My Epic Poetic Odyssey Takes Off

Choosing the first poem to memorise for my Epic Poetic Odyssey was more difficult than I expected. After all, a poem memorised becomes a part of you.

In Grade 8, I memorised Lewis Carroll’s fantastical nonsense poem Jabberwocky, and it’s still with me. Maybe the burbling Jabberwock and the beamish boy are to blame for my bent towards fantastic adventures starring 11-year-old boys (Toby Fitzroy, I’m looking at you.) Now there’s a thought to ponder!

 

What if instead I’d memorised a religious verse like a segment of Milton’s Paradise Lost or something political like Hannah More’s Slavery: A Poem? Would I somehow be a different person today? A zealot or maybe an avenger. I wonder…

Critical Criteria

On a more practical note, I wanted to pick a poem that’s realistic in length and difficulty. It would be seriously embarrassing if I failed in the first month of my Odyssey, so, given the rusty state of my rote memory skills, I decided twenty-five lines or fewer would be best.

The poem had to speak to me in some way, either in form or lyricism, theme or allusion. Thirty-something years on from eighth grade, I’m no longer in a Jabberwocky frame of mind. I want a poetic punch in the solar plexus. Or at least a nudge that tickles, excites, or stirs me.

So with my criteria in mind, a short list of possibilities coalesced:

  • The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
  • A Frog’s Fate by Christina Rossetti
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116
  • Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson
  • A Martian Sends a Postcard Home by Craig Raine
  • Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

And the Winner Is…

The first poem of my Epic Poetic Odyssey will be The Second Coming. Not exactly the cheeriest poem, but its timelessness speaks to me. Even though The Second Coming was written nearly a hundred years ago, Yeats’s observations about a world spinning out of control could be penned today. For example:

…Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

That pretty much sums up the maniacal circus that is world politics today. With the pillars of democracy teetering under the weight of insanity (or, in Yeats’s more poetic phrasing, “passionate intensity”), even the stoutest heart starts looking for a Second Coming.

Plus, it’s neat to see Yeats’s poignant phrases echoed in well-known literary works such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958) and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968).

You can read the whole poem here. Tell me in the comments what you think of my first choice.

Watch This Space

So my assignment is set. For the next four weeks, I’ll be committing this poem to memory. Watch this space for resources, mnemonic devices, poetic interludes, and interviews with some of the delightful poets and poetry lovers I’m getting to know on my Epic Poetic Odyssey.

 

Image Credits via Unsplash

Photo by Jon Flobrant

Photo by Joshua Earl

* * *

John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

My Epic Poetic Odyssey

I’m setting off on a yearlong adventure—my Epic Poetic Odyssey. For each of the next twelve months, I will select a poem and commit it to memory over the course of the month. Motivating me are the same desires that have launched adventurers throughout the ages: I want to expand my mind. I’m after refreshment and inspiration, new words and mindsets, bigger (mental) muscles, greater focus, and a flock of new friends.

I’ll hit the road as a neophyte, a near noob to all things poetical. My only training is high school English and a few fumbling poetic encounters as an adult. The academic approach left me cold and uninspired, so I’m changing tack and approaching as an explorer of new worlds, with curiosity as my compass and Google as my guide (and a few poet friends I intend to pester.)

Early each month, I’ll pick a poem to commit it to memory. Later that month, I’ll perform and post it. Along the way, I’ll share some inspiration—interviews with poets, a brace of poems caught in the wild, fantastic resources to dig through, and interesting insights to the world of poetry. No dull academics here—only wild, wordy adventure.

Wanted: One Band of Hearty Travel Companions

Care to join me on my Epic Poetic Odyssey? I can’t promise comfort in every poetic port, but I vow to keep you amused. How can it not be fun to watch me trip through Tennyson and wrestle with Robert Burns?

It’s easy: At the beginning of month, pick a poem to memorise. At the end of the month, perform and—if you want—share it. Or you can just encourage me by following and liking my posts. There will be laughs and gasps, thrills and spills, cheers and prizes! (Yay for prizes!)

Benefits of Joining the Adventure

Beyond the camaraderie, memory-making on the road, and said prizes there are lots of compelling reasons to read and memorise poetry.

Creative Superfood

Poetry is superfood for writers. It enriches vocabulary, encourages complex syntax, and develops the ear. It helps us to think and write evocatively. Perhaps most valuable of all for writers, poetry encourages brevity while discouraging insipid word choice. Memorising poetry builds the working memory capacity, which improves creativity.

