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Notes from the Writing Life

Beware the Terrible Trivium

It's December, the month when my list of "Things to Do" begins to divide into long trailing tentacles of "Things to Make" and "Things to Buy" and "Things to Mail" and "Things to Cook" and, somewhere stuffed in-between them all, somewhat shrunken and tentative next to all the others, is "Things to Write." And it's right around now that I take The Phantom Tollboth down from the shelf and reread Chapter 17.

It is in Chapter 17 that Milo meets the Terrible Trivium, a faceless man who introduces himself as the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit." Milo encounters him in the Mountains of Ignorance, on his way to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Terrible Trivium asks for help moving a pile of sand using a pair of tiny tweezers and soon Milo is busy at the task, working hour after hour after hour after hour...

"Why do only unimportant things?" Milo asks, when he begins to get wise to the fact that the sand-moving may be getting in the way of the princess-rescuing.

"Think of all the trouble it saves," the Trivium replies. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to keep you from what you really should be doing...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why if you stay here, you'll never have to think again --and with a little practice, you can become a monster of habit, too."

Norton Juster, the book's brilliant author, knew from experience that there is always something else that a writer can be doing, in fact, should be doing. Not just the December tasks and projects, but errands, childcare, household chores -- the list of Other Things To Do is as endless as Milo's pile of sand. But while the reasons for not writing will always be much longer than the reasons for writing, a writer has to remind herself every day to put down the tweezers and continue the search for Rhyme and Reason. Who will rescue them, if not you?

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A Treasure Trove of Old Books

Yesterday, as I was riding my bicycle in the hills near my house, I came upon a garage sale where a man was selling two cartons of old picture books. By old, I don’t mean the discarded, chewed upon Scholastic paperbacks you find at most garage sales, but worn and lovely books from the forties , fifties, and sixties -- the era of Ruth Krauss, Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey, Virginia Lee Burton, Ed Emberley, and Louis Slobodkin. All were early or first editions, all were dog-eared and worn, and all were marked as discards from the library of a local public school.

“Where did you get these?” I asked, sitting down in the driveway to look through the carton. 

The man whose books they were explained that he had worked at the school, and when the library sorted and discarded books, he took home the ones whose illustrations struck him as particularly marvelous, unable to stand the idea of them being thrown out.

He wasn’t a book collector, or a children’s book aficionado, but simply someone who recognized the wonderful quality of these books, with their simple, graphic styles, their limited palettes, and their exuberant genius.

I bought seven of them – all books I didn’t have. They’re too beaten up to be worth much as collector’s items, but they are worth everything in the world as books! Sitting down to read them, I was struck by the quality that made this era of book publishing so wonderful – and that continues to characterize the best of children’s books today.

It is the quality of pure creativity. These authors and illustrators aren’t catering to a market. They’re not trying to sell anything, or be cute, or develop a franchise. They don’t talk down to children in either words or illustration. They knew that children would respond to the best work, to work that was interesting, true, and finely-wrought.

Look at this page from Helen Borten’s book Do You See What I See? which is about the quality of observation that makes art. Everything about this book is gorgeous, the art, the prose, the direct frankness of the conversation with the reader, a conversation that expects that the child reader is also, in some way, an artist.

You see the same thing in Noise in the Night by Anne Alexander, with illustrations by Abner Graboff. A child is afraid of night noises but discovers she can conquer her fears by collecting the noises and then drawing them. Art conquers all.

I can’t resist showing you the pompous wonder of James Daugherty’s guard in Gillespie and the Guards.

Reading these books, I was reminded of a comment Maurice Sendak makes in an introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth:

Tollbooth is the product of a time and place that fills me with fierce nostalgia…There were no temptations except to astonish. There were no seductions because there was not much money, and “kiddie books” were firmly nailed to the bottom of the “literary-career totem pole.” Simply, it was easy to stay clean and fresh, and wildly ourselves – a pod of happy baby whales, flipping our lusty flukes and diving deep for gold.

Some writers and illustrators still approach their work that way, but the book industry is far less innocent – and far less interested in cultivating and supporting pure genius. Still, genius finds a way. Next entry, I’ll show you what I mean.

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