Beautiful language elevates the soul

Gentle repetition, powerful emotion and evocative language meld to form the wonderfully compact yet transcendent tale in Kate DiCamillo’s The Magicians Elephant ($16.99, Candlewick Press Publishing). I read it with my 10-year-old daughter, so I had the chance listen and speak the story. When you read aloud, you hear the magic of language and feel it touch your lips, your skin, and your soul.

If you want to write for children, nothing replaces reading quality fiction. DiCamillo, the award-winning author of The Tales of Despereaux, is much celebrated and acclaimed for her fascinating introspection and ability to combine disparate pieces into a meaningful collage. Taking the time to read a book like this elevates our thinking; gives us something higher to which to aspire.

OK, that’s all very high-minded sounding and if you’re a busy mom with a few screaming kids, lunches to make, and of course, the laundry monster growling from a nearby hamper, perhaps you can’t fathom the notion of being “elevated.” Maybe you’re just too darned tired.

Well, good news. The Magician’s Elephant is a very quick read. Ethereal, filled with lyrical repetitions that evoke a surreal time and place, the tale is set in the town of Baletese “at the end of the century before last…”. Peter Augustus Duchene is a heartbroken boy forced to live with a spirit-broken ex-soldier, Vilna Lutz.

Peter’s parents are dead and Vilna Lutz is his guardian, a guardian intent on training the boy to one day become a soldier. But Peter can’t stop thinking the unthinkable — that somewhere out there in the world exists a little girl, his sister. And though Vilna Lutz insists the child died during childbirth, Peter Augustus Duchene is desperate to prove otherwise.

Good reading informs good writing. It also keeps up-and-coming future-authors current on what is hot (and what is not) in children’s literature.

The Magician’s Elephant is a truly good-for-the-soul read. Stay-at-home moms could dedicate a few mornings while waiting for the laundry to dry and poof–just like that–you’ve elevated your souls and tamed the dreaded laundry beast. Working moms, take it along a few nights this week while you’re playing chauffeur. The long wait for a soccer practice or ballet lesson to end could be just enough time to give you that little spiritual boost you need to take the next step and begin your novel.

Be well, my loves. Go forth and be literary!

Lesson No. 1: You’ve gotta’ love it!

For those who aspire to become writers, to share stories, to transport audiences into worlds unknown, passion, perseverance and dedication trump talent every time.

When I was 12, I took my first family trip across country. We drove all day and all night from Michigan to Mississippi to visit my father’s family. More than three decades later, I can still remember that feeling of being suspended in time, as though my uncle’s car was some sort of urban-cool time machine and we were traveling into my father’s childhood past.

I can also remember the family forming a receiving line in front of the old-fashioned, shotgun-style house. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents stood on a carpet of bright clay mud and one-by-one tugged us tight into each and every bosom. We were family.

During the trip, my aunts and uncles, all of whom had or were earning advanced degrees, wanted to know what I was going to do when I grew up. Without hesitation, I told them the only thing I’d ever wanted to be — a writer and illustrator. I wanted to write books and illustrate them.

My assuredness made them froth with laughter. “You do, huh?” said one aunt. Another chortled, “Honey, you’ll change your mind a thousand times between now and then. Don’t worry. You’ve got time.”

It was like being slapped. They thought I was telling them some childish dream rather than my life plan. They mistook my passion for youthful hubris. They were wrong. I would show them.

I didn’t know whether I had the talent. In fact, I often questioned my skill level. Even so, I knew I wanted it more than anything and no matter what, I’d do whatever I could to reveal the story people populated my inner-world.

Now, decades after that fateful trip, I’ve put to bed a career as a journalist that spanned more than 20 years, and embarked on the passion that always gave my life a sense of purpose — writing books for children. I’ve been a journalist, a mom, a volunteer and a bunch of other stuff. Through it all, though, I’ve been a writer. How did I go from being a single mom nursing the tendrils of a childhood dream to a child-at-heart with her very own agent in New York and well-known publisher? And can I help other writers-at-heart to turn their lifelong dream into wishes-come-true?

Stay tuned. Next week we will explore the very beginning of beginnings, getting started and staring down the blank page. Moms, writers, lend me your ears! Or your pens. You know what, I’ll bring the ideas, you bring the questions and enthusiasm. See you right here in a week!


Rebecca Stead, winner of the 2010 John Newberry Award — a very prestigious and haughty-taughty big deal, I assure you — has reminded me why I became a children’s author. When You Reach Me transports us back to 1978-79, into the lives of Miranda, Sal, Marcus, Annemarie, Julia and the “kicking man.” Miranda is a sixth-grader in New York City living with her hardworking single mom. When four mysterious, hand-scrawled letters tumble into Miranda’s life, her world gets knocked on its head.

Stead takes us on a time-travel journey. As a rule, I’m not big on the whole time-travel genre. I have enough trouble keeping up with myself in this dimension. I don’t even want to think about how much junk I’m failing at in the twilight zone. Stead’s well told tale of shifting time dimensions, however, has made me kick my rule to the curb.

Miranda’s journey isn’t about time travel so much as it encompasses the sort of out-of-body experience that is middle school. That was three years of my life when I felt like a moon-cheese eating alien and prayed to be zapped into another world. Miranda’s close friendship with neighbor Sal has existed her entire life. Then in what feels like the blink of an eye, he stops hanging out with her. If that isn’t freaky enough, two girls with a very glamorous, trendy-looking friendship take a break from each other and Miranda finds herself right square in the middle.

Moms of a certain age will love all the references to Dick Clark’s old game show, $20,000 Pyramid; young readers will identify with Miranda’s struggle to make sense of her life when everything around her seems to be changing and pulling in different directions. When You Reach Me is a great book to read for the sake of reading. When you’re done, share it with your little Gremlins. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to pass it along to my kids. If you’ve read it, tell me what you think. And if you haven’t, run, run I tell you! Get theyself to the book store, order up a big coffee and a yummy pastry, then find a nook and drift away. It’s a quick read. You’ve earned a break today.