Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happy Spring! Annual Crocus Poem and HB to Robert Frost

Last night I was walking onto the seminary campus around twilight. Some of the trees there are in full bud, looking as though they might burst into bloom any day in spite of the still very cold temperatures. I was marveling over the buds and also a lovely birds' nest tucked into one of the branches, when snowflakes started to drift down. Clearly winter hasn't quite gotten the memo about letting spring really start...

But start it has, and I'm grateful. Spring means several things (besides wished for warmer temperatures), including my precious mom's birthday -- she turned 82 last week -- and my parents' anniversary. This year it  was their 60th, an amazing milestone that had our whole family celebrating and feeling baskets full of gratitude for days.

Today is my own birthday, and despite the continued cold temperatures and my ongoing cough, congestion, and plain old tiredness, the gratitude continues.

The sweet girl and I spotted the first crocuses of the year more than two weeks ago, but I didn't get around to writing my annual crocus poem until last week, and then I never had a chance to post it. I thought I would celebrate today by keeping up this tiny tradition:

Seventeen crocuses bright in the cold,
Their petals so purple, their yellow hearts bold.
Though winter decided to have one more fling,
It couldn’t quite stop the onrush of spring.

~EMP, 3/19/14

If you want to see some of the crocus poems from earlier years, click on the "crocus" tag below the post.

And don't forget to read some Robert Frost poems in honor of his birthday today too. He's a tad bit older than I am, born in 1874. I think he's looking pretty good for 140! 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: The Princess Bride

Our Netflix disc arrived damaged a couple of weeks ago, leaving us with a Saturday evening planned movie night and no movie. Too tired to get creative, we turned to our tried and true stash of films and decided to watch The Princess Bride.

Like many people, we’ve watched this 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner so many times that we can quote much of it by heart. If you’re a fan…well, go ahead…take a moment here to relive some of your favorite lines with relish. “Have fun storming the castle!” is one of my staples, though there are many others that pop up in our conversations (sometimes in ways that make sense and sometimes just randomly…)

Although we’ve watched it many times, it had been a while since we’d seen it, and I found myself watching it with more freshness than usual. In particular, I found myself intrigued to realize just how low-budget this endearing and enduring film looks, and how much the lack of “wow effects” of any sort doesn’t hurt its grand storytelling one bit. William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name, does a terrific job of getting to and sticking with the heart of the story. Yes, it’s brilliantly casted and acted with incredible panache and humor, but if the characters and plot hadn’t been drawn so well, I don’t think it would have become such a beloved classic.

Here are a few takeaways from The Princess Bride for us as storytellers.

1)      A great framing device goes a long way.

Think about how different this film would be if it had just been a straightforward narrative. If we had started with Buttercup and her Farm Boy, we would have entered right away into a fairy-tale world. Instead we start in the “here and now” of 1987, in a small boy’s room when the boy is home from school sick. His grandfather arrives to read him a story, one his father used to read to him and one he also read to the boy’s father when he was little. We can tell this story is golden gem for the grandfather, but the boy at first is resistant. We enter the story via his youthful skepticism and enjoy the chuckles that come from his initial resistance to the romantic elements in the tale. (The grandfather has promised him adventure, so why is there all this kissing?)

The film doesn’t just use this storytelling device at the beginning and end. Periodically, throughout the tale, we’re interrupted by the boy’s questions or exclamations. The action essentially freezes (or sometimes jumps ahead…a very useful transition tool!) while the grandfather responds to the boy’s reactions. So we’re never allowed to forget for a moment that we’re traversing the realm of story. We traverse it with the storyteller and story listener, falling as deeply and magically into the story as they do. I think this is as close as a movie has ever come to replicating the magic of falling into a book.

2)      It can be important to know what your characters want.

This is one of the first rules of good storytelling, and one that teachers tell their writing students over and over. I can still hear variations of it in the voice of one of my literature professors in college! But we really see it in action here. Buttercup and Westley want nothing more than to be together (and believe that nothing can stop true love!) but there are plenty of obstacles, often caused by things that the antagonists want, like starting a war with Guilder.

My favorite instance of knowing just what a character wants, however, comes via Inigo Montoya. Inigo never lets us forget his quest: a six-fingered man killed his father when he was eleven, and he has spent his life training as a swordsman so that when he eventually catches up with this villain, he will be able to defeat him. After first declaring, of course: “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” With a set-up like that, we know we’re bound to see a six-fingered man before long, bound to get the scene where the two of them finally fight, and bound to hear Inigo utter that line he’s spent his life rehearsing. Our anticipation builds because of the set-up. And the pay-off, when we finally get it, is terrific.

3)      Sometimes it’s smart to play against type.

Sometimes a character seems utterly predictable because of what he or she looks like or appears to represent. On second glance, we learn that there is much more to the character than meets the eye – and that, in fact, a part of his or her personality seems to be directly opposite of our expectations. The supporting character Fezzik is a perfect example here. An enormous giant, he’s originally hired by Vizzini (actually working for Prince Humperdinck) to help kidnap the princess. He’s clearly valued by Vizzini for his giant size and brute strength, and we initially expect him to be thuggish.

It turns out that Fezzik is gentle and kind. He hates hurting anyone and doesn’t think it’s “sportsman-like” to take unfair advantage in a fight. He also has a love for rhyming games, a game we see Inigo, his good friend, encourage him in (one of the many reasons we come to love Inigo). All of these elements make Fezzik endearing, but especially so because they seem to play against our initial impression and the expectations of other characters.

Creative Prompts and Exercises

·        Take a story you know well, either one you’ve written or an old tale you could easily re-tell, and create a framing device for it. Is the story being shared with a child? Could the story be an important memory passed on from one generation to the next? Is someone telling the story at an important occasion (a wedding, a funeral, a reunion) a setting that will have more meaning for us at the end when we understand its significance more fully because of the story?

·        Create a story with at least three characters who know exactly what they want. Make one character on a quest of some sort. Make one character want something that will potentially block the first character from getting what he or she wants. Create another character whose goal is to help the first character achieve their goal (thinking through carefully why it’s so important for that character to help the first one).

·        Create a character profile for a “stock” character who looks predictable. This could be a hero, jock, beautiful princess, giant, bookish poet, or frail and elderly woman. The idea is to give the character certain traits that we expect that kind of person to have. Make them look predictable, and then have them do, say, or be a certain way that plays completely against that stock type.

·        Just for fun…if you’re a fan of The Princess Bride, try writing a “missing scene.” What was going through Westley’s head on the day the Dread Pirate Roberts first threatened to kill him? How did Humperdinck choose Buttercup to wed? What was life like for Inigo the day after he saw his father die? How did Vizzini meet up with Fezzik and Inigo? The possibilities are endless. Remember, it’s okay to play in someone else’s fictional universe, and it can give you good practice in writing dialogue and actions for characters whose quirks and motivations you already understand.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Another New Feature: Storyteller's Workshop

Last week I launched a new feature here on the blog. Marmee's Library will be my semi-regular reviews of children's literature, tailored to be especially helpful for teachers and parents.

This coming week I'm launching another new feature. I'll be calling these posts Storyteller's Workshop. Each post will celebrate good storytelling, and will feature a discussion of a story (book, film, or otherwise). We'll look at some elements in the story that help make it come alive for readers or viewers. I love talking about what makes a story work well! In addition to reflections, each post will include creative prompts or exercises which I hope will be helpful for writers of all ages.

Stay tuned for the first Storyteller's Workshop post tomorrow! 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From Marmee's Library: Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park

In recent years, Linda Sue Park has become one of my favorite writers. I was going to say “writers for children,” because she does indeed write for children, but in point of fact, I think she has become one of my favorite writers period.

I first encountered her 2002 Newbery award winning A Single Shard. Set in 12th century Korea, it tells the story of Tree-ear, an orphan who longs to become a potter. As I wrote in my review of the book back in 2010: “This kind of work is story-telling at its finest, lean and gentle, filled with adventure but also with grace.” It’s about as pitch-perfect as a novel can be.

I’ve gone on to read a number of Park’s other novels and picture books, and my daughter, now eleven, has read a few I haven’t yet, but recently we discovered and read together Park’s very first novel, Seesaw Girl, published in 1999.

This is another gentle but moving tale told in Park’s clean, clear prose. Its 17 chapters cover only 90 pages, which include some beautiful black and white illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng as well as an author’s note to further detail some of the Korean customs and settings. The book is set during the 17th century, about midway through the Choson period (which lasted from 1300-1880) in Korea. It tells the story of a young, aristocratic girl named Jade Blossom whose father is an advisor to the king.

As a reader, I was immediately pulled into the details of the place and time. Jade Blossom is a likable protagonist, the kind of young girl that many young girls will likely relate to. She plays pranks on her older brother and enjoys giggling with her young aunt and best friend Graceful Willow. She enjoys art, especially (at story’s beginning) the careful, decorative embroidery she is learning to do, but she’s not overly fond of chores, especially the complex processes involved in laundry day.

Beyond the universal likability of the character, however, there are the specific details of her circumstances. Jade Blossom lives the kind of protected life that most contemporary girls in the West will have a hard time fathoming. She is not allowed to leave the “Inner Court” of her family’s home. Since they are well-to-do, the home complex is fairly large, which means the Inner Court includes some outdoor spaces, such as the garden. So “she’s not like Rapunzel,” as my eleven year old put it.

Not quite locked in a tower, no, but still she must live within some very strict traditional constraints. These become more challenging for her as the narrative moves on, especially after Willow gets married. She essentially loses all opportunity to see Willow, since a new bride belongs almost exclusively to her husband’s family. The attempt to break tradition and go to Willow’s new home results in Jade Blossom’s first experience of the wider world outside her inner court. That experience inspires her to some complex feelings and questions.

As a writer, I appreciate, as always, the tidiness of Park’s prose. Tidy is the word I tend to think of when I read such tight, well-crafted writing.

I also appreciate the complexity of Jade Blossom’s characterization. Park must have walked a delicate line between the specific and the universal, wanting to be true to the time and place and those restraints that a character in Jade’s position would have really lived under, and yet wanting to craft a character who would resonate with readers now. I think she succeeds admirably, without falling into the mistake of making her too contemporary, but pulling on traits that somehow do feel believably universal.

It’s hard not to imagine that at least some of the girls of Jade’s status and time did not feel some level of curiosity, discontent, frustration, and anger. This must have been true even when they understood that this was just “how things were done,” and that they were done because their families wanted to cherish and protect their daughters. I like the way Park uses the distant mountains to symbolize Jade’s longings for a wider world. (It reminds me a little of the way I’m using the ocean in my work-in-progress, where my character lives in a small, land-locked country hemmed in by warring peoples on either side. In fact, Park’s delicate use of the mountains is helping me think through how I want to work the ocean more into my own story.)

With all that said, there is something about Seesaw Girl that feels like a first novel. It’s beautifully written on every level, and yet there is less lyricism in the prose and perhaps a little less development of the secondary characters than in Park’s later work, especially A Single Shard. I always think writers must feel frustrated when people compare an early book to a later masterpiece though, and I don’t mean anything denigrating by the comparison. It just somehow encourages me, as a writer, to know that Linda Sue Park had things to learn as a storyteller too.

As a teacher and parent, I am delighted by all the good takeaways from this novel. There is richness to be found here in history studies, literary studies, and character qualities.

History: this novel can enrich your young learner’s understanding of Korea in late-medieval-edging-into-early-modern times. So often, students don’t learn much about the Eastern world in the early history years. Even if you’re using a world history curriculum like Story of the World, information about Korea is pretty thin.

Seesaw Girl would fit right in with the information Susan Wise Bauer shares about Chinese influence in Korea in chapter 9 of SOTW Volume 2: The Middle Ages. In fact, it might be interesting to point out why Linda Sue Park intentionally chose the name Jade Blossom. As she says in this great interview: “At that time, Korea was a satellite state of China, and among the aristocracy or the nobility, the idea was to create a culture and a lifestyle within your home that was as Chinese as possible. I named the main character "Jade Blossom," which is a much more Chinese-sounding name than a Korean name because that's what wealthy families (like hers) at the time were doing.”

My daughter found it so unfair that Jade Blossom had not even been taught to read, when her brother Tiger Heart had so many academic opportunities. That point may be a great opening for discussion of illiteracy and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, not to mention a cause for gratitude for the learning opportunities many of us take for granted.

The Peabody Essex Museum has provided this interesting social studies and art unit inspired by Seesaw Girl. 

Literature: The conflict in the novel is worth discussing. Jade Blossom is clearly the protagonist, but who or what is the antagonist? Although the rules of the household are strict and Jade Blossom is supposed to adhere to them, Park’s sensitive portrayal of Jade’s parents means that they are not precisely antagonists. (Get your students to think through how and in what ways Jade’s mother and father support and help her.)

It’s really cultural expectations that block Jade Blossom from what she most wants, and those are not easy to overcome. In fact, the narrative subtly raises the idea that perhaps sometimes there are things in life (like family honor and obedience) that may be as or more important than getting exactly what we want, even if what we long for is good. That leads us right into the next learning reservoir….

Character Qualities: There are really two virtues or qualities that stand out to me in this novel: contentment and creativity-within-limits. Jade wants many things that her limitations seem to block her from having: time with her Aunt Willow, freedom of movement, understanding of the wider world (both natural and cultural/political), and more complex artistic expression (she wants to learn how to paint, typically a male pursuit, and not just embroider, a woman’s more usual art).

By the end of the novel, she has not achieved all of these things, but she has taken small but creative steps, still working within the confines of her situation, toward more freedom. We see that in the way her father satisfies her curiosity about the political situation in the palace, in the way her brother Tiger encourages her painting skills, in her poignant conversation with her mother about a woman’s place in the household, and in her own ingenuity as she invents the seesaw game that allows her fleeting but real glimpses of the faraway mountains. Jade has not flouted her parents’ authority or eschewed cultural traditions to get her way, but she has found a respectful way forward that honors authority and tradition and yet enables her to grow and learn. It may not feel like enough for readers accustomed the bold and empowered characters of modern fiction, but it feels authentic to the story, and I think it has a lot to teach our contemporary, restless sensibilities.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

First of Some New Features: Marmee's Library (Literature Reviews for Parents and Teachers)

It's been a busy month, and I've been writing "in the cracks and crevices." I've been missing my weekly review writing for Epinions.

One of the things I've realized, with the closing of that platform, is that review writing is in my blood. The other thing I'm realizing is that I can look at this season as a fresh new start and begin to craft some reviews, especially of children's literature, that are tailored more specifically for parents and teachers.

At some point I may collect these elsewhere. I've been considering launching a new blog, not to replace my journal space here entirely, but to provide a more specific resource space. But for now, I will be posting these reviews here under the heading of "Marmee's Library." If you find them helpful, I hope you will pass the word on to other readers, writers, teachers, parents, and homeschoolers!

I'll launch the first Marmee's Library review here tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Monet Sunset, 1880 (An Original Poem)

One hundred and thirty-four years ago,
A man named Claude chose colors just so.
On canvas he captured his dream of the sky –
A misty cloud river, the sun’s golden eye.

He noticed each streak and shadow and hue
And wrung every drop from the beauty that’s blue,
He added some rose and a touch of fuzzed peach,
And showed slender limbs in their sinuous reach.

One hundred and thirty-four years have gone by,
But today I am blessed by his dream of the sky.

~EMP 3/10/14

Saturday, March 15, 2014

March Musings and Lenten Readings

March came in like a lion and thus far has not yet decided if it wants to be a lamb. We've had some lamb-like days, and then the cold comes roaring back. Illness (my own, the sweet girl's, D's) has kept us all a little off kilter this month. Spring teaching work has also kicked in, and I've had way too many plates spinning. Hence the resounding quiet here!

In the midst of everything, the season of Lent has begun. When I'm on the ball ( has been known to happen) I usually do a pre-Lenten post about my reading for the season. Although that didn't happen this year, I thought I would still post a few thoughts about my reading.

As a family, we're still moving our slow way through the Psalms. We've been reading one Psalm a night for the past few months. Actually we started in the middle -- the sweet girl was intrigued to have us read all the way through Psalm 119, the longest one, and once we did that, we just kept going straight through to the end of the Psalter. Once we got there, we decided to start back at the beginning, and we're now at Psalm 93, almost all the way back around.

We've been a Psalm-ish family for years. We tend to read through them based on the daily readings, but we're not always consistent about it. We also have favorites we've revisited, meditated on, or mostly learned by heart through the years. Psalms 8, 23, 84, and 103 all come to quickly to mind, and there have been others.

For the past couple of years, I've been feeling especially close to the Psalms -- they've lodged in my heart and prayers in new ways. I appreciate their raw, deep honesty, and the way they cover so much of life, the parts that make sense and the parts that don't. They keep me God-oriented. So I am especially happy this Lent to be reading N.T. Wright's The Case for the Psalms. It is not just a book about the Psalms, but an invitation to live them and pray them. I am finding it good, good tonic for the soul.