Saturday, April 30, 2016

How Bad Do You Want It?

A Princeton University professor named Johannes Haushofer recently made news by publishing a "c.v. of failures," a public list of his rejections for graduate programs, jobs, fellowships, and publications. It's gone viral, as we all need to hear stories of others' failures to counteract social media's incessant celebration of others' success.

This year I've had my own share of professional failures. Here are a few:

1) rejection of a proposal for a new chapter book series from my publisher, after early encouragement

2) rejection of a proposal to speak at our Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, after I had been personally invited by one of the Co-Regional Advisers to apply

3) a SECOND "revise and resubmit" verdict on the same children's literature article from a prominent journal

4) disappointing spring royalties (reflecting disappointing sales) on several recent recent books

5) small audiences at the Children's Literature Festival that I attend every year in Warrensburg, Missouri.

I could add more, but I think I've made my point depressingly clear, or at least depressingly clear to myself.

So my question is, what do I do now?

One answer, of course, is try, try again. But "try, try again" isn't going to work if I just try the very same thing over and over again while expecting different results. We've all heard that as the definition of insanity. In other equally familiar words: "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what  you've always gotten."

Actually, for most of my career I've liked what I've gotten. I've never been wildly ambitious for fame and fortune. I just wanted to be able to do work I love, maybe even make a modest living doing it, and get to spend time with other fun, creative people who are also doing work they love. And I've been lucky enough to achieve those things.

But the world of children's book writing and children's literature scholarship has gotten increasingly competitive, with brilliant new, young authors and scholars joining their ranks. If I want to stay in the game, I'm going to have to step up my game. If I do what I've always done, I'm not going to be getting (even) what I've always got.

So now I have to decide: how bad do I want it? Do I want it enough to work harder than I've ever worked before? Do I want it enough to bite the bullet and accept that I need to (1) become a better writer; and (2) become a better self-promoter (rather than spending time complaining that kids thirty years ago liked my books just fine and that authors thirty years ago didn't have to have websites, Twitter accounts, or glitzy giveaways)? Do I want it enough to sit down, once this final semester of teaching ends, and seriously try to reinvent myself for the 21st century, now that we are already 16 years into it?

I don't know. Part of me wants to. Part of me doesn't.

Part of me thinks that writing is what gives my life its deepest satisfaction so that I should do whatever I need to do to hold onto it as long as I can - clinging not just to writing, at home, alone, for myself, but to being part of the world of writers, to belonging in that world. Another part of me thinks that the idea of putting myself out to pasture, after 35 years in harness, is not a completely terrible thing, especially with two little granddaughters to cuddle, one already here and one set to arrive in another three weeks.

I think the bigger part of me wants to try better, try harder, try fresher, try smarter. The pasture isn't going anywhere; it can wait for me a little longer.

Either way, whether I continue to flourish and thrive in this business is going to depend on how badly I want it, and whether I'm willing to back up my wanting with working.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Being a Child Again

Last week my children's literature class had one of its highlights: our "class trip" to the children's room at the Putnam County Public Library.
One of the things I love best about my life in tiny Greencastle (pop. 10,000) is how compact everything is. It's literally one short block from Asbury Hall on the DePauw campus, where I teach my class, to the public library (and two short blocks from there to the courthouse square, i.e., "downtown"). So I can have an outing to the library during a class period and still have the students arrive on time to their next commitments.

Our wonderful children's librarian, Krista Mullinnix, was ready for us, with appealing new picture books laid out on the low tables in the "Maker Space." Her presentation to us highlighted some of her favorites, and now I have a list of great new-to-me titles to share with Kataleya when I return home in a few weeks: Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas,  Press Here by Herve Tullet, and Waiting by Kevin Henkes. Krista made me be the one to read aloud the hilarious, but embarrassing-for-the-one-reading aloud, picture book The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak. I saw several students in tears as they later read silently Ida, Always, by Caron Lewis, based on the true story of two Central Park Zoo polar bears, inseparable until death. (I'm going to wait a while longer to share that one with Kataleya.)

