mean?  Does it mean, as Jane Austin wrote in Northanger Abbey, a novel ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest definition of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’?

“Or does it mean a novel which is all about fine prose, but which dispenses with character, plot or even deep insight into the human condition?  Or, perhaps, indeed, a book in which wit and humour are wholly absent?

“All of us have encountered prize-winning novels like these, and all too often.”

As for me, I have, on several occasions, selected a novel by a Nobel winner, just to see what was special about it, and I have been disappointed.  I certainly agree with Ms Craig, and I have said so myself, that the remits of the major prizes need to be clarified, so that not everyone is trying to find that obscure and sometimes cranky, ‘best’  I rather like Jane Austin’s definition, though I would substitute ‘broadest’ for ‘happiest’.

My earliest suspicion that Ms Craig does, indeed, have a jaundiced view of the situation was confirmed by her penultimate sentence: “Usually, what the Nobel Prize seems to award above all is the possession of a penis.”

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.

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.”