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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.

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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

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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.

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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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I have a contest on my web page related to my new book Lost and Found.  It’s to identify this critter that showed up in the twisted mind of Adam Gustafson and on the pages of the book:

This is all well and good, but what is really astounding to me is the variety of responses I’ve gotten about what the critter is. For example:

As a veterinarian, I can certify that this animal is a most excellent example of a partially albino Badgerterrierius wingedcorvidium.     What’s quite interesting about this particular individual is that it JUST might be one of the few leaders of the radical animal liberationist group, International Chimeras Unite!, which you can tell by the position of its right arm and paw, preserved in the very typical greeting of the group: the outstretched (and outraged) claw.
Given the fine quality of this specimen, I can only surmise that it must be one of the few honored and revered leaders of this group.  Here’s why: International Chimeras Unite! has long been known to, upon the untimely death of one of its leaders (HBC–hit by car, RTA–road traffic accident, SBH–shot by hunter, ARG–ate rotten garbage), skin, stuff, and preserve their leaders, on a lovely wooden base.   Historians of ICU tell of one particular leader, Marcus “Skunk-face” Multipartzum, who was known for his fierceness in battle, his bravery in the face of all things putrid and stinky, and his short-but-lovely flowing tail.  His preserved body was known to be stolen by the arch enemies of ICU, National Organization of Female Sheep and Deer with Normal Taxonomy (NoEweDoeNT) during their infamous ‘Abolish Body Diversity!’ crusade.  I suspect that this might be that very same statue, and leader.

At that’s only one of them. Many more you can read here. At first, they were all so good, I suspected that some insanely creative writer, like Salman Rushdie or a back-from-the-dead Italo Calvino, was bored and spending his time writing on my off-the-beaten-tracks web page. But no, Michele, our office manager reassures me, these are coming from all over. More depravity than I ever imagined. I am terrified and comforted at the same time!

It’s hard to admit that someone is funnier and more creative than I am, but my insight from this is that you all are a lot weirder and smarter than I ever imagined. I bow in your general direction.

And if you haven’t entered, it’s not too late to get weird with us. Contest ends on the 24th. Go here.

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I have been informed by the powers that be that I should be doing a little promotion on my blog. Right. They’re right. Yes. Of course. In this case, it’s easy because I’m psyched, and I also get to talk about someone else’s work, too. My new picture book, Lost and Found, on Peachtree Press is coming out this fall and we just got some in our grimy little hands. It looks great, thanks to Adam Gustavson who has taken my little story and made it THE JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH – only it takes place in a lost and found box. Kirkus Reviews gave a nice advance review in which they say (ahem):

Storyteller Harley embodies a child’s fears with humor and sympathy… With stifling tension,  Harley has found the perfect emotional pitch to explore such universal childhood fears as visiting mysterious corners of the school or facing a terrifying adult. This story captures the essence of a brave child who confronts Authority. Within this child’s view of the world, full of questions and pressure and misunderstanding, wisdom comes—sometimes from the unlikeliest places.

And just to show you how together I am(okay we are, since, um ,this was someone else’s idea) , here’s a short video of Adam and me talking about how great we are. Okay, the book, I mean, the book. We are great only in so far as the book – oh forget it. Longer talk will follow. And    I kind of look like hell in the picture because twelve hours before one of my darling bees stung me right below the eye. Vanity, vanity -here goes

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The writer, happy at his work...


I have been working on a book over the past nine months. Well, really three years, but more intently for the last nine months. My schedule being what it is, and my brain chemistry preventing me from sitting still for eight hours at a time, I rarely write for more than an hour or two. But I kept working. As I got into the process, the story became more and more complex. More characters appeared.

And the end seemed to get further and further away.

But I have learned this about writing a longer piece – you stop looking at the end. You just write a certain number of words a day, or for a certain amount of time, then you walk away from it until the next day. The process is Sisyphean – just keep pushing the rock. It’s there waiting for you. Getting impatient does no good. You can’t just get it over with– it’s too long a climb. All you can do is show up.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who, as a mid-life-crisis kind of experience, decided to ride her bike across the country. She was hoping it would be some kind of transforming experience, and she would have a revelation about who she was and what she should do.

“Was it a catharsis?” I asked.

“Not really” she said. “It wasn’t a big thing. It was just a whole bunch of little things. It wasn’t one 3000 mile ride, it was 75 forty mile rides, one after another.”

Which is like life, I guess. Or at least writing this damn book. In the past month I have been writing pretty regularly, and am now up to about eighty thousand words (many which will have to die later on – I don’t edit much as I go along the first time). One thing about writing on a computer – you can always check exactly how many words you’ve written in the past five minutes. Which is good and bad. Actually, mostly bad.

One scene after another. Just plugging away. Not looking at the ending, but filled with the vague sense of dread that it would never end and I would just be hanging out with Tantalus and Cerberus for the rest of my time on this mortal coil.(Mixed metaphor there, I think…)

Annie Dillard said that writing a book is like sitting up with a sick friend and hoping he doesn’t die.

Then on Monday I had a weird thing happen. I went out in the morning to stare at the computer, then checked the story line I had written months before, including possible scenes

Wow. There wasn’t much more to write. I’d taken care of all the scenes leading up to the climax of the story, and it was time to spring the trap. Suddenly, I could see the end. I knew where it was going! How did that happen? I still have another thirty or forty pages, but I know what’s going to happen. And I’m going to get there in the next week or two.

And I’ll tell you what – it’s easier to write when you can see the end.

The secret – there is none. Like Jane Yolen says – “The secret to writing – butt in chair.”

Of course, then there’s the next dumb step. Trying to sell it. Another rock waiting for me.

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