My second September class was Picture Book Magic with the ever-enchanting George Ella Lyon. I’ve known George Ella since 1993, when I met her at a lit fest at Emory & Henry, through my college advisor and mentor, Dr. John Lang. The September class was offered as part of The Makery Series by the Hindman Settlement School and was limited to ten students; thankfully, we had fewer, as a class with George Ella tends to become emotionally intense – you’re going back to your childhood and that can stir up a lot of feelings, happy and strange. We met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for three weeks, from 15 September – 1 October, from 1-2:30. Six of us participated in the class together.
George Ella writes poetry, chapter books for children, YA Books, — she can do anything, and her writing spans all age groups. She started publishing children’s books back in the 1980’s. She is famous for her “form poem” called “Where I’m From.” To get a look at this form poem and try your own, just Google “Where I’m From poem” and her name. You should get lots of examples. I actually have one in the forthcoming issue of Clinch Mountain Review. When it is published, I’ll try to share it with you. (I’m a little proud of it!) But if you’re not familiar with George Ella, you need to be. She has been the Poet Laureate of Kentucky. Above that honor, though, she is just flat-out talented and has a way of making writing come to life! If you ever have a chance to take a class with her, don’t let it pass you by.
The Tuesday before the class started, already excited and thinking ahead, a picture book idea that came to me in 1997 or 1998 just spilled out as I lay on the bed spending time with our sick cat, Ebony. The result was what I thought for certain would be the first draft of my project for class (even though I hadn’t yet seen a syllabus), called “The Trouble With Bubbles.” The title to the story had come to me one day while sitting at the Reference Desk when I worked at the Bedford Public Library in Bedford, Virginia. I just announced, That’s the trouble with bubbles.” Someone asked, “What is?” And I admitted that I wasn’t sure. Upon further discussion with others, my friend Traci Hurt Brandon had given me the final word, the last line, way back then, and I kept that as my final line when it spilled out this past month.
When the class started, though, it became apparent that George Ella was after a story. Not just a rhyme. And as much as I love “The Trouble With Bubbles,” which I did eventually read in class, to appreciative ears, it is not a story. It has a definite ending, but not really a beginning or middle. It is a rhyme – not that there is anything wrong with rhyming picture books. That just wasn’t the assignment, I still want to find a home for ‘TTWB,” though, and can clearly see the illustrations. So, until that happens, I can’t share it with you publicly.
Meanwhile, Ebony and I were watching TV one night, and for some reason, I started thinking about “The Little Miss Kindergarten Pageant” that my mom made me enter just before kindergarten started. If you know me at all, you know that I’ve never held a love of fancy dresses, formal occasions, and stress-induced faux-pas. Let me assure you that these feelings stem back to early childhood and were already firmly rooted by the time of said pageant. This is the story, then, of the one and only pageant that I was ever in, and the trauma it induced in all involved.
Unlike my Flash Nonfiction class (and this blog post), I did not keep it to under 750 words. The story was bigger than that. Even when I tried editing it down, the story took up four double-spaced pages; the text for a typical children’s picture book comes in around 2.5 pages. But my class listened to the story and gave great feedback. The general consensus was that I had created not a picture book, but, more likely, a story in a chapter book. George Ella is working with us on our manuscripts, so time will tell where this will lead. Although I have a list of at least a dozen other Kindergarten tales from my own life that I can include to go with this one, if we decide to try it as a chapter book.
What I learned from George Ella’s class, as I learn from every class I ever take with George Ella, is not to box yourself in. Don’t think you have the answers, because allowing yourself to wander and explore your psyche, even a little bit, can open up so many other avenues. She truly creates and accommodates a learning environment where you feel free to roam your inner-child and pick through things you thought you had discarded as total junk. That takes a master to make students feel that comfortable with themselves. It takes true magic, and she has that a-plenty!
Many thanks and, as always, the highest praises to George Ella for helping me bring out the good stuff that I didn’t even realize was buried in there. Hopefully, it will develop into something that I can share with all of you in the foreseeable future.