Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Oreo is a lost novel from 1975 novel by Fran Ross. Reedist says it deserves to be rediscovered:

Incredibly vital, clever writing about family, identity and race, also laugh-out-loud funny and profoundly erudite and incidentally allegorical. A real find, thank you library. Can’t believe this book is so little-known, though it’s very plain that it was years ahead of its time. Highly recommended.

And it’s a great read! The hook is supposed to be Arthur’s sword, Excalibur (Caledfwlch here) but in fact this is a family history through the 20th century, starting with the sinking of the Titanic and encompassing the first, second and (to a lesser extent) the cold wars, all seen through the eyes of a Russian/Welsh family. There’s Welsh Revolutionaries as well as the usual Russian ones, and first world war antics from someone who almost never gets to the front. A gorgeous percussionist allows Burgess to show off his knowledge and love of music (he composed, too). And the second world war is viewed from the story of a POW who has to walk across a shattered Europe when the war ends.

Is it all a bit too much, and is Burgess trying too hard at times? Well yes, but I’d rather read an author who makes an effort to entertain while telling his story. The characters are well drawn and the whole is great fun. I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

A powerful and frightening novel of Trump’s America and its problematic relationship with firearms. In one of the book’s many memorable scenes young Pearl, whose home for her first 14 years has been a wrecked car on a seedy Florida trailer park, is smuggled across the Mexican border hidden in the backseat of a car with guns covering her; the border guards will turn a blind eye to the guns, but not to a child.

For me, as a professional scientist, this was a fascinating insight into the earliest origins of what became the scientific movement in Europe. Bruno, who lived shortly after Copernicus, is probably most famous today for having proposed that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and raising the possibility that these planets might foster life. However, if you thought that what prompted Bruno in these notions was anything we might recognise as “scientific thinking” you would be quite wrong. Bruno was a renaissance Magus and his thought was heavily informed by the Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts ascribed to Hermes Trimegistus. So Yates’ book describes, to some extent, how science developed out of (or transcended) magic. The Holy Inquisition was unimpressed and Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori in 1600.

It’s written like the recollection of a scene observed from a distance on a misty day decades ago, or a half-forgotten dream that nevertheless left an indelible imprint on you for reasons not quite known; it’s very short and the prose is written in what feels like a carefully calibrated metre to give the reading a palpable poetic rhythm; it’s stunning, really.

It’s a short novel, translated from Japanese, about a homeless man who narrates to us from beyond the grave the story of his life and his death. It’s a lot about the treatment of homelessness, the gap between rich and poor, and the paralysing effects of grief on a person. It’s told in kind of non-linear fragments, as our narrator both sees the present and seems to inhabit the past simultaneously, and so the story is sort of pieced together and filled out gradually as the book moves on. I thought it was marvellous.

Kennedy has been assassinated and Frank Guidry knows a little about the guys who did it. Problem is, knowing just a little is enough to get you whacked. So Guidry hits the road, headed for Las Vegas, his former mob boss’s goon on his tail.

Charlotte is sick of her life – small town, bland, with a drunk asshole husband to boot. One night she summons up the courage to bolt. She packs up her daughters and the dog and splits, heading west.

The funniest book ever written. Funnier than Don Quixote and Oliver Hardy. Finished it, went straight back to start and read it again. Ignatius Reilly. Just the name is enough to get me grinning now.

“Hugo cherishes the sky-scraping side of Gothic because it represents the opening of men’s minds…” John Sturrock on Victor Hugo and Notre Dame de Paris.

“So much survives, so much is lost.” Shakespeare and Company Paris have also honoured their neighbouring cathedral. (Scroll down.)

Persephone Books is 20.

Ian McEwan talks about machines in Edge.

A perfectly normal interview with Carmen Maria Machado where everything is fine.

Continue reading…



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Helping Authors Become Artists


helping authors become artists pinterstIn view of this site’s title, it’s not surprising people often ask, “What’s the difference between a writer and an author?”

Usually, I admit it’s a cheeky sophistry, since there is no true distinction, save for the common connotation that an “author” is somehow more professional. A writer is just someone who scribbles; an author is someone who has arrived, probably by having been published. At any rate, the title has always indicated my intention that this site should encourage growth among writers—myself first and foremost.

Unintentionally, this blog has become the chronicle of my life. I don’t often write about my life, but as I look back through the archives of the last eleven years, I can chart not only my personal growth, as both writer and woman, but also the arc of my interest in the art and craft of writing.

The super-early posts were the ones about being a “writer.” When I wrote them, I was just grubbing it out, still learning how to put one word in front of the other. I was interested in mastering things like “show vs. tell” and basic ideas about the nature of subconscious creativity.

A few years later, I discovered story theory—story structure, scene structure, character arcs, theme—and my enthusiasm cranked into high gear. I consider the posts that emerged during these years to be about becoming an “author.” This was the period when I was embracing concepts and principles to which I would now point storytellers for help in taking that symbolic step from mere “writer” to seasoned “author.”

But… what comes after that?

After you’ve made the jump from writer to author, what’s left?

I’ve been pondering this for a couple years now, both in my own journey as a writer, but perhaps even more urgently in regard to the blog itself. What can I write about that I haven’t written about before? (After 11 years and 1,300+ posts, it becomes a poignant question!)

Recently, I think I’ve discovered the answer.

Helping Writers Become Authors Become Artists

No, I’m not going to change the name of the site. 😉

And, yes, this is a little bit more of that same sophistry. After all, if you’re a writer, you’re already an artist. (As an aside, I have always firmly believed the angst we sometimes feel about our right to the title of “writer” is misplaced. If you write, you are a writer. You don’t have to be a genius to be a writer. You don’t have to be published. You don’t even have to be any good yet. You write, therefore you are a writer. Same goes for being an artist.)

But as with the subtle distinction between “writer” and “author,” I believe the title “artist” connotes something a little bigger, a little grander, a little more dedicated, a little more responsible, and a little more accomplished.

As a reader and viewer, I desire art. I don’t want “just” stories—even ones told with proper form and decent style. I want art. I want transportation. I want to experience things I’ve never experienced before. I want characters who challenge me to rise and rise again. I want stories that are lovingly and consciously crafted by masters who understand the form, but who have ascended above mediocrity with absolute honesty about themselves and total respect to their audiences.

Even in our story-saturated culture, authors are few enough and artists are rare indeed.

What an Artist Is—and Is Not

1. An Artist Is… a Master Storyteller

In my little hierarchy, the artist stands on the shoulders of the author—a writer who has dedicated himself to the craft. Although I’m sure there are a few artists who were born instead of made, they are truly unusual. Artistic masters, in any medium, are those who have toiled. They have taken to heart Ernest Hemingway’s suggestion that:

We are all apprentices in a craft no one ever masters.

Being brilliant isn’t enough. Having a unique vision isn’t enough. A story burning upon your tongue like Isaiah’s coal isn’t enough. It isn’t enough even to string words together prettily or to properly construct a convincing story structure. So many people out there today can check all those boxes. And some of them are world-famous and rich-till-they-die. But they’re not all artists.

Artists are those who have gone beyond what is merely “proper” to a fully integrated understanding of how story lives and breathes throughout history and in every moment of our lives. In his classic The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes:

What the young writer needs to develop, to achieve his goal of becoming a great artist, is not a set of aesthetic laws but artistic mastery. He cannot hope to develop mastery all at once; it involves too much. But if he pursues his goal in the proper way, he can approach it much more rapidly than he would if he went at it hit-or-miss.

2. An Artist Is… a “Poet Soul”

The “poet soul” is something special burning in the hearts of true artists. Actually, I think it probably burns in the heart of every person; artists are just the ones least likely to let the flame go out. By “poet soul,” I mean a quality that gives the artist an X-ray view of life. It is something within that resonates to Beauty and to Truth. It both feels deeply and strives to think clearly.

It is this that differentiates the stories of an artist. It’s the difference between Princess Mononoke and Shrek 3, between Persuasion and Twilight, between The Book Thief and Nancy Drew. This isn’t to say the latter choices are without value or that popular genre fiction can’t rise to art. Indeed, if a good fairy could pop down here right now and grant my top wish, it would be that the next story I experience could perfectly blend popcorn entertainment with true artistic sensibility.

The “poet soul” is not an excuse to get all hoity and esoteric. (If I have to watch one more color-muted, two-note soundtracked “auteur” film in which nothing happens beyond a talented actor mugging out her suffering onscreen, I might just start agreeing with the ubiquitous thematic insinuations that “all is meaningless.”)

Rather, the “poet soul” is a call to awareness and honesty—first as a person and then as an author. Combined with a solid mastery of the art of storytelling, this is radical leap to a new level.

3. An Artist Is… a Visionary Mind

I feel like a lot of wannabe artists skip right to this one. They have a vision for their story—whether it’s a catchy premise, a deep theme, or a unique style. By itself, this often and unfortunately offers little more than sound and fury. It starts off with great promise, only to fizzle out.

That said, having an “artistic vision” is a huge part of rising to become a true artist. When we are given the ability to step into someone else’s vision, we want it to be a good one—we want it to be a new experience, something at least slightly unique.

Willa Cather said:

There are only two or three human stories. But they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.

All writers are confined by this truth. But artists claim that word “fiercely” and tell their stories in that ever so distinctive way that makes even the most story-saturated audience see old truths in a new light.

4. An Artist Is Not… Someone Who Is Above the Form

Sometimes when we hear the word “artist” (usually, in these instances, pronounced “ah-tist”), the connotation is of a story that is utterly unique—perhaps even bizarre. The subtle suggestion here is often of someone of such brilliance he has no need, much less use for the rules of the artform.

Occasionally, I get emails from folks wondering if they really need to follow all these “rules” of structure and narrative. Almost inevitably, these are the same emails that randomly neglect capitalization and punctuation. Clearly, these writers haven’t yet put in the due diligence to even think about reinventing the form.

Very few memorable writers reinvent the form at all. Those who do, such as James Joyce with Finnegans Wake, tend to produce curious singularities rather than true reinventions. Instead, for the last several millennia, most of our most brilliantly artistic storytellers are those who have written squarely within a masterful understanding of storytelling—both classical and common. Even relatively “bizarre” authors such as Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner are riffing off the form, not ignoring it.

5. An Artist Is Not… a Hack

This is a tricky distinction. For example, the first person to pop to mind after I wrote that subtitle was Edgar Rice Burroughs—who created classic archetypal characters such as Tarzan and John Carter. Arguably, he was a hack. Arguably, so was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For that matter, might not serial writers such as Dickens and Dostoevsky be piled in there?

These authors will be remembered in perpetuity. Even the pulpiest among them created stories that have forever impacted the social consciousness. That’s art at its most powerful. If they’re hacks, then they’re awfully impressive hacks.

Now, I can hardly presume to know why all these authors wrote. Perhaps some had the basest of motives for churning out the stories that would end up imprinting the world. But I think not. And that’s my point.

Artists have something to say. They have the “artistic vision” and “poet’s soul” (sometimes in spite of themselves). Even if they’re writing for the money (because who isn’t?), they’re not writing just for the money. Even if they’re a ghostwriter or studio writer, telling someone else’s stories, they’re still pouring themselves into those stories—even when it’s a slog, even when the inspiration isn’t there, even when everything in life resists them—there’s always something in them reaching onwards and upwards.

6. An Artist Is Not… a Propagandist

Again, this is a tricky one—because doesn’t every author have something to say? Perhaps it might even be especially true if that author is striving toward artistry? We all have our truths to tell. Some of them are truly true. Some are not. But all are valid if they are honestly ours.

So what makes the difference between an author’s “truth” and propaganda? The distinction is subtle (and extremely arguable), as well as being deeply influenced by the artist’s range of storytelling skills. To me, though, it comes down to the author’s focus. There’s a special something in those most unforgettable stories. They have something to say, but that it is not the sole reason for their existence, just as they also entertain without entertainment being their sole reason for existence.

Story as a form is inimitable in its ability to say something about the world without needing to say it directly. As legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped:

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

To me, that’s the entire secret of great art. It always has a message—but you don’t always notice.

7. An Artist Is Not… Pretentious

Granted, I’m sure we could come up with dozens of brilliant scribes who believe God thumbprinted their foreheads. Certainly, all writers must believe, at intervals, that we really have a story and a skill worth all the work. But believing in the work isn’t the same as a narcissistic insistence upon one’s “artistry.”

I really, really want to be an artist. I want to write something someday that is everything I’ve ever wanted a story to be. It doesn’t have to be famous or even recognized. But I hope someday just to write it. That’s my goal. And I do everything I can every day to build my life around that artistic pursuit. In the practical sense of ink-stained fingers, I absolutely think of myself as an artist. I pursue integrity in my work. I hone the craft. I have a vision for what I do.

But to think of myself as an “ah-tist,” who somehow has a clearer view of art than anyone else is ridiculous. I’ve been at this for a while and, as this post bears out, I have decided opinions. I believe artists should have decided opinions.

But we must also have wide-open minds. Like Ernest said, we’re all still apprentices—in life as well as art. To forget that is, I think, to instantly dim our poet’s soul.

***

Wherever your honest estimation of yourself finds you on the road from “writer” to “author” to “artist,” I hope you will join me in fanning our creative coals. Over and over, on this journey, I find myself discovering a bend in the road that leads to new and exciting possibilities for growth. Even if the title of “artist” is one you already possess, I encourage you to join me in thinking of it as a calling all its own, one worth striving toward with every word we write.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think an artist is… and is not? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post Helping Authors Become Artists appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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Spring with Emily Dickinson


“Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try…”


Something strange blankets the city and the soul in the first days of spring. The weary, the rushed, even the dispossessed surrender to a certain nonspecific gladness. They smile at you, you smile at them — under the blessing rays of the vernal sun, we are somehow reminded of what we humans were always meant to be to each other and to this stunning, irreplaceable planet we share with innumerable other creatures. In attending to nature at its best and most buoyant, we suddenly attune to the best of our own nature. This, perhaps, is why the modern environmental conscience was jolted awake by the terrifying notion of a silent spring, bereft of birdsong and bloom.

That vernal exhilaration is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), poet laureate of nature, celebrates in a letter to her brother Austin, composed in the spring of her twenty-third year, just as she was falling in love with the love of her life, whom Austin would soon marry. (This beautiful, harrowing tangle of heartstrings occupies a large portion of Figuring.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

On a May Saturday in 1853, Emily writes to Austin:

Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try… You thought last Saturday beautiful — yet to this golden day, ’twas but one single gem, to whole handfuls of jewels.

Enraptured by nature, Dickinson spent her days in a sunny bedroom wallpapered with botanical patterns, in a house surrounded by flowerbeds and blooming trees. I wonder if she saw the magnolias the way I do, taken with their bittersweet beauty — for a week or so a year, their blossoms stun with a splendor that vanishes always too soon, as if to remind us that everything we love eventually perishes and yet this perishability is not reason for sorrow but reason to love all the harder.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

This eternal dance of love and loss animated Dickinson since the earliest age. Most of the flower specimens in the astonishing herbarium of her girlhood — an elegy for time and the mortality of beauty at the intersection of poetry and science — were collected in the spring, then meticulously pressed and arranged onto the pages of this curious catalogue of imagined immortality and bulwark against impermanence. This inescapable interplay between beauty and perishability, which lends life so much of its sweetness, is at the heart of Dickinson’s vast body of work — nowhere more intensely than in this poem devoted to spring, composed in the autumn of her life:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay —

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Complement with Dickinson on making sense of loss and her ode to resilience, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s stirring poem paying tribute to the ecological and cultural legacy of Silent Spring.


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Happy Passover! I’ve Got The BEST Four Questions for Rachelle Burk!


It’s almost Passover, and that means it’s time for young children to brush up on their reading skills. Why? So they can ask the four questions at the family seder!

But right now, I have to ask Rachelle Burk four questions about her new book, THE BEST FOUR QUESTIONS! *ba-da-bum*

Rachelle, for those who aren’t familiar with the Passover Seder, what are the “Four Questions”?

The focal point of the Passover Seder is the telling of the story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. This storytelling begins with the youngest person at the Seder asking the Four Questions, which are actually four parts of a single question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This leads into the story of the days of slavery and the Exodus.

Why is the youngest at the Seder supposed to ask them?

The youngest asks the Four Questions so that they will be an active participant in the Seder. In fact, many of the activities done at the Seder are intended to keep the children involved. The reason that the Seder is geared around the children is to pass on responsibility of the Passover message and tradition to the next generation.

What is your favorite part of the Passover Seder?

Most people might say “the food.”  For me, I’d have to say that I enjoy the thoughtful discussions our family has.  Okay, that, and the matzo ball soup.

What is the best fourth question to end this interview with?

How about, “what inspired this story?”

I grew up in a small but active Jewish community in New Orleans, and our family Passover Seders were large, boisterous events. They were full of the laughter of children—my four brothers, sister, and two cousins. The grown-ups sometimes got annoyed, feeling that there was a bit too much goofing around and not quite enough paying attention.

Not much changed as we grew up. Then my wise father had an idea: he put the responsibility for running the Seder on us, then-grown, kids. He said we could lead the Seder anyway we wished, as long as we fulfilled all the required parts of the service. This included the reciting of The Four Questions by the youngest child (by now, we had little kids of our own), and the telling of the Passover story.