Best of all, though, was just being in the space of this library's enticing children's room, getting to enter through an extra-tiny door and then curl up reading inside a hollow tree trunk or on a cozy window seat.

What's better for children's literature students than to have one sweet hour to be a child again?

What's better for any of us?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Four Weeks Left

The semester which stretched before me as a blank stretch of new-fallen snow back in February now has just four weeks of classes before we head into finals week. Daffodils, tulips, magnolias, and red bud are in bloom, and the first lilacs are beginning to perfume the air.

In my children's literature course, we've covered the emergence of children's literature as a genre, fairy tales, three touchstone texts (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden), fantasy (Harry Potter, of course, the students' favorite week of the semester), historical fiction (Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Morning Girl by Michael Dorris), contemporary fiction (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie), and to continue the theme of the need for greater diversity in children's literature, the beautiful verse memoir by Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming. Next up, picture books, and then we'll celebrate the final week of the course with humor via Captain Underpants.

In the ethics of immigration policy class, we've explored the philosophical debate between advocates of closed borders and advocates of open borders; we've argued about various definitions of "refugees" and what is owed them by wealthy, peaceful, privileged nations such as our own; we've debated how to respond to the presence of the 11 million undocumented migrants in our midst. We'll finish the course with a look at how race and gender inflect patterns of migration and raise their own ethical issues.

Finally, in my sweet, seven-student Honor Scholar class on what I'm calling "The Ethics of Story," we've consumed ourselves with issues of truth and betrayal in the writing of memoir and investigative journalism, as well as trying to develop our own positions on the question of when the exchange of stories across cultures becomes ethically problematic cultural appropriation or cultural imperialism. This coming week we'll launch our look at censorship by reading the novel that occasioned the most famous censorship court case of the 20th century, Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.

Just four more weeks! Then I'll say goodbye to my students and drive back to Colorado to say hello to a new granddaughter, due to enter the world the very same day I'm due to arrive home.

My teaching has been so all-consuming this semester that I've written less than I've ever written at any time in the last 35 years. I've decided this has to change. Like my students, I need to make one final push to get my own work done for the semester. My goal is to have a book proposal (synopsis and several chapters) ready to send to my editor by the middle of May.

Wouldn't it be lovely to bring my semester to a close by welcoming both a new baby and a new book-in-progress? The baby is coming, ready or not. But the book will come only if I make that my priority for the next month. So amid thoughts of picture books, race and gender in immigration policy, and the rights and wrongs of censorship, I'm committing to myself here and now to make time to write.

How much time?

Why, an hour a day.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to Make a Hard Course Easier

I am currently teaching the hardest course I've ever taught, a philosophy department course on "The Ethics of Immigration Policy." It's hard because the material is new to me so I'm learning along with the students; it's hard because the philosophical questions here are extremely challenging (I chose to teach the course in part because I didn't yet know what I thought about them); and it's hard because the controversial nature of the material in a class that is so diverse in terms of students' political views and relevant life experiences can make discussions a teensy bit tense and uncomfortable.

But it's also one of the easiest courses I've ever taught, as the material offers nonstop opportunities for course enrichment. So my tip to my future self, should I ever teach such a course again, is: Find these opportunities and seize them. Don't worry if you're diverting too much class time away from standard lecture-and-discussion. Pounce on every chance to make the material come alive for the students in every possible way.

For this particular course, these opportunities include:

1) Guest lectures from colleagues with vastly more expertise than I have in the empirical background for these issues. So far we've had Prof. Glen Kuecker (Central American History) on the sources of migration to the U.S. from Mexico and Guatemala, and Prof. Brett O'Bannon (Conflict Studies) on international refugee conventions. Next up: Prof. Oscar Gil-Garcia (Sociology and Anthropology) sharing his case study of a "coyote" helping migrants across the Mexican-U.S. border, and Prof. Christina Holmes (Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) on gendered dimensions of migration.

