Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Dream Job--at Age Fourteen!

As I mentioned earlier, when my sisters and I were little, my mother took us to the library weekly.  When I grew older, I passed the small but handsome library on my way home from school.  One day, much to my surprise, as I was checking out a book, the librarian offered me a job.  Me?  A job?  Looking back on it, I hadn’t longed for the job because I didn’t know it existed.  Of course, it took me only a split second to say “Yes!”

My parents gave their permission and I had my first job—no, come to think of it--my second.  I had done a lot of babysitting.  The babysitting was challenging but I considered this my first real job.

Miss Ainsworth, the librarian, was a very kind person.  I couldn’t then and can’t now think of a nicer boss.  My library job duties included sticking inside the front cover of every book a label with the library’s picture and name.  Next was to squeeze with a handpress the words “Westboro Public Library” on page 100 or if there were not 100 pages, on the page halfway through the book.  I suppose all this was to protect the book from theft.

I discovered that while I was doing these routine tasks, I could read a page or two--enough to know whether the book was something I wanted to put on my list of books to read.  (I always was a fast reader and probably became faster as I rushed through those pages.)  Before long I discovered that young readers like me were not allowed to check out certain books shelved behind Miss Ainsworth’s desk.  The only one I remember was Forever Amber.  Hmmm…I never have read it.  Perhaps I’ll locate it and find out what the deal was.

Another thing I remember from sixty years ago is that suddenly three or four boys that I knew from school started hanging around in the stacks where I worked.  Miss A., when she caught sight of them, clucked disapprovingly and shooed them away.  The boys hadn’t so much as spoken to me but I could see they were working up their courage, and Miss Ainsworth would have no teenagers fooling around back in my workspace.

Having a real job motivated me to have a real bank account and on the day that I received my monthly check, I always went straight to the bank and deposited it.  As the teller handed back to me my bankbook, I looked at the growing figure with pride.  I knew that my dad was determined that his four daughters go to college, yet worried that he might not be able to afford it.  Now I could help.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

More Reading with Dad

Thinking of the Old Mother West Wind stories, I'm still shaking my head in wonder at how prolific Burgess was, having written 15,000 (!) syndicated stories, delivered a popular radio show for ten years, and become a leader in the movement to protect wildlife.

Harold Garis impresses too with his thirty-year, six-day-a-week output.  I said in my last post that I'd include one of Garis's chapter endings--silly statements that besides making the child listener laugh, give the subject of tomorrow's chapter.  Here's a typical one: "And on the page after this, in case the moving picture man doesn't take our kitchen sink away to use as a fountain pen, I'll tell you about Uncle Wiggily and the lazy duck."

I think it's interesting that Burgess and Garis were journalists and kept writing day after day for their long lives, while Beatrix Potter in middle-age happily gave up her writing and illustrating children's books to become a sheep-farmer and to lead the effort to create a huge land trust.

But back to my father reading to me at bedtime....Several years passed and I was sick with measles.  The absolute worst part of this disease is that I wasn't allowed to read.  It shows you what a loving father mine was that he picked up the book I had been devouring and began reading it to me.  That book was Little Women.  I don't believe he found Jo and her sisters and handsome young Laurie very interesting but night after night he read, until I was allowed to  read again and began for myself Alcott's Little Men.

One more book I remember my dad bringing to read soon after this was The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.  As I saw the book I thought: "Well this isn't a book I'd choose but fair's fair: he read a book I love, this must be a favorite of his."

Dad began: "I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, 'tho not of that country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull...  He went on reading more of this for about five minutes, if I remember rightly, and then shut the book emphatically: "Good lord, the whole page is one sentence.  Tomorrow we'll try something else."

I don't remember his reading to me after that but one of the photos over my desk is my dad happily absorbed in a book.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stories My Father Read to Us at Bedtime

My dad had a desk job--was a merchandise manager for Dennison in Framingham, Massachusetts, a paper-products company.  Every night he pulled into the driveway at the same time, and my mother always had dinner ready.  After dinner, he'd either wash the dishes while one or two of his daughters dried or, in growing season, he worked in the garden he dearly loved.  In my memory, he often read to us after we climbed into bed.  The first three of us--Marilyn, me, and Susan were spaced four years apart.  Sally the youngest was seven years younger than Sue.  That spread is probably why I remember his reading occasionally just to me.

