Monday, September 16, 2013

Little Kids, Big Ideas

In keeping with this month’s topic about how nonfiction can change or affect one’s life—

We had lots of kids’ books at home—nonfiction, not so much.  The World Book, (see my blog about it), mythology and poetry (oddly categorized as nonfiction), and what I now realize was a facts-of-life book although that did not compute at the time.  Does loving the passages of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series that explained how things were done back in the mid-19th century count?  Inspired by Laura, I tried heating maple syrup and pouring it on snow to make candy.  I guess you have to live in Wisconsin or closer to the North Pole for that to work.  And ever since I learned what happened to the tongue of the boy who licked a freezing cold pump handle on a dare, I’ve never been tempted.
As for my life-changing children’s nonfiction book, I read it many years later.  I’d been a freelance writer for years and was tired of producing ideas and writing styles that fit the editorial personalities of my client magazines.  Then I read a book because I was intrigued by its title: Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings that Wiggle Like a Fish by Philip M. Isaacson.  I was stunned.  An art critic, Isaacson used lovely, lyric language to write about architecture, but also the abstract ideas of beauty and proportion, and how various shapes and forms make you feel.  I didn’t know you could write that way for kids.  But suddenly I wanted to. 

My first book, Unseen Rainbows, Silent Songs, used vignettes of animals to explain that another world—filled with very different colors, sounds, smells, tastes—lay beyond the realm of our own senses.  Thank you, Mr. Isaacson.  I’ve written many books since and loved almost all for different reasons.  Yet, the ones that try to introduce kids to mind-bending, big ideas in an accessible way are very close to my heart—On This Spot and All in Just One Cookie, for example, and It’s a Dog’s Life.
In closing, I’d like to take a moment to turn our topic on its ear and mention the wonderful experience of being the one who affects a reader’s life to any degree.  Authors put their heart into a book often only to feel it has gone into the void (reviews, feedback at signings or school visits not withstanding).  Occasionally, if we are very lucky, we hear about how our books affected someone else—in ways we couldn’t imagine. 
Here’s an email I received a few weeks ago, with names and a few identifying details changed to preserve this family’s privacy:

Susan:  a song in praise of your How Do You Burp in Space? Not only have my kids loved every page of this book, which is right up their collective alley, but yesterday I had to take both kids to get a workup at pediatric cardiology. This was a workup their pediatrician insisted on due to my husband's family history… I was stressing out over how to explain, without worrying the kids, why they had to have an EKG, and why they were being taken to Boston Children's...I did not want to have to get into the terrifying subject of an uncle neither they nor I ever met, who died in his sleep years ago... So I started with, "I'm taking you guys for a checkup, one of many checkups we're having before (SG-the long trip the family is taking). No, not to your regular doctor. No, to a different kind of hospital." They asked, of course, if there would be shots. I said no, but there would be an EKG.
And Sarah lit up and said:  "Then I can go into space!!!" She knew from your book that this is a necessary test, pre-space flight. And then, Susan, the kids did not ask a single thing more about it. For them, this whole ordeal (which was so emotionally wrenching for the adults) was just a chance to leap one of the hurdles between them and space travel. And yes, to play with EKG stickers and stick them on each other's faces.
Thank goodness for books. Seriously, you helped me through a very fraught experience.

Yes, thank goodness for books—and, for the gift she gave me!


Loreen Leedy said...

Susan, the Little House books are basically autobiographical...seems like they should count as nonfiction, or close to it. :) Love the story about needing EKGs and how the kids related it to becoming an astronaut instead of worrying about it thanks to your book. Authors change lives every day!

Jim Murphy said...

What an absolutely lovely and inspiring story, Susan. Keep up the life-changing writing. Jim

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Susan E. Goodman said...

Thanks everybody. Loreen, in looking up when the Little House books were written, I got wrapped up in this article about whether Laura or her daughter Rose really wrote them--seemed like it was probably a collaboration. Who knew!

Susan E. Goodman said...
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