2) Films that bring to life the stories of the real people behind immigration statistics. I was only going to show one film in class, God Grew Tired of Us, about the Lost Boys of the Sudan. But I allowed the students to talk me into screening a second film, Documented, in which Pulitzer-Prize-wining journalist Jose Anthonio Vargas outs himself as undocumented migrant from the Philippines. In addition, I'm requiring students to watch one additional film outside of class; I did a screening last week of the first option, the heartbreaking 2007 fictional film The Visitor.

3) Extra credit for an array of fascinating talks on campus: a lecture by Rights Watch activist Grahame Russell; a conversation with former Congressman Lee Hamilton who helped craft the United Nations doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect"; and a talk by Earlham College Professor Thomas Hamm on parallels between the attitudes that made possible the Japanese internment during World War II and responses to Syrian refugees today. I also learned this morning that Gobin United Methodist Church on campus is hosting a luncheon after worship next week with a presentation by a Syrian refugee family, with a Syrian vegetarian feast. Extra credit plus fabulous food!

We've also heard a presentation from one student in the class on the eight years she spent in a refugee camp in Thailand, after her family fled persecution for their Mon ethnic identity in Burma. I'm working on organizing one more presentation by Exodus, a refugee-resettlement group in Indianapolis.

With the exception of the extra credit talks, each of these takes valuable class time (and even with the outside-of-class talks I give students class time to share their reactions). But at the end of the day, at the end of the semester, at the end of their lives, which will students remember more? Yet another class discussing yet another chapter of our (excellent) primary text, The Ethics of Immigration  by Joseph Carens? Or a powerful guest lecture by someone who has spent a whole career thinking about recent Central American history or about our responsibilities to refugees, or the wrenching testimony of a refugee classmate?

So the class is hard in some ways, but wonderfully easy in others. If I ever teach it again, may it be in another environment in which so many enrichment opportunities are available, and with the courage on my part to embrace them.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Day Before April 2016

Today is the day before April.

I've blogged several times about this favorite poem of my childhood by Mary Carolyn Davies. 

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a special Mills family holiday. I always think of them both on this day, although my mother is no longer living. My sister sent me a "Day Before April" email greeting before dawn this morning.

The magic of the Internet is that over the years other lovers of this poem have found my past posts on this special day and confided to me how much this same poem meant to them and their families throughout their childhood and on to adulthood. With her permission, I'm sharing the beautiful message I received via email from Barbara McMichael a few hours ago:

I just stumbled upon your blog post from a couple of years ago about
celebrating the day before April - I was so happy to see it - it's been
a tradition in my family, too, for as long as I can remember. Sixty
years ago, my parents bought a piece of property outside of Seattle and
designed and built their own home. They kept much of the woodland, and
there is a particular flat rock that we always used to go sit on to
recite the poem. When I went away to college, I had to seek out rocks
elsewhere, but I usually was able to find something.

After my parents passed away, the original April Stone (as we called it)
had become overgrown. But over the past couple of years I've been
whacking away at the blackberries and restoring the woodland, and this
morning I was able to go sit on the stone, recite the poem and
commune with the birds for a few moments of springtime bliss. I'm so
glad to know there are others out in the world who are enjoying this
particular day, too. Hooray for the power of poetry!



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ethics and Children's Literature

I have spent my whole adult life simultaneously pursuing three different careers: 1) children's book author; 2) children's literature scholar; and 3) philosopher professor specializing in teaching and writing about ethics. The older I got, the more the three began to converge: I used children's literature examples in my Intro to Ethics class; I published scholarly articles about ethical themes in children's literature; I gave my fictional characters ethical challenges to face.

When I came to the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in the fall of 2011, my three professional loves finally melded into one. I taught a course on my beloved Jean-Jacques Rousseau (himself a novelist and theorist of childhood) for the Philosophy Department, but also taught children's literature (for the first time in my life) for the English Department. I organized a symposium on Ethics and Children's Literature, where philosophers, children's literature scholars, and children's book authors came together for three idyllic days, sharing our papers and talking in the beautiful setting of the Prindle Institute.

From that symposium grew a book, Ethics and Children's Literature, under the encouragement of brilliant editor Ann Donahue at Ashgate Press, who published it in Ashgate's "Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present" series. (The cover image is an illustration from an early edition of Rousseau's Emile.) Making the book was a labor of love, for it is a tangible representation of the union of my three careers, brought together in one volume.

This week I learned that the book just won the Children's Literature Association's Edited Book Award for an "outstanding edited collection of essays in children's literature, history, and criticism," selected from a field of almost forty titles published in 2014. Earlier I also learned that one of the chapters in the book, "The Rights and Wrongs of Anthropomorphism in Pictures Books," by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, won the Children's Literature Association's Article Award for the best scholarly article published in 2014. Lisa is my dear, dear friend, and now she and I will sit together at the awards banquet at the June conference, held this year in Columbus, Ohio.

Few things in my life have made me happier than this recognition, from peers I respect, eminent scholars in a field of study to which I have blissfully devoted the past two and a half decades of my life. I think of Marmee's final line at the end of Little Women: "Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!" I'm sure other happiness, and sorrow, will come my way. But this is a week I'm going to remember with great fondness for the rest of my days.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Typical Day at a Small Midwestern Liberal Arts College in the Middle of Rural Nowhere

One day this week, here at little DePauw University in tiny Greencastle, Indiana, I attended not one, not two, not three, but FOUR talks (in addition to teaching a class on Harry Potter in my children's literature course and a class on climate change refugees in my ethics of immigration policy course).

11:30-12:30  Luncheon talk on narrative medicine with Dr. Owen Lewis, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. "Narrative medicine" makes use of writing about illness by physicians, patients, and family members to deepen understanding and promote healing. Lewis read aloud a piece of writing by one of his medical students about the day she "met" her cadaver; in the piece the writer notes the red nail polish on the fingernails of the woman whose corpse she is going to be dissecting and wonders about the circumstances that led her to apply it with such care.

4:00-4:45 Craft talk on songwriting by young singer/songwriter (and DePauw graduate) David McMillan of the indie band Fort Frances. Here is the best advice he ever received in his writing/performing career: "Your last album was great! Don't ever do anything like it again!"A stimulating call for constant creative self-invention.

7:00-8:00  Talk by Buzzfeed journalist Anne Helen Petersen: "Too Loud, Too Fat, Too Slutty: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman." This one was absolutely packed with students who wanted to hear a media analyst talk about the dominance of a new kind of female celebrity, a woman who defies (but sometimes also reinforces) cultural norms by being transgressively "too much" of something. I had never heard of any of the figures she was discussing - Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, the characters of a raunchy TV show called "Broad City" (where apparently Hillary Clinton is set to make an appearance!) - but it was fascinating to get this glimpse into pop culture.

8:00-9:30  Talk by theologian Candida Moss of Notre Dame on the topic of "Heavenly Bodies: Disability, Infertility, and Bodily Values in Early Christianity."The talk explored the early Christian church's attempt to understand resurrection of the body, which necessitated speculation about what resurrected bodies might be like. Presumably we wouldn't get our same, decrepit-at-death bodies back post-Resurrection, but some idealized form of our bodily selves. But idealized, how? Moss examined the ways in which the early church constructed a vision of idealized bodies that implicitly denigrated bodies that were black, female, or disabled.

Okay, this wasn't really a typical day for me here at DePauw. Even as someone who tries to go to just about everything that is intellectually and creatively rich and stimulating, I broke my own record for talks attended in one twelve-hour period. But it was an amazing day. Will I ever again hear talks about fingernail polish on a corpse, songwriting advice, celebrity gossip, and speculations about the nature of Christian resurrection, all in one day?

Most certainly, not.