Sunday, May 15, 2011

writing for children & quirky inspiration from Roald Dahl

Last week a writer friend sent me a present: Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald DahlStoryteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock (Simon & Schuster). It landed on our porch with a loud ker-thunk because, I'm not kidding, it's as hefty as a door-stop.

Roald Dahl of course is famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and for being outrageously quirky. On page 547 of his bio, he explains what makes a good children's writer. I love how he puts it and shall end this post with his words:

     [The writer]  must be a jokey sort of fellow ...  unconventional and inventive ... He must know what enthral[l]s children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort. Many of them are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence. They like stories that contain a threat. "D'you know what I feel like?" said the big crocodile to the smaller one. "I feel like having myself a nice plump juicy child for my lunch." They love that sort of thing. What else do they love? New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long. But above all, when you write a story for them, bear in mind that they do not possess the same power of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored or diverted. Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate them on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself, "Is this too slow? Is it too dull? Will they stop reading?" To those questions, you must answer yes more often than you answer no. [If not] you must cross it out and start again.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

controversial book covers #2: American Indians through the eyes of mainstream publishers

1989 cover
When my first novel, Jenny of the Tetons, was about to be published the bound galley arrived with a beautiful wrap-around cover. I was thrilled. At first.

Then I looked closely at the painting. The mountains weren't the Tetons and Jenny, a Shoshone Indian, resembled a white pioneer. Her face was pale, her hair short, and she wore a gingham dress. I protested vigorously to my editor. Not only was the cover inaccurate, it showed nothing of Jenny's proud heritage. I pleaded for a do-over: for Jenny to be in her native clothing, which was described in the novel, and for the Tetons to be authenticated. This is one of the most distinctive ranges in the West! That they and Jenny were generic, was a disgrace.

The painting was tweaked: Jenny's skin was darkened and she was given braids [PHOTO, above]. Dress was the same, ditto the mountains. When I asked why more wasn't done, my publisher answered, "Artistic license."

Jenny of the Tetons (Great Episodes)
2002 paperback reprint
The paperback reprint is worse. A white girl is featured on the cover [PHOTO, right]. In the background is a fuzzy photo of an Indian woman on horseback, pulling a travois with two children in what looks like a reed cage. She is holding a baby in a cradle-board. This Jenny looks haggard and bummed out. It's a sad example of a publisher relegating a Native American to the background. Is it because of marketing in this case, that a fair-haired girl will sell more covers than a tired Indian? I hope this stereotype is just a mistake and that publishers will start doing more to honor our indigenous friends.

Jenny Leigh was a real person. She was married to an English fur trapper and they had six children. She was so respected and admired, Jenny Lake in the Tetons was named for her.