What did he read?  I've had fun recalling the stories.  One of Dad's favorites was Old Mother West Wind by Thornton W. Burgess.  These were gentle tales of animals with distinct personalities: Reddy Fox, Peter Cottontail, Sammy Jay, Jimmy Skunk, and many more.  The Laughing Brook provided background.  Burgess kept these tales coming for decades.  My dad loved the natural world--no wonder he enjoyed these stories featuring the denizens of the outdoors in which he grew up.

My sisters and I often clamored for a series that also featured wild animals but were a bit scarier:
Uncle Wiggley by Harold Garis.  Garis remarkably published these stories for the Newark News, six days a week for thirty years.  Uncle Wiggley is an elderly gentleman who suffers from rheumatism.   There are bad guys: the bully Pipsiseqah and the Skeezicks.  Uncle Wiggley's housekeeper Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy keeps things calm.  I loved the endings best, I think.  They were cliff-hangers--funny cliff-hangers.  I'll try to find one and share it with you in a later post.

A rabbit also figures prominently in my most vivid memory of being read to by my father.  Hearing my dad read Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit when I was quite young entranced me.  The vividness is such that I can tell you which bedroom we were in.  (We sisters switched rooms from time to time).  What I remember best is hearing Daddy read the odd but apt words "lippety, lippety" as Peter wanders Mr. McGregor's garden, looking for the gate so he could escape.  After Peter got safely home, daddy gave me a goodnight kiss and wished me a loving "sweet dreams." I think I fell asleep murmuring "Lippety, lippety."

Did you notice that a distinguished rabbit is missing here?  It was years before I encountered B'rer Rabbit.  If I were still in academia, I'd be thinking of writing an article exploring this.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Books of My Childhood

My blog is headed "A Blog about  the Books of Elizabeth Segel."  That  refers to more than my three  published books.   "The Books of Elizabeth Segel" refers as well to books I read or listened to in early childhood, the ones that made me a lover of books.

We didn't own many children's books--perhaps a shelf two or three feet wide.  One of the books we owned was set in exotic India--I was fascinated by it but didn't understand it.  Instead of owning books, we went to the library every week.  The library was a handsome building that projected importance yet was very inviting.  One thing that fascinated me was a glass case of stuffed birds near the doorway. just occurs to me that those birds may have something to do with my becoming an avid--if not skilled--bird-watcher.

The photograph that appears on the back of my new book Duck Dreams: City Boy to Farmer Boy 

shows my mother reading to me (age three) and my big sister Marilyn (she would have been seven.)  My mother loved books.  Her mother had died of tuberculosis in a sanitarium when my mother was just five years old.  She was even younger when her father left to work on the Panama Canal--left for good.  An interesting footnote...the book my mum was reading to us in the photo doesn't look like a children's book: it's very thick.  My mother's uncle reported that she loved Grimm's fairy tales when she was little...even the gruesome, scary ones, and she confirmed this.  Perhaps scary stories helped her through the scary circumstances of her young life.  Fortunately, she was raised by a loving grandmother who did a good job of it.

Now back to my childhood.  Mother took us to the public library every week.  I remember that I always went right to where The Story of Ferdinand was shelved and took it to the check-out desk.  The visits when the story of the gentle bull was there on the shelf were happy ones.  The days when I had to return my much-loved story were sad.

When I was older, I began thinking about why I liked so much the story of the bull who rejected his appointed fierceness.  I decided  it was because, like him, I was shy.  Years later however my sister Marilyn remarked casually that she loved ...Ferdinand also.  She wasn't shy in the least, so there went that theory.

I remember my mother reading many other books to us: a favorite was The Poky Little Puppy. a Golden  Book which you could buy at the Five and Dime store.  Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey we asked for over and over.   We lived only forty miles from Boston and had the thrill of riding on the swan boats in the Public Gardens.  We caught glimpses of ducks and left feeling we surely had seen Mr. and Mrs. Mallard.

Memories of my Dad reading to me are particularly vivid ones--to be the subject of my next entry..