Soul Food

When we are overloaded with information and overwhelmed by bad news, indulging in beauty and simple pleasures is salve for the soul. Reading and memorising poetry requires no special equipment or cash outlay—only some regular time to sit quietly and focus on words.

Focus—it’s the perfect antidote to technology-mediated attention deficit. Social media and electronic devices are affecting the way we read and diminishing our ability to focus. Some experts go farther, suggesting the Internet is making us stupid. Fight back with poetry memorisation. Negate negative news with a monthly dose of focused beauty. It will do your soul good.

Poetry can be a great connector. The sentiments it conveys—grief, despair, wonder, loneliness, awe—are universal, assuring the reader (or listener) they are not alone.

Cognitive Calisthenics

Reading, reciting, and memorising poetry do wonders for the brain. From teaching rhythm to children to staving off cognitive decline in old age, it’s part of the perfect brain fitness program no matter what age you are. I dare you not to be inspired after watching this darling three-year-old recite Billy Collins’s Litany. (Unlike last week’s tiny muse, I don’t know this little guy.)

 

Personal Development

Just think what amassing a mental storehouse of poetry will do for you! With a poem for every mood and occasion, you’ll have nearly no need for a therapist AND have an enviable party trick up your sleeve.

Travel Itinerary

My Epic Poetic Odyssey sets off on 1 September.

First poem selected by 3 September

Memorised by 27 September

Shared by 30 September

And ditto each month following

So, Are You In?

I hope you’ll join me! Jump in at any time. If you tag along, please leave a comment. You can memorise the same poem as mine or pick your own. Here’s a handy resource for finding a suitable poem to memorise. I’ll share more resources in upcoming posts.

I have a few days to decide on my first poem. I’d love you to leave some suggestions in the comments. Please, don’t assign me epic poetry in volumes 1 -3, and let’s agree not to start with Burns. Love him, but the first month’s poem has to be achievable! (I might set Burns for next July!)

Wish me luck and happy trails!

Image Credits from Unsplash:

Mantas Hesthaven

Thought Catalog

Joshua Earle

Credit

Adventurers by Visual Procrastinations, CC 2.0 BY-NC

 

 

 

Creativity Pep Talk: Dream Big

Dream Big

Sometimes circumstances limit us. Sometimes it’s our piddly thinking. We set a big goal one day and talk ourselves down the next, not daring to believe we can pull it off. We trust our lack more than we trust our dream.

I dare you to dream big. Imagine the biggest, bestest dream you can, a dream that energises you and gives your life meaning and direction, a dream that will one day leave a legacy. Transcribe it all in your journal. Having a record is important, so don’t skip this step. As you write in your journal, consider some of the points below.

The Procurement & Care of a Big Dream

Making Meaning

Ask yourself, “What is life expecting of me?” The mind might shy away, deny, downplay, or rationalise, but deep in our souls we know what our Big Dream is. In the movie Chariots of Fire, runner Eric Liddell said he could “feel God’s pleasure” when he ran. Racing in the Olympics became his Big Dream.

When do you sense transcendent pleasure? What gives you joy? Both hint at your Big Dream. Never forget: those two words, pleasure and joy, hint at fun. Don’t forget to have fun! It’s go-go juice for the dream.

Scare Yourself

‘Big’ means challenging. A Big Dream is one that is bigger than you—way bigger. It’s something that necessarily requires growth, determination, resilience and heaps of courage. You know the adage:

If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.

You have to be willing to go through the discomfort of learning and the pain of growing and even face the possibility that you may never fully realise your Big Dream. After all, if you know you can do it, it’s not a Big Dream; it’s an exercise or a task, like playing scales on the piano, and where’s the challenge in that?

Don’t Be Stingy

Give yourself unreservedly to your Big Dream. Learn everything you can. Befriend like-dreaming people and find excellent mentors. Don’t hold back time or money or energy. Being stingy with your Big Dream is cheating yourself. Brown bag your lunch. Buy cheap shampoo. Pinch all the pennies you want, but don’t short-change your dream.

Avoid Comparison

Remember that it’s your Big Dream, so don’t compare your progress to other people’s. Not only is comparison pointless, it will make you miserable.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

When Temptation Knocks…

When the temptation to downsize your dream inevitably comes to torment you, be prepared. Meet it head on with your journal. Remind yourself what you want and why. Revisit the transcendence. If you run out of steam or lose your joy over your Big Dream, stop and reflect. Are you comparing yourself to someone? Or have you ‘gone grim’ and forsaken fun? Either way, take a break and schedule time to play and experience beauty. Resolve to focus less on results and more on process. This allows you to relish the now.

Do It. Just. Do. It.

And finally, just do it. Don’t waste time wondering if you can or should. Don’t worry if you’re good enough. Stop sweating over other people’s progress. Just do it. Here’s a great pep talk from my friend’s talented daughter when she was three.

Isn’t she clever?

Wherever you are in the course of following your Big Dream, I encourage you to keep going no matter what. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you’ll land among the stars.”

 

 

Photography by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash, CC 2.0. Modified by the author.

 

Three Important Insights from The Artist’s Way

I spent three months earlier this year working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. First published 25 years ago with umpteen reprints, several spinoffs, and numerous nips, tucks, and facelifts, the perennial title continues to unstick stuck creatives.

It’s a 12-week course designed to “discover and recover your creative self” by exposing and dispelling the myths (I’m not talented enough), the limiting beliefs (Doing art is not serious enough for adults), and the crippling mindsets (perfectionism and work addiction). With these saboteurs routed, the blocked writer or floundering artist can build self-confidence and new attitudes that support a flourishing creative practice.

The Artist’s Way sat on my TBR list for years because I couldn’t quite commit to the Cameron’s mystical language and spiritual terms that meant other things, important things, to me. The past several years has seen cracks form in many of those previously rigid mental constructs. Suffice it to say I discovered the usefulness of expansion joints, which I’ve judiciously applied.

Twelve Weeks—Count ‘em: 12

While I completed the course, my writing productivity nosedived. My blogging screeched to a crawl. The rewrite of my novel with my ASA mentor drifted into slow-mo. My reading schedule crashed and burned. I wrote my Morning Pages (Cameron’s “primary tool for creative recovery”) and edited articles for work, and that was it.

However, to be fair, during the same three months, Big Stuff of Life happened. I found a new house and that very day had emergency surgery followed by two weeks of bed rest, renovated the old house, put it on the market, sold it, packed up essentials and siphoned off 15 years of detritus, moved to a new city, downsized my beloved career, and took up the day-to-day care of an elderly relative, all of which equated to a ‘significant score’ (336) on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.

Little wonder I did so little creative writing for three months (and then some), and yet, crazy as it is, I still feel lousy about my low writing output.

I don’t know which derailed my productivity, The Artist’s Way course or the Big Stuff of Life, but despite everything that was going on, the course led me to several important insights. Before I share them, I have to point out something that continues to amaze me: The a-Ha moments came prior to Cameron covering them in the book. The grappling and reflecting in my Morning Pages after each chapter became a springboard to some cool personal insights, which, like magic, she covered in the next chapter. It’s hard to convey how meaningful this made the experience and how much more I valued the insights I gained.

And speaking of insights, here are three of many:

Blocking Beliefs

Journalling in the Morning Pages led me to the realisation that I held some mixed up core beliefs that were a source of creative conflict for me. Somehow in my psyche I had conflated creativity with selfishness. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but I had picked up the notion that expressing my creativity, whether writing fantasy for children or creating funny short stories or even hoping to be a published author, was a self-indulgent waste of time, unrealistic and just plain silly.

I worried I was cheating God, or, as Cameron puts it: “We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical, something that God wouldn’t approve of for us… …many of us unconsciously harbour the fearful belief that God would find our creations decadent or frivolous or worse…”

For me, it was both liberating and healing to begin to accept that creative dreams and yearnings start with God; they don’t steer us from God. Talk about a-HA moments! Mental shackles fell away when I read aloud the affirmation: “Through the use of my creativity, I serve God.”

Playfulness is Essential

Another discovery from my journalling was just how stodgy I’d become. Gah! What a great, greasy bore I’d curled into! I was so hung up on ‘mastering the craft,’ that I’d forgotten to steer the ship toward adventure. Where in the world had all this rigidity come from? When did the grimness set in?

Cameron’s mantras were, again, healing: “Think mystery, not mastery,” because “mystery is at the heart of creativity.” And: “Go for progress not perfection.” Oh what sweet relief.

Weekly Artist’s Dates are her prescription. An artist date is a block of time set aside to nourish the inner artist—a play-date with your creative self. I confess this was the hardest part of the course for me to carry out, and I failed most weeks. Writing three pages daily in my journal came easily compared to setting aside time for fun. Cameron warns: “Commit yourself to a weekly Artist’s Date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it.”

It’s nice to know I’m not the only killjoy on planet Art. “For most blocked creatives, fun is something they avoid almost assiduously as their creativity. Why? Fun leads to creativity. It leads to rebellion. It leads to feeling our own power and that is scary.”

That word ‘rebellion’ (emphasis mine) stared and continues to stare at me, goading me to just.cut.loose.

It’s slow progress but it’s happening! It has been good for me to be playful. I rediscovered my love of bike riding, sunshine, and bright colours. My wardrobe is morphing from safe, muted corporate tones and shapes to a vivid palette and flowing forms, and by jingo, it feels fabulous to ditch the dingy straitjacket.

Most Importantly: Tune In

The hardest hitting insight was how important attention is to the creative life. As a grown up, I’ve turned into a master tasker—frantically ticking off to-do lists, so task-focused that I regularly miss the wonder glinting and winking around me.

I keep going back to this sentence in particular:

“The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”

The capacity for delight…the phrase rings so true.

I now consciously practise tuning in, paying attention, and delighting in my environment, whether it’s soaking in the thrumming yellows of the hibiscuses and roses in my garden or drinking in the peachy-lavender hues of the sunset shimmering off the Maroochy River.

The poet William Meredith observed: “The worst that can be said of a man is that he did not pay attention.” Since early June I have shared my home with such a man, the grumpy old man dear elderly relative I mentioned earlier. At times, as I watch him absently treading time, his determined misery torments me. His sullenness is a portent to me to pay attention, to exercise curiosity, never to  abandon engaging with Wonder.

Thank God for the gift of creativity.

Creative Recovery?

My writing productivity has yet to fully bounce back, but I’m gradually accepting that. After all, I’m in the midst of a drawn-out period of major upheaval in my life, and I’m still coming to terms with some of the losses (my treasured school counselling career, proximity to the State Library of Queensland, and immediate access my beloved writing friends) and some of the additions (twice weekly long commutes to work and the new role of carer). And anyway—there’s a difference between recovering productivity and recovering creativity.

The words will flow freely again. My writing productivity will soon stagger back to its feet and flip the bird/two-fingered salute to the Big Stuff of Life before steering decisively in the direction of adventure. With the help of The Artist’s Way, I have recalibrated, and I know now: I’ve got this.

Photo Credits:

 

Photo 1 by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

 

Photo 2 by Bogdan Dada on Unsplash

 

Photo 3 by Alex Iby on Unsplash

 

Bookbinders – a Stationery Addict’s Dream

Bookbinders is Brisbane’s own fabulous little stationery shop, and it’s not too far from where I work. Last week, I stopped by to check it out. Owners Leanne, Roger and Michael took me for a tour and answered all my questions. When Leanne used the word ‘toothy‘ to describe paper, my heart knew it was among friends.

Bookbinders stationery shop is sure to warm the hearts of all true pen and paper lovers. The owners are the real deal — Roger and Michael are both bookbinders by trade. They stock a huge range of premium products, from Midori Traveler notebooks and accessories to Pilot Prestige pens.

For stationery addicts outside of southeast Queensland, check out Bookbinders’ online store, but Brisbanites should definitely visit. While you’re there, check out Bookbinder’s charmingly old-world Kingsley Hot Stamping Machine (shown right) for monogramming notebooks.

Paper – Canvas of Dreams

My resolve not to buy another notebook crumbled when I saw the Field Notes steno book. It’s a handy size to carry around, and its sturdy cover will stand up even to handbag punishment. The spiral binder is at the top, comfortably out of the way no matter which side of the page you write on. The ivory paper is lined and divided into two columns with an attractive but unobtrusive shade of tan.

Bookbinders also carry paper products — toothy and otherwise — by Apica, Fabio Ricci, Hugo Boss, Midori Traveler, Tomoe River, and their own brand.

Fountain Pens – Swanky Word Swords

They cater to every pen budget, with a range that spans from the economical, everyday-carry type to the swoon-worthy, high-end fountain pens.

