Thursday, April 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From Harper Lee

This week (April 28) marks the 84th birthday of Harper Lee.

I recall reading a brief biography of Lee back in 2007 I think, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I already knew that she was a childhhod friend of Truman Capote, and that the character of Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was somewhat based on her own childhood. But then I read that as a young writer she once received a year's wages as a Christmas gift, so that she could take a year off to write whatever she pleased. MOCKINGBIRD was the result.

Eegads! That bit of information took my breath away (it still does) and turned me pea green with envy (it still does). What writer has not dreamed of such a gift and promised himself that he could be a great writer if he only had such a gift of time. It's as cliche as a T-shirt: So many ideas, so little time.

But once I regained my breath, I realized two things. Most great writers don't have a year given to them to write. They make do with odd bits of time, with weekends and evenings and late, late nights. And they manage to turn out outstanding works of literature just the same. Maybe you just learn to keep a little bit of space in your mind always creating, so that when the time is there, you are ready with the right words.

And those writers who wish for more time? How many of them would waste the time given to them if they had it? It is so easy to fritter away a day or a weekend or a week with e-mails and Facebook and Twitter. A gift of a year is not without it's own pressure. How many people would spend the year paralyzed with fear staring at the blank screen?

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is unquestionably one of the great books of American literature. Lee's triumph is that she knew just where she wanted to go in that year and had the guts to go there.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Muir

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day (April 22). It also marks the 172nd birthday of naturalist and writer John Muir (April 21, 1838-December 24, 1914).

Muir has been called the patron saint of the American wilderness and the father of the American national park system. He was also a wanderer. Drawn by his fierce love of wild nature, he walked thousands of miles exploring mountains, forests, deserts, and glaciers. His wandering took him through the Appalachians and the Sierra, to Alaska, Siberia, South America, and Africa.

Most Americans would never travel to the places he did. But his eloquent words painted for them what he saw. His words helped them see in a new way the majesty of a tree, the wonder of a sunrise, and the soaring joy of a mountain top view. Muir's writing changed forever the way people saw the world around them. Isn't that the highest goal of any writer?

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strenth to body and soul." --John Muir

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Leonardo da Vinci

This week (April 15th) marks the 558th birthday of Leonardo da Vinci.

I have to admit, I always found Leonardo da Vinci a bit intimidating. Just the sheer genius of the man made him seem cool and unapproachable, not exactly the kind of guy I'd invite to a family picnic. How do you connect with someone who excels at everything? And, as a writer, how do I help my young readers feel that connection?

A few years ago I stumbled across a great Leonardo anecdote in a sixteenth century biography. It concerned a monster painting that Leonardo had supposedly done as a teenager. The monster was so lifelike, the story goes, that his own father was frightened upon first seeing it. I thought it would make a unique picture book. But there was that stumbling block--that larger-than-life figure standing in my way. In the old biography, he was described as being talented at math and science as well as art, as being a gifted musician, strong, handsome, and popular. In short, he came across as the kind of teacher's pet I hated to sit next to in class. What was I to do with him?

I decided to use humor to humanize my subject. I acknowledged that this boy was an over-the-top "pretty unusual" kid and found the humor in that. I looked at his glowing accomplishments and mined those for some humor. ("Making your teacher quit is pretty unusual.") As the chuckles came, I felt my subject begin to thaw. The writing began to flow.

Humor is like sunshine: it will both illuminate and warm your subject.

Please look for my picture book, LEONARDO'S MONSTER, out Fall 2010 from Pelican Publishing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Blanche Stuart Scott

This week, April 8, marks the 121st birthday of early aviator Blanche Stuart Scott (April 8, 1889-January 12, 1970).

You've probably seen those T-shirts and bumper stickers, the ones that say, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." (Credit to Laurel Thatch Ulrich.) Blanche Stuart Scott never saw those words. But she lived them.

I fell in love with Blanche's story when I researched a picture book on her (THE DAY BLANCHE WENT FLYING, available). Blanche grew up in an era when "well-behaved" pretty much summed up all a girl was expected to be. And she was anything but. As a child she loved to perform tricks on her bike just as the boys in the neighborhood did, and she held nothing back. She crashed seven bikes in practice, prompting her father to refuse to buy her another. Instead, when she was thirteen, he bought her a car. She proceeded to scandalize the neighborhood with her less-than-well-behaved driving.

She challenged tradition when, as an adult, she became the first woman car salesperson in the United States. She challenged aviation great Glenn Curtiss by foiling his attempts to keep her on the ground and becoming the first woman in the U.S. to fly an airplane (though she never obtained her license). Later, she became the first woman stunt pilot, the first woman test pilot, and the first American woman to ride in a jet. She raised eyebrows every time.

Blanche knew first hand that if you want to be a daredevil, first you have to dare.

Gotta go misbehave.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen

This week marks the 205th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805--August 4, 1875).

Before I became addicted to biographies as a child, I read fairy tales. I always found the Brothers Grimm a bit, ahem, grim. But I couldn't get enough of Andersen's sunny stories. I read then over and over.

Andersen's childhood was anything but sunny, however. He was mercilessly teased and mocked as a child for his appearance. He was older and bigger than his classmates. To make matters worse, he was tall, lanky, and rather odd looking, with a long thin beak of a nose. All his life he considered himself ugly. Later on, when he had become a writer celebrated throughout Europe, he was asked whether he might write his autobiography. He already had, he answered. It was called "The Ugly Duckling."

How many generations of children have seen themselves in that little duckling? Andersen had clearly tapped into a universal fear of children, of being an outsider longing to belong. It's that universal appeal that has made "The Ugly Duckling" popular around the world for so many years, and in both print and cartoon format.

This is the charge given to us as writers: to look to our own experiences and share the fears and joys we find there. Those things will never change for children. After all, blackboards may evolve into whiteboards and in turn into smart boards. But the feelings of a child stepping into a classroom on the first day of school will never change.

"It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan's egg!"