hand-appleHere are some thoughts I’ve had for awhile about the nature of schools and learning.

The book The Gift by Lewis Hyde has had a deep impact on my life and work. In it, Hyde proposes that artists have a hard time making a living because their work is based in one kind of economy, but they live in another. Hyde posits that the mainstream culture is a commodity culture but artists live in a gift-giving culture.

Bear with me while I try to explain what he says.  In a commodity culture, goods and services are exchanged tit for tat – I give you money, or some expression of value, and you give me some good or service in return. Then we’re even and the transaction is done. See ya later.

In a gift-giving culture (and Hyde gives examples of a number of traditional cultures that use gift-giving, like the potlatch of Northwest natives) the gift is given freely without expectation of immediate reciprocity – he says the gift “goes around the corner”, out of sight. Since the transaction isn’t complete, the relationship stays – a gift-giving culture builds a web of interdependence. In a way, wealth is expressed not by what you have, but by how much you give away. Hyde says artists, by the nature of their work, are gift-givers. Musicians can’t help but play, dancers dance, artists paint and writers write. If they hoard, waiting for proper monetary compensation, they dry up and the gift stops. They offer these things up, believing that something will come back. Art builds community.

But therein lies the rub for the artist. It’s hard for them to get a fair commodity value for their art, since these works arrive to them as gifts and are passed on as such, whether they’re paid in money or not.

Okay, that’s a short and fumbling explanation of Hyde’s book – if you want more, I highly recommend it, though I will add that for all its brilliance, to my mind, the second half is kind of a slog.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to schools, and it explains a lot about the current (and perhaps chronic) fight over whether schools are succeeding or failing. When I look at the schools I work in, I see, overarching everything, a gift-giving culture. Almost everything is offered without expecting immediate return. Children give assignments to teachers, and offer to read out loud to their classmates. Nurses hand out band-aids. Teachers bring in their own books to the classroom and parents bring in snacks. Children share their French fries. Teachers fill in for their co-workers at recess, or as lunch monitors. Children bring in small gifts for their teachers. Cupcakes appear in the teacher’s lounge. In all of these exchanges, and thousands more, there is no tit for tat, no final accounting, no exchange of any currency (okay, French fries)– they are done to make the culture go, and with each of these simple gifts, the web of connection grows. For all the math that’s taught, it’s amazing how little is measured in a school. And this ignores the greatest gift-giving of all – the one that truly goes around the corner – the teacher gives the gift of teaching and knowledge without ever seeing the final result. Only years later, a grown person may realize the gift they were given, and have no way to pay it back except to offer something similar to someone else.

That return on investment is a hard one to measure.

Even though we don’t name it, all of us understand intuitively that the school is a gift-giving culture. That’s why when a teacher demands a raise, or decides only to work as much as they are actually required (“work to order”), or walks out on strike, many people are incensed. How dare that teacher insert filthy money into this situation? We feel that the unspoken rules of an unnamed gift-giving culture have been broken. By and large, teachers are loath to make waves. Most teachers, in my experience, are nurturers and accomodators – it takes a lot to get them to speak up about being treated fairly. In this, they’re like artists, or nurses – their work offers gifts that can’t quite be monetized. They really would rather teach.

I especially see this paradox playing out in high-stakes testing and the ongoing push to measure educational achievement. We have witnessed the emergence of the quantifiers, the bean counters, as the major arbiters in whether an education is valid. Calibrating things, measuring their value, giving merit pay based on test scores, counting the number of minutes of instruction time and doing away with activities not easily measured (um, for instance, like a storyteller’s visit or a class party), are done in the belief that this will be more educationally effective.

Except schools don’t work like that, and neither do humans. When we leave no room for these “valueless” activities, these expressions that have no immediate return, or we insist on finding a way to measure them, we’re destroying the fabric of the culture. While we need to reach agreement on what things are important to teach, and find ways to see how a child is growing, when the measurements drive the activity of the school, the culture is damaged and you get a lot of sullen people who are going to think twice about giving without return. Not just teachers, but kids and staff.

I think some people who institute this stuff have good intentions. But they’re wrong. No matter how you cut it, a school isn’t a profit-making corporation offering goods and services in exchange for equal financial value. It’s a bad model.

A test score that punishes isn’t a gift at all.

recycling binSome food for thought.

Maybe you’re like me and spend part of your time beating yourself up over things you should be doing.

Like not returning bottles for their deposits.

Rather than redeem them at the store down the street, I chuck them into the recycling bin. Every time I do this I scold myself. Why don’t I return them for the deposit? I don’t know.

Well, actually, I do know. I am a bad person. I am slothful, and indolent. And lazy. And lack willpower and am morally deficient. To get the money back, I would actually  have to put them in a box, put them in a car and take them to the redemption center. Imagine the energy it takes to do that. I am overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a useless individual and total spendthrift who wastes money and time and everything else, my mind comes to rest on my failure to take in bottles to get all those nickels back.

I could have retired by now. Millions of dollars wasted by not returning bottles.  While they are being recycled, I am not being financially responsible.  If there’s one thing that shows my moral failings, it’s my financial irresponsility. I’m sure none of you ever feel like that.

But now, I am content in my sloth and indolence. Sometimes there is nothing like dragging your feet when you’re supposed to be responsible, efficient and frugal. Sometimes it takes while for the purpose of an action to reveal itself.

About a month ago, I dragged out the recycling to the curb. There was a big container of bottles to be recycled (and I don’t want to discuss why there were so many and what had been in them…). I stood there looking at them thinking “You’re a lazy idiot. You should take them in and get the money for them.”

But it was late. And I was lazy. I chose guilt over action.

Something woke me early in the morning – it was still dark, around 5:45. I heard a noise outside. There were bottles and cans clinking and rattling out by the street. An alcoholic opossum? Or dog? A coyote? A squirrel? All these things were possible.

I got up from bed, quietly opened the door onto the porch and looked out onto the street. A car was pulled up by my driveway, its headlights illuminating my recycling bin. Someone was sifting through my recycling. They were stealing my bottles! In a weird, irrational response, I at first felt like I was being violated. Someone was taking my stuff! That stuff was worth something! I should yell at him to stop!

Then I saw the irony in that. By dragging it out to the curb, I had kind of declared what it was worth to me.

I watched the guy get in the car and drive down to my neighbor’s driveway, where he did the same thing. Bottles clinking, him pawing through the recycling bin, earning a nickel with each bottle he found. I got back in bed and lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about it. Then I fell asleep for another hour and forgot about it.

Until the next Wednesday morning, when I was again awakened by the sound of clinking bottles.

And last week, too.  Always the same time, around 5:45, give or take five minutes.

So now I am thinking about the diligence and need of someone driving down my street collecting the bottles for deposit at 5:45 in the morning. I am thinking what a small thing it is, and what it means.

I hope he makes a million dollars. Or buys some food.  Or get whatever it is he needs. It is a small offering, but one I now happily make every Tuesday night when I drag out the recycling bins. My lacksidaisical approach to frugality is someone else’s boon. I can live with that.

Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a young filmmaker named Hannah Jayanti for a documentary about the book The Phantom Tollbooth, in celebration of it being published fifty years ago. After the interview, Hannah asked if I’d write a song for the film and I was even happier to do that. The film’s premier is October 6 at the New Yorker Festival. (Norton Juster, the author, and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, will be there for the screening.  I’ll be there, too. ) For fans of the book (and even those unfamiliar with it) it’s a delightful and insightful look at the creative process and the story behind Milo and his tollbooth.

Here’s part of my interview:

And here’s a link to the song. My pal, whistler extraordinaire Andy Offut Irwin does the whistling:

Some of you know that The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic piece of children’s literature – and it’s a classic and timeless because of its very singular and quirky nature.  Milo is a boy thoroughly bored with life and not seeing the point in much of anything. Feiffer’s initial illustrations of Milo show someone not dissimilar to the character in Munch’s “The Scream”. Passing through a tollbooth that mysteriously shows up in his apartment one afternoon, Milo embarks on a quest into a different world, and discovers a reason for being, or perhaps finds that just being is reason enough. The story is filled with language play, strange characters, and philosophical observations that most adults can’t imagine children would enjoy.

Most adults.

Most adults think…

You could begin a lot of sentences with that phrase, and hardly any of them would be complimentary to people over twenty-one years of age. Somehow, adults forget how children think. Perhaps because children have no power, they have little responsibility, and adults equate consciousness and perception with responsibility, forgetting the years and years they themselves spent as children, observing and trying to make sense of things. By the time children get to nine or ten years of age, they have become philosophers of a feral sort. Children, at the mercy of their seniors, have a lot of time to muse and consider and try and understand, more than we do as adults.

Which is what The Phantom Toolbooth is about – trying to make sense of a world in which adults don’t seem to be listening or paying attention.

Most adults doubted that children would like the book. But they have. My friend Carmen Deedy says it’s easier to publish a good book than a great one, and time has proved detractors wrong. Rereading it last year, I was struck by the depth of what it had to say, and the playfulness with which it was said.

If you like the book, you can give it some support on the Facebook fan page here.

And if you’re in New York, I’ll see you there.

bobby mcferrinLast week Debbie and I were lucky enough to see Bobby McFerrin perform in Central Park. It was a beautiful evening, it was a free show, and we got there early enough to get good seats, spreading out a blanket as the sky darkened for his ninety minute performance.

Watching McFerrin sing is a revelation – most striking is how relaxed he is on stage. I’ve often felt that a performer’s greatest strength comes from being relaxed and open to the moment, and McFerrin is the king of that. From the second he came on, it felt like the stage was his home and we were visiting him. He sat easily in a chair, or wandered casually among his band members, as he went through most of the songs on his new album, “Spirit You All”, a deeply religious recording that recasts a number of spirituals and numbers from the Black church, as well as original compositions and a take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.

While McFerrin is a virtuoso and  a master he does not show off –  while he has an incredible range and great falsetto,  most of the time his voice is a relaxed, easy, normal sounding voice. Many performers spend a lot of time building up a wall between themselves and their audience through their virtuosity – the message is “Don’t try this at home – you’re not like me”. Not McFerrin –  he’s not trying to blow you away – although he does every once in a while with some amazing displays, all done with humor and class. Instead, he uses his art to build a bridge. Out of this relaxation and comfort on stage comes his improvisation – you get the sense he is really playing – playing with his own voice, with the musicians around him, and with the audience.

Especially with the audience. In interviews, McFerrin talks about his interest in taking the focus off himself and putting it on the audience, so they are part of the experience and performance. If you’ve seen him live, you know how good he is at this – better than anyone else, even my guiding light, Pete Seeger. Wandering into the audience while singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (including verses where the gender shifts to “She’s got…”) he held up the microphone to a half  dozen people. EVERY ONE OF THEM SANG. REALLY WELL! They sang well because he knew they could. Their success made us all feel part of it, and also affirmed McFerrin’s message – we all have a voice.

In a great interview with Krista Tippett  Bobby talks about American Idol and says, “They have good voices. They sing in tune. But so what? What are you saying?”

I think about all these things when I do a show. I think about how I can make the audience part of what I’m doing, so it’s something we’re doing together. Those of you who have seen my story “Build Me Up Buttercup” will know what I mean. Like McFerrin, I want to do something that says “We all have a voice.” Watching Bobby McFerrin makes me want to do it better.

Here’s another link to an amazing demonstration he gives of the pentatonic scale. 

When Peachtree Publishers agreed to publish “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” my first question was, “Can we do an audio book, too?” Happily they said yes. As a storyteller, I’ve done over a dozen audio recordings of my stories, and was looking forward to doing the audio version of the book.

How hard could it be?

Well, harder than I thought. Also deeper, and more exasperating, and more interesting. I learned a lot from doing the recording, and will use what I learned it in my future recordings. The process of doing the audio version has also changed the way I look at the story and the characters in it. Now, working on a major edit of the second book, I’ve applied all that to the writing process. Recording the audio version has, I believe, made me a better writer.

Not that it’s easy. First, I should say that I also served as recording engineer and producer for the recording. I am a better artist than I am an engineer. The final product sounds good, but I know that another more seasoned engineer would have been a lot faster than I was. I will never confess how many hours it took. Good engineering requires meticulous work and I’m more of a big picture guy –  not so good on the details. Keeping track of which track is being recorded, adjusting levels, making good edits, and simply pushing the right button requires a lot of attention. I got better at that. Still, I’m not in danger of becoming a type A person.

In terms of performance, my biggest challenges were pacing, character, and keeping to the written page. Those aspects kept me going back for one more take, trying to get it right.

My mind works overtime, and pretty quickly, and one of my biggest challenges in the studio is to slow down. An outside ear helps with that – reminding the performer to take his time. But I didn’t have that. With me, hunkered down alone in front of the microphone, and pushing the buttons in solitude, I constantly had to redo passages. Rilke wrote, somewhere, “Meaning comes when images have time to ripen in the mind.” Who knew he was speaking about audio books?  Finally I took some advice from my pal, engineer extraordinaire David Correia – I hung a sign over the microphone – “SLOW DOWN!!!” I still have work to do on that (and not only in the studio), but I got better at it.

The voices for the characters present another challenge. I had no intention of being Jim Dale, the magical voice of the Harry Potter audio books, able to develop a distinct voice for each of the hundreds of characters he represented.

But I did need to distinguish different characters and have a very approachable, believable voice for the narrator. “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” is told in first person by Charlie, and so in some sense, all the voices come through Charlie. I don’t think it would do to have complete personification for each character. Over the course of the recording, the characters became more and more clear to me – and that will serve me well in the following five recordings.

In the process of the recording, I found myself thinking a lot about how much emotion we should put into a performance. As a storyteller, I am aware that it’s really the words doing the work – if we fill each passage with emotion, or too much character, we don’t leave room for the audience to hear the words being spoken. Many times, a more neutral delivery is called for – being emotional doesn’t really help the story. There’s a fine dance required in balancing the emotional undertones of the characters and the meaning of the words. Generally, a narrator’s job is to get out of the way, and let the words do their work without emotion. Characters can be more emotional, but even when a character speaks, a reader needs to be careful about over-acting.

One of the greatest challenges I faced was to say exactly what I had written. I was reminded by the publisher that every word in the audio had to be in the book. As a storyteller who tells any story differently at any performance, and as a writer who never quits editing, this was beyond excruciating. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a famous painter who had to be searched before he went into any gallery holding his work, for fear that he might be bringing his brushes to make some adjustments. Through the recording process, I was reminded that reading text out loud is a very important part of writing. Over the course of the time spent in the studio, I became even more convinced of the importance of  rhythm in language.

There’s much more to chew on here – I’m only scratching the surface. I’m particularly interested in the difference between hearing a book and reading it, and wonder how the method of intake influences the reader/listener’s perceptions.

Any comments about all this are welcome.

Here’s the first chapter of the audiobook of “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year.”

Charlie Bumpers vs the Teacher of the Year Chapter 1

On September 1, my new book, Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year, comes out on Peachtree Press. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about the book and my process.  Here’s a video trailer about it.

It’s the first in a series of six books that will be coming out every season (fall and spring) for the next three years. So far, so good, with a nice review in Publishers Weekly, and it’s a  Junior Library Guild selection.

Here are several  things I’ve learned. They might not be true for all authors, but I know they’re true for me.

1) Books take forever. They take forever to write. They take forever to edit. They take forever to get accepted. They take forever to edit again. They take forever to come out.

There is some author somewhere (Nora Roberts, I guess) who thinks of a book one week, writes it in the next three weeks, and has it published by the end of the year.

I do not know that person. I am not that person.

I wrote the first draft of Charlie seven or eight years ago. It was in the hands of a number of editors who politely demurred. It sat on one editor’s desk for two years. I rewrote it numerous times, on the advice of editors and friends and agents. It was accepted and then the publishing house that accepted it died. It found another publisher and editor. And then I got to edit it again.

I began to feel singled out. Why me? This is ridiculous! And then I started talking to other authors. They all nodded, “Yup. Happened to me.” Not so special, evidently.

I don’t really want things to take forever, but I will admit (when tied down and approached by someone brandishing terrifying implements of torture) that the finished product I hope you will hold in  your hands is much better than the one I started with. Believe me – I know who this kid is, and I like him a lot, and I wouldn’t like him as much if all those people weren’t involved. The book is better for the time it took – although I wouldn’t mind cutting the process by a couple of years. Which I guess I get to do, since the second book is due to my editor next week.

2) It takes a lot of people. My book is a child and requires a village. Or at least about thirty or forty people. Again, the smart writer does not need this, maybe – although if I look at any acknowledgement page in any published book, I see there are many idiot writers that require help just like me.

I need readers – a lot of them – people with different skills from mine. And I take all of these people’s names in vain because of the things they say or suggest or intimate. Behind their backs, I call them idiots and fools. I do not say these things to their faces, since I need them, and will need them again. My name is on the cover, but that is a shabby egotism which will not stand to scrutiny.

3) The book you’re working on is yourself. I won’t get too spiritual about this, but there’s a discipline required here, and this long arduous process has tested me about as much as anything else I’ve done. Failure is possible (Even after it comes out!). Success is never assured. Few things are under your control. Mostly, what you control is whether you sit down and write.

In the meantime, I have a book coming out that I’m proud of, and that I’ve read over so many times, I pretty much have memorized. And another one in process.

Call me lucky.

With Barbara Robinson in 2011

With Barbara Robinson in 2011

It’s been a rough week. We lost Robert Greygrass, a great Native teller, and Toshi Seeger.

And Barbara Robinson. It’s her I’m thinking about this morning. She was a writer of very distinct voice for children, and I feel lucky I got to know her and spend time with her.

Barbara is best known for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, which millions have either read or seen – especially as some elementary school play production.

Her writing was pithy and honest and real. And very funny. The first line in “Best Christmas Pageant” is really one of the great openings in any book –

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” 

That line would worry adults afraid of anarchy, but it has the ring of truth. And lets you know you’re in for a good story.

I think my favorite book of hers was “My Brother Louis Measures Worms.” It’s about a quirky but functional family, and its genius is in showing children trying to make sense of an adult world that doesn’t make much sense. When the parents are too busy to take him somewhere, Louis, the eight year old drives himself. Then keeps on doing it. Strange and inappropriate relatives come to visit. Reading about the Lawsons is like a visit to the house down the street that your parents weren’t sure you should visit. But you did.

When I had decided to to write books for kids, I was looking for my voice, and coming across Barbara’s books was a godsend. She wrote the way I wanted to write about things that seemed real and immediate. Like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Roald Dahl (okay – he’s a little more fantastical, but…), she didn’t speak down to children, and didn’t pull punches about how confusing life could be for kids, but still wrote with tremendous heart. Maybe her Ohio upbringing (born about 100 miles from where I was) made me feel some kinship. I’ve reread her books a number of times when I want to remind myself of how I want to write.

It could be argued by some, I suppose, that Barbara’s books are at least as much about kids as they are for them. There’s an irony and sophistication in her writing that is pretty subtle, and the stories take place in a setting that would be hard to find today – just as would Cleary’s Klickitat Street. In today’s world, the books might be viewed as nostalgic, but I know Barbara wasn’t interested in nostalgia. In Robinson’s world,  the kids roamed freely through the streets, and things seemed a little gentler, but her books deal honestly with the emotional lives of children. It’s what I try to do.

I met Barbara two years ago at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Nebraska. We had a blast together and her personality and view of the world were what I had always imagined. We traded some e-mails and letters afterwards and it made me feel like I was some part of a literary tradition reaching back to Twain.

I was glad to have known her, and very sorry I won’t see her again.


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