Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Creature Stirs and Blinks Its Bleary Eyes

Yes, well. See. I've been sick. And in Chicago. And revising.

The dreaded Brooklin Cold turned out to be a real horror. Two weeks in, I had stopped sneezing and snorting but had a totally blocked ear and felt like hell. A month in, I'm finally feeling like myself, have almost stopped coughing and my blocked ear is crackling, which seems like a good sign.

I mean, Futureland or what?

A plane flight probably wasn't what the doctor ordered for the ol' ear drum, but other than that I had a great time at the Printers Row Lit Fest. Penguin's travel arrangements were perfection, the hotel was great, and Chicago, in case you've never been there, is GORGEOUS. Also very, very hot, but right now--sitting in Brooklin, Maine, in four layers plus a fleece vest--hot seems like a good thing.

In addition to skylines and the comparatively cool lakefront and Millennium Park, there were human beings. First, my fellow panelists Ilene Cooper, Brenda Ferber, Kristina Springer, and C. Alexander London, and our fearless moderator, Amy Alessio. And our audience, who stayed with us even though it was a million degrees in our tent and the fan was directed only at the panel. I love meeting fellow kidlit writers--makes me proud to be one. They are funny, sharp, heartfelt, and great at words, and their ethics are in the right place. Did I say funny? (I'm talking about you, C. Alexander London.)

After the panel, I got to hang out with some of the Marauders, , my online friends who are funny, sharp, heartfelt, and great at words. They're quite ethical, too. Meg, Sandi, and Sue came to the panel discussion with a couple of friends and Sandi's daughter, Kathryn. Sandy and Kathryn had flown in from Nashville to spend the weekend with Meg, who lives in Wisconsin, and Sue took the train from Detroit. After the panel we wandered down to the waterfront then over to Millennium Park, ducking into the art museum and a coffee shop when the clouds opened. I'd only met Meg online, and as usual it seemed as if we'd known each other for years. Which we have. It's just that we'd never met in person.

Here we are cooling off in genteel fashion at Crown Fountain (from left, Sandi, Meg, me, Sue).

Here's the correct behavior at Crown Fountain:

Since I got home I've been revising, revising, and revising. Also, Brooklin Youth Corps starts Monday and the garden needed attention. Also, I've been revising. Two days ago I plugged a massive plot hole, and was feeling very cocky about it until yesterday morning, when I discovered that filling the plot hole had created a plot chasm. Today I wiped out three days of theorizing and started over. I think I've got it this time. Or, anyway, I think that until tomorrow morning.

I told my editor I'd have this to her "the end of June." What month is this again?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review Club: June

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@Barrie Summy

I've been sick as three dogs for the past week and a half, a last tail-lashing by The Brooklin Cold (or plague) before it leaves town for the summer. On the plus side, I've finally made a dent in my To Be Read pile--in this case, that meant revisiting my childhood, also a good thing.

While I've got your attention, a shameless plug: If you're near Chicago Saturday, drop by the Printers Row Lit Fest, where I'll be on a panel called "Elementary, Dear Watson" at 12:30 pm on the Mash Stage. I'll join Ilene Cooper, Brenda Ferber, Kristina Springer, and C. Alexander London to talk about writing for teens.

Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!

The Good Master
By Kate Seredy
Doubleday, 1935
Scholastic paperback, 1991

To enjoy The Good Master is to question everything you think you know about what makes a good novel for children.

For example, it’s a given these days that we keep the reader with us by increasing the dramatic tension any way we can. Make Harry Potter an orphan and set a murderous wizard after him, then kill off every father figure he’s got. Make Harry feel the deaths are at least partly his fault. Violate the reader’s trust so many times that finally the reader really, truly believes that Harry might get killed off, too.

Another given: Characters must have faults.

So here’s this book, a Newbery honoree in 1936. Its author, Kate Seredy, was born and educated in Hungary, served as a nurse in World War I, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1922 to seek work as an illustrator. She wrote The Good Master after an editor at Doubleday suggested that children might be interested in tales set in the Hungary of her childhood. It won the Newbery honor; her next book, The White Stag, won the Newbery medal in 1938. The Singing Tree, a sequel to The Good Master, won another Newbery honor in 1940. Seredy wrote nine other books and illustrated countless others before her death in 1975.
One of the author's illustrations for The Good Master

I can attest that children were interested in Seredy’s Hungarian tales, because I enjoyed them myself when I was 8 or 9. I had only vague memories of them, however, and when somebody handed me The Good Master a week or so ago, I wasn’t even sure this was the same book I’d loved as a kid. Until I googled her, I had no idea that Seredy also was the author of The Chestry Oak, which I must have taken out of the library sixteen times in fourth grade.

So I re-read The Good Master as an adult—an adult who is in the middle of revising a novel, pumping up the dramatic tension every chance I get.

I became reacquainted with Jancsi, the young son of a prosperous rancher on the Hungarian plains, and his madcap city cousin, Kate, who comes to live with his family. I revisited Jancsi’s perfect parents and their salt-of-the-earth shepherds, horsemen, and farmhands, riding out on the plains with them and listening to folk tales by the fire. We celebrated Easter. We went to a country fair. Not exactly tense.

Kate is the only major character with real flaws, and they are attractive ones: “She’s the most impossible, incredible, disobedient, headstrong little imp,” her father writes, pleading with his brother to give her some fresh air and discipline. Minutes after we meet her, she’s running off with a wagon and a team of horses.

Kate quickly settles into farm life, however. She and Jansci have a couple of adventures with rampaging horses and river currents. Kate exposes a charlatan at the fair. The major incident, a potentially stirring one, is Kate’s kidnapping by a band of stereotypically swarthy, good-for-nothing gypsies.

The original cover
 We hear most of that tale from Kate herself, after the fact when she’s already been rescued. It’s a bit of a wet firecracker, causing me to spend several fruitless minutes imagining what might have been and wondering if Seredy's editor thought kids couldn't take the pressure. (She'd faint today.)

An hour later, the book ended with a couple of cloyingly sentimental “surprises” that had been telegraphed for pages. I set it down, sighed … and realized to my surprise that I was a completely satisfied, blissful reader.

Huh? How on earth did Seredy do that?

Heart, that’s how. Seredy didn’t just write this book, she felt it. So what if Jansci’s father—the “good master” of the title—has no faults. That’s how Seredy remembers men of his type. She’s not cynical about it, she’s not giving us what she thinks we want and will pay for. She’s giving us everything she’s got in her heart.

It’s interesting that the one vision that stuck with me all these years—a moment when Jansci’s father stands there getting soaked in a drought-ending rain, arm outstretched, face to heaven—turns out to be a minor incident in the book. The drought and attendant fears take up about four pages of text. But it struck me hard as a kid—I was so involved with these people that Seredy didn’t need to go on for pages to tell me how fragile their lives could be.

I was in Hungary at that moment, transported out of my eight-year-old self. That’s the power of a good book, and I guess I’ll trade it for dramatic tension any day.

If I can't have both, that is.