So my brother and I wrote funny skits: A ‘talk show” interview with Moses. The Passover News. A restaurant review of McManna’s Desert Café. The Egyptian weather report (100% chance of locusts and frogs; the Nile’s inexplicable “red tide”…). We still got to have fun, but now the older generation laughed along with us.

Laughter remains an important part of our family Seders—and so does asking questions. Questioning is highly encouraged in Judaism. It facilitates learning, understanding, and discovery. And so, in keeping with our creative Seders, I wrote a story about a child determined to come up with the BEST questions ever.

Ha! They are the BEST. So funny!

My personal brisket with Jewish picture books is that there are not enough funny ones! This one hits the spot! Publisher’s Weekly agrees, saying “Passover is a celebration of freedom, and that includes the liberty to take a small detour into shared silliness.”

Actually, many Jewish holidays celebrate religious freedom. As my family says, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

You can get THE BEST FOUR QUESTIONS by Rachelle Burk and Melanie Florian anywhere books are sold. 

Happy Passover!



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A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on the Existential Calculus of Saving, Spending, and Wasting Time


“Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time.”


A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on the Existential Calculus of Saving, Spending, and Wasting Time

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)

That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:

Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

Art by Ohara Hale from Be Still, Life

Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:

I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.


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That’s For Babies! Letting Go Can Be Scary by Jackie Azúa Kramer (plus a giveaway)


by Jackie Azúa Kramer

It was my daughter Daisy’s kindergarten graduation, and I had bought a lovely dress for the occasion. At least I thought so. However, that morning she took one glance at the sparkly frock and said, “That’s for babies!” From that moment on, those words became her mantra. All that Daisy had loved and treasured was dropped in a box of cast-off toys.

I never imagined that day would come so soon. I was used to Daisy saying, “I can do it myself!” She had claimed her badge of independence from the day she was born. But this felt different. It was as if she had grabbed the keys to the car without telling me where she was going. In my mind, all I heard was, “See you, Mom. I got places to go and people to meet.”

And what a journey it’s been! They call it “raising” a child, but I feel my kids “raised” me, too. I am not the same person or mother today. I’ve grown, evolved and changed right alongside my children. Here’s what–change doesn’t come easy. Letting go can be scary and sometimes hurts. But love, kindness and understanding has been my North Star.

This June is Daisy’s wedding! Goodness, did I just say that?! And with any luck, one day soon, some little person will look up to her and say, “That’s for babies!”

In THAT’S FOR BABIES!, on the morning of little Prunella’s birthday, she announces she’s a big girl, and ready for adventure. But one dark and stormy night, she discovers that growing up is a series of small milestones…two steps forward and one step back.

And here’s the book trailer premiere!

THAT’S FOR BABIES! releases June 25th…but you can win a copy right here!

Leave one comment below. A winner will be randomly chosen at the end of the month!

Good luck!


Jackie Azúa Kramer studied acting and voice at NYU and earned her MA, Queens College, Counseling in Education. Jackie has worked as an actor, singer, and school counselor. Her work with children presented her an opportunity to address their concerns, secrets and hopes through storytelling. Now she spends her time writing children’s picture books. Her picture books include, the award-winning The Green Umbrella (2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year), If You Want to Fall Asleep and That’s for Babies. Upcoming books- The Boy and the Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020); I Wish You Knew (Roaring Brook, 2021); We Are One (Two Lions, TBD); Miles Won’t Smile (Clavis, TBD).

Jackie lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find Jackie reading, watching old movies and globe trekking.

Visit her at JackieAzuaKramer.com, Twitter @jackiekramer422, Facebook Jackie Azúa Kramer & Instagram JackieAzuaKramer



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Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us


“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”


Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the Nobel-winning French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding of time. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” his compatriot Gaston Bachelard wrote a decade later in contemplating our paradoxical temporal experience. Still, our most intimate relationship with time unfolds not in physics or philosophy but in storytelling — a miraculous technology of thought and feeling that allows us to both contain time and travel through it, to saturate the moment with absolute presence and to leap from it into other eras, places, and experiences.

That is what National Book Award laureate Jacqueline Woodson, one of our era’s most beloved writers of literature for young people, explores in her beautiful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Woodson writes:

Dear Young Reader,

In my memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, I write about “this perfect moment, called Now.” I am thinking about this as I lie beside my seven-year-old son, reading to him from a book I at first disliked but have grown to appreciate over the evenings of reading. Two floors up, my thirteen-year-old daughter is supposed to be doing homework but may be checking her Instagram or texting a friend or hopefully snuggled beneath her covers with her own book (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — “Oh my God, Momm — I love this book SO MUCH!”).

