Thoughts From My Child Self: ‘Too Many Sisters’ Edition

 

There’s a fantastic reading series here in Toronto called “Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids.” It’s exactly as its name suggests: respectable adults — writers and non-writers alike — delve into their closets and basements to find their most entertaining childhood writing, and everyone gets together to laugh at them. I have yet to make it to one of these readings (they always sell out!), but the knowledge that they’re happening in my city makes me happy. This event, along with my blogger friend Caitlin’s hilarious foray into her childhood time capsule, reminded me that the last time I was back home in Edmonton, I did some digging around in my room. And oh, did I find things. What did I find, you may ask?

Sister issues! Deep-rooted sister issues I didn’t even know I had! My introverted nature = EXPLAINED.

Without further ado…

Relics of My Childhood

aka

The Tale of Too Many Sisters

 

Here is a poem I wrote about the precious escape offered by my bedroom. Sometimes sisters want to have fun, and all you want to do is have some alone time. You know, a place for yourself.

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Sisters sharing rooms. Dirty cats. Small, orchardless backyards. Some things are just so sad.

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Sisters are full of lies.

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They’re totally talking about my new ball behind my back. Sniff.

 

Sisters steal from you.

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It’s okay though. When the real world feels crowded with sisters, simply insert yourself into famous literary classics, taking the place of the main character. This allows you to hang out with imaginary people instead of your sisters.

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Better yet, write a book with no one else in it at all! This sisterless story won the Caldecott “Medle,” apparently.

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*At the bottom it specifies that “Kari Trogen” and “me” are, in fact, one and the same.

 

Ummmmm…

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Warning: excessive sisters can lead to delusions of grandeur.

 

And if there was any doubt about my feelings on the matter…

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“Forest of Reading” Breakfast 2013… and some reviews from kids!

 

Last week, I got to eat breakfast with a room full of people celebrating the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Program (the program that nominated Margaret and the Moth Tree for the Silver Birch Express Award!).

It was a treat to meet the librarians and to chat with some fellow nominees. And listening to the speeches about the program, it really got me thinking about what it’s like for teachers and librarians nowadays, helping to raise a generation of young readers. This is a group of people who work a lot of unpaid overtime to bring literacy to kids, whose programs often lack the funding they need, and who are always trying to reach struggling, disengaged kids.

So when a literacy program comes along that’s as popular and effective as Forest of Reading is, it makes you want to get to your feet and cheer.

As I wrote about when nominations were announced, Forest of Reading is an annual youth reading challenge, in which ten books are selected for each age category by a group of librarians. Kids read the nominated books, then they get to decide which title takes home the prize at the end of the school year, and attend a super exciting awards ceremony where they get all worked up cheering for their favourites. Usually kids will take part within their schools, with the support of their teachers, or sometimes they’ll take part through a parent-run book club.

Something I’ve heard so many times — and something I can’t wait to witness firsthand — is that kids just love this program. It gets them excited about starting the next book on the list, and it gets them to form opinions and start discussions about what they like to read.

It’s a pretty inspiring thing, especially when it comes to reluctant boy readers. I heard someone at my table say, “Usually, it’s only the girls whose hands you have to pry a book out of when reading time is over. But after taking part in Forest of Reading, it was the boys in the class who wouldn’t let go of their books.”

Let the reading games begin!

Being nominated for one of these awards is a wonderful boost for any author, but especially for a new author. It’s obviously really encouraging to know that a committee of librarians thought your book worthy enough to nominate it. But beyond that, being a Forest of Reading title means that your book gets brought into schools in a way that it otherwise wouldn’t. It means that more teachers know about it, more students read it, and (my personal favourite part)… we get to hear kids’ thoughts on our book!

The students have started posting their reactions on the Forest of Reading online community… here are some delightful bits of conversation from the Margaret and the Moth Tree forum. 🙂

 

“I think this book was awesome because it showed a lot of caring and it also showed how a little girls life could become spectacular, in just a little time!”

“I think that this book is a great book because it shows how teamwork works.”

