Check it out: more evidence for the power of libraries

Vending machine for mystery novels from the city library in Cologne. Big red box with computer screen and door with window to get book.
A mystery novel “vending” machine for the city library of Cologne in an underground station. © Jan Decher, 2016.

On a recent trip to Cologne, I was surprised by this machine in the Neumarkt underground station. It lets library patrons check out and return mysteries and thrillers on their daily commute, 24 hours a day.

You gotta love librarians. They’re always thinking up some new way to share books.

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Hope for February: ESPERANZA RISING and Esperanza Spalding

Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves and a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany © Laurel Decher, 2016
Hopeful signs: Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves under a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Hope keeps cropping up. This weekend, hope took the form of an audio book, a YouTube video, a walk under gray skies, a skit, and a newspaper article.

Last night I listened to the first part of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s ESPERANZA RISING with Trini Alvarado as narrator. I’m looking forward to the rest!

ESPERANZA RISING the kind of story I like: the 13-year-old Esperanza has to find courage to take a big risk, to make a new life in a new place with her family.

She has a big challenge in front of her because it’s 1930 and the Great Depression is coming.

While I listened, the relationships between the characters gave me hope. Early in the story, Miguel and Alfonso and Hortensia demonstrate their friendship with Esperanza’s family.

In Mexico there’s a big divide between Esperanza and Miguel, but what will happen when they get to California?

My eldest sent me Esperanza Spalding’s 2016 performance at the White House. Esperanza sang about choosing hope with Louis Armstrong’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.

At the YMCA last night, there was a skit about the exiled tribes of Israel returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. When they got to Jerusalem, things weren’t quite the way they’d hoped. They experienced hardship in their new life.

Many people are making a new life in Germany right now and many are facing unexpected hardship. Many others are helping. It’s an adjustment for everyone.

The choice to hope has to be made again and again. In January, we learned about a shocking incident in the Cologne main train station. I found hope in the courage shown by refugees in this article (sent to me by my friend Jane Joo Park).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the unalienable rights given to all of us: the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

We aren’t promised happiness, only the right to pursue it.

We have the right to choose hope, if we’re brave enough to do it. Let’s help each other to hope.

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Noblesse oblige, libraries, trees, and cyberbullying prevention

Castle with towers and moat and red and white patterned shutters. Burg Satzvey, Germany.
What can you do with your heritage? Noblesse oblige for the modern age. Burg Satzvey, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, I visited a nearby village and strolled through the public part of the castle grounds of the lovely Burg Satzvey. It was built in the early 1300’s and now hosts jousting and other medieval-sounding shows for the entertainment of the populace. Half-timbered houses cluster around the castle and a large church stands just up the hill.

How do you decide what to do with a castle, if you inherit one? In medieval times, the castle protected the village folk and probably provided a secure marketplace for trading. The size of the modern parking lot and the shops (now closed for the winter) inside the castle say that some things don’t change. Using your inheritance in this way probably has pros and cons. We also saw a bench securely chained down in front of a village house. The tourists around here must be eager for souvenirs.

But the noble family could have made a different choice: they could have left the castle to fall down into a romantic ruin. For example, the abandoned vineyards on the Mosel are called “Brazils” because so many vintners left the area for warmer climes.

One person’s decision can influence a whole village.

My own experience is that people move around much more in the United States. Many people volunteer and serve their communities in all kinds of ways. Some give to their communities in large-scale ways. Andrew Carnegie gave us libraries. I just found a new book I want to read about him.

Wangari Maathai of Kenya planted a tree, and another and another, and eventually won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Read about her story in the picture book PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA.

Or what about teen Trisha Prabhu’s app to prevent cyberbullying? Listen to her TED talk here.

We’re sometimes quick to dismiss our own experiences and education. Burg Satzvey gave me two questions for myself that I pass on to you:

  1. What is our heritage and how will we choose to build on it?
  2. What moves us enough to take a first small step?

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Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?

 

References
Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.

Why we need broken things: lowering the risk of creation

Teapot with new wire handle on a round beige teapot with a cracked lid.
Broken things can be an invitation. Image © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Accepting imperfection is part of what makes us human. I’ve watched this video about the beauty of mistakes about five times already. I first saw it in a great Coursera course about creativity. Neil Gaiman’s commencement address says something similar: make mistakes and make good art.

Moving from one country to another with my family, I’ve thought a lot about the broken things. There’s this desire to take the “best” things with you. New markers, clean erasers, favorite books, jeans with whole pockets and shirts with all their buttons need apply.

In a nutshell, this doesn’t work. Junk is an inescapable part of civilization. First of all, there’s that odd phenomenon that happens with every move. The things you know you left behind came with you and a few things you knew you wanted can’t be traced. But even if you don’t move, your existing, fully-functional belongings will be happy to wear out, develop holes, break, or shrink.

Presto! Fresh junk.

For example, we have a chronic teapot problem. The tile floor and the tea lite stove conspire. Yes, empty tea pots crack under the heat of a single candle. We’ve proved it repeatedly.

At the Second Hand Kaufhaus (Kaufhaus=Department Store), I bought a replacement teapot for 20 cents. It was the “right” kind for us because it was designed to have the handle on top rather than on one side of the teapot. Only it didn’t have the handle.

Small triumphs give us courage and self-esteem. We bought molding and copper wire and paper covered wire and my youngest and I made this handle. I sawed my finger a very little bit with the dull saw, but my youngest and I were very pleased with ourselves. I wrapped it and put it on the shelf as a Christmas present for my husband.

Unfortunately, the present fell to the floor before making it under the tree. When my husband opened it, the lid had broken neatly in half.

But then came a surprising reversal: He spent Christmas afternoon with Patex glue, bonding with his “new” teapot.

(Epidemiology caveat: Not sure it’s healthy to drink tea made in a glued pot. I didn’t search PubMed to find out.)

Do we need a certain number of broken things? After this experience, I wondered if a small amount of brokenness and disorganization in our lives is an invitation to participate.

It’s a kind of redemption. When we imperfectly repair a teapot, we invest ourselves in it. There’s a little glow every time we use it that says, “I saved that.”

“Craftmanship of risk” is a concept from David Pye and mentioned in the beauty of mistakes video above. When we make something new, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of risk: maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s all for nothing.

A broken thing is an invitation to create. It invites us to take a risk. If you have a brand new house with newly painted, perfect walls, you might have to overcome inner resistance to mar the perfection with a hole to hang up a picture. A broken thing or an imperfect thing is closer to our level.

“People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”

–From Barb Siddiqui’s review of David Pye’s THE NATURE AND ART OF WORKMANSHIP published in 1968.

If we like the work enough, if we find joy in it, even with its imperfections, we can make marvelous things. Broken things are a way to practice.

There’s another bonus to broken things: If we’re willing to fix them, that usually means someone wants them. That’s a built-in audience.

 

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Wait–My free calendar from the health food store has predictive powers?

Wild boar with nose dusted with snow from January page of my 2016 calendar.
January’s Wild Boar from my ReformhausMarketing GmbH 2016 calendar. Image: Horst Jegen/ImageBROKER/mauritius images

My youngest took a horse for a walk in the forest this week. I went along.

The horse, Rökkvi, is a shaggy, black, Icelandic pony with a mellow disposition. We were walking along one of the forest’s old hunting roads when Rökkvi pricked his ears and turned his head to the left.

When we finally looked, we saw a wild boar hurtling through the forest parallel to us. The boar shot past us, made a 90 degree turn, crossed our road, and disappeared into the forest on our right.

Rökkvi’s expression: “I told you there was something.”

I haven’t turned the calendar page yet to see what’s coming up in February.

 

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Think, Act, Speak: What order makes character reactions feel real?

Infographic for Motivation Reaction Units. The best order for character reactions is feeling/thought, action (involuntary or voluntary), speech. Don't need all the reactions, but they should be in this order.

Do you know the terrible feeling when THAT topic resurfaces? “Oh no. I AM going to have to learn this.” Prehistoric time periods must have come around 3 or 4 times in my studies, but I still haven’t learned them.

Years and years ago, I read about Dwight W. Swain’s Motivation Reaction Units (MRU’s). *Cough.* It’s filed right behind the prehistoric time periods. It popped up again recently and I wondered if it could help me weave a more seamless story and create more life-like character reactions.

In case you’re in the same fix, here’s a quick summary: MRU’s are a way to show cause and effect in the story, moment to moment. It’s all about the order.

The catch to MRUs is that they must be presented in
the correct order. When you tell readers about the effect before they’ve seen the cause, you’re introducing an element of unreality, however miniscule. Even if their confusion lasts only a microsecond, you’re endangering their ability to process your story in a logical and linear fashion. –K. M. Weiland in STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL: ESSENTIAL KEYS FOR WRITING AN OUTSTANDING STORY (Chapter 24 Scene Structure)

People who write well about writing inspire me, but I need the “real-life” application. I want to know how middle grade authors get it on the page.

I decided to test MRU’s with an author I admire. Here’s a passage from Chapter 2 of Sara Prineas’ LOST, the wonderful second book in THE MAGIC THIEF series.

What patterns do you see? Feel free to share what you find in the comments. My color-coded version follows.

I blinked the brights out of my eyes. The floor of my workroom was covered with shattered glass and torn book pages. The table lay with its four legs in the air like a dead bug. Smoke and dust swirled around in the corners. A scrap of charred paper floated to the floor next to me. I squinted at it. A page from Prattshaw’s book, the part about contrafusive effects.

The pyrotechnics had worked. The magic had spoken to me again—without a locus stone. But what had it said?

Step step tap. I heard the sound of Nevery hurrying up the stairs. He threw open the door. “Curse it, boy!” he shouted. “What are you up to?”

I coughed, brushed slivers of glass out of my hair, and got to my feet. “Just some pyrotechnics,” I said. I looked down at my apprentice’s robe. It had a few more scorch marks on it than before.

Nevery scowled. “A pyrotechnic experiment. I thought you had more sense.” He lowered his bushy eyebrows. “And where did you come up with the slowsilver, hmmm?”

I shrugged.

More footsteps, and Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard-housekeeper, loomed up behind Nevery in the doorway. His knitted red waistcoat and shirt were dusted with flour, and he had a smudge of flour on his fist-flattened nose; he’d been kneading dough. “He all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “Nevery, the magic spoke to me.”

Nevery opened his mouth to shout at me some more, and then closed it.

“Spoke to you? A pyrotechnic effect, then. You were right. Interesting. What did it say?”

“It sounded—” I shook my head. Had the magic sounded frightened? But of what? “D’you know this spell?” I recited the spellwords the magic had said to me: “Damrodellodesseldeshellarhionvarliardenliesh.”

Here’s my color-coded version of the same passage:

  • Red = stimulus.
  • Gray-blue = reaction.
  • The MRU theory says the gray-blues should go from light to dark.

I blinked the brights out of my eyes. The floor of my workroom was covered with shattered glass and torn book pages. The table lay with its four legs in the air like a dead bug. Smoke and dust swirled around in the corners. A scrap of charred paper floated to the floor next to me. I squinted at it. A page from Prattshaw’s book, the part about contrafusive effects.

The pyrotechnics had worked. The magic had spoken to me again—without a locus stone. But what had it said?

Sara Prineas still has me on board, but this is the opposite of the MRU theory. I got STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought). What did you get?

Step step tap. I heard the sound of Nevery hurrying up the stairs. He threw open the door. “Curse it, boy!” he shouted. “What are you up to?”

I coughed, brushed slivers of glass out of my hair, and got to my feet. “Just some pyrotechnics,” I said. I looked down at my apprentice’s robe. It had a few more scorch marks on it than before.

The reactions alternate between action and speech and action and thought. This feels totally natural to me.

STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(3. speech)–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought)

Nevery scowled. “A pyrotechnic experiment. I thought you had more sense.” He lowered his bushy eyebrows. “And where did you come up with the slowsilver, hmmm?”

I shrugged.

This simpler example fits the MRU theory even though some types of reactions are missing.

STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)

More footsteps, and Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard-housekeeper, loomed up behind Nevery in the doorway. His knitted red waistcoat and shirt were dusted with flour, and he had a smudge of flour on his fist-flattened nose; he’d been kneading dough. “He all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “Nevery, the magic spoke to me.”

Nevery opened his mouth to shout at me some more, and then closed it.

These all follow the MRU theory with one type of reaction in each set.

STIMULUS–REACTION(1. thought)

STIMULUS–REACTION(3. speech)

STIMULUS–REACTION(1. thought)

“Spoke to you? A pyrotechnic effect, then. You were right. Interesting. What did it say?”

“It sounded—” I shook my head. Had the magic sounded frightened? But of what? “D’you know this spell?” I recited the spellwords the magic had said to me: “Damrodellodesseldeshellarhionvarliardenliesh.”

This set reverses the MRU theory (3,2,1) and then circles back around to speech. The internal question “But of what?” could also be a STIMULUS followed by a REACTION(3. speech).

STIMULUS–REACTION(3. speech)–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought)–REACTION(3. speech)

Sara Prineas’s well-crafted prose makes me see how much variety is possible. After studying this passage, I’m eager to look at my own work for stimulus–reaction patterns. The sheer number of stimulus-reactions gives the story a feeling of connectedness.

What have you noticed about character reactions in your reading or writing?

Do you have favorite authors who follow or don’t follow the MRU patterns? I’d love to read more examples.

 

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