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The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration -- nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children's Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)

What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.”

As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.

All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power.

I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.

It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.

I just finished recording a new video spot, promoting my school visits. Recording the spot reminded me how much I love doing school visits, and how hard it is for schools to pay for them these days. So I’m offering some amazing discounts to schools and libraries that book events for the 2010-2011 school year:

    Book two or more same-day assemblies and I’ll throw in A FREE WRITING WORKSHOP for up to 35 students -- a $350 value!

    Book at least two same-day assemblies or workshops and I’ll send you 25 FREE AUTOGRAPHED COPIES of my picture book Firefighters in the Dark to distribute to students or sell as a fund-raiser – a $400 value!

    Book a one-hour Virtual Visit or a single Assembly and I’ll DISCOUNT THE PRICE BY $50 and send you AUTOGRAPHED COPIES of both Firefighters in the Dark and The Sea Serpent and Me for your school library -- an $88 value!

You can learn more about my school visits here. Or contact me for more information: info@dashkaslater.com

Odd and Creepy Children's Classics

I was looking forward to the Independent’s round-up of bloodiest children’s bedtime stories but it turned out to be a disappointment. Nine of the ten are fairytales, but really, the observation that fairytales are bloody is hardly newsworthy. Kind of like noticing that football players get injured a lot.

The article made me thirst for something more startling -- a list of beloved children’s books that turn out to be downright creepy when you read them as an adult. (While I didn’t find one, I did find this wonderful list of odd contemporary picture books.) I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games, which is in many ways less creepy than one might expect, but the old chestnuts you settle down to read with your small ones and then discover, with increasing discomfort, are unexpectedly sadistic or disturbing or just plain weird. Here are four that come to mind.

1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Sometimes called “the co-dependent’s handbook,” this is a story about a loving, mother-like tree who gets hacked to pieces by the boy she loves. In the end, the boy – now an old man – rests on her lifeless stump. Kind of like Boxing Helena for preschoolers.

2. Thomas the Tank Engine by the Reverend W. Awdry
Maybe you’ve read the modern version, which had some of its more disturbing parts removed by marketing genius Britt Allcroft. But if you read the original you’ll discover that the Island of Sodor, where Thomas and the other train engines live, is a brutal and hierarchical place reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century English boarding school. The engines taunt and play tricks on one another and suck up to the Fat Controller (called Sir Topham Hatt in later versions) by roughing up the lowest members of the pecking order, the ill-natured freight cars. In a typical story, Henry, Gordon and James, the three top-tier engines, refuse to fetch their coaches which they say is “beneath them.” The Fat Controller responds by locking them in the engine shed, where they remain for the duration of the story.

"Henry, Gordon and James stayed shut in the Shed, and were cold, lonely and miserable," the story concludes. "They wished now they hadn't been so silly."
Goodnight children, pleasant dreams!

3. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban
I love the Frances books with their wonderful Garth Williams illustrations and their homey, childlike mood, but this is one of those books that feels pretty weird to a modern reader. Frances keeps getting out of bed because she’s creeped out by nighttime noises like the wind blowing the curtains. Finally, her irritated father tells her to stick a sock in it or she’ll get a spanking.

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?”
“I will be out of a job?” said Frances.
“No,” said Father.
“I will get a spanking?” said Frances.
“Right!” said Father.
Once Father’s gone back to bed, Frances hears a moth knocking against the window.

Bump and thump.
His wings smacked the glass.
Whack and smack!
Whack and smack made Frances think of a spanking.
And all of a sudden she was tired.
Nothing like fear of a beating to put your worries about moths in perspective, I guess.

4. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
Here’s the plot. Sylvester finds a magic rock that grants wishes. One day he gets menaced by a lion and wishes he was a rock. Poof, he’s a rock, and the magic pebble is now on the ground beside him. He can’t reach it because he’s a rock. He can’t call for help, because he’s a rock. His parents look for him, but he can’t call out to them, because he’s a rock. They conclude he’s dead. "They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.”
Years go by. Eventually Sylvester’s mother and father picnic right by the rock that was Sylvester and talk about how much they miss him.

