Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Marianne Murphy on Conveying Meaning With Meta Fiction & Concrete Poetry

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This is the third post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Writing conveys a full spectrum of experiences and emotions—but are there limits to what words alone can do? When digging deeper into the building blocks of literacy, you realize that letters and words are more than the ideas the represent. They’re physical entities too. Their shapes and designs can contain meaning.

One way to reach emerging readers is with a visual approach to storytelling. Authors who explore the relationships between words and images have a rich set of tools at their disposal.

Words can have shapes that enhance their meaning. Shapes and symbols can add new ideas to the words on the page.

Young people today are in many ways highly visually literate.

In my work, I use of imagery to help emerging readers make meaning. In this third article in my series for relucant readers I spoke with another author whose work employs visual elements to make meaning, Marianne Murphy. 
Marianne came up against some of the limitations of traditional writing conventions while working on a memoir about her childhood. Murphy turned to concrete poetry to squeeze more meaning out of our alphabet. The result is her new title, Bad Thoughts (Amazon Digital, 2017), which is now available as an ebook. Her unique use of of letters as visuals adds to the mood of the story. Her sentence design contributes to the voice.

Perhaps more authors should take a visual approach to writing. The additional meaning conveyed by the imagery aids emerging readers in their quest for understanding. But more than that, it allows writers to express themselves in new ways.

Marianne Murphy

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a memoir about your struggles with OCD as a child. Why did you choose to use the concrete poetry form to convey the story?

Marianne Murphy: I knew that I wanted to express my experience, because it was a very isolating time period for me and there isn’t a lot of narrative representation of childhood and adolescent OCD. But I was having a really hard time expressing my story in a traditional way, because that linear, logical, structured path is not how I was processing my thoughts at the time. 

I didn’t think people would be able to recognize their own experiences in my story if I forced the story into an uncomfortably linear narrative.

It became clear to me that it had to be visual because some parts of the experience were indescribable through words alone, and I found that the chaos of concrete poetry helped me access and recall a lot of the rawness of the experience. 

The concrete poetry form sometimes utilizes the repetition of words to create a deconstruction of meaning, and I found that repetitiveness naturally reflected how my brain felt during the times when my OCD was really intense. 
Beth Bacon: Visual literacy is the ability to make meaning from images. Stories that present information visually can help emerging readers.

Can you talk about how the visuals in your story make meaning?

Marianne Murphy: One of the first visuals that came out while I was writing was the repeating Y to represent obsessive thoughts. 

It first occurs during the main character’s obsessive prayer, where the word “Sorry” deconstructs, and the Y’s break off and overwhelm the page. 
The sensation of abstract concepts being broken down into meaningless tasks and clouding my focus was one of the most exasperating and indescribable parts of OCD, and for me there wasn’t a clear way to express that sensation through words alone. 
I think some concepts need to be conveyed visually, and some people absolutely find it easier to relate and project their own experience onto a visual narrative.

A page of concrete poetry from Bad Thoughts.

Beth Bacon: You say you weren’t a reluctant reader as a child. What was your relationship with books when you were young? How often did you read, what types of books, and why? Did you perceive your reading habits as different from other kids?

Marianne Murphy:The biggest problem I encountered as a child was a lack of understanding and vocabulary to explain my experience and seek professional help, so abstract and surreal visuals were the only way I could even try to convey what was going on. That is still partially true today.

Beth Bacon: Meta fiction techniques break a book’s conventions. They are any self-referential elements that disrupt the text or boundaries of the book, refer to themselves, invite interactivity, and mock the rules of reading we work so hard to teach. For readers who feel marginalized, meta fiction can be affirming and empowering.

As a child, I used reading to escape from my reality, did you?

Marianne Murphy: I read all the time! For the most part I alternated between very visual, meta picture books like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales by Jon Scieszka (illustrated by Lane Smith, Viking Press, 1992), and nonfiction like arts-and-crafts books, joke books, and biographies. 

I was really obsessed with Ellen Degeneres’s and Whoopi Goldberg’s adult memoirs, and I was also really drawn to books that were aware of their own structure, like Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School (illustrated by Adam McCauley, HarperCollins, 2003).

Beth Bacon: Books can be powerful allies to kids who feel like outsiders for any reason. There’s something very personal about the relationship between a reader and a book. And meta fiction draws attention to this relationship. 

The Book No One Wants to Read
makes a deal with the reader.
When a book behaves differently in its structure, format, or content, it’s as if the book and the reader make a secret, rebellious pact.

In my new title, The Book No One Wants To Read, the book/narrator makes a deal with the reader: “What if you just sit here and turn my pages and we just goof off? I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” 

What conventions did you work with while writing Bad Thoughts?

Marianne Murphy: For the most part, I wanted the fiction I read to be very visual and to have a strong word/image connection and balance, and I wanted the nonfiction I read to be strictly technical, structured, and real. 

I noticed that I stayed in the realm of picture books a lot longer than other kids, though my reading level was advanced. 
I didn’t really use reading to escape reality, because due to my obsessions I always felt very isolated from reality. I think I was reading to try to perceive my own reality more clearly.

Beth Bacon: Can you talk about how you wrote this story? Did you write it out in straight sentences first then create the art? Did you sketch the designs from the start? What tools (software programs?) did you use to manipulate the sentences? What were your challenges artistically and technically?

Marianne Murphy: Every page started as a concrete poem! 

I made it entirely in Photoshop without sketching first, and strictly in Times New Roman 12 pt. font, primarily using the pen tool although I made custom brushes of some of the letters so that I could scatter them more easily. 
I made the pages out of order first, sort of just going with my gut to recall the experiences and get everything down that I needed to, and then worked with my advisor Will Alexander at VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts) to come up with a good way to order the pages, add a couple transitions, organize the story, and turn the collection into something of a narrative. 
It was very hard to keep the rawness when I was working on something so technical like page design and in such a strict font. I noticed pretty early on that if the page wasn’t literally physically painful to write, then the emotion wasn’t going to come across.

Letters take on new meaning in Bad Thoughts.

Beth Bacon: One theme in your story is the perception of being different from others. The amazing thing is, however, this story brings up universal feelings we all share.

Marianne Murphy: Thank you! The biggest surprise to me after showing this piece to friends and ultimately releasing the book was the fact that people could identify with parts of it or recognize these behaviors in their family members, especially since I’d felt so completely isolated about it for such a huge chunk of my life. 

I think that it’s very hard for people to recognize and own their darker thoughts, let alone express them, but that we find it very cathartic to see those thoughts represented even abstractly in someone else’s work, with a layer of psychic distance. I think the visual elements help create some safe distance, too.

Beth Bacon: Marianne, you’re a writer unafraid to go beyond the conventions of YA novel in order to tell your story. 

Even though I didn’t experience life as Marianne did, I had a deep connection to the characters in Bad Thoughts. I think that’s what happens when an author taps into Truths (with a capital T) we all share. Marianne addresses the Truths about the difficulties and absurdities of learning to be a person in the world. 
In my work, face the Truths about the difficulties and absurdities of learning to decode written English language. We both needed to break the “fourth wall” of writing to express ourselves. The boundaries may be internal or external, but ultimately, the disruption is an act of freedom and hope.

Cynsational Notes

Huge thanks to Beth Bacon for putting together this three-part series focusing on reluctant readers!

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Editor Tracey Keevan on Encouraging Reluctant Readers

by Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Editor Tracey Keevan
This is the second post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Two out of three fourth graders in the United States failed to read with proficiency, according to a 2015 Kids Count survey.

The fundamental skill of reading is not an easy one to master.

Writers, editors and educators need new ways of addressing this humbling fact.

In the second installment of my series about reluctant readers, I ask: What does it take to create a book that appeals to emerging and reluctant readers?

And who better to ask than the editor of some of the most beloved books—among reluctant readers as well as kids who enjoy books. 

Tracey Keevan is an executive editor at Disney-Hyperion. She has worked with a number of best-selling, award-winning authors and illustrators beloved by many struggling readers, including Mo Willems, Dan Santat, Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, Tony DiTerlizzi, Bryan Collier, and Nate Powell among others.

Tracey herself is an Emmy-nominated writer whose children’s fiction has been featured on Nickelodeon as well as in books and magazines. Tracy’s perspective offers powerful insights into the art of reaching out and appealing to reluctant readers.

Tracey Keevan: Reading a book has always felt a lot like running a race to me. Nervous anxiety hits my gut at the starting line. So far to go. So alone.

So many people who will finish faster, easier, stronger than me.

The first chapter, the first mile, sets that pace. I’m either in the zone, confident and charged, or I’m way out of the zone—struggling through each page, each tenth of a mile, wondering if I can make it to the end. 

Worse: wondering why I’m trying to make it to the end at all. The dreaded Quit Demon starts bouncing up and down on my shoulder: Quit. Quit. Quit.

As an editor of books for kids and teens, I hunt for those “quit moments.” They need to be stomped all over.

Those are the places that make or break a book for reluctant and emerging readers. It’s where the writer—that invisible voice on the sideline—needs to step up and cheer her head off: Go! Go! Go!

Beth Bacon: When creating books for kids who struggle with reading, one can’t assume your audience is going to be an eager one. Humor is one strategy. Every kid loves to laugh.

What writing techniques do you look for?

Tracey Keevan: There is no magic formula, of course. Humor helps. Word choice helps.

So do an active voice, authentic dialogue, relatable characters, and relevant themes. 

But I think the answer is more complex than story mechanics or book format. I think it’s an artist’s respect for the reader (especially the struggling one) that keeps her going. 
  • It’s choosing clarity over cleverness. 
  • It’s about trusting and inviting the reader to share in the storytelling. 
  • It’s about letting the reader know you’re in it together. 
Beth Bacon: When kids read a book, without struggling too much, and they’ve enjoyed themselves, that’s thrilling to me. I feel I’ve succeeded as a writer when kids want to read another book—any book—after they’ve finished mine. What’s your definition of success?

Tracey Keevan: Success with all readers, to me, is a feeling of inclusion. When a reader is connected to the experience, she’ll power up the hills, sprint to finish, and carry that finisher’s medal with her for the next time.

Beth Bacon: What was your experience with reading as a child?

Tracey Keevan: Reading can be terrifying. I know. I was not a “book kid” in grade school or middle school. 

It was no mystery to me why, either. I was paralyzed with fear of failure while reading aloud in class. I struggled with spelling and sight word recognition—I still do today. 
And while I could usually parse out meaning when I was reading to myself, the embarrassment of sounding out words and being corrected in front of my classmates left me feeling insecure, anxious, and isolated. Books were not my friends. I was afraid of them.

Beth Bacon: Fear is something authors don’t like being associated with books! But the truth is, struggling readers certainly feel fear. I address that fear by talking directly to the reader. 

In my new book, The Book No One Wants To Read, the narrator is the book itself. It bends over backwards (literally) to help the readers enjoy their time. How do you address this fear?

Encourages readers to relax & enjoy reading.

Tracey Keevan: I remind myself of that fear often. What would have helped me? Well, not having to read aloud for one. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. 

Shorter sentences would have helped. Scaffolding and repetition would have helped too.

[Scaffolding is a strategy used by reading instructors to address issues blocking the path to literacy by building scaffolds of support like monitoring comprehension and employing pre-reading and post reading activities.]  

Mostly, though, understanding that reading wasn’t a competition, with winners and losers, but a tool to share, learn, grow and be a part of something bigger than myself—that would have helped the most. 
The writers and illustrators who share the fun win kids like me over. (Thank you, Judy Blume!) It’s simple, but true.

Beth Bacon: Sharing the fun—that’s one way authors can help emerging readers get through their required reading sessions. 

As with anything, reading takes practice. So our books need to keep these kids turning the pages. No one knows that better than Tracey Keevan, who has worked in children’s media for over 20 years as an editor, writer, and producer. She also acquires and edits picture books, early readers, chapter books, graphic novels, middle grade and young adult fiction. 

Thanks, Tracey, for your insights!

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.

Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds?

Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.

Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn.

Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.

Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughter
Author, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).

Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy.

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children’s books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?

Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children’s books published in America had “significant African or African-American content.”

And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.

As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.

At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that’s where the protagonist’s first name comes from.

I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, “The Color of Children’s Literature,” because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children’s book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).

Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.

So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.

In the next book we do, he’ll save the future from a disaster.

As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?

Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.

The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can’t read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can’t read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.

Humanities Washington has a long-running and important program that addresses this, called Mother Read/Father Read. These are a series of books aimed at helping parents learn to read as they read to their children.

How is writing novels for young people different than writing for adults?

As an academically trained philosopher, I write very complex, multi-layered, language rich philosophical novels that dramatize the quest for the Good, investigate the nature of the self, the experience of the middle passage or north Atlantic slave trade, and the philosophical dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. as a theologian/activist.

But for the Emery Jones books my daughter and I select subjects close to the experience of a middle school-aged child. For example, the experience of being bullied or of first love. I rely on my daughