True Friends and Good Writers

Charlotte’s Web turns 60 this year, and even though I absolutely hate spiders, the ending gets me a little teary. Apparently E.B. White felt the same:

‘”He, of course, as anyone does doing an audio book, had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right,’ [author Michael] Sims says. ‘But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte’s death. And he would do it, and it would mess up. … He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte’s death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry.'”

And just in case you’re not already tearing up, here’s my favorite quote from the book:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

I’ll just be over here with a box of tissues, thank you.

YA Doesn’t Hide Its Heart

After reading this interview, I’m pretty sure Libba Bray is going at the top of my “We Need to Be Friends Please” list. This alone gets my vote of awesome:

CultureMap: You say that it was “love at first sight” for you with YA. What drew you to it?

Libba Bray: I just read this great quote by Junot Diaz, he was talking about true intimacy, and he was saying that it was the willingness to be vulnerable and to be found out. That’s what I felt that YA did. It wasn’t pretentious, and it wasn’t hiding its heart. It wanted to be found out…

It felt like those moments when you go to a party and you’re standing around for a long time, going, I don’t fit in here, what am I going to talk to these people about? And everybody’s getting drunk, and then you find this one person, and you end up sitting in some corner talking about all these arcane things.

And then before you know it you’re having a conversation about the meaning of life and it’s four o’clock in the morning. That kind of feeling, that kind of intimacy — I felt like that’s what I got from YA.

I feel like this is the perfect way to describe a career in YA. When I was in college and grad school, most of my fellow writers focused on literary fiction. There’s a lot about literary fiction I like, but it never felt as compelling to me as YA. Like Bray says, I feel that YA isn’t “hiding its heart.” I love that there’s so much heart.

Forever Tuck

My childhood copy of Tuck Everlasting.

Over vacation, I reread Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. I read it a million times when I was in elementary/middle school, but I hadn’t read it in at least ten years. A little part of me was afraid it wouldn’t hold up. I mean, it was one of my favorites. I remembered it being so compelling. How could it stack up after so many years?

Guys, it was even better than I remembered.

The writing is stellar. I don’t think I really noticed that when I was a kid. It’s a beautifully written novel, and Babbitt is a master craftsman. For example:

“Mae’s husband, on his back beside her, did not stir. He was still asleep, and the melancholy creases that folded his daytime face were smoothed and slack. He snored gently, and for a moment the corners of his mouth turned upward in a smile. Tuck almost never smiled except in his sleep.”

Did I mention that it’s also signed? Squee!

What a gorgeous introduction to the patriarch of the Tuck family. You Tuck’s gentleness and sadness perfectly, and he’s not even awake yet. It’s brilliant writing. I’ve seen her speak on a couple of panels and both times she’s mentioned that children’s literature shouldn’t be dumbed down in any way. Children are savvy readers and deserve excellent literature. Her philosophy is obvious in her writing–the language is sharp, the characters are compelling, and the themes are moving.

Obviously, Tuck Everlasting is a children’s lit classic, and for good reason. Recently, I also came across Italian author Italo Calvino’s list of what makes a classic. A couple of points on the list struck me in relation to Tuck Everlasting:

  • The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
  • A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
  • A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

I came across Tuck Everlasting when I was a fifth-grader in the mid-90s, twenty years after the book was first published, so I’m hopeful that kids today are still reading it. When I was reading it over vacation, I kept thinking I wish I had a fifth-grade class just so I could use this book on my syllabus.

After finishing it recently, I thought: This totally won a Newbery, right? It’s brilliant. Of course it won. Then I checked the Newbery Medals and Honors list.

Shock: it didn’t.

The 1976 winner was The Grey King by Susan Cooper, so I can understand that winning. But there were only two Honor books listed–The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis and Dragonwings by Laurence Yep. Considering the committee can include more than two Honor books, why didn’t they call out Tuck Everlasting?

I’m sure the committee had there reasons, but for me it’s a good reminder that even beautifully written, emotionally compelling books don’t win all the awards. Maybe your novel is absolutely amazing, but there will still be agents and editors who pass on it, critics who write bad reviews, and awards you won’t be nominated for. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or your book isn’t good. It just means that sometimes the literary world is tough.

Really glad I returned to this beloved classic. Are there any books that you loved as a kid and reread as an adult only to find they’re still fantastic?

Making This Fun: Nora Ephron

Writer and director Nora Ephron passed away yesterday, which is quite a loss for the film and literary industry. Her When Harry Met Sally is one of the best romantic comedies ever. Much like YA, romantic comedies don’t get a lot of credit, but a well written one can truly touch on what so many of us experience on a daily basis.

One part of her obituary in the New York Times struck me in particular. About working with Ephron, Meryl Streep said:

“Nora just looked at every situation and cocked her head and thought, ‘Hmmmm, how can I make this more fun?'”

I wish more people looked at their job and coworkers and had that same thought. Although writing is often seen as a solitary activity, I think there’s a huge element of community to it. I’m going to try to instill this philosophy into my writing life.

(image: IMDB)

Quote of the Day

Juvenile or adult, War and Peace or Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice or Beauty and the Beast, a great work of the imagination is one of the highest forms of communication of truth that mankind has reached. But a great piece of literature does not try to coerce you to believe it or agree with it. A great piece of literature simply is.–Madeleine L’Engle

This is from my current read Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, which is basically a bunch of awesome quotes from L’Engle about writing, reading, and art.