How he wanted to shout, ‘Mother! Father! It’s me, Sylvester, I’m right here!’ But he couldn’t talk. He had no voice.

The fact that all ends happily does little to blunt the extreme creepiness of this scenario, which is the stuff childhood nightmares are made of.

What are your nominations for surprisingly creepy kids books?

Getting Meta With Children's Books

Phillip Nel of Kansas State University tells us that "people who don't know any better call it post-modern" and after you watch this fun little video you'll never be one of those people again. What's nice about this piece is that it ties together a lot of seemingly disparate strands in children's literature and makes you see how so much of what seems contemporary in literature -- and therefore either refreshing or frightening -- is as old as the urge to tell stories. It also illuminates how playful metafiction is -- and thus, how much it belongs in children's literature. Kids love to explore the boundaries of things, test what makes it what it is and how it is you make one yourself. Metafiction says that stories are something you make.

Nel leaves out my favorite metafictioneer in kidlit, Emily Gravett, whose books Wolves amd Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears are both classics of the genre. But he includes pop-up books in the metafiction category, which I'd never have thought of on my own. There's been some recent discussion about pop-up books being less educational than their conventional cousins, which is the kind of thing that book purists like myself tend to crow about. But in this case the crowing -- and I saw plenty of it among bibliophiles -- seems misguided at best.

The discussion was triggered by a pair of studies led by University of Virginia psychologist Medha Tare and published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that children who were given the same information in books with conventional and pop-up illustrations learned more from the two-dimensional illustrations than the three dimensional ones. To quote from the Miller McCune article on the experiments:

A second experiment featured 48 children ages 27 to 32 months. Like their younger counterparts, they looked through one of the three books. As they did so, the experimenter pointed out certain facts, such as “chicks like to eat worms” and “monkeys like to eat bananas.” They were later asked to recall this information, answering such questions as “Which one likes to eat worms?”

The results mirrored those of the first experiment. The kids who looked at the photo-illustration book did the best, while those exposed to the pop-up book did the worst.

I tend not to be impressed by the reader comments on news stories, but in this case readers spotted the flaws with the studies immediately – faster, apparently, than the editors of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. First off, two year olds aren’t really the target audience for pop-up books – they’re too young to be able to manipulate the paper constructions without breaking them. But more importantly, what’s your definition of “learning?” As one savvy commenter observed:

“I love the obtuseness of the researchers. OK, so the child didn't pick up the specific information he's to spit out like a machine in order to become a good corporate drone someday. Instead, he entered a three-dimensional world, played with spatial relations, and probably had some fascinating discoveries and thoughts going on in that little brain of his.”

By including pop-ups in his definition of metafiction, Nel allows us to see pop-ups for what they are – a way of inviting children to play with the bookness of a book, to break the two-dimensional barrier and shorten the literal distance between reader and reading material. While I’d agree that pop-ups don’t bring you into the story in the way that a conventional picture book does, it doesn’t need to. It’s doing something else.

Ever since I wrote about the Rainforest Action Network report linking children's books with rainforest destruction, I've been having interesting conversations with children's book writers and children's booksellers about what to make of it. The collective feeling has simply been, "Oh no."

Children's Book Author and Editor Amy Novesky commented on my Facebook page:

"Oh, this makes me sad, but not surprised. one of the questions I often ask writers of their stories/future books is: Is it worth cutting down trees? Everyone thinks *their* book is worth it of course. But is it ever? Only, perhaps, if printed in a truly sustainable way, which, it sounds like, is far from the norm.

In my environmental blog, I spent some time trying to figure out if e-readers, particularly the I-Pad, might be a more sustainable option. The answer isn't clear, but I was beginning to feel that I should at least allow for the possibility that electronic readers may eventually be a better choice, despite my own preference for the printed page.

Then, today, I read an astonishing article from Bloomberg News about a wave of suicides at a Chinese factory that makes I-Pads. Apparently, there have been sixteen suicide attempts this year at the factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, twelve of them successful. Suicide among the factory's 300,000 workers is so rampant that the parent company, Foxconn Technology Group, has begun covering the outside stairwells with nets to keep people from jumping off. So why is this happening? Because life on the electronics production line is, in the words of one worker, "meaningless."

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”
Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said. The company has rejected three requests for a transfer and his monthly salary of 900 yuan ($132) is too meager to send money home to his family, said the 21-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used because he is afraid of his managers.

The factory complex is apparently tree-lined and boasts a swimming pool and a hospital. But, to everyone's astonishment, that's not enough to compensate for having been reduced to a cog in the vast machine that feeds the global appetite for electronic toys.

The workers, 86 percent of whom are under 25 years old, live in white dormitories with eight to ten people sleeping in a room. . . Inside the compound, at a factory devoted to computer motherboards, rows of young men and women stand at assembly lines, their feet shod in blue slippers and white caps on their heads. The smell of solvent hangs in the air. About 80 percent of the front-line production employees work standing up, some for 12 hours a day for six days a week, according to Liu Bin, a 24-year-old employee.

What's particularly creepy about the entire creepy story, is the confusion Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou claims to feel about why his workers are offing themselves.

“From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that. No matter how you force me, I don’t know.”

So are I-Pads and e-readers a more sustainable alternative to books? Not if their production requires people to say, as one worker does, "I've become a machine."
I write for a living. I write about the environment and I write books for children, and I’ve always figured I worked in a pretty green industry. I don’t drill for oil or mine for coal, and since I work at home I barely even drive a car.

But yesterday I got a copy of a new report by the Rainforest Action Network called Turning the Page on Rainforest Destruction: Children’s books and the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. Turns out, my industry isn’t as green as I thought.

RAN chose three children’s books that were printed in China from each of the top ten children’s book publishers and had their pages tested by an independent laboratory for fiber associated with deforestation in Indonesia. The result: sixty percent of the books (18 out of 30) contained fiber linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction. Books with rainforest paper came from nine of the ten publishers -- despite the fact that half of those publishers have policies committing them to the use of sustainable paper sources.

AS RAN explains:

Unchecked by government or industry, pulp and paper companies are razing natural rainforests on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra and replacing them with acacia pulp wood plantations. This expansion of the pulp sector directly threatens endangered species like tigers, elephants and orangutans with extinction in Sumatra. It is causing ongoing conflicts with local communities whose lands, livelihoods and rights are being usurped, and it is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions from rainforest loss and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands. Driven by global demand for pulp and paper that favors “low-cost” producers, the enormous emissions from the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests and peatlands have vaulted the country into the rank of the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. Moreover, at least half of the logging in Indonesia takes place illegally.

It turns out that half of the American children’s picture books printed on coated paper are printed to China and China is the top importer of Indonesian pulp and paper.

With the rapid growth of book printing and manufacturing being outsourced to China, the U.S. book industry has become increasingly vulnerable to controversial paper sources entering its supply chain. . . . .From 2000-2008, Chinese sales of children’s picture books to the U.S. ballooned by more than 290 percent, averaging an increase of more than 35 percent per year.


At this point in my reading of the report, I nervously walked over to the shelf where I keep copies of my own books. Firefighters in the Dark? Printed in China. Baby Shoes? Printed in China. The Sea Serpent and Me? Printed in Singapore. Phew. Or at least I hope so. The truth is, I really don’t know whether Singapore is any better, although I just called RAN to ask.

So what am I to make of all this? The first thing that struck me was how little most of us know about where the objects in our lives come from. I doubt any children’s book writer would be happy to learn that her books were contributing to the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest, but how many of us would have thought to ask?

And, now that I know, what’s the responsible thing to do with this knowledge? The first thing I did was to sign RAN’s “I Love Books and Rainforests” petition. But I also have new books coming out, and it will be up to me to raise these concerns with my publishers and see what they can tell me about paper sourcing. In fact, all of us who love children’s literature should be asking questions and demanding answers. Chinese printing is cheap, as is Indonesian paper, and the current crisis in publishing has meant that publishers are looking to save money anywhere they can. But while I am a staunch defender of the printed page, I still want that page to come from sustainable sources – even if that means my books cost a little more.

Which brings me to the final piece of this puzzle. When we as consumers demand that everything be cheap, we do so at a high price for artists, small business owners, and the environment Readers – that’s you and me -- must be willing to pay full price for books. Paying full price means buying them at independent bookstores, which – unlike Amazon and the chains -- don’t force publishers to sell books at unsustainable discounts. After all, publishers who outsource to China are responding to market forces. And market forces? That would be us.

Yoga and Writing, Together Again

Back in February, The Guardian ran a piece on “Rules for Writing Fiction” that featured sage advice from famous writers on what to do and what not to do. In general, I hate that type of article, which always makes me feel like I’m doing it all wrong, but always read them anyway on the off chance of discovering something useful. In the article, some writers said to Always Do things I never do, and others said to Never Do things that I sometimes do, and a few suggested Sometimes Doing things that I always do, and in the end I didn’t end up any wiser about the process of writing than I was before, which is pretty much a chronic condition for anyone who takes the business of writing seriously.

But there was one piece of advice that I thought was very good. It came from Margaret Atwood and it went like this:

Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

That advice is one of many reasons that I will be co-teaching a day-long Yoga and Writing Retreat with Julie Rappaport on June 20 at beautiful Green Gulch Farm in Mill Valley, California. This will be the third time the two of us have taught the workshop, which we dreamed up while sitting next to a waterfall one day at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers where we had struck up a friendship. Julie’s a yoga teacher who writes; I’m a writer who does yoga, and we both found that yoga, long walks, and bike rides were critical antidotes to the atmosphere of anxious striving one typically finds at a writing conferences.

In the years since, I’ve found that some writers (usually those who already do yoga) know immediately why we would put yoga and writing together, and others are completely mystified. So here are a few of my reasons:

  1. Because, as the writer Margaret Atwood says, “pain is distracting” and if you’re going to torment your body by spending hours sitting at the computer, the least you can do is nourish it with stretches and movement.

  2. Because, as the choreographer Twyla Tharp says, “When you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can't simulate in a sedentary position.”

  3. Because both yoga and writing are, ideally, daily practices that are best approached with humble curiosity. The writer Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.” This is the attitude that yoga teaches – to simply do the best work you can do that day, without being attached to the outcome.

  4. Because, as the writer Barbara Kingsolver has said, “There’s no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” Yoga teaches us to cultivate the present moment.

  5. Because the body remembers what the mind forgets.

  6. Because both yoga and writing require you to lose interest in the distractions of the world, and yoga can help you learn how to do it.

I could go on, but I won’t, at least not now. At the retreat, Julie and I will talk more about the connection we see between the two disciplines, and how writers can use yoga to free the mind of its old habits and the body of its aches and pains. If you’re interested in joining us call Julie at 510-273-2417 or email her: Julie@yogabliss.com. The daylong workshop is $165 including a delicious organic lunch and snacks, or $140 if you pay in full by May 1st.

Here’s what people have said about previous workshops:

  • "I had a thoroughly enjoyable time and left feeling refreshed and like I'd learned some new things about yoga and writing -- and about myself.”

  • “Thank you for a wonderfully enlightening day that I continue to think about! This was one of those significant events in life made even more special by the personalities, the creativity and the quest of finding your core through yoga.”

  • “It was encouraging to find that the thoughts just flowed – suddenly writing was easy! It was a great experience!”

  • “Both the yoga and writing were so fulfilling and nurturing. Thank you both for creating a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere -- heaven!”

  • “My body thanked me profusely for taking it to the workshop. I had a wonderful day and you both inspired me.”

Come join us!


Writing for the Children of 2014

This week I read that 2010 may be the tipping point year in which more U.S. children are born to families of color than to white. That means that in the very near future, the majority of American children’s book readers will fall into the category we now call “minority.” Are the majority of the characters in children’s books going to be non-white four years from now, when those children reach the target age for picture books?

I doubt it. But it seems to me that those of us who write for children are going to have to start thinking much more carefully about the world we portray in our fiction. Today, most children’s book writers are white, and many of us feel uncomfortable writing about other races and cultures. (“I thought you were supposed to write about what you know,” one of my students observed when I raised this topic recently.) Yet I think we have to get over that discomfort if we’re going to write books that speak to the reality of American life, which is increasingly multicultural.

My thinking on this subject is highly influenced by the film-maker Loni Ding, whose obituary I happened to read this week just as her views on race and gender portrayals in the media were uppermost in my mind. Ding was one of my professors at UC Berkeley and she argued that film-makers – and by extension writers – are constantly making statements about race and gender by the way they cast both minor and major characters, whether or not such statements are intentional. In a TV show, when all the characters in a law office are white, it conveys a message about who practices law. In a children’s book, when the person baking cupcakes is female and the person reading the newspaper on the couch is male, it conveys a message about who does the work in the household. That doesn’t mean every TV law office should be multi-racial, or that every picture book father should do the baking. But it does mean that writers should be thinking about the world we’re portraying in our books and making conscious decisions rather than unconscious ones. Too often our “casting” choices reflect the world we grew up in rather than the world our readers know.

The example I just cited – mom baking cupcakes, dad reading the paper – comes from a story one of my students recently submitted to the class I teach on children’s picture book writing. These were incidental details in an otherwise marvelous story but they stood out to me because they felt like the one thing in the story that didn’t ring true. In the ensuing discussion, I pointed out that such arrangements see anachronistic in a world in which both parents typically work, and I argued that these incidental details are an opportunity for writers to both reflect the world as it is, and to encourage the world to progress in its thinking about the “proper” household duties for men and women.

Some of my students disagreed. “What if you like baking cupcakes?” one asked. Several felt that reversing the arrangement – Dad baking, Mom reading the paper – would seem heavy-handed or unrealistic. A better solution might have been to have both parents working in the kitchen together, or both relaxing with the Sunday paper. Or having them do something else entirely that achieved the aims of the story (which were to show the family engaged in its weekend activities) while not seeming to embrace outdated ideas about gender roles.

To me, the important thing about this discussion was that it reminded me of the importance of thinking through your casting calls. Social considerations always have to be balanced with personal and creative ones, and there’s no single one-size-fits-all method for assigning race or gender to characters, or for assigning attributes to characters of a particular gender or race. But what I learned from Loni Ding was that decisions that may feel meaningless to us are not necessarily meaningless to our readers, particularly picture book readers who are learning about the world from the books we write.

Will Boys Read Books About Girls?

A few minutes ago I received a rant by email from my friend Sharon Levin. She was infuriated because she'd just come back from a children's literature conference at which people kept talking about how boys wouldn't be interested in books with girl protagonists or even with a girl on the cover. One presenter even held up a copy of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate -- a Newbery winner -- and said, "Would a boy like this book? No.”

To quote from Sharon's email:

What do I find most disturbing about this? Well, that it’s mainly women who keep this ‘boys can’t possibly like books about girls’ train of thought on the track. It’s the female teachers and librarians at conferences I hear asking about ‘male appeal’ of books. It’s the moms I’m selling to at the bookstore who will not buy books about girls for their sons

What I find interesting is that when I do booktalks in classrooms or am handselling at the bookstore, boys do not run away from Kiki Strike or Heir Apparent or Red Scarf Girl.

Do we truly think so little of ourselves that we believe that adventures featuring our gender cannot possibly be of interest to the opposite gender? What is it about women that we instill the value in boys (and girls by extension) that reading about girls is for girls and reading about boys is for everyone? Where does this self loathing come from? It breaks my heart.

As the mom of a boy, I both agree and don't. I have learned, reluctantly, that there are, in fact, books that I loved as a kid that my son doesn't, and that most boys will like less than most girls. For all I know, Calpurnia Tate might be one of them. Certainly my son isn't particularly keen on realistic fiction, particularly books that are all about a character's feelings. He likes action, humor, magic, adventure, anything with animals, and -- most importantly -- interesting characters. Would Calpurnia's character win him over, despite the fact that the book is realistic fiction in which the adventures are internal rather than external? I don't know. But I do know that there are many books with female protagonists among his favorites. Right now we're jointly immersed in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy which features female protagonists all the way through. His favorite book of all time is The Princess and the Goblin, which -- well the title says it all, doesn't it?

I've had this debate many times in different contexts. When I got the sketch dummy for my picture book Firefighters in the Dark, I saw that the illustrator, Nicoletta Ceccoli, had made the protagonist a girl (I'd written it imagining a boy, but since it's in the first person, it could be either.) My editor at Houghton Mifflin and I talked at length about what the impact of this choice might be on sales -- would firefighter-loving boys be turned off by a girl narrator as we'd always been told? We decided to risk it. As it turned out, the very first customer review I got on Amazon was headlined "Finally, A Firefighter Book for Girls." But of course the book was never intended to be "for girls" or "for boys" -- it was meant to be for kids who love firefighters.

Are there boys who love firefighters who spurned that book because it's got a girl in it? Probably. Even so, I think it's important to encourage kids to cross the race or gender divide when choosing books -- even if it means encountering resistance. Most kids are ego-centric enough to assume that people like them are the most interesting people on earth, and kids who aren't omnivorous readers are always going to tend to the familiar. But the push is worth making, particularly because as kids find books they like with opposite-gender protagonists (or protagonists of other races), they learn that those books are "for" them too.

In the end, the true determinant of what books kids like is what interests them, not the gender (or race) of the narrator. My son likes Lirael and its precursor, Sabriel, because both books are filled with swords and magic and zombie-like dead people and wonderful characters, including a very irritable cat. Along the way he gets exposed to a little bit of the female psyche as the heroine of the second book, Lirael, obsessively considers her place in the world. I have to think that exposure to girl heroines and girl thoughts in books might make it easier for him to understand girls in real life. And I know that the habit of mind that says "I'm not interested in people who aren't like me" is one that we should confront at every turn, as readers, as writers, as teachers, and as parents.

Beware The Terrible Trivium

It's December, the month when my list of "Things to Do" begins to divide into long trailing tentacles of "Things to Make" and "Things to Buy" and "Things to Mail" and "Things to Cook" and, somewhere stuffed in-between them all, somewhat shrunken and tentative next to all the others, is "Things to Write." And it's right around now that I take The Phantom Tollboth down from the shelf and reread Chapter 17.

It is in Chapter 17 that Milo meets the Terrible Trivium, a faceless man who introduces himself as the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit." Milo encounters him in the Mountains of Ignorance, on his way to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Terrible Trivium asks for help moving a pile of sand using a pair of tiny tweezers and soon Milo is busy at the task, working hour after hour after hour after hour...

"Why do only unimportant things?" Milo asks, when he begins to get wise to the fact that the sand-moving may be getting in the way of the princess-rescuing.

"Think of all the trouble it saves," the Trivium replies. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to keep you from what you really should be doing...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why if you stay here, you'll never have to think again --and with a little practice, you can become a monster of habit, too."

Norton Juster, the book's brilliant author, knew from experience that there is always something else that a writer can be doing, in fact, should be doing. Not just the December tasks and projects, but errands, childcare, household chores -- the list of Other Things To Do is as endless as Milo's pile of sand. But while the reasons for not writing will always be much longer than the reasons for writing, a writer has to remind herself every day to put down the tweezers and continue the search for Rhyme and Reason. Who will rescue them, if not you?

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