Perambulating the Wide Field of Literature

Here are my mom and dad many years ago, sitting on my grandmother's front porch in Jasper County, Mississippi, fresh from a fishing trip to the Railroad Pond. They've got a string of fish between them. This house became the Pink Palace in LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, and my parents became Bunch and Joy Snowberger in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Look at that dappled sunlight. Look at those beautiful people. They are my first influences.

I'm thinking this morning about influences, especially writing influences, as I've had some exciting mail (which I'll get to in a moment). Don't you love it when you see the fruits of your labors blossom into surprising shapes and forms that you would never have dreamed of? The Buddhists (and others) tell us not to be attached to outcomes and instead to concentrate on the present moment, and I try to do that -- it's a great place to work from.

From time to time, however, I like to think about the path, which is something teachers and writers and I talked about quite a bit this past weekend: the path to reading like a writer, the path to writing and using all those conventions of good writing, the path to publication, and the path to becoming a whole human being.

So -- as I prepare to go to Chicago this afternoon to work with Scholastic Book Fairs (back Friday), I leave you with some influences on my writing, and my.... hmmm.... becoming. I thank every one of these lovely influences, every name, place,memory and moment below: Namaste.

1. There is still time, if you live near Bellingham, Washington (or even if you don't), to get yourself to the Bond Children's Literature Conference on March 1. Look at this year's lineup! Christopher Paul Curtis, Eric Rohmann, Chris Crutcher, and John Rocco! What a jackpot of stories to be gathered this weekend. I have spoken at this conference (ALL-STARS was just a twinkle in my eye) and can tell you how wonderful it is, how beautiful Bellingham is (The City of Subdued Excitement! Really!), and how fabulous are Nancy Johnson and her colleagues and students at Western Washington University.

2. If you are a Southern Writer (and even if you aren't) here are two treats: the newest issue of Juvenile Miscellany is here, detailing all happenings at the University of Southern Mississippi's De Grummond Children's Literature Collection, including the Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival. I spoke at this conference in 2006 and it changed my life. That's Eve Bunting you see in the newsletter -- she was the Keats Medallion recipient last year. This year it's Pat Mora.

Speaking also during this year's festival (April 2-4) are James Ransome, Vicki Cobb, Will Weaver, and Kimberly Willis Holt. A lovely line up, and that's just the tip -- this is a conference full of concurrent workshops and southern charm. Plus, good friend Barbara Immroth is the Keats Lecturer this year, and you don't want to miss that. Hey, Cousin Ellen!

The second Southern treat is the spring edition of the Eudora Welty Newsletter, with an interview of Yours Truly in it. When you name a dog Eudora Welty, as I have done in ALL-STARS, well... folks want to know what that's all about. I am honored to be profiled by the fabulous Deborah Miller in this issue of the newsletter. If you'd like to read all sorts of scholarly goodness about Eudora Welty and one decidedly non-scholarly interview (although I think there's lots of scholarship in there, in its way, as I have studied Welty's work for so long I can recite it to you!), you can order copies here. At some point, I would like to put the interview on my website as well. We'll see.

3. Speaking of scholarship, I want to pass on a link to an excellent article written by Michael Dirda of the Washington Post about this year's AWP conference in New York City. I attended and spoke at last year's conference, here in Atlanta, on two panels; one about voice in southern literature for children, with Mary Ann Rodman and Sharon Darrow (all of us with Vermont College ties), and the other about writing about the civil rights movement in southern literature, with Tony Grooms and William Heath -- I was the only children's book author on this panel and was delighted to be asked to be a part of it.

AWP was quite the experience, to be one of a few writers for children in a sea of those writing and expounding on adult books in such academic, bohemian, important, strange, convoluted and wonderful ways. It was everything Michael Dirda says it was in NYC, too -- he captures the feeling of the conference well.

One reason I bring up AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is because I've been thinking so much lately about how we separate out literature for adults and literature for children in this country... maybe in the world. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I was asked to be part of the AWP panel on literature about the civil rights movement and was thrilled to have FREEDOM SUMMER -- a picture book -- represented along with Bill Heath's and Tony Grooms' novels. We all had something valuable to contribute. And yet, that's not always how it works.

Sometimes children's literature is seen as lightweight and undeserving of serious attention. The folks at the De Grummond Collection would say there is nothing further from the truth, as would the organizers of the Bond Conference and the SCBWI conference I just attended, and the Eudora Welty Society -- after all, Welty also wrote THE SHOE BIRD, a children's book.

When I took a writing course at my local community college in 1995, I was trying to figure how I could learn to write the stories I wanted to tell. I told the instructor, "I'm an essayist, I don't know how to write fiction, and I also want to write for children; I'm not sure I belong in this class." My instructor, who was teaching a fiction writing course, said, "Story is story. Come in." And she was right. Story is story. I started what would become LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER in that class.

Literature is hard to make. Maybe it's even harder to make for children -- that's another argument I've heard. But in any case, I love it most when literature is inclusive; I have never separated literature into camps. In my house, THE REIVERS by Faulkner sits on a shelf alongside THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman, and DELIVERANCE by James Dickey -- these books are part of my canon -- but I'm getting ahead of myself, I'll come back to that.

I know that children's literature is an art form -- I know it to my bones, despite the stories I have heard (and can tell you) of children's literature being relegated to "those nice little stories" that "anyone can write." I know better. I have experienced how nuanced children's literature is, how complex and layered good storytelling is, how difficult a business this is to survive in, how much stamina it takes to withstand the buffeting from within, to say nothing of the misunderstandings without. I also know how important it is, and how rewarding it can be to be part of it.

So I stand tall, even in the midst of AWP and gatherings of writers of adult books, even when I am the token children's book writer at an evening cocktail reception of writers at a small conference, and someone asks, "so what do you write?" and then that someone gives me a vacant smile and turns to the next, more worthy, conversation. I know better. "Here am I," I say as I chat about writing and books with those who have never read a novel for children, "Here am I; read me."

And sometimes, they do. Which brings me to number 4.

4. I had to read it twice when it arrived in my email inbox:

Deborah, I am the Executive Secretary for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. You have been nominated for an award in Fiction for your book, The Aurora County All-Stars.
I need your mailing address.

What did I do? I sent my mailing address.

And lo, a letter arrived just yesterday. I will go to Jackson, Mississippi on June 14 and attend a dinner with the likes of... well, I don't know who will be there, but here are some of the past winners of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award: Richard Ford. Barry Hannah. Lewis Nordan. Rick Bass. Ellen Gilchrist. Walker Percy. WALKER PERCY! What company! How very humbling. I am so totally and completely in love with this opportunity to step into the world of Mississippi writers and take my place as a WRITER. Not a writer for children or a writer for adults, but a WRITER. It's breathtaking. I wish I knew who I had to thank for reading ALL-STARS and recommending it to the committee. Thank you, thank you, thank you, all of you who understand that "story is story." Literature is literature. We are all in this together.

And me? I wrote a book, a southern story, a Mississippi story about kinship, family, community, our collective southern history, poetry... and baseball. And a dog named Eudora Welty. In this book, I wanted to say that everything is connected -- the past, the present, the dancer, the ball player, the outcast, the recluse, the living, the dead, the decisions we make and the choices that others embrace.

This book has been embraced by kids and teachers and librarians and booksellers all across the country, for which I am so grateful. And now, this book is recognized in the larger context of Mississippi stories, with other Mississippi writers and in the larger world of literature, which makes me feel as if I have truly come home. Home to the heart of story.

As a largely self-taught writer, I have learned all my life from the literature I have admired, and I have been indiscriminate about it -- adult books, children's books, it never mattered. It has always been STORY I have been after: essays, non-fiction, poetry, fiction... story. I have taken it apart, have studied -- "how does she do that?" and have tried to incorporate what I learned into my own writing, giving it my own stamp, my own voice, as I learned how. I've been thinking a lot lately about canons, as I mentioned earlier, and influences, and I spoke about this at the SCBWI conference this past weekend:

What is YOUR canon? Your canon of good literature? We argue over THE canon, but no one can argue with you about your own canon of what has made you a writer and a reader. Who is it? What books? Who have you admired and studied? And why? Over the next few months I want to introduce you, from time to time, to my personal canon of literature. I wonder if every classroom would benefit from thinking about a canon that is particular to each teacher, each grade, each subject. And I'll bet that every serious reader -- and certainly every serious writer -- can tell you about her canon, chapter and verse.

Be thinking about yours. Start making a list, in your notebook. Give yourself plenty of room. I'll bet, if you start back as far as you can remember, you'll find your influences are far-ranging and deep.

I'm off to Chicago in two hours. Time to finish packing. I'm very behind on email -- I've been having email problems at home, but I'm slowly figuring it out and will get caught up soon, I promise. Thanks for all the mail -- I love the conversation, even though I am a slow correspondent.