Students are counting minutes until the last school day and daydreaming about summer adventures. Some kids will find those adventures in books. So for the next few months, I'll review books that lead the mind on fantastic journeys. And for non-readers, I'm only covering books available in audio form. Listen to them on that long car ride to Aunt Ethel's (or some relative who lives hours away and pinches your cheek). I promise you won't be sorry.
My first pick is packed so full of wondrous tales, I'm surprised it doesn't spontaneously combust! The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is introduced by Lemony Snicket who begins, "Is There any author more mysterious than Harris Burdick"? Who can resist reading on? Lemony says Harris appeared over twenty-five years ago in a a publisher's office with a stack of titled drawings. The publisher was intriqued and Harris promised to return the next day with the stories behind the art. That was the last anyone saw of him.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (of Polar Express and Jumanji fame) was published in 1984. To this day, Harris Burdick's drawings continue to inspire writers, animators and songwriters, all featured on Van Allsburg's website. Last year, the drawings hatched The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a collection of fourteen stories by illustrious writers, including some of my favorites: Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, and M.T. Anderson. The irresistable tales flex the mind with titles like ""Uninvited Guests"" by Jules Feiffer, ""The House on Maple Street"" by Stephen King and "'Just Desert"" by M.T. Anderson. My personal favorite so far (I'm savoring them!) is ""The Harp"" by Linda Sue Park. Imagine an old magician who isn't quite ready to retire, two bickering sisters banished outdoors by annoyed parents, and a boy, mourning his mother and facing a miserable summer with an "off the grid" grandfather. The stories tickle the mind, raising questions that will linger long after the last word is read. We found Burdick's chronicles in the middle grade section of the library but the writing is sophisticated enough to entertain older teens and adults. You'll want to check the book out even if you prefer the audio version. The unseen drawings will trouble your sleep if you don't!
I've never drawn a monster but in honor of Maurice Sendak , I'm trying. Sendak died recently after a brilliant career as the author/illustrator who brought us Where the Wild Things Are. Let the rumpus begin!
This month's photo journal is dedicated to summer. Ready or not, here it comes. The dandelions are thriving in my yard while domesticated flora withers from temps already in the 90s and no rain in sight. After many years of wishing to do so, I planted sunflower seeds. The squirrels dug up most of them but several survived to seedling stage. Will they fulfill my vision of tall, yellow and black flowers against my back fence? Stay posted.
Wild honeysuckle is also blooming. Last weekend, we spotted a hummingbird dipping its beak in a flower. Then we passed a snake that had crawled onto the edge of the road. It was early morning. The sunlight hadn't pierced the treeline. The snake seemed content there as if it was enjoying the warmth of the pavement.
But summer isn't always kind. The next day on our walk, we passed the snake in the same spot, now a vehicular victim. And back home, our morning plans shifted when we found a tiny, calico kitten in our back yard. It wasn't old enough to be weaned and was terrified of humans. We'd recently seen a stray black female and thought it might be hers. We figured the best place for the kitten was our local emergency vet who takes in strays and injured wildlife.
About midday, we heard the mama cat yowling from a den in the yard behind us. An hour later, my husband was talking to the daughter of the home's owner. Her mother had passed away just days before. She and my husband searched the yard behind us and found four kittens in a new spot near a mulch pile. The mama scurried out of reach and hovered. Besides her mother, the woman had also lost a cat and dog in the past year. She planned to contact her neighbor, an active cat rescuer to help with the wild felines and she seemed happy to have a new cat family to tend to.
As the sun set, my husband and I discussed the orphaned kitten. Should we leave it at the vet where it would receive expert care? The vet techs said it was a four-week-old female. In a couple weeks, she would be old enough to be placed in a loving home. So, we left her. We sat down to dinner, then a movie (appropriately, I Bought A Zoo). Fifteen minutes into the movie, my eyes traveled from the TV to the view through our back door. A black cat straddled our fence, scanning the yard for her kitten. Then, despite the threat of our dogs bursting out the door, she dropped to the ground and searched.
"What are you doing?" My husband asked.
"She's a good mama . . . the cat. She's looking for her baby," I said. "I bet she was moving her kittens earlier from one yard to the next. She must have been carrying that kitten over our fence. Something spooked her and she dropped it."
My husband took one look at my face and sighed. "Lets go get the kitten."
We picked up the orphan who seemed utterly bewildered by a world far greater than she ever imagined. We drove to the house. My husband found the kittens in the dark. He set their sister down and waited nearby until mama and orphan reunited. I pray for them now, especially the tiny calico. I wonder how their story will end and if at least one of them will journey on with the woman who lost her mother.
Early in 2009, I scribbled a childhood memory in one of the notebooks I kept for story ideas. It was the beginning of my second year of writing and I set a few goals. One was to enter the 2010 Highlights Fiction Contest. It seemed a long way off and I stayed busy rewriting my first novel and learning all I could from critique groups.
Then fall came along, when time gushes like water from a burst dam into the new year. I pulled up Highlights' site, read the contest rules and the 2010 theme: Fiction based on a childhood memory for one of two ages, eight to twelve or seven and under. After a wild search among scattered notebooks, I found the memory I had jotted earlier in the year. Now, to shape it into a 750 word story. My education had focused on writing novels but how different could a short story be? For once, ignorance served me well.
As Thanksgiving closed in, I checked out Highlights magazine from the library to get a feel for the pieces they offer. I drafted my story, then happened upon a blog post by a Highlights' editor (which I've lost or I'd share it!) that talked about the importance of main characters in children's stories solving their own problems. Hmmm . . . my MC definitely had problems but she wasn't taking charge. I revised the plot and submitted it to my critique group with the January submission deadline looming. They pointed out flaws. The ending was weak and the story convoluted with too many plot threads. Short stories required tightly focused plot. I strengthened, simplified and resubmitted, receiving cheers and best wishes.
The story shipped to Highlights and I learned a new lesson: To be a writer is to wait. The contest wouldn't be officially announced until June. I told myself to forget it. It was my first contest and first children's short story. When Highlights' editor, Joelle Dujardin called in April to tell me I'd won, I thought they'd made a mistake. The rest of the day was a blur.
Winning the contest doesn't assure your work will be published, but last fall Highlights sent me proofs to review for publication and this month, my story, The Fog Lifts appeared in print. The editors at Highlights are the best, kind and supportive, never hesitating to respond to a new writer's silly questions. I learned so much from entering the contest and gained confidence that continues to help me fight doubt in my ability. And what a thrill, to see my story travel from memory to publication.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist, and I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti at Open Book Literary.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor