Category Archives: random

2014: The Un-Resolution Edition

New Year’s Eve. It’s the one day of the year when we get to stay up late, drink too much, argue over the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne, and tune into every time zone on the planet just to keep the fireworks going. Don’t get me wrong. I like fireworks. And time zones. And most of my old acquaintances, for that matter. In fact, I like New Year’s better than Christmas — more shine, less glitter.

Less glitter always makes my world a happier place. But I digress.

No, I prefer the sparkly fresh-start feeling of the new year. But to me, it’s not a time for making resolutions. The way I see it, change doesn’t happen when the calendar makes it socially acceptable; it happens when we decide we’ve had enough of the status quo. Or, more often than not, when the status quo decides it’s had enough of us. Evolution is a continuous process. Darwin’s finches didn’t wait for January 1st to grow adaptive beaks; it was a gradual, responsive change, the benefits of which only became clearer over time. To me, that’s what New Year’s is about — it’s a celebration of how far we’ve come. That whatever the forces of change in our lives, we’ve adapted and survived, and maybe even flourished. That whatever the new year brings, we’re as ready as we’ve ever been to handle the change, because that’s what we do. We grow.

2014 was a year that made me appreciate the growth. It was the first year in awhile that hasn’t felt completely chaotic. Busy, sure. There were seaplanes and dolphins, chopsticks, and grilled cheese sandwiches. There were friends who moved away, making me like Christmas (and time zones) a little less, and new acquaintances that made me like my cat (and call display) a little more. I ran over 250km (no, not all at once. Sheesh.). I saw a sunset from the roof of a 45-storey building that I did not reach via the elevator. I planted trees. Probably not enough to atone for all the firewood I stacked for my mom. I wrote about potato salad (but not really about potato salad). And I baked more chocolate chip cookies than I can count, partly because I like baking, but mostly to thank my colleagues and students who help make my work life not my work/life.

2014 was a year that made me appreciate that I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been. I could never have resolved my way to where I am, because I didn’t know where I was going until I got there. Of course there were choices along the way — and in my case there were some big ones — but there was no way to predict the outcome. And I’d surely have been off the mark had I tried. Even now, I’d be hard pressed to go back and connect the dots in a way that makes more sense.

So to me, New Year’s isn’t a time to make bold resolutions, but rather, a chance to celebrate the role of change and growth and happenstance in our lives. I think if we’re to resolve to do anything that matters, it’s simply this: keep growing. And avoid glitter.

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Word to the wise? In which I start debunking major life lessons…

Okay. I’m back. I’ll apologize in advance for waxing philosophical — actually, scratch that — I’m not going to apologize at all. This is what happens when life takes over for too long and there’s not enough time to write. Crazy. Calm. Snowstorm.

(Shuffle and repeat.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the well-intentioned nuggets of wisdom we learn growing up that just don’t seem to make a lot of sense anymore. Perhaps I’ve finally reached that magical age of “older,” at which I was once promised I would “understand.” I hope not. That actually sounds kinda boring.

But honestly, do people ever hear themselves when they give this advice to young people?

“Don’t talk to strangers.” 

Confession time: I was the kid who refused to get on the bus on my first day of school because my mom drilled it into me that I should never talk to strangers, let alone get a ride from one. It was very much like the scene in Forrest Gump (which my family never lets me forget, bless their hearts), except Forrest actually introduced himself to the bus driver, and then went along anyway. I did not. Despite my teachers’ reassurances, I flatly refused to go anywhere with anyone except my parents. In my defence, I will maintain it was the FIRST day of school. My teachers were practically strangers themselves — they weren’t to be trusted either.

Fast forward to adulthood. Now I not only get paid to talk to strangers, but I also get to advise students (who are often, but not for long, strangers to me) on how to talk to professors (who are often, but hopefully not for long, strangers to them). The really funny thing is that, for all my introverted distaste for small talk, I love this part of my job. I used to think of myself as a problem solver. People had questions, I had answers. Something broke, I fixed it. Protocols didn’t work, I’d troubleshoot. Now, people come for advice, and I listen.

Working with students has taught me that you can’t solve every problem, answer every question, or fix everything that’s broken. But you can always listen, and sometimes that’s more than enough. Because one person’s small talk might be another person’s sense of belonging. That’s the beauty of it. You just never know.

I’ve learned not to take that for granted. It’s changed how I relate to people — I tend not to think of people I don’t know as “strangers” anymore; they’re just people whose stories I haven’t heard yet.

And yes, I still have my days when I like to crawl under my own little introverted rock and not speak to anyone for awhile. We need time to listen to ourselves too.

“Follow your passion.”

What does this even mean? Follow your passion. Or else, what?

Where in the heck is your passion going to go without you?

How did we ever get to this idea that your passion is something that, once identified, flies away and you spend your whole life chasing it, as though it’s something completely disembodied?

There was a time in my career when I thought I’d lost my passion. Didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing anymore, or if it even mattered — I just knew I was done with what I was doing. It sucked, in that panicky pit-at-the-bottom-of-your-stomach-oh-shit-I-think-I-lost-my-keys kind of way. For months.

But you know that relief that washes over you when you search everywhere and then realize your keys were actually in your pocket all along?

Passion, I’ve learned, is pocket-proof. It can’t fall out, it won’t get lost, and it doesn’t go anywhere without you.

So stop following it and try bringing it instead. It’s so much better than finding your keys.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Grammatical issues aside (ahem…), I think there’s another problem with this little gem. It’s the implication that “if it ain’t broke”, it can be safely ignored. Or that the only things worthy of our attention are the things that need to be fixed.

It’s not our fault. We’re hardwired to notice what doesn’t work. When something is wrong, it stands out. It bugs us. It waves its grubby little hands in front of us like a misbehaving child, singing an insufferable tune about wheels on the bus. It will not be ignored.

But when something does work, sometimes it’s hard to notice why it works. I read an article awhile ago about how airport signs are designed, and one of the sources raised a compelling point: great design is often invisible design. We don’t notice it, because it just works. It’s not in our faces, it doesn’t trigger a strong reaction, and we rarely give it a second thought.

So if it ain’t broke, and we just ignore it, what do we learn?

Sure, we can learn a lot from our mistakes — but does our collective body of mistakes add up to something that DOES work? Maybe. Maybe not. Mistakes can teach us how to avoid what we don’t want, but sometimes that’s not enough to point us to the things we do want. Sometimes we need an example. Which means we have to train ourselves to see what works, even among all the things that don’t.

Bonus benefit: When you stop looking for just the broken things, perhaps you stop finding all the broken things — and maybe you decide that not everything needs fixing. Maybe you start finding the things that work. And maybe you also start finding the things that matter.

Surviving Septemblur

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but yet again I am dumbfounded by how quickly the time between mid-August and mid-October has vanished in what seems like the blink of an eye. It’s a whirlwind season, and my favourite time of year (students! school supplies! students!)  — but suddenly it’s Thanksgiving — already!

What’s been keeping me so busy, aside from the usual new academic year frenzy? A look back at my calendar since my last post reveals a lot:

  • I ran my fourth 5K of the season, which sounds much more impressive than what really happened: a six year old on a neon pink bike raced me up a hill and won.
  • I competed in a flash fiction tournament. The prompt was “Sci-fi, a tour bus, a cinnamon roll.” I wrote about a shape-shifting cat with a sweet tooth who holds two men hostage on a time-travelling tour bus. Because a future without cinnamon rolls is no future at all.
  • I watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad. In a week. It’s such a brilliantly written show that I don’t even feel a smidge guilty about it.
  • I hosted my book club for a discussion of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. With cinnamon rolls.
  • I climbed a 45-storey building for a firefighters’ charity. Although it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it would, I will not balk at the 8 storeys to my apartment ever again.
  • I started writing a series of articles on research communication: a scientist’s guide to talking nerdy.
  • Speaking of nerds, I met one who *gets* British comedy and Indiana Jones-themed science exhibits.
  • In round two of the flash fiction tournament, I threw my main character in front of a train. Twice.
  • Theatre season started. Hockey season started. Big Bang Theory season started. All is right in the world.
  • Work has commenced on the annual group Halloween costume. No sewing required this year — which I’m simultaneously relieved and disappointed about.

In short, life is a little crazy — but in all the right ways.

I’ll be back soon. I promise. :-)

Loud as a whisper: Deborah Levy on becoming a writer

Why write? It’s a question that perhaps every writer considers at some point, sometimes publicly, sometimes not. George Orwell wrote a famous essay on the topic. So did Joan Didion. Countless others have also chimed in: David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag, take your pick. I’ve always read such accounts with a kind of morbid curiosity about what makes other writers tick, but there’s also a part of me that resists the question. Of course I agree that we need to understand something of ourselves and our purpose as writers, and writing is naturally the most reflective instrument at our disposal. But I also feel that if we’re truly successful in understanding our purpose, it needn’t become a subject unto itself. Ideally, it becomes an unmistakable and inextricable part of everything we write — the backbone — without which our words flounder.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Deborah Levy’s response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay, entitled, Things I Don’t Want to KnowLevy reflects on writing as a way of dealing with “the knowledge we cannot bear to live with”, “the things we don’t want to know” — such as her father’s imprisonment for supporting the ANC during apartheid, or her convent school mentor whose belief in God wavered. The autobiography is in itself fascinating, but there are two quotes book-ending her story that I particularly appreciated because I think they place the emphasis where it belongs — not on defining our purpose, exactly, but on learning to trust our voices to convey it honestly.

In the beginning, she quotes Polish theatre director, Zofia Kalinska:

To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something. […] A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish. But when you are ready to catch this wish and put it into language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you.”

Then later, she reflects:

To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice, which is not loud at all.

All in all, a quick, interesting read, and far more insightful, I think, than Orwell’s original essay. But you should know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with George Orwell — I appreciate his style, but I struggle with his cynicism. That’s another story…

 

Have notebook, will travel

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of my writing offline — longhand, in notebooks. I’ve had more free time to write than I’ve had in years, plenty of things to write about, and very little desire to be chained to my computer, or even my iPad. Although I’ve always done most of my “pre-writing” (notes, outlines, etc.) longhand, I’ve recently regained an appreciation for longhand composition. It’s slow. It’s messy. It’s interesting to see how things come out on the page when there is no backspace key to interfere. It breeds attentiveness. And it’s portable. Now that I keep a notebook at hand for more than just taking notes, I find myself actually going places to write. I try, at least once a week, to get out of the house and write somewhere else. Here are some of my favourite writing places:

1. Coffee Shops

Some would call this cliche, and to a point, I’m inclined to agree. But the advantage of this being so familiar is that people hardly seem bothered by some solitary stranger hunched over a notebook while nursing a latte. It’s a nice way to start a writing day.

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2. Bookstores & Libraries  

Because books. What can be more writerly than a place full of books?

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3. Under the shade of a palm tree  

Or any other vacation spot. I have become a total believer in writing vacations. They’re the best. In fact, going on a writing holiday was what started me on the habit of going somewhere else to write, to start seeing even the most familiar places in new ways.

4. The park 

Outdoorsy! The thing I like about writing in the park is that there are always people around, but it never feels busy. There’s much to be said for wide open spaces…or wooded paths.

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5. Planes, trains & automobiles

Okay, well I can vouch for planes and busses. I did try writing on a train from Lausanne to Paris once, only to discover that trains make me sleepy. However, a cross-Canada train trip is still on my bucket list, and I thought Amtrak’s new writers-in-residence program was a great idea. Writing in transit is like a retreat unto itself — new people, new scenery, and hours at a time with nothing better to do.

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6. The racetrack

I stumbled onto this one by accident, sort of. I was wandering the fairgrounds last weekend, in search of mini-donuts and a story, when intermittent showers forced me to seek shelter. It was post-time at the track, and I happen to love horse racing. Win-win. (Or is that win-place-show?) Anyway — turns out the track is a great place to write. You get two minutes of racing every half hour, there are plenty of people to watch, and when people see you with a notebook and a racing form, they just think you’re a really avid racing fan. Which I am. Really.

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7. Home

Recently, I’ve done some rearranging so that I can have a writing space that’s not the same as my computer work space. Because sometimes home still is the best place…or at least my cat thinks so.

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What are some other good writing places?

Writing and the maker mindset

The other day, I attended a public lecture by Mark Frauenfelder, creator of Boing Boing and editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine. The talk was about the popularity of do-it-yourself technology projects and the growth of so-called “maker culture.” It’s a fascinating topic to me, not so much because I like to build things myself, but because I’ve always looked at science as a way for people to engage meaningfully with the world around them. Science is all about finding stuff out, and there’s no better way to do that than to take something apart, tinker with it, and perhaps even solve a problem with it. Today’s makers, whom Frauenfelder describes as “broad spectrum enthusiasts”,  are not much different from the curious amateurs and natural philosophers who did science before we ever thought of science as a professional activity. Maker culture thrives on people sharing ideas openly and collaboratively improving one another’s designs, without the same barriers that often thwart open innovation models in professional science. And perhaps best of all, making is becoming increasingly accessible to people of all ages and all interests, in a way that professional research isn’t and perhaps never will be. It’s kind of exciting, seeing this resurgence of popular science.

Now, this will sound a little strange, but while my interest in maker culture comes from my interest in science, as a scientist, I never considered myself much of a maker. Of course there were many times in the lab when I had to come up with creative solutions to problems for which there was no ready-made, off-the-shelf protocol or apparatus; that’s just part of being a scientist. But outside the lab, at home, I don’t mind admitting that I’m somewhat less resourceful about DIY projects. I’ve tended to direct my creative energy to other pursuits — to writing, mostly. Does that count?

Going into Frauenfelder’s talk, I wouldn’t have thought so. But in the Q&A, someone asked him whether he’d found it difficult, transitioning from mechanical engineering to journalism, and his response felt immediately familiar. He described how, as an engineer, he would often work on a project for a year or more at a time before seeing a tangible outcome, while journalism allows him to keep moving, feeding his curiosity with new projects all the time, without being stuck on one thing for too long. It certainly sounded consistent with what one would expect from a broad spectrum enthusiast — a maker — as well as many writers I know, including myself.

One of the reasons I never wanted to get a PhD in science is that I didn’t want to specialize. The idea of spending 4-5 years on one project didn’t excite me at all. I enjoyed being more of a generalist. I liked being exposed to a lot of different ideas and projects and people — and the deeper I went into my own research, the more isolated I felt. With writing, I get to ask more questions about more things. I get to tinker with ideas and words — which may not be as sexy as building gadgets with a 3D printer and DIY electronics kits — but it’s all creative problem-solving. It’s all making something out of nothing, learning more about how it works as we go along. It’s the maker mindset.

If you’re not familiar with Frauenfelder’s work, I highly recommend checking him out — you might want to start with his TEDx talk, here:

 

Libraries: the great, unseen, can’t-miss attraction

One of the unexpected advantages of going on a writing holiday, I’ve discovered, is that it takes some of the urgency out of being a tourist. The pressure to see and do as much as I can has been tempered greatly by the fact that my real purpose for being here is to give myself time to write. Don’t get me wrong, the sightseeing has been fun too, but the other day I was standing in a rose garden amid a busload of bona fide tourists who seemed to be in such a hurry to see everything that I’m not sure they saw much of anything at all — and I actually felt a little sorry for them. (I mean, if ever there was a time to literally stop and smell the roses?)

I knew coming into this week that I would not be trying to see everything. I deliberately chose a destination with plenty of options, but kept my mind — and my schedule — open. Today, for example, I ventured off in the general direction of one of the local “must-see” attractions, but stumbled instead into the public library, where, after a brief delay due to a fire drill (during which, I got a terrific lunch recommendation from a random library patron), I settled into a wonderfully peaceful morning writing in the stacks.

Now, to a tourist on a sunny day, there are probably dozens of more exciting things to do than hang out at the library. Truth be told, I think I was secretly counting on it. I knew as soon as I walked in that it was going to be more satisfying than navigating herds of camera-toting tourists, Instagramming their way through the guided tour.

I think you can tell a lot about a place by its libraries. I might be biased, having spent my own formative years under the influence of a pack of librarians (which is kinda like being raised by wolves, but without all the howling at the moon). But I think libraries are just honest, down-to-earth places. Unlike most tourist traps, libraries strive to put their best foot forward to everyone, all the time, and without the underlying profit motive. Libraries are about adding value to the community, in the broadest sense of both words.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to roam an unfamiliar library, but the kid-in-a-candy-shop sense of wonder never really fades. It’s like grandma’s apple pie (or cookies, or pot roast, or whatever your grandma happens to be famous for). The scent of a library — somewhere between that glossy new cover smell and the musty vanilla character of well-travelled books — evokes some of the best memories of my childhood. It’s calm, but not too quiet. And though the layout is instinctively familiar and readily navigable, every library possesses its own distinctive, for lack of a better word — personality.

Whenever I visit a new library, I like to get a feel for the collection. I start in non-fiction, usually around the 020s (because librarians pick the best books about themselves — I once stumbled upon an enchanting anthology of library love stories on just such an adventure). I mostly cruise through the 100s-400s, although I might pause on some of my favourite topics (363.31 – Censorship, 370s – Education). And then I do a thorough rooting through the 500s, the 600s, and the 800s — wrapping up, wherever possible, with a nostalgic thumb through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (808.882). I took it out on a librarian’s dare once when I was thirteen, and dozens of borrowing periods later (and probably some long-forgiven fines), it’s still my favourite book to just sit and flip through at random. (Though oddly enough, I still don’t own a copy…)

If I ever manage to get my head out of Bartlett’s, then it’s off to fiction. It’s always interesting to see how libraries organize their fiction — sometimes alphabetically, sometimes by genre. Then reference, periodicals, local history, special collections…who says libraries are not “must see” attractions?

Today, however, I found a quiet nook in the late 700s, somewhere between stringed instruments and games of chance, sunk into some words of my own making, and didn’t look up until lunch time, when I saw this quote painted above the library’s main entrance:

You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that has been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians. ~Monty Python

Yup, that’s my pack. Wherever I go, there they are.

Ocean waves, creative flow — coincidence? (I think not…)

When I was thinking about destinations for my summer writing getaway this year, every place that came to mind had one thing in common: the ocean.

I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but then again, I probably didn’t need to. Just as some people are naturally attracted to mountains or wide-open spaces, I am (instinctively, it seems) drawn to the water. I love everything about the ocean — the salty sea breeze, the soothing white-noise of waves breaking on rocks, even the way the light shimmers across the surface, causing mirage-like reflections that ripple and fade with the current. I could sit and watch it for hours.

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I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about the ocean that seems conducive to creative endeavours. Perhaps it’s just the natural ambience that relaxes the mind and sharpens the senses. But I’ve often wondered if there’s more to it than that. Water is embedded in the very language we use to describe creativity — from “tapping in” to “filling the well” to the whole concept of creative “flow.” And I can’t help but imagine that Kafka’s famous quote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” applies as much to the writer as to the reader.

Or maybe it’s that the ocean reflects an inescapable truth about ourselves — that what lies on the surface, whatever its character, is but a glimpse of the life within. There’s a whole world below the surface — colourful, diverse, and mysterious — that remains unseen by most people. Maybe the ocean connects us with that part of ourselves — the place where stories live.

I’m not sure what it is, but I do know that whenever I’m here, I’m as close as I can be to finding out. This…is my happy place.

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In defence of the short story

Years ago, as a beginning writer, I hated short stories. I didn’t like reading them, and I didn’t like writing them. Like many young writers, I aspired to something with a little more substance, something that a reader — and a writer — could get lost in for awhile, and come out a little different on the other side. I wanted to tell big stories, and well, big stories needed space, right?

I wrote three novel-length manuscripts by my early twenties — none of which were very good — before I learned to appreciate the power of writing small. As I moved into writing non-fiction, I fell under the influence of journalistically-trained editors who made a bloodsport out of hacking 1000 words into a lean 450. In time, I learned that their goal was never to make a big story small, but to distill its “bigness” into such a small space that it almost can’t help but burst off the page.

Only then did I develop a true appreciation for the short story. I don’t think I’ve read an “epic” novel since. And really, what’s the point? If it’s any good, it will morph into not one, but a whole series of 3+ hour movies, in 3D. Because, you know, it would suck if we missed any of the painstaking detail.

To be fair, there have been some pretty awesome film adaptations of short stories too: Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain jump to mind, as does The Shawshank Redemption, which happens to be one of my favourite movies of all time.

But short stories still don’t seem to get the respect they deserve. The other day at lunch, a friend of mine shrugged off short stories as something writers anthologize when they don’t have enough material for a real book. (Ouch.)  Another lamented that too many short stories are actually too long, existing in a literary purgatory between the concentrated power of short fiction and the sustained meatiness of a novel.

I took this as a challenge to bring together some really good short stories — not necessarily the “classics” we were subjected to in English class (Sorry, Hemingway) — but more contemporary examples that I’ve enjoyed.

So, in the category of fun, light reads — here are four of my favourites, in no particular order:

1. How to become a writer, by Lorrie Moore (~2,500 words)

This may be my favourite short story of all time. The first time I read it (in English class, believe it or not!), I immediately fell in love with its unusual brand of second-person snark. It’s witty and ironic, but also unapologetically real.

2. Exchangeby Ray Bradbury 

Ray Bradbury is perhaps best known for his futuristic — and sometimes dystopian — tales, but he was above all a library lover. He once described libraries as “the biggest blasted Cracker Jack Factory in the world” and urged writers to “snuff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”

In other words, he’s one of my heroes.

Exchange, which was recently featured on Selected Shorts, perfectly captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in libraries, among library people — and how no matter where you go, a library can always feel like home.

3. Unprotected, by Simon Rich (~1,250 words)

A clever coming-of-age story from an unusual point of view. Honest and funny.

4. The Undertaker’s Chat, by Mark Twain (~1000 words)

OK, this one starts to tread on “classic” territory. Reminds me of Six Feet Under.

I should note that none of these examples actually fits within the sub-genre of “flash fiction” that I prefer to write in. The definition of flash fiction varies, but it’s usually in the range of 300-1000 words. I like writing flash because it’s suitable for timed writing exercises — you can hammer out a draft in an hour — but it’s still technically challenging. It’s an art of fast writing and careful editing —  a fine balance between preserving the initial energy of a story and trimming it down to its purest, most essential form.

But that’s another story…

How my favourite poet introduced me to my favourite editor (or…vice versa?)

April is National Poetry Month. As many of you know, I’m not much of a poet, and not much more a reader of poetry. It seems I struggle with everything that makes poetry, well, poetic. There’s either too much freedom in form or not enough, counting syllables one minute, dropping capitals and punctuation the next. As in art, there is a fine line in poetry between what counts as a masterpiece and what looks like someone kicked over a paint can. I’ve never really gotten it.

And yet, the most memorable book of my childhood — not my first book, but the book I can still largely recite from memory — was a book of poetry. My first grade teacher used to read every day from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I still have my copy, faded and worn and much loved, with my name etched in practised elementary school scrawl on the inside front cover. The book is home to some of my most beloved literary characters: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would NOT take the garbage out!), Ickle Me, Pickle Me, and Tickle Me (who went for a ride in a flying shoe), and dear old Reginald Clark, who was afraid of the dark, and begged each day, “Please do not close this book on me.” (which of course we did, every day before lunch time…and I still do, as a rule, anytime I feel the need to look up a Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.)

It’s a book that’s lost little of its charm over the years.  Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the book’s dedication, “For Ursula” referred to the legendary Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the woman who, over the span of a fifty-year career, revolutionized children’s publishing. Ursula Nordstrom not only nurtured some of the greatest creative talents in 20th century children’s literature (e.g. Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown – to name just a few!), but she also dared to publish what she called “good books for bad children,” shattering the strict moralistic standard of children’s books in favour of books that catered to the real emotions and imaginations of children.

Nordstrom began her career at Harper & Brothers in 1931, when she accepted a position as a clerk in the College Textbooks Department. Although Nordstrom expressed an early interest in writing, she did not join Harper with any immediate ambition to become an editor. Instead, she climbed the ranks as an assistant to her friend, Ida Louise Raymond, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. When Raymond retired from the post, Nordstrom was named her successor, and would remain in a leadership role within Harper for the next forty years, amassing a long list of notable firsts: she published one of the first juvenile books handling the subject of menstruation (The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh) and the first novel for young readers that explored homosexuality (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip). And when Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, was censored and burned because it depicted a nude boy, Nordstrom publicly decried the “mutilation” of the book and maintained that “it is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.”

Though widely revered by authors, artists, and librarians, she sometimes faced staunch criticism from self-proclaimed authorities on children’s literature. One such critic, Anne Carroll Moore, famously asked Nordstrom what qualified her to be a children’s editor, given that she had no formal education, no children, and was not a teacher or librarian. Nordstrom was undaunted, replying matter-of-factly: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.

Her letters — many of which have now been published as a collection — are an absolute delight to read. Most are letters between her and her authors and artists, which capture the special bond she had with them. But there are also letters to her readers — mainly children, but also some critics — which are as heartfelt and honest as many of the books we grew up with, thanks to her.

It’s difficult to imagine that Shel Silverstein — who began his career as a songwriter (most famous for Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue“), and whose poems were originally published in Playboy — would have gotten a second look from any other children’s editor of the time. But Nordstrom actually helped convince a reluctant Silverstein that he should try his hand at children’s poetry — and I love her for it.

Because what fun would have been growing up without Me Stew and The Loser and the Crocodile’s Toothache?  (I think I’d rather have been eaten by a boa constrictor!)

Happy Poetry Month!

 

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