Paying Attention to the Numbers

I am thinking of New Years, Anniversaries, and Birthdays.

My father’s birthday falls during the first week of January. This year he turned 82. A fragile 82. But 82 nonetheless. I know he never expected to be around this long, but here he is, the birthday giving me and the rest of our family a moment to think of him. That’s the way with a birthday once you get past the age where it’s a moment to be the star in your elementary school classroom — to go first to recess, maybe, to be the first to eat the cupcake your parent made for you, or to hope, hope, hope for a particular present. Once the concept of mortality actually enters one’s awareness, though, birthdays become an opportunity to think of what we’ve done with our lives, how far we’ve come, how much more we want to accomplish. When it’s the birthday of someone I’m close to, I always think about what that person’s life has meant to me; I flip through the mental, emotional scrapbook of the time we’ve had together and think of how that person has affected my life. I’ve got a birthday coming up February 27th, which puts me at a nice, round number.  I’ll be doing some emotional scrapbooking of my own soon.

New Year’s celebrations turn that reflection inward. As a Jew, in fact, I do this twice a year, looking back on what I had hoped to do to be a better father, husband, friend, writer, publisher. Inevitably I have fallen short, but I try to use that knowledge not to let myself off the hook, but to remind myself to keep striving. My big brother Dan sent me a postcard once when we were in college (pre-Internet, obviously!) with the quote: “Life is a series of surfaces; the key is to skate over them gracefully.” (That’s at least how I remember the quote now.) I think my experience would add a few things to that quote: Yes, life presents surfaces, but if you don’t look down through the top layer and see what’s below those surfaces, you’re missing the point. Also, when you’re skating you’re bound to fall on your butt repeatedly, so you have to keep getting up and moving even if you’re sore.

Which leads me to Anniversaries.

2012 marks the fifteenth anniversary of Arthur A. Levine Books. Holy Moley!!  

At this time of year in 1997, I was working with Norma Fox Mazer to polish the text of WHEN SHE WAS GOOD, a novel with a main character — Em Thurkill, who was so tender, her innate sweetness folded into a tiny nut that was somehow protected from the brutality of her circumstances — that I read the entire book with a lump in my throat. It was the kind of novel that reached out to the part of you that feels battered by life, that acknowledges our deep bruises by fearlessly showing us those of its protagonist. But it did so with an undeniably beautiful, luminous prose that came straight out of the emotional core of Em Thurkill. I wanted the part of me that was like the best part of Em to survive, and reading that novel, PUBLISHING that novel, made me feel as if it might.

By the end of 2012 we’ll have published more than 200 titles at Arthur A. Levine Books. Other survivors have joined Em Thurkill — Thomas Klopper in Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything, Marley Sandelski in Lisa Yee’s Warp Speed, Re Jana in Anne Provoost’s In the Shadow of the Ark, the unnamed immigrant in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Marcelo Sandoval in Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, and Lida Wallace in Erin Saldin’s The Girls of No Return, to name just a few.

Oh, it hasn’t all been “survival”! We’ve had our laughs (read Andy Rash’s The Robots Are Coming: And Other Problems with a straight face — I dare ya!). We’ve had our explorations of nonfiction (from masters like Russell Freedman no less). And sometimes both at the same time, as in the work of the genius biographer for young people, Jonah Winter (could anyone else make you laugh at Pablo Picasso??).

Over the course of this year, I hope to be celebrating many of the aspects of our publishing program at Arthur A. Levine Books. Every month, we’ll feature a different interpretation of the Lantern Logo as our profile picture, created by some of the brilliant artists who’ve contributed to our list; this month’s lantern is from the delightful Steven D’Amico.  (All you artists out there: Feel free to post your own Lantern Logo interpretation and share it with us!!)

But here, just post-Valentine’s day, close to the start of the year, celebrating the start of our imprint, it seems only fitting to give a special note of thanks and appreciation to all the authors and artists whom we were so proud to introduce to American readers with their debuts (or their debuts in English!):

Leah Bobet
Erin Bow
Deborah Bruss
Elizabeth C. Bunce
Neil Connelly
Kate Constable
Carmela D’Amico
Steven D’Amico
Kevin Emerson
Laura Gallego Garcia
Silvana Gandolfi
Quiara Alegría Hudes
Ana Juan
Guus Kuijer
David LaRochelle
Erin McCahan
Martin Mordecai
Martine Murray
Sally Nicholls
Joanna Pearson
Guillaume Prévost
Anne Provoost
Andy Rash
Trent Reedy
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
J. K. Rowling
Erin Saldin
Dan Santat
Karlijn Stoffels
Nahoko Uehashi
Lisa Yee
Linda Zuckerman
Markus Zusak

Thank you for trusting us to bring your work to an American audience with the passion it deserves.  I hope that you all will take our Imprint Anniversary as a chance to think of your own beginnings, as I am doing now with gratitude.

Yours,

Arthur

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Progress

Day 2

Sometimes a beginning ‘s

More drinking than drawing

Less writing than thinking

More hemming and hawing

And when I say drinking

That’s coffee of course

Though perhaps I need liquor

To remount this horse

Right now I’m just staring

While the horse flicks its tail

Not even beginning the trot down the trail

One day, zero pages, 12 weeks in duration

I add up the sums of this hoary equation

Oh how and oh why am I facing this path

Having signed up for Writing

I’m saddled with math.

Trompe L’oeil?

I suspect that most folks who follow my blog do so because of my job in publishing. And I want to say thank you right now. To both of you. (Thanks, Mom. And thanks other person.)

For the next 12 weeks, however, I’m going to try an experiment and see if I really have it in me to write something longer.  I know enough writers not to be deterred by the persistent feelings of fraud and inadequacy that rise up when I try to claim an identity as a writer or when I think of writing as an activity I might do.  If everyone who had those feelings stopped writing altogether we would be a society with far, far fewer books to chose from.

Ok, two paragraphs in and already I’m hedging. Look, ok, I’m not trying to see if I can write “something”:  What I’m trying to do is see if the the little holes I’ve torn in the curtains covering this story in my head were really allowing me to see something real and true, something that was part of a larger tale that needs to be told; Or whether what I saw were just glimpses of a trompe l’oeil painting, a two-dimensional portrait.

Well, folks, I guess I’ll find out! Laissesz les bon temps roulez!

Pico Iyer, Paddington, and me

I so enjoyed reading Pico Iyer’s “Critic’s Take” column in The New York Times’ Book Review, titled PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR.

(Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/books/review/please-look-after-this-bear.html?_r=0)

In it, Mr. Iyer expresses the response to a beloved book that is remarkably congruent with my publishing philosophy. I’ve always said that what I want to publish are books that readers don’t just like, but that are deeply meaningful to them; books that they love so much that they would say, when asked “Oh that was my FAVORITE book as a child” and they would keep those books throughout their lives. In talking about PADDINGTON BEAR, Mr. Iyer says, “On the single shelf for books I have in my two-room apartment in Japan, Paddington sits next to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene.” Exactly!

I too loved PADDINGTON BEAR, laughing appreciatively at what Mr. Iyer describes as Paddington’s attempts to “master the confounding laws of middle-class [English] life.” These weren’t the same laws that confounded ME exactly. But, like all the other children who read and loved Michael Bond’s books, I was making my way through a world controlled by adults, with rules and realities I had yet to master. On another level too, I was a Jewish child, growing up in a primarily Christian world, separated from my peers by that and a host of other intellectual, social, cultural, and even affectional differences. The comedy of Paddington made light of these kinds of gulfs, even as it acknowledged them in a profound (if subliminal) way.

Iyer, whose parents immigrated to Oxford from Bombay, felt a deep kinship with the bear from “Darkest Peru” who found himself in a nearly all-white and homogenous England. I felt that kinship too.

I think this response is important to remember for those of us engaged in the movement to diversify Children’s literature. Books that present the perspective and experience of non-majority characters are not meant to be read and appreciated solely by the specific culture or ethnicity of the main character. Wider representation in our literature as a whole is crucial, but the audience for that diversity is not just a tiny specific slice of a splintered whole. Literature speaks across boundaries. Pico Iyer and I can BOTH read and love the story of Paddington Bear despite the fact that neither of us is Peruvian (I’m not sure if Mr. Iyer would describe himself as British, like Michael Bond, but I’m certainly not that either.)

Thank you, Mr. Bond, for the gift of Paddington. And thank you, Pico Iyer, for articulating so beautifully what a gift it is.

Paddington

My father’s eulogy

It’s been nearly a year since my last post, titled “Endings.” Yet I’m following it now with the eulogy I gave at my father, Dr. Milton L. Levine’s funeral last Sunday.

Notes for my Dad’s Funeral 7/13/14

My dad was the happiest man I’ve ever known.  Perhaps I’ll never know for sure what the secret of this happiness was, but I have some ideas.

For one thing, it seemed that when my dad found something he loved, he embraced it with a profound certainty and permanence that he never diminished through restlessness or boredom.

He met my mom, his high school sweetheart when they were teenagers sharing a desk at Tilden High School; decided (correctly, and apparently despite some early trepidation from his mother) that she was the love of his life: and more than half a century later they still would spontaneously hold hands walking down the street. He would wave at her affectionately from across the dinner table.

My dad found Shelter Island through my mom’s cousin Jerry around 1960 and from then on it was the place he wanted to spend every spare moment, never tiring of it or wishing for someplace shiny and new. He was happy puttering around the house finding things to fix, he was happy at Town Beach struggling to haul in the sail of a windsurfer, or chatting up strangers who might be wearing a t-shirt that said “Brown” or “Harvard” or “Harry Potter”; he was happy with the salmon at Bob’s on Friday night. If he’d had his way in fact, he would have attended none of your weddings, bar mitzvot, or special occasions. No that’s not quite right. If he’d had his way, you would have held all those celebrations on Shelter Island. Sometime other than August.

Because REALLY what made him most happy was to share the things he loved with other people. Mornings, for instance. He loved the song “Oh What a beautiful Morning!” from Oklahoma, and he sang it early, often, loudly, and with great feeling in that gorgeous tenor that was always ever-so-slightly off key. Now I will say that many of us who shared a household with my dad were NOT Morning people. I won’t name names, but after the serenade we were often told, “Get up! You’re missing the best part of the day!!” The replies he got were usually not as sweet as the sentiment, but nothing could rain on the parade of his happy day.

It was the same with his work. I think my father decided he wanted to be a doctor when he was just a kid. And as far as I can tell he never doubted or second-guessed that decision for a second. He just LOVED being a doctor. He loved the intellectual challenge of listening to a patient describe their symptoms, of putting the facts together like a detective and solving the problem of their complaint. He loved having a job where he could talk to lots of people every day (a captive audience whom he could regale with tales of his children’s accomplishments, I gather) putting them at ease with his confidence and his sunny manner, leaving them better off than before. I think he was a fantastic doctor, but he wasn’t arrogant about it. One of his favorite things to say to patients was, “You’ve come to me just in time! In another day you’d have been all better on your own.”

When I was a kid he used to say to me, “Artie, you can be anything in the world you want to be” and he’d count off on his fingers, “An opthamologist, a gastroenterologist, a neurologist…” But he was kidding of course. What I took from that was that I should try to find work that filled me with the kind of satisfaction that his job gave him every day. We all should be so lucky.

Of course the path of my dad’s life had its obstacles and potholes, but somehow even his stories of travail were colored by optimism, and a belief that good wins out. So he got in trouble as a grade school kid; it was only because he was too bright and bored and eventually that worked itself out. So Columbia rejected him because of an anti-semitic quota system, on the same day he was notified that he’d received the top score in the city on a scholarship program administered by the University. This became a story of how Grandpa Sam refused to be cowed by a system stacked against Jews. And how his confrontation led to my dad’s immediate acceptance. Good guys win, the story went. The path of life leads to happiness.

On the phone in particular, my dad was not a big conversationalist but he loved a good happy story and I would save those up for him to share:

Great test scores, a promotion, something wonderful that had happened to Max. I knew he would eat them up and then say, “Want to talk to your mother?”