It feels like such a short time ago it was her in the crook of my arm, wide-eyed and listening. I impulsively kiss the top of my son’s mohawked head (he wants us to let him dye it green — maybe we will — after all, you’re only seven once) and he looks up at me, brow furrowed.

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

“Because this moment won’t always be here,” I say.

“Mommy — just read… please.”

As the child of a single working mom, I didn’t have this moment. There were four of us and at the end of a long workday, my mother was exhausted. Sometimes, my older sister read out loud to all of us and those are some of my deepest memories. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, The House On Pooh Corner, Harriet the Spy. While I never read any of those books to my own children — preferring to read from books where their young brown selves were/are represented on the page — my sister’s stories in my ear put me on a journey toward my own stories. I wanted to see myself in books, wanted to know that I existed… fully… out in the world.

The book I am reading to my son is about a troll who is despised in his small town, loves a girl who may or may not love him back. We’ve just found out the girl is the daughter of Little Red Riding Hood and now the story has my attention — a twist I didn’t see coming.

“I don’t know why the king is so mean,” my son says. “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?”

I refrain from kissing the top of his head again and try not to think that this moment of my youngest child beside me, the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here. This now is what matters, young reader. The moment we’re all living in is what counts — how will this moment, and the stories we’re living inside of change us… forever? The smell of my son’s hair, his laughter, his whispered “Oh man!” and now, him saying softly “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?” This is what reading does. This is what matters most. I smile and turn the page.

Sincerely,

Jacqueline Woodson

Complement with other wonderful letters from A Velocity of Being by Jane Goodall, Rebecca Solnit, Alain de Botton, and a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor.


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Zadie Smith Reads Frank O’Hara’s Love Poem to Time via an Old-Fashioned Telephone Line


A bittersweet serenade to the bidirectional pull of existence.


“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning ode to time in memoriam of Stephen Hawking. It is an elemental question that cuts to the heart of being human: Despite being creatures of time, or precisely because of it, we live suspended between two temporal antagonisms — the acute awareness, so pointedly articulated by Virginia Woolf, that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” and the nostalgic longing for how we used to be and who we used to be when we used to be. Perhaps Meghan Daum captured the paradox most piercingly: “Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”

Nothing intensifies this sundering bidirectional pull of the arrow of time and the spear of nostalgia more than the hindsights of love — what was once a delirious present projecting into an imagined future of infinite bliss is now ambered into the bittersweet remembrance of a perished past.

That universal bittersweetness is what Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) explores in twelve perfect lines in his 1950 poem “Animals,” found in his Selected Poems (public library) and read here by Zadie Smith via an old-fashioned telephone line, part of Coudal’s lovely Poetry After the Beep series.

ANIMALS
by Frank O’Hara

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Couple with O’Hara himself reading his “Metaphysical Poem” in a rare 1964 recording, then revisit other great contemporary artists and writers reading great poets of yore: Meryl Streep reading Sylvia Plath, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman reading Ursula K. Le Guin, Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton, and Patti Smith singing William Blake.


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Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye is a sharp study of a very female torture


As we approach the novel’s 30th anniversary, it’s hard to think of many characters who have endured pain like Atwood’s Elaine

One of the first things you notice when embarking on the unsettling experience of reading Cat’s Eye is that its narrator, Elaine, is herself unusually observant. Her memories of her messed-up childhood are more than vivid. On the first page, she remembers her brother studying while standing on his head (he claims that this will make the blood run down into his brain and nourish it), while wearing his “ravelling maroon sweater”. We are introduced to Elaine’s teenage friend Cordelia, who has “grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal”. Cordelia is on a streetcar with Elaine and they wear: “long wool coats, with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear, but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight … Our mouths are tough, crayon red, shiny as nails.”

And on it goes: everything about the way people look and present themselves is precisely rendered and catalogued. The smells Atwood describes are especially evocative: that streetcar “is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool”; Stephen “smells of peppermint LifeSavers” over his usual scent of “cedarwood pencils and wet sand; the alcohol her entomologist father uses in his work “smells like white enamel basins”. As Elaine even tells us, with typical wryness: “We remember through smells, like dogs do.”

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