Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Poetic License

“I believe it’s ‘lit,’ not ‘lighted,’” the twelve-year-old said. She was reading the first chapter of my book, The Black Bonnet. The story is set just before the Civil War and follows two sisters escaping from slavery on a Virginia plantation. They stop in Burlington, Vermont, before crossing the border into Canada and freedom, and that’s where the action occurs. The Black Bonnet was my first book, written for young adult audiences, kids Anika’s age. But Anika isn’t like most twelve-year-olds.

First of all, she lives in Los Angeles and goes to a public middle school, which bores her nearly to death. School bored her older sister, too—so much so that she nearly dropped out. That’s why Anika and her mom, Tina, found their way to Fern Forest. Tina and Anika had just delivered Anika’s sister to Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusets. Simon’s Rock is a branch of Bard College established for 11th and 12th grade students who have outgrown secondary curricula and are looking for a greater challenge. They can earn an AA or BA while they’re there. Students come from forty states and eleven countries to sit in classes with an average size of ten. Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, who founded the school in 1966, called it “early college.” I have a feeling Anika will be looking toward Great Barrington in a few years, too.

Anika sports a spiffy felt fedora and wears cute horn-rimmed glasses. Tina didn’t discover that Anika was seriously nearsighted until she took her to an Italian opera with subtitles shown on a screen above the stage. Anika couldn’t read the subtitles. Not a one. Which meant she probably couldn’t read a blackboard or a poster or anything else displayed at the front of the classroom. But she could read a book. And that’s what she did.


Anika devours every book she can get her hands on. Correction—every book she can download to her Nook. When Tina drives, Anika sits in the back seat and reads. “Look out the window,” Tina tells her. Anika glances out the window and then returns to her reading. I suspect she retains most of what she reads. She recently had her Bat Mitzvah and conversed with us about Chinese history and ancient religions as well as a slew of YA authors, many of whom I haven’t read.

Tina decided since they were on the East Coast, she and Anika might as well do a bit of sightseeing, and a night in the treehouse was on their itinerary. When H showed them the treehouse, Anika climbed into the sleeping loft with her Nook, and we didn’t see her again until dinner time. It was Wednesday, which is Bobcat night for us, so H and I joined Tina and Anika in a booth at the back of the café. Anika had asked to see one of my books, so I gave her The Black Bonnet, and she brought it to dinner with her. She also brought a fantasy novel, her favorite genre.

“How do you teach writing?” she asked me over her plate of fries and thick burger, done medium rare.

“I ask questions,” I said. “For example, say you’re writing a novel. What’s the point of view?

“The point of view will switch with every chapter,” she said.

“Good idea. Who are the characters?”

“A knight. A wizard. A dragon.”

“Fine. But whose story is it, for the most part?”

“The dragon’s.”

“Great. Now, what is it that the dragon wants?”

“I don’t know what he wants. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.”

“That’s okay. But ask yourself what he wants, what’s in the way of him getting what he wants, and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get what he wants.”

She seemed to accept that answer. Maybe my little instruction made up for the glitch in my book.

The line Anika referred to in The Black Bonnet reads, “Charity looked up at the Vermont sky, where thousands of tiny lanterns lighted the way.” Yeah, maybe it should be “lit the way,” but “lighted” sounds better and, as an author, I have poetic license. I’d have explained poetic license to Anika, but no doubt she already knows what it means.

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