“This is so cool it is about a girl who goes to an orphanage. WOW! You should read it because Margaret saves the day!”

“I didn’t like this book because it was sad that miss switch was so mean.”

“This one’s plot is terrific and some parts are funny.”

“I love this book because it is funny and it is great for all ages.”

“I like this book because it has a good ending and it makes a lot of sense so you guys should read it.”

“Such a great book! i loved how every chapter started with a saying or a lesson. And there couldn’t have been a better ending!”

“Wow, this book was both funny and terrifying at the same time (how would you like to dangle on a window sill on a blistery day). We learned that you shouldn’t judge someone by the way they look or a book by its cover. Ms. Switch is such a lovely lady………..”

“I think this is a great book because it tells you that at the loneliest times you can still make friends and make the situation better.”

Teachers who change you

 

I have a couple first-time teacher friends who’ll be meeting their students for the first time tomorrow (Good luck Rebecca! Good luck Bronwen!), and apart from making me feel very old, it takes me back to memories of some of my own favourite teachers.

Today I’m thinking about a grade one teacher who gave a warm, comforting feeling to every child she met, and who I always think of when I see a Ukrainian Easter egg.

A grade seven teacher who had a classroom library of her personal books that we could sign out (I remember staying up with a flashlight to finish And Then There Were None in absolute terror), who encouraged us to give book reports in character (“I am Princess Eilonwy, daughter of Angharad, daughter of Regat of the Royal House of Llyr!”), who had us write journal entries back and forth with her, who took us into the river valley for writing time, and who let us have candle-lit reading sessions.

A drama teacher who didn’t seem to look at us and see a bunch of twelve-year-olds, but trusted we could handle Shakespeare and plays about juvenile detention centres.

And a grade nine teacher whose classroom seemed to brim over with culture and art and… humanism. She lived and breathed Guy de Maupassant and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and got down on the ground and kissed the soil on the annual school trip to France. She taught us about the myth of Sisyphus, and walked across the tops of our desks to demonstrate the meaning of “the absurd.” We knew her for three years but we could tell she preferred us as older students, because we could better appreciate what she was exposing us to.

I was lucky enough to go to university and be shaped by wonderful, wonderful teachers there too, but there’s something about those early ones especially, I think, that changes the course of who you are.

A “new fairy tale”

 

A review of Margaret and the Moth Tree by Suite 101’s Michael Jung called our book a “new fairy tale”!

For many kids, reading fairy tales conjures up images of diving into a fantastic world full of mind-bending spells, mythical creatures, and flying broomsticks. Sometimes though, the most memorable fairy tales come from quiet stories that manage to find something truly remarkable in an apparently ordinary world – or tales that allow readers to empathize with the most ridiculous of characters and circumstances, creating an experience that lingers long after the story is over. Funny, ironic, and often bittersweet, Margaret and the Moth Tree will strike a chord with anyone who’s felt lonely and dreamed of finding a hidden world only for them. Fairy tale lovers will be glad to find the story follows in the tradition of authors like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snickett with its larger-than-life villain, foolish grownups, heroic-but-crafty children, and humorously pedantic narrator. Yet the story is more than just a stock fantasy… [T]he story’s theme of looking (or listening) below the surface to find the real truth… will likely be the most memorable aspects of this new fairy tale. ~ “Offbeat modern fairy tales for young readers

I was so thrilled to hear Margaret called a fairy tale, because I happen to be a lifelong devourer of fairy tales in all forms and am hungrily eating up all the new adaptations that have burst onto the big screen lately. I’ve given a lot of thought recently to why this is—why it is that I and so many other people continue to be enthralled by fairy tales, and why writers still want to explore the genre with new interpretations…

 

~ A Few Thoughts on Fairy Tales from Me and my Friends, Some Long-Dead ~

 

A hundred years ago, the Scottish fairy tale collector Andrew Lang talked about how the same kinds of stories show up across cultures, and how they’ve always done so for as long as people can remember. The trappings are different, but the tropes are the same:

The stories in the Fairy Books have generally been such as old women in country places tell to their grandchildren. Nobody knows how old they are, or who told them first. The children of Ham, Shem and Japhet may have listened to them in the Ark, on wet days. Hector’s little boy may have heard them in Troy Town, for it is certain that Homer knew them, and that some of them were written down in Egypt about the time of Moses. People in different countries tell them differently, but they are always the same stories, really, whether among little Zulus, at the Cape, or little Eskimo, near the North Pole. The changes are only in matters of manners and customs; such as wearing clothes or not, meeting lions who talk in the warm countries, or talking bears in the cold countries. There are plenty of kings and queens in the fairy tales, just because long ago there were plenty of kings in the country. A gentleman who would be a squire now was a kind of king in Scotland in very old times, and the same in other places. These old stories, never forgotten, were taken down in writing in different ages, but mostly in this century, in all sorts of languages. These ancient stories are the contents of the Fairy books. 

Nobody can write a new fairy tale; you can only mix up and dress up the old, old stories, and put the characters into new dresses… 

So fairy tales are old and ever-changing, they’re rooted in oral tradition, and they transcend countries and time periods. But what qualifies as one?

I’ve been mulling over the difference between fairy tale and fantasy lately, and why people often conflate the two. Gypsy Thornton at Once Upon a Blog hits one key difference on the head:

Fairy tales aren’t magical stories full of unicorns and pixie dust. That’s fantasy. Fairy tales are everyday stories with an element of wonder. The focus is different and it’s that wonder factor amid the mundane that makes all the difference.

I think that’s just it: the idea that an everyday situation could take a turn for the fantastical. That in a mundane world, there could be a bit of wonder that comes along and changes your circumstances. Which leads to that element of wishing and wish fulfillment that fairy tales often have…

When writing about who fairy tales were originally for, Charles Dickens spoke of the “vast hosts of men and 
women who have done their long day’s work,
 and laid their grey heads down to rest.” It’s a storytelling genre that came from rural, working people and from working women in particular, hence the presence of so many spinning wheels, thimbles and the like. Telling and retelling fairy tales over chores and around firesides offered reassurance and escapism—and a chance to relish the thought of bad people meeting nasty ends, of course. But Dickens wasn’t as interested in the bloodthirsty nastiness of the old fairy tales as he was in their saving power. To him, fairy literature was a “precious old escape” and a “powerful aid”:

In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy
tales should be respected… a nation without fancy,
 without some romance, never did, never
 can, never will, hold a great place under the 
sun. [Fairy tales] helped to keep us, in some sense, ever young, by preserving
 through our worldly ways one slender 
track not overgrown with weeds, where we may walk with children, sharing their delights.

So in Dickens’ view, fairy tales deal with something that children have access to: a faith in goodness and happy endings. And as adults rereading them, we have access to that hope again.

“I never really liked stories about children doing what children do—quarreling and cooking and camping. I like magic, the unreal, the more than real.”

~A. S. Byatt’s introduction to The Grimm Reader

A few wise words

 

… from a trio of kid lit apologists, which I had jotted down during a course on children’s publishing and just found again. Right up there with finding money in the couch!

 

“These days, the place where you find the best stories is in children’s books, not in adult books. And by stories I mean stories, as opposed to obscure, postmodern exercises in whatever.”
-Peter Carver, children’s editor at Red Deer Press

“A YA novel [is simply a novel that is] concerned with the basic building blocks of adolescence. That’s very fertile ground for a writer. I am still obsessed with many of those things. They haunt me.”
-Susan Juby, author of Canadian teen lit

Children need the dark materials of fairy tales because they need to make sense—in a symbolic, displaced way—of their own feelings of anger, resentment, and powerlessness. Children also benefit from learning about violence and brutishness in fairy tales, Bettelheim writes, for it counters the “widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in our life is due to our natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly.” Many fairy tales—and most of Dahl’s work—are complex narratives of wish fulfillment. They teach the reader, Bettelheim writes, that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” Or, in any case, this is a hopeful fantasy which sustains us all.
-Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker