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Why Science Fiction Matters

Why Science Fiction Matters

by Jenny

LitWits Workshops blog - why science fiction mattersWhen I was 9-12 in the 1970s, I spent hours each day abroad in the galaxy. Science fiction wasn’t just a great source of exotic adventures, or an escape from ever-confusing Planet Earth. It was my new mythology. I was centered by the companionship of noble creatures saving entire species from annihilation. Science fiction refocused my self-centric perspective, and showed me that problems much bigger than mine could be solved.

Not only could they be solved, they should be. The great writers of sci-fi helped me see that this conflict-ridden world was worth saving.  They showed me the necessity of nurturing respectful relationships – intergalactic, interspecies, interracial, interpersonal. They made me aware of the hope and terror that science could bring to our world. They taught me to keep a critical eye on “progress,” to look for each remedy’s poison as well as its cure. Their works embodied reassuring ideals of protection and preservation.

LitWIts Workshops blog - Why science fiction mattersSci-fi affected my inner world, too. Thanks to H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, Ursula Le Guin, and oh yes Gene Roddenberry, I could depart their works and re-enter

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A Tapestry of Literature, Life, and Wild Land

A Tapestry of Literature, Life, and Wild Land

by Jenny

Forty years ago, when my small world still gleamed with Wordsworth’s celestial light, my existence seemed interwoven with the landscapes of my home and books.  The yarns of this tapestry were spun by my mother, a former teacher who substituted classic literature for television, and by my father, a school board superintendent who hand-built us a home on a canyon slope, and took us camping in creekside redwood groves.

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A Wake-up Moment

A Wake-up Moment

by Jenny

In the middle of the night poor little Sara Crewe, heroine of A Little Princess, wakes up to find her attic bedroom is no longer barren and cold.  Her neighbor, Ram Dass, has transformed her “Bastille cell” while she slept.  She wakes up not only in beauty and comfort, but  realizing someone is helping, someone knows.

This scene transformed my life.

I was seven or eight years old when I first read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 classic, and there were some parts I didn’t understand yet.  But when I got to that scene, I recognized the power and pleasure of being the giver.  Forget being a princess — I wanted to be Ram Dass, right then and there.  I put down the book and, while my mother was in the back yard, I rearranged the living room.  It wasn’t quite the overhaul Ram Dass had given the attic, but Mom seemed authentically delighted, and didn’t move the furniture back for at least two days.  I was caught up in the thrill of  surprise transformation, of being the giver of unexpected joy (or so I imagined).

That was just the beginning.

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The Velveteen Mom

The Velveteen Mom

by Jenny

Connie Clendenen reading to Jenny and David, 1963Hearing my mom choke up over The Velveteen Rabbit is one of my first high-impact memories.  She was reading to three or four of us – at least one baby was on her lap –  so I must have been about five years old.  When she stopped mid-sentence, I thought she’d heard something outside.  I closed my eyes and listened through the rain. But as she sniffled and struggled to read some more, I realized my self-controlled mom was about to cry.

It was an awful, awesome moment.  Mom crying?  And why?  I remember studying her contorted face for clues, seeing the raw emotion and turning away.  I focused intently on the sofa fabric, examining its panels of teapots and weird orange flowers.  My gaze roamed the paneled living room. The fire crackled sharply in the brick fireplace.  In a pine frame above it, three girls peered over their book to watch us reading ours.

I had read ahead and couldn’t see what had upset her.  It was sad that the nurse had discarded the germ-laden bunny, but I knew he was going to play with the wild bunnies soon.  If she would just keep reading, she’d see that all ended well.

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What Was it Like to Be Her?

What Was it Like to Be Her?

by Becky

Jenny’s been reading Lady’s Maid, which got me thinking about the wonder of curiosity.

History and literature are full of caricatures, aren’t they? The Queen, The Servant Girl, The Slave, The Cook, The Princess, The Pioneer . . . Each title brings with it a little vignette in our minds, like it or not. We can’t help it! Some are snapshots in full color, others are cartoonish outlines with exaggerated features. We’ve drawn them from children’s stories, movies, museums, text books, and each of us has created a big scrapbook of impressions we carry around in our heads.

In my mental scrapbook, for instance, The Queen is obviously, ostentatiously royal. She wears silk, is surrounded by servants, sleeps in a humongous canopy bed slung all about with velvet and brocade. She wanders through manicured gardens, gives expansive orders. Sound about right? The Servant Boy, by charming contrast, has smudges on his cheeks and wears rough clothing. He’s poorly shod and needs a haircut. Pioneer Woman has a sunbonnet on, rough hands from hoeing and such, and eats a lot of pork products and cornmeal. She wears faded cotton.

Yawn.

But behind these stereotypes and caricatures are lives. Eating, sweating, breathing, dream-filled and driven lives. Even fictional characters have between-the-lines experiences, don’t they? What do they do when the author’s pen begins to sketch someone else’s scene, or the camera of history turns away? 

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Sunshine on My Shoulders

Sunshine on My Shoulders

by Jenny

You know that squirm.  The move that means your student (or spouse) has had enough.  Enough of your patient explanations, your helpful advice, even your encouraging words.  It’s a move that says back off.

It can be kind of annoying, don’t you think? After all, we’re just trying to help.

Not long ago I was walking in the woods, wondering why something I’d said as encouragement hadn’t been well received. At the edge of the woods, the trail emerged in an open stretch of sun.  I squinted and turned, walking backward for a bit, so the light wouldn’t be in my face. When I slipped out of my sweatshirt and tied it around my waist, Aesop’s fable of the North Wind and the Sun came to mind. 

Do you remember the story?  The two were competing to see who could force the cloak from a man.  The wind whipped at it fiercely, but the man only clutched it more tightly; the sun simply beamed, and the man took it off right away.  It’s a fable of persuasion over power.

But it occurred to me, walking backward against the sun, that it’s also about too much warmth  — encouragement, fervor, support . That all that beaming and shining was making the man uncomfortable.  Even a little sweaty, maybe.

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Things That Fall Out of Books

Things That Fall Out of Books

by Becky

I love it when surprises come tumbling out of books.

In the opening chapter of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, we find Professor Lidenbrock exulting over a newly acquired antique volume when a tattered piece of paper falls to the floor. On it is written a set of runes, an ancient code which, once deciphered, will lead him deep (very deep) into the greatest adventure of his life.  It’s my favorite scene in the book, not because it’s the most exciting, but because it holds so much promise and because I can’t help imagining how that would have felt. I have always found the wonder and “aha!” of discovery fairly intoxicating.

One summer Before Kids, my husband and I were exploring in Bangor, Maine when we wandered into a tiny used bookstore. It was delightfully stuffy with that singular smell of old paper and ink, and the wool-clad little woman behind the heavy corner desk seemed to have been written into place, she fit the scene so well.  As I was prone to do in those days, I found a small volume of poetry that had a nice binding and bought it for a souvenir. I’d no sooner taken it out into the sunshine for a closer look, when a piece of notepaper slipped to the sidewalk. Curious, I opened it to find,

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In Deep Water with a Speechless Swan

In Deep Water with a Speechless Swan

by Jenny

For the first time in four years, Becky and I really struggled with our plans for a workshop. It wasn’t a difficult book that threw us off — in fact, it was one of the simpler tales. Or so we thought. E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan is, on the surface, about a voiceless Trumpeter Swan and his trumpet-stealing dad. Of course we went below the surface, plumbing the pond, so to speak. Right away we came up with some obvious themes: ethics, overcoming obstacles, and conservation. We began focusing on props and projects that would let kids get their hands on these ideas.

The pond was deeper than we thought, though. Every time we put our heads together to talk about the story, something new splashed behind us.

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Online Learning

Online Learning

by Jenny (best parts by Scott Rice)

Scott Rice, SJSU

Photo by Richard B. Ressman
www.Librarything.com

My good friend Scott Rice, recently retired professor of  children’s literature and former chair of the English department at San Jose State, sends me such erudite emails in such volume I just can’t keep up.  He dispenses wisdom by the pound, and I’m left feeling blessed, impressed, and smart as a doorknob.  He’s also the author of my favorite grammar book, Right Words, Right Places and the founder of the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest.  I’m ever paranoid that a fragment of one of my emails might get a prize each spring.

