Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where's Papa going with that ax? .

     When I was a reporter at the Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette for many years, I kept three books on my desk.  One was the Associated Press Stylebook, one was Strunk & White's Elements of Style and one was Charlotte's Web.
     The first two might be  pretty obvious for a reporter who loved to write, but the third?  My reporter friends might say it was because I was an education writer and couldn't keep myself away from children and schools and libraries and books.
     But the real reason was that the writing was so beautiful.  When I needed to be inspired, I would pick up the novel and read paragraphs like this:

"The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze.  The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns:  ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children liked to play in.  And the whole thing was owned by Fern's uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman."

Don't you feel as if you are in that big beautiful barn?  I know I do.

One thing that made White's writing so wonderful is he loved specifics.  And he loved lists:  "Templeton kept out of sight.  In the tall grass behind the cattle barn he found a folded newspaper.  Inside it were leftovers from somebody's lunch:  a deviled ham sandwich, a piece of Swiss cheese, part of a hard-boiled egg, and the core of a wormy apple.  The rat crawled in and ate everything.  Then he tore a word out of the paper, rolled it up and started back to Wilbur's pen."   

I was delighted to discover this book a while back at one of my favorite bookstores:

I think it is a goldmine for writers, because it lets us look over the shoulder of White as he worked his way through eight drafts of this amazing novel.  It shows how "specificity is one of White's primary criteria for good writing."

Everything White writes is active; there are no wasted words. 

I love this: "Artfully, White makes us feel the seemingly interminable rain as he begins four successive sentences identically - 'Rain fell...' - and then resolves the paragraph with a lovely, loose, sinuous sentence that winds its way as do the tired sheep."

"The next day was rainy and dark.  Rain fell on the roof of the barn and dripped steadily from the eaves.  Rain fell in the barnyard and ran in crooked courses down into the lane where thistles and pigweed grew.  Rain spattered against Mrs. Zuckerman's kitchen windows and came gushing out of the downspouts.  Rain fell on the backs of the sheep as they grazed in the meadow.  When the sheep tired of standing in the rain, they walked slowly up the lane and into the fold."

And of course Charlotte's Web has one of the best first and last lines ever:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?"


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

When I am reading the Annotated Charlotte's Web, I feel as if I am taking a writing class from a master.  As The New York Times said in its review, "This book should be required reading for anyone who might still believe that it is easy to write for children."


(Written with the help of my daughter, Laura.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

"The Amazing Instances of Grace"

A wonderful women's book group in Port Washington, Long Island, read TENDING TO GRACE recently and discussed how "the amazing instances of grace in the novel made it a truly spiritual reading experience."

Thank you!  What a fantastic review.  For those of you who haven't read the novel, TENDING TO GRACE received the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award for its empathetic portrayal of a young girl who stutters.  It is a novel that centers around the redemptive power of love.

I live in Rhode Island and wasn't able to attend, but one of the members, Karen Vetrone, herself a writer, kindly sent me highlights of the discussion.  These were moments the women thought were important to the book:

- The unfolding of Agatha and of Cornelia.
- The examples of the broken healing the broken.
-The amazing insight on the part of Agatha exemplified by her building the tee pee.
-The wonderful similes and metaphors, and the breathtaking descriptions of natural beauty.
- The almost visible melting of the stone inside Cornelia ...and of Agatha.
-How her name was so difficult for Cornelia to say… literally and emotionally.
-The wonderful nickname for the librarian.
-The amazing growth in Cornelia and her movement from rage to forgiveness of her mother.
-The clear painful description of the effects of abandonment. The damaged hearts in Agatha and Cornelia.
-The strength of the young girl Bo, and her ability to respond to Cornelia.

The women made sure food was as important to their sharing as it was in the book. One member brought in sassafras that she found growing in her back yard which used to be a horse pasture. Karen made lemon pound cake and orange cake, inspired by the story.

One woman brought cookies and a note which read, “Dear Karen, …I want to especially thank you for recommending the book. I hope I can tend to the graces in my own life and in my own self. I believe it is through our brokenness and the brokenness of others that we reach true compassion.”

Karen was also kind enough to share the questions she prepared for the discussion.  Here they are:

Questions for Discussion of Tending to Grace

1. “We enjoy most the people who touch our hearts.” Who in this book touched your heart?

2. There are many types of relationships in the book. Some are healthy, others are not. Which did you find most interesting? Why?

3. Stuttering is the most obvious example of a disability in this book. What others
did you observe?

4. What is the role of friendship and how does it play out?

5. Discuss the title… does it have other than the obvious meaning?

6. How is Cornelia "caught in that lonely place between what I want
to say and what I can’t?”

7. Why does Cornelia miss and resent her mother? Is her mother believable? Why or why not? Why does her mother not make everything “all better” for Cornelia at the end?

8. Why won't Agatha speak for Cornelia?
9. What is the significance of cleaning for Cornelia? How does she see herself as a “fixer?”

10. What role does the tee pee play in the novel? Why does Cornelia need to be alone when things are really bad?
11. What is the importance of the cocoon and butterfly images in the novel?

12. What other metaphors and/or similes did you find especially meaningful?

13. What is Agatha hiding and how does this impact the novel?

14 “An experience of God is difficult to express in words, but our lives become the expression of that experience.” Is this reflected in the novel?

15. Why are books and reading and literacy important to both Cornelia and Agatha?

16. What books were important to you as a young adult?

17. Would you have liked this book?