If we are human, there is sure to be grief in our past, present, or future. We can deny or try to avoid this fact, but to me it seems better to prepare and find helpful resources.
My friend Laraine Herring has written (and illustrated!) The Grief Forest, a beautiful and necessary book, really a container for process and feelings, and a light along the path through grief. A picture book intended for all ages, this book is a gift to the world: beautiful, deeply resonant, and reassuring.
2020 has brought me and us plenty of reasons to grieve. I’m so grateful to Laraine for manifested a book that will help lighten the burden.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful and generous glimpse into a young writer’s emergence, where family and sense of place both act as characters in the story. I hope you will read it. Two poems that really stood out to me:
On p. 80:
miss bell and the marchers
They look like regular people visiting our neighbor Miss Bell, foil-covered dishes held out in front of them as they arrive some in pairs, some alone, some just little kids holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just an evening gathering. Maybe church people heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds closed, the people fill their dinner places with food, their glasses with sweet tea and gather to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you on that line! Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing she can do, knows that people fighting need full bellies to think and safe places to gather. She knows the white lady isn’t the only one who’s watching, listening, waiting, to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’ glasses filled, adds more corn bread and potato salad to their places, stands in the kitchen ready to slice lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls her uniform from the closet, she prays, God, please give me and those people marching another day.
And this beautifully embodied gift on p. 217:
It’s easier to make up stories than it is to write them down. When I speak, the words come pouring out of me. The story wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair, crosses one leg over the other, says, Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on. But as I bend over my composition notebook, only my name comes quickly. Each letter, neatly printed between the pale blue lines. Then white space and air and me wondering, How do I spell introduce? Trying again and again until there is nothing but pink bits of eraser and a hole now where a story should be.
A couple years ago, when my daughter chose an advance reading copy of Tania Unsworth’s Brightwood at the library (a prize for the reading program), I had no idea we were in for such a treat. The cover looked a bit scary, so I decided to read it to her. (You can read the Kirkus review here.) It is a little scary. It’s also a lot beautiful and interestingly complicated: a tribute to Ms. Unsworth’s belief in the capacity and imagination of the child.
My daughter and I both fell in love with the book. I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Unsworth, and she replied, which began an imaginative and generous correspondence with me as writer-mother, and my daughter as reader.
As the paperback release was approaching, I asked Ms. Unsworth if she would mind my daughter asking some interview questions, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.
Merida and I hope you enjoy the interview. And of course we recommend you buy the book!
Describe Frank’s background.
Frank is not the main character in BRIGHTWOOD, although she probably thinks she is. She arrives at Brightwood Hall when Daisy (who is the main character), is in desperate need of help. Frank isn’t a ghost, although she does appear in black and white. She’s more like an imaginary friend – a very bossy and delusional one. She’s an explorer from a different time and place, and for the whole of the book (set in an English stately home) she believes she’s actually in the Amazonian jungle, pitting her wits against a rival explorer. But she has an odd way of getting to the truth, and her advice is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. She was my favorite character to write, and even though I finished the book some time ago, I’m not certain she got the memo. It’s possible she’s still out there, having all kinds of adventures without me.
What was your inspiration for writing Brightwood?
I loved the idea of writing about someone who has never once been outside their home. Daisy doesn’t know what lies beyond the gates of Brightwood Hall, and so she’s made the beautiful old house into a whole world. A kind of magical kingdom. When Daisy’s world – and her life – is threatened, she’s forced to confront reality. I felt that situation had the potential for a powerful story.
How did you get the idea for the non-human characters?
My best ideas come out of problems. The biggest problem I had when I sat down to write the book, was how to tell the story with only two characters. There was Daisy, all alone in the house, and there was James Gritting, the mysterious relative who turns up a little way into the story. Daisy’s mother is mostly not in the action at all. It is very hard to make things happen in a story without interaction between characters, dialogue, the exchange of information, and all that good stuff. Simply describing the thoughts in one person’s head makes for very dull reading! So I knew that Daisy had to have people (or a rat!) to talk to, even if they weren’t – strictly speaking – real. She would need to have an extraordinary imagination to do that. By creating non-human characters, I solved my problem of how to move the action along, and I also gained an insight into the character of Daisy herself. Two birds with one stone!
How long have you been a writer?
I’ve always been writing, even when I was quite a little child. I got my first book published when I was about 35.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My dad was a novelist, and my mum wrote poetry, and I grew up thinking that writing was the best way to spend your life. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, although for a long time I told myself the opposite. I was frightened of failing at it. I thought because I found it hard, that meant I was no good at it. It took me a while to realize that writing is hard whether you’re good at it or not. And being frightened of failure doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It just means you’re frightened. And you can write while frightened. You can write while frightened, and while finding it hard. So that’s what I do!
What were your favorite books when you were a child?
I liked fairy stories, and Greek and Norse mythology, and historical novels about Vikings, and the Narnia books, and stories about animals like The Call of the Wild, and anything to do with adventure. Or ponies. Also, school stories, and comics, and poetry…I guess the answer is I liked everything!
To read more about Tania Unsworth, please visit her website.
Roffman’s book is about much more than sexuality. Really, it’s about how we talk to children, and what children need from the adult nurturers around them so that they know how to make smart, thoughtful decisions. She talks about what children need, and based on those needs, she describes communication as a five piece suit, composed of 1) affirmation, 2) information, 3) clarity about values, 4) setting limits, and 5) anticipatory guidance.
Soon after I started reading it, I had a conversation about something else difficult (I can’t even recall what it was, but I know it didn’t have to do with sexuality) using Roffman’s ideas, and was able to navigate the awkwardness with grace and honesty. In terms of discussing sexuality, I have my own baggage and tricky spots—and Roffman’s book helped me approach some of those things that previously felt too scary or uncomfortable.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to help guide children toward strong, healthy adulthood.
Reading to my daughter tonight, as usual, she chose the books. First, she chose one called Reading Makes You Feel Goodby Todd Parr. “I really like books by Todd Parr,” she said. She’d already been reading it to one of her babies when I came in. [My daughter has a lot of babies. Often, when I tell her the name of an author or illustrator, she says, “I have a baby named” (fill in the blank).]
In the rush of the day, it would be easy to just get to the meat and read the book, rather than taking a few seconds to name the author and illustrator. Some books we have (and some she picks from the library) are so ugly, cheesy, and poorly written that I don’t feel like elevating the schmucks who created them by giving them name. Meow. (Though those schmucks are probably making a living at what they do, so I should refrain from sneering, at least from that whole “making a living by writing books” angle.) But even with these stinky books, each time, when I read the title, then “written by…” and “illustrated by…” the child comes to know that there are people behind each book.
My daughter lives with two parents who are writers. As she grows up, she’ll know a lot–maybe too much–about what it means to be a writer. So many writers bemoan the current state of publishing…it’s a sad time for books, some say. But we could do a lot to improve the morale of writers if we do this simple act: when reading a book to a child, include the name of the writer and illustrator. Every time. Every book.
If we do, maybe that lucky child who doesn’t know any writers personally will come to know that someone sat and thought about the book, someone chose words and painted images to tell the story that lulls her to sleep.