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Losing a Contest While Learning So Much

I entered the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition in 2010, having read that submissions should have appealing Jewish content and be a work of fiction for children 8 to 11 years.  The writer should have no published work of fiction, as this was designed as an incentive for beginning authors.  The prize was $1000 and the judges were members of The Association of Jewish Libraries.

The name of the contest attracted my attention.  Sydney Taylor was author of the All-of-a-Kind Family books about a Jewish family living on New York's lower East Side. My daughter had loved those books.  I believe she organized a dramatization of the story in her early elementary school classroom.  

What made this competition priceless for me was that the judges sent to entrants their observations about the stories--the strengths and the weaknesses.  The first opinion I read: "Bad title."  Since the title at that time was The Chicken-Cheater, Duck Disasters  (2), and the Rocky Road to Freedom, I couldn't disagree.

Then someone wrote: "Both boys and girls should like this but it might be too old-fashioned."  

"Would like to see more creative chapter-titles." I need chapter titles? was my reaction to that and out they went!  Someone else thought a glossary for Yiddish terms was needed, which was definitely a good idea.  I added one.

The compliments kept me from giving up on this book:

  • "Writing is simple, clear, well-organized."
  • "Writing is superior."
  • "Characters are realistic and appealing."
  • "Sweet simple story about a family settling in America.  Subject matter is very creative."
  • "The Jewish content, while present, is not dominant in this story.  [the reviewer] has some reservations about giving the award to this book when other entrants of equal caliber present stronger Jewish themes." [This comment is a mixture of positive and negative but conveys that I was a contender, which made me very happy.]
  • "Nice storyline with different problems and great solutions.  Author did a great job integrating the themes of immigration, making friendships and dealing with being different, as well as the farm story."
Not winning truly didn't bother me.  I hadn't expected to.  The experience was as valuable as a semester's course--perhaps more, as it was specific to this work.

As one judge noted, the story was old-fashioned.  More than one editor replied to my submission of this story something like: "strong writing but not for our list."  I guessed that their list would welcome a dystopian young adult series that would sell a ton of copies.  Duck Dreams wasn't that which is what made me turn to self-publishing.  Never made a better decision, I think.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

More about our writing group and its members

Our critique group is led by Sally Alexander, author of a remarkable book: She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer.  Sally lost her sight in her twenties but doesn't let that hold her back, even though her hearing is now also a problem.  In addition to several books, Sally writes a blog I highly recommend: Traveling through the Mist.
Sally teaches at Chatham University and reads profusely, sharing with the group information that may help us with our writing.  I'm always impressed when, after one of our group reads, she makes just the right suggestions--sometimes very detailed--for improvement.

I've had excellent suggestion from other group members as well.  I recently found a draft of what I've called "my farm story," which  a class member--a young mother and former teacher--had read.  Her notations were a combination of praise ("I like this description of Benny--so succinct") and helpful suggestions ("would a ten-year-old have said this?--sounds adult to me.")

My dearest friend, also a group member, has read through a number of drafts, catching errors of all types.

In the next post, I'll tell you about a contest I entered.  I didn't win but learned a great deal about improving my story by participating.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Twenty-five years could it be?

More than twenty-five years passed from Uncle Abe's letters recalling his boyhood escapades to the publication of Duck Dreams: City Boy to Farmer Boy.  How could that be?

Part of it is that I had to learn to write for children.  I had published numerous articles about children's books and writers for children.  Two books ate up a good deal of time and energy in those twenty-five years.  One was for adults, urging parents to read to their children and recommending books likely to engage children.  This book, which went into three editions, was a collaboration with Professor Margaret Mary Kimmel.  Maggie taught children's literature in the Library Science Department; I taught it in the English Department.  The second book,  Short Takes, was a collection of stories I compiled for middle-grade children.  I chose the stories, recruited the writers--Lois Lowry, Philippa Pearce, Robert Cormier, E. L. Konigsburg, and others--and I  wrote introductions to each story.  But this wasn't teaching me to write for children.

About when Short Takes came out, I took a key step that would prepare me to write for children.  I joined Sally Alexander's critique group.  No one could have helped me more--Sally is herself a marvelous writer.  As a critic and teacher, she is unparalleled.  More on our group--its leader and helpful participants--in the next blog entry.