At AU$9.90, Pilot Preppy fountain pens are a good everyday carry solution. A Preppy is cheap enough that you won’t worry about losing or dropping it. I’d heard that fine nibs made in Asia are finer than European fine nibs, but it’s crazy how much finer. The 0.3 will be perfect for my planner, where I prefer tiny writing in a crisp line to keep everything neat. My next Preppy will be a 0.5 medium as the 0.3 is a little too scratchy (and not juicy enough) for my taste and writing speed.

Ink – Writers’ Elixir

Some stationery shops tuck the ink bottles and samples in a tantalising display behind the counter, out of reach. Not so at Bookbinders. They let customers handle the ink. If you’ve longed to experience the entire scintillating  range of Iroshizuku inks, stop by for a play at their display desk.

Especially cool is Bookbinders’ own brand, Snake Ink. It comes in nifty packaging — a tiny burlap bag like a snake catcher uses. Each shade is named after a species of snake.

I admit it — I was a sucker for their motto:

SNAKE INK: Cures Writers’ Block

Yes, thank you. I’ll take three. I demonstrated some restraint and bought only one colour, a gorgeous grey shade called Ground Rattler. It has a lovely pencil look to it.

I love the branding!

The Ink Miser kit consists of a shot glass and pipette (new word for me. I had to ask Michael to spell it for me. It’s a dropper with a long, flexible tube). The kit makes refilling fountain pens easier and tidier, and it prevents wastage.

*Sigh* Ink … It’s almost magical. It makes me want to write and write and write. Check out my Pinterest board, Writers’ Elixir, which features dreamy inks and writing implements.

Stationery – Necessities, of course!

I couldn’t resist the Maste washi tape with the tumbling pandas. Nor could I say no to the Midori pug-shaped brass paperclips. Swoon!

But the coolest discovery was the mini Midori tape measure. Smaller than one inch square, it’s the perfect size to tuck into a wallet.

Desk-cessories – aka Mind Declutterers

My favourite find was the Landscape Desk Organiser, a clever metal box with lids that come in a variety of ‘terrains’ or surfaces. I picked the business card holder style. It’s currently my glasses and pen perch. I have the annoying habit of leaving my reading glasses in silly spots and even losing them on my desk under papers and notebooks. So far the Landscape organiser is helping. Inside I’ve stashed frequently used items, like paperclips, rubber bands and lip balm. These are currently (at time of posting) on sale for a fantastic discount, so get in quick!

The Verdict

I plan to go back and pick the brains of the owners. I’d love to learn more about their monogramming machine and find out what makes bookbinders tick. I have lots more to learn and share about ink too, so watch this space!

Over to You

Do you have a favourite pen, ink or notebook? Does ink inspire you? Do you like traditional colours (blue-black), fun colours (crimson) or earthy (chestnut). Guess which I prefer!

Photo Credits

With the exception of the top photo, all images come from Bookbinders.com.au with the permission of the owners.

The photographer is Millyjane

Creativity Prescription

Feeling saggy and flat in the creativity department? Is your muse off counting stars while you’re contemplating dust motes and peeling paint?

Don’t just sit there!  Motivation is within reach. Invest time in your interests!

The Creative Doldrums

It happens to us all at some point in a creative life. Whether rejection wears us down or a nasty review rains on our parade, sometimes the creative gig is a tough act. One of the biggest joy-robbers and energy-sappers is comparison, which I blogged about here. To hang in there for the long haul, we creative types have to look after our souls.

I know this well – probably because I keep having to relearn the lesson. I still catch myself comparing. I frequently run my tank dry, neglecting to nurture my spirit and feed my passions. I continue pushing myself to build a platform and develop my craft and conjure new ideas – all while working on existing projects (and holding down another demanding career and looking after a family).

The last thing I want to do is lose the joy of creativity.

Joys of The Zone

Solitude and quiet – they are the conditions creative people crave. We yearn for isolation, jealously carving out precious slabs of  distraction-free time in hopes of sidestepping any piddling thing that bars us from The Zone.

Ah, The Zone. A true creative sighs at the thought of those hours of deep concentration and prolific productivity, where time vanishes and ideas surge. The Zone is where we cast off the wet blanket of self and blissfully commune with our art. This sublime state in the zone is called flow.

Psychologists claim that flow is the key to fulfilment and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the researcher behind the concept of flow, holds that creativity gives meaning to life. He explains, “When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”

Perils of The Zone

The pull of the Zone is strong, so strong that it wouldn’t take much to become a Flow junkie: a malnourished, greasy-haired, bug-eyed and hunched recluse (with an astonishing body of work).

Balance, as always, is the key. Writers, illustrators, creatives of all types need to make sure we stretch – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Otherwise, we get stale and our art goes stagnant.

Just as important as creating and producing is feeding. The artistic soul needs nourishment and a varied diet. Make time for pursuits beyond your art and pursue them passionately. Discover new interests, tackle fresh challenges, and take some risks. It will make your creativity thrive.

Stoking the Creative Fire

Sometimes our ‘other interests’ come with restrictions. For instance, I know someone who is a scuba diving enthusiast, but it’s not the kind of activity she can do on a whim. It’s expensive, and it requires a lot of planning. Although scuba is her conduit to flow, she has to wait for her annual opportunity.

For others, travel kindles the creative flame. For me, a theatre ticket does the trick. Or choral music. Or a simple romp with my dogs.

Here’s a list of inexpensive, easy recharging activities to indulge in. They’re guaranteed to refresh the body, mind and spirit of creative people.

  • Attend a yoga class
  • taste wines at a vineyard
  • finger paint
  • go for a walk (read more here. Seriously, click the link to read one of my most under-appreciated posts)
  • even better, walk in the rain, savouring sounds and smells
  • visit (or volunteer) at an animal shelter
  • sort through old photos
  • help a child turn a big box into a fort
  • bake homemade focaccia (with or without olives)
  • research the name of your suburb or town
  • draw a rough family tree with the help of your oldest relative
  • visit an apothecary shop and ask for a love potion (just to see what happens)
  • whittle a block of soap into a dragon shape
  • visit (with an open mind) a variety of local places of worship
  • try on a formal outfit at a vintage clothing store
  • learn some useful phrases from a native speaker of another language
  • study the structure of bridges (or a structure you are unfamiliar with)
  • interview someone you admire (not related to your art)
  • join a music group (ukuleles and harmonicas can be bought cheaply)
  • play ping-pong. Or musical chairs.
  • search a cemetery for quirky headstones
  • shop at an ethnic grocery store and, with the owner’s assistance, buy a snack typical to that ethnicity.

Check your ulterior motives at the door: this isn’t the time to fossick for a story or a subject. Instead, attack the activity like a kid – for plain old fun.

Inspiration is bound to follow, but only if you let your enthusiasm take the lead.

Over to You

Do any of the activities in my list sound like fun? What do you do to avoid burnout and stoke your creative flame? Share your ideas and tips in the comments!

Image Credits: Graphics made by ME on Canva

How Writers Can Make Kids Lifelong Readers

 

kgik9yofrn0-mi-phamFor a long time, The Secret Garden has reigned supreme as my favourite book, but in January 2017, its forty-year rule of my Favourites bookshelf came to an end. Which children’s book knocked Frances Burnett Hodgson’s classic from its perch? Read to the end to find out!

The Secret Garden is the book that turned me into a lifelong reader and planted the seed of desire to write books. Why exactly did it make such a lasting impression on me? Was it about the book? Content, character, setting, cover design? Or was it about the reader? Age, readiness, timing? These are questions I’m pondering as a creator of children’s literature. What makes a book a classic?

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-4-59-33-pm

A Book Hugger is Born

I distinctly remember finishing The Secret Garden and clutching it to my heart. I turned back to the first page and hovered there for a moment, tempted to start over then and there just to extend my time with the characters in their world.

I didn’t reread it. Instead, I savoured the delicious post-book thrill. With a rainbow of emotions zinging through me, I felt as if my heart had strings and someone had strummed a mysterious new chord. Happiness and satisfaction vibrated on the high notes, while loss and longing thrummed on the low.

Sounds Almost Psychedelic…

What was it that made my eleven-year-old heart swoon for The Secret Garden? My guess: neurochemicals. A crazy literature-triggered cocktail of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin made me go gaga and googly-eyed over a book.

Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter of the brain’s reward and pleasure system. It plays a positive part in bonding, love, sex, and motivation, and on the negative side, it is a factor in all kinds of addictions. I haven’t been able to find any quality research proving that reading great books triggers the release dopamine, but if computer games, television and music can, I don’t see why good books can’t.

It’s all about Pleasure &Reward.

If a reading habit starts very young, children learn to associate books with all sorts of pleasant, happy things like comfort, safety, and positive attention. Books equal nurturing.

Parents can set the stage for a lifetime of reading, but what about the writers of children’s literature? Can we maximise the pleasure and reward factors of books? I think so! If we tick these boxes, we can make the reading experience truly memorable and rewarding.

Connection

Relatable characters increase readers’ engagement with the story. Now, this is coming from someone who dislikes the word relatable. However, remember: one of the reasons kids (everybody, really) read is because they don’t want to feel alone. They (we) seek connection and validation. So give kids characters that ring true. Make your protagonist not too perfect. Stick a thorn in their flesh, a flaw that they have to master. And relatable doesn’t mean vague or blank or ‘insert a you-shaped facsimile here’; it means authentic. Little details, funny quirks, secret foibles and fears—these are the things that make characters relatable. (Read this for  food for thought on ‘relatability‘).

In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox was a sour, unlikable little girl, which would seem ‘unrelatable’. She had suffered a lot, having lost parents to typhoid and been transplanted to the other side of the world to live with strangers. Few kids today can relate to this, but most children have had moments of being contrary or have said horrible things or felt angry at everyone. Mary is relatable because her response to loss is authentic.

Significance

Make the stakes high and also meaningful to kids. Who cares about an evil madman who wants to rule the universe unless it impacts your kid protagonist personally (and your young reader vicariously)? The madman’s sinister deeds have to threaten the protagonist’s school or soccer team, and the outcome has to change the hero—not just save the universe for another rotation of the earth on its axis. Your readers must care about both the problem and the outcome.

Mary Lennox lost everything, so the question is: is restoration possible? Can she ever belong again? Can her frozen heart thaw? The garden is a metaphor for the healing of the characters and the blossoming of hope and possibility. If Mary and the garden can regenerate and flourish, it gives readers hope that they too can heal and thrive.

Agency

Give the protagonists as much agency as possible. The kid heroes, not their parents or teachers, must be the primary doers. The heroes must be pint-sized (or more or less the size of your readers) but supremely resourceful. The best way to ramp up the reward/pleasure factor is to make the kid save the day by sheer determination and clever thinking. Avoid adult saviours and magical shortcuts for maximum reader satisfaction.

Mary Lennox is left to her own devices at Misselthwaite Manor, which is sad for a child who’s lost her parents and her home. Mary uses her freedom to her advantage. Unencumbered by adult interference, she seeks and finds; she toils and reaps; she makes herself vulnerable and wins. And in all this doing, she changes, heals herself and helps others.

Senses

Let your readers ride in the skin of your protagonist. Sensory detail and visceral responses help draw your reader in. But show it, don’t tell it.

Dickon with his sweet nature is a wonderful foil for sour Mary Lennox. Compare mollycoddled Colin Craven who’s restricted to a dreary room and rigid routine for his lifetime to a girl who experienced the colourful world of India and roamed the lonely moors, a girl about whom no one cared a bit, not her distracted, socialite parents when they were alive, and not her heartsore, distant uncle. These contrasts are brilliant showing exercises to help the reader zero in on the frustrations and experience the truths in their starkness.

My New All Time Favourite Book

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The Secret Garden was supremely satisfying, but I recently read another book that pipped it. Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea surpassed my old favourite. I loved it from cover to cover, and when I turned the last page, I burst into tears, startling my husband. “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” I sobbed.

That perfect, mysterious chord of emotions thrummed in my soul: elation at the satisfying resolution; loss at leaving the world and its inhabitants behind. Professional jealousy and inspiration vied uncomfortably inside me. Here’s a link to my Goodreads review.

Journey to the River Sea ticks all of the boxes—and then some! Twists galore, fantastic characters, hateful villains, a setting to swoon over…

Connection – we’ve all felt friendless and alone and utterly unwanted.

Significance – What greater need than to find a place where you belong and matter.

Agency– Maia is resourceful and brave in bucket loads. Her governess, Miss Minton says, “Children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.” With this belief firmly fixed, she lets Maia star, doing all the exploits and working out the puzzles on her own.

Senses – a feast. It’s set in Manaus, Brazil along the Amazon at the turn of the century. The characters are British and very much out-of-place, but it is one’s attitude that makes all the difference.

My Aspiration

My highest goal as a children’s writer is to create for my young readers that singular experience of exalting in the joy of reading. I won’t mind a bit if a few neurotransmitters enhance the moment and motivate kids to keep reading!

Image Credit: Mi Pham, via Unsplash