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Spring Evening in a Pixie-Dusted Barn

Spring Evening in a Pixie-Dusted Barn

by Jenny

It’s an early evening in April and I’m back at the family farm for The Event of the Year, a production of Peter Pan that Becky’s 11-year-old daughters and their friends are putting on in the ancient red barn. It’s the first in a series of plays by the newly formed Red Barn Theatre group, and they’ve been working on it for months.

I’m very much looking forward to the show, but walking down the gravel driveway, I can’t help but look back to the past. The wooden gate Becky and I once swung on is held open by tangles of vines, and the towering alder tree we climbed is missing from the skyline. Rusted farm equipment stands axle-deep in sourgrass. Most of the little green shed is prettily lost under a frothy explosion of pale pink Cecil Brunner roses – the birthday rose, we call it, as it blooms in April, when three of our family were born. Yesterday, in fact, would have been Dad’s 91st, and this gathering today on the farm he so loved betokens a rebirth of sorts.

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A Princess Inside

A Princess Inside

By guest blogger Lisa Francesca

I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that a woman’s character is like a tea-bag—just put her in hot water and see how strong she gets. Sara Crewe, the main character of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, was thrown into very hot water and showed her strength in deeply satisfying ways. I read and reread my shabby hardbound copy (from 1906, with a few richly colored illustrations) so many times that entire passages are engraved in my brain.

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Russian Reality Check

Russian Reality Check

by Jenny

I’m reading in the garden as the sunrise splinters through the trees – a short story by Nabokov, my first. When I finish it I set the book aside and sit in the eastern light, dazed. I’m suffused with awareness that this is why we read. To be blown away by the artful intensification of life – to be drenched in sensory details, to view the world from fresh angles, to comprehend truths that connect us across space and time.

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Be They Predator or Prey

Be They Predator or Prey

by Becky
In life, as in books, it’s sometimes hard to identify the hero. And sometimes – well, the difference between heroes and villains just seems to be a matter of perspective.

Earlier this year, my daughters and I got all wrapped up in the story of My Side of the Mountain, in particular young Sam Gribley’s relationship with his hand-raised falcon, Frightful. Frightful often killed and brought to Sam all sorts of small woodland animals which would be eaten by the two of them for dinner – an idea that sounds admittedly off-putting now, but actually didn’t at the time. The cleverness of Frightful was too enthralling. What a brilliant bird! What a helpful bird!  How lucky Sam was to have such a skillful hunter providing for him! Yay Frightful!

Then in April we were further delighted by the drama unfolding via the Hawk Cam at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. High on a light pole above the athletic field, a hidden camera was recording every move of a pair of red-tailed hawks.

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Bogged Down – But Saved by a Book

Bogged Down – But Saved by a Book

by Jenny (the related essay, “Remains,” appears in the latest issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics)

Our home is across the street from a hidden pond, where the kids and I used to go to feed the ducks.  It seems like just last week little Tyler and Audrey were giggling at the voracious birds, reveling in every overturned rock, and gazing at the world with faces full of awe.  They’re off to college now, and sometimes those beautiful memories make me ache.  So if I go to the pond these days, I distract myself by picking up trash. My dog, Darcy, is bored with it; she hates that I pull her along from can to scrap. But it gives me a mission, which keeps me from wallowing.

Or so I thought, until one day last March.

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How Important is the Handstand?

How Important is the Handstand?

by Becky

Did you know that before they leave home your kids should be able to do a handstand, clean an aquarium, sneeze without sounding ridiculous, and raise or lower horizontal blinds successfully on the first or second try without either side going askew? It’s true, according to Growing Up: A Classic American Childhood  by the genius Marilyn Vos Savant. In fact, there are 996 other things they need to know that you may never have thought of, if they are to have had a “classic American childhood,” and her book divides them into categories, like “Cooking with Delight,” “Telephones and Talking,” and “Exercise and Sporting Life.”

I can’t look at the book on the shelf without feeling anxiety. (Especially knowing it’s written by a woman who was in the Guiness book of world records for having the highest IQ.)

