Feel free to disagree

Hi evryone,

SU HUTCHENS and I were talking about how many elementary kids, especially in lower grades, want pictures to help them understand scenes and characters they aren’t familiar with when listening to someone reading to them. That’s a favorite subject of mine so here are a few thoughts.

I wonder if it could be, at least in part, because today’s children marinate in bright pictures and colors from the cradle on through games, TV, phones, computers, and just about everything else. In my opinion, kids who depend on other people’s concepts of what they should see when they listen to a story or a poem, may lag in their ability to conjure their own ideas, their own mental pictures.

Of course I love wonderful art of all kinds, including pictures books! I think it’s more a matter of balance. Before there was television, radio was our main source for information and entertainment. In my case, I would rush home from school, set my books down, grab a snack, and tune into my favorite shows: Sky King, Captain Marvel, Spider Man, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Superman… All the shows were short and they followed in close order. I sat and listened, and imagined. I knew (yes, from pictures) what the heroes looked like, but I had to make up the other characters. A villain looked like my current idea of a villain. A maiden in distress looked like, well, a maiden in distress. (Please don’t anyone lecture me about how stereotypical roles have changed since the 1940s. I know. I know.) I’m just making a point here.

Later in the evening my parents would join me to listen Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Bob Hope, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, The Thin Man, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, Amos and Andy. We sat in chairs pulled close to the radio and we listened. Nothing to look at but the radio, a wall, out the window. It was up to everyone who listened to imagine what was going on.

Then came the scariest show of all time: Inner Sanctum! It was absolutely terrifying, from the opening spooky invitation to come in to the final mocking dare to come back again, I could practically feel the hair on the back of my head stand up. I adored it all. I imagined it all.

Today when I write, I see in my mind pictures of what I describe. But they’re my pictures, not yours or anyone else’s. You have to see your own pictures. If I read a poem aloud to you and you don’t see anything, I haven’t done my job right. We can never go back in time nor should we. But neither does it mean that new is always better merely because it’s different. I worry that we might be nibbling away at one of the most valuable characteristics of the human spirit: the ability — and the patience — to imagine.

The Boy with a Drum is marching still

Hi everyone,

Yesterday was the last day of school for kids in a Colorado school where my friend SU HUTCHENS teaches. As a fun activity and to burn a little energy, Su had her 4th grade students make some props and costumes and perform the first book I ever had published, THE BOY WITH A DRUM (1969).

When the actors were rehearsed and in their places, Su called at the appointed time. SANDY and I sat on a sofa in the living room and the show began. We laughed and applauded and marveled at the ingenuity of teacher and flock as the familiar story came to life on the tiny screen on my phone.

Su and Dan Hutchens, great friends

The story ends with these words: “And if they haven’t stopped marching, they’ll be marching still.” I think those kids, lucky enough to have a wonderful teacher, are going to be marching still, all the way to a bright future.

I have a delightful picture of Su’s beautiful class, but I won’t post it. I don’t have permission to show the kids, plus with today’s great sadness across the nation, protecting our children and their teachers is much on our minds.

Progress report

Hi everyone,

On my May 11 post I said I was exploring possibilities for a new science book. Ten days later, exploration remains the key word. The subject for the project is a big one and happened long ago. It will be a challenge to keep the narrative from becoming too tedious.

I’ve been thinking about this book since January 2021. Last week I put the first words on paper. I worked on a draft of the first 900 words for four days. It was slow going and didn’t fall into place until the last day. It’s only the introduction, but it has to connect with young readers, make them want to read about what’s coming next. I decided it was good, but I needed the reaction of something seeing it for the first time.

I wasn’t ready yet to share it with NEAL LOPINOT, my archeologist friend/co-author of the book, but it’s never too early to share with SANDY. I offered the three pages to her with a hopeful look. She accepted them and sat down to read them at once. Pretty soon she looked up. I could see it coming.

“Boring,” said.

“Is not,” I whined with dignity.

“Is too,” she repeated and explained.

This is why I trust Sandy with my early drafts. She’s not only a straight shooter, she is right SO often. My first fear about this book is that it will bore readers. I prevailed on my good friend and master teacher, SU HUTCHENS. She, being the consummate teacher, both praised and offered a helpful thought or two. I began the revision.

Today I finished the rewrite, a rather complete one, I like it better. A lot better. If Sandy likes it better, a lot better, too, then off it goes to Neal. Once I know I’m on the right trajectory, I’m going to write this book!

Hooray for Su Hutchens and her kids!

Hi everyone,

Our friend SU HUTCHENS has made my day! For the first time in ages, we have some children’s poems posted. Thanks to Su, four of her 4th grade poets have their work posted this morning using this month’s word as their inspiration. Please go see them, enjoy them, and encourage these young poets. You never know when you are making a positive difference that can change a life.

Our pals, Su and Dan Hutchens

Su, I know you believe in and practice the power of poetry with your students. Bless you for that. As you know, when I started Word of the Month Poetry Challenge in 2009, teachers across the country started posting poems by their students. Later, the poems stopped coming. Teachers said they were too busy because of changes in their schedules that made it impossible to spare the time to post their kids’ work. It has been sad to see the children’s section of Word of the Month go empty every month since then. In the last few years I think KEN SLESARIK has been the only teacher to post any student work.

Ken and me, 2011, Highlights Foundation Poetry Workshop near Honesdale, PA

If you are a teacher or know one, now is a good time to consider this wonderful opportunity for student writers.

A good week of thinking

Hi everyone,

Last week my seven days of thinking turned out well. I worked on a revision with Sandy Asher of Jesse and Grace, the verse novel we wrote some time ago and which Sandy turned into an award-winning play. We’re polishing it a bit to prepare to enter it for a dramatic reading. If we make it, I’ll tell you more about that.

Cheryl Harness and I pulled a story from the file that she and I hatched a few years back over wine and chatter at a dinner somewhere; maybe at a Warrensburg Children’s Literature Festival? Correct me, Cheryl. Anyway, we couldn’t sell it because it’s about a princess and some editors who saw it informed us the world wasn’t much in need of another princess story. So to heck with ’em, we’ve embarked on a completely different story springing from the ashes of the dearly departed princess.

Also during the week, I got to thinking about an extremely unlikely subject for a science picture book, outlined it, shared it with my agent, he likes it, so as soon as I can I’ll start work on it.

What else? Got my new webcam installed (thanks Jeff) and a tripod ordered (thanks, Jeff). Posted a new picture on OZARKS FAMILY VOICES (with another plea for more pictures I can post there: https://www.facebook.com/ozarksfamilyvoices. Gave a ZOOM presentation to Springfield Writers’ Guild. Received two rejections. Wrote the first draft of my Word of the Month Poetry Challenge poem, which I’ll post soon. Agreed to meet virtually tomorrow with our moderator and eight other poets to rehearse for a program to be aired on October 15. Jane Yolen and I wrote our poems for the upcoming series of bloggers who will help us introduce our new picture book, RUM PUM PUM. Su Hutchens and I agree to give my agent another week or two to read our new collaboration before I start nudging.

I recommend a good thinking week now and then. It relieves pressures and allows the imagination to get out for a good romp.