When I was younger, of course, he was the one telling the stories to me. While my mom liked to read with me, my dad preferred making stories up on the spot. His favorite were stories of a boy named Henry who had a magic whistle that could call the animals of the forest or the ocean to his aide in times of crisis. (The crises I’m talking about were things like being tied to a train track in the path of an onrushing locomotive, or being held by outlaws tied up somewhere in a basement. You know, your typical suburban danger situations.) My brothers, whom I guess thought they were past the age technically of having stories told to them, would often creep in to my bedroom to catch the latest installment. Listening for the moment when poor Henry was at his most desperate when he would remember the magic whistle, and then “Down From the Sky Came Baldy Eagle!” or some other brave animal rescuer to make things right.

My dad is no longer here to tell those stories. But we all have them inside us now. And I’m sure that when life seems unbearably sad to me, fraught with danger, perhaps even hopeless, that I will remember Henry and the Magic Whistle, along with the example of a man who was supremely content with his life. And happy.

Endings

imageI have always struggled with the endings. Sunday evening always felt hard.  The end of the weekend’s relative safety, and the prospect of another day in school. All the homework deadlines rushing at – and past – me, like runners with furious kicks.

Summer vacation was the same thing only an order of magnitude worse. A whole month of being with my friends who knew and understood me and appreciated me…turning over to 10 months of something less.

I feel these things now, even when I could fit three of my younger selves into the time that has past.  Even when the situation is so much different. But the transitions are still painful, even if the cause of the pain has changed.  Now, I think it’s more about my sense that each sweet moment could be the last.  Will my parents be there next year to hug me goodbye? Will my sweet child still want to hold my hand on the ferry?

Even my sense of what and when an ending IS has changed.  “Vacation” isn’t as firm a line from work, and anyway the duration is so much more limited and the relief less total. One never leaves behind the obligations of one’s work life with that blissful totality of having wrapped up all the final exams, cleared out one’s locker. FINISHED.

Now. truthfully, I don’t even WANT to be “finished” in such a complete way.  My sense of the fragile impermanence of things makes me tie little strings to everything I might leave behind.  And so I pull on the strings, follow them back, and then unravel them again until I’m a bit further along again…closer to the end of the transition despite myself.  It’s not as clean as it was before.  And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  I still have the heaviness about me of the end of summer, but without the relative lightness preceeding it.

So, here are some things I am actually looking FORWARD to:

* Dinner at my favorite local Italian restaurant where I plan to have one final carb-loading dinner before returning to eating like a sane person.

* THE U.S. OPEN – here’s to binge-watching tennis and stumbling through work with eyes the size and shape of tennis balls.

* Celebrating the 20th Wedding anniversary.

* Getting back to my wonderful books at work

* Starting the first week of continued-contact with my novel. I’d like to prove to myself that this time I CAN do it!

Thanks for following me everyone. Happy vacations to those of you who are on them or planning them. And to those that aren’t? May your transitions be smooth.

Thank you from the Island

At some point this morning, as I drank my coffee on the porch, I thought of a whole blog post that would be big and analytical and cause all kinds of debate.

But then, after getting the house ready for departure, doing a couple of loads of laundry, and heading out to this secluded spot where I’ve been so happy writing this week, I instead leapt right in to the novel. And I started with a description of a view I’ve loved all my life…a view and a love I decided to give to one of my main characters.  And the pleasure of describing it just wrapped me up for a few hours, wherein I plum forgot what the whole point of that blog was supposed to be. 

So – how well. No controversial blog this morning folks. Sorry. No insightful meditations on publishing, where it’s going, what I might do about it if I were King.  🙂

Instead you get just the vaguely contented few paragraphs of a guy who might actually one day be a writer if he can make himself continue in the weeks ahead, when it’s much harder to find the time to warm into his creativity. 

I wrote more than I’ve every written before in these past two weeks. I’ve BLOGGED more than I’ve blogged in all the previous years of my blogger-dom combined. (I think. I haven’t added it up.)

I hope those of you who are reading this have gotten something out of it. I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Hope the conversation continues.