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Something Sweet

Something Sweet

by Jenny

Nine years ago today we lost our wonderful dad.  Wanting to evoke a sensory connection to him through the nature he loved, I thought I’d go out to the old cemetery for awhile.  But I was disappointed to see that it had gone from au naturel  to unkempt.  More markers had tumbled, the grass had died, fake flowers had faded, and tiny cheap flags had fallen over.  The latter was appalling, especially since Dad was a World War II veteran, but given that he’d battled gophers all his life on the farm, he’d have felt worse about the dozen holes that riddled the ground right next to his stone.  It was kind of depressing. So I decided I’d get back on the country road that connects the cemetery in Santa Cruz to my home “over the hill” in San Jose.

“The hill” is the local phrase for the entire Sierra Azule, a range of mountains spiked with redwoods and puffed with native sycamores and oaks; on a steamy June day like this the drive is redolent with the musty scent of hot leaves and needles.  When I was sixteen my home was at this end, on our farm in Santa Cruz, and I drove to work in San Jose with Dad. 

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From Chickens to Dickens

From Chickens to Dickens

by Becky

There are baby chickens in my living room. I can hear them over there by the book case in their green plastic tote condominium, chit-chatting with each other, scritch-scratching around and pooping freely on their carpet of pine shavings. When they are old enough to leave the constant attention of the heating lamp they’ll be moved into the ancient corn-crib-turned-coop that my daughters and I have been renovating here at the farm. But until “Cluckingham Palace” is ready, Queens Mary (as in Bloody), Elizabeth (Lizza) and Victoria (Vicky the Chicky) are our royal guests.

In our 930 square foot home, the addition of chicks to the family is a significant one. So why commit to a period of time in which we must mess around with feathers, shavings, squawks, and constant cleaning? Believe me, it’s not all about the eggs.

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Remembering Ray

Remembering Ray

by Jenny

Ray Bradbury was my literary hero when I was a kid, and he’s never left that pedestal. He was a passionate humanist, and because he was an authentic person, that humanism came through in every story. I’ll never forget, for instance, the way I felt when I read “The Big Black and White Game” in the early 1970s, and how it shaped my view of the evening news.
His style of writing, too,was such that you could feel the moment of creation in it, the enthusiasm and energy behind it, the way the story had almost poured out of him in a rush to express itself. Yet the sentences were so lyrical, the metaphors so unique, that his writing felt at once both utterly spontaneous and finely crafted. His stories woke me up to the world, and his style made me want to write — like him. I was (and still am) enthralled by  the wonderful way he used his words to show us who we are.

The world will hear your words forever,  Ray.  And we’ll bring them to life at LitWits whenever we can.            ~ Jenny

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Unpuzzled

Unpuzzled

by Jenny, written in her tutoring days

Ten-year-old Charles stares at me in terror, fist clenched around a Ticonderoga No. 2 as if he’d rather stab the blank sheet of binder paper than try to put his thoughts in written form.   Like most of the children I’ve tutored, he’s so conditioned to remember all the rules of writing that he can’t even summon half a conscious thought.   He gulps, eyes bulging, and gasps out a series of questions.  Should he think of a title first?  Should it go in the center?  Should he indent, skip lines, use cursive?  Should he start with a topic sentence, a startling statement, or a quote?  His teacher likes him to use “strong adverbs;” should he?  As with writers of all ages and abilities, the shoulds of writing have overshadowed the will. 

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A Clarion Shout-Out to College-Age Guys with Goatees

A Clarion Shout-Out to College-Age Guys with Goatees

by Becky

Sometimes, while looking for ways to bring books to life, we find the nicest people. Last week my twin ten-year olds and I were prepping for Thursday’s workshop on The Trumpeter of Krakow.  This book is chock full of explosions, alchemy, fireworks and glowing orbs. There’s a giant crystal on the loose, roving bands of Cossacks and Tartars, burning buildings and, in the tower of an ancient cathedral, breathtaking acts of treachery and heroism. Plenty to ignite interest in the minds of our youngsters. But alas, we had no trumpet, and nothing that would glow or explode, both things that felt essential to us.

So first we took ourselves to the Mad Molecule science store to present our story.  After greeting us, the college-age guy with the goatee behind the counter went right back to his computer screen, and I felt doubtful. Nevertheless, we showed him our book, and told him about the quest for the philosopher’s Stone and the wonderful pyrotechnics in Chapter 9.  Did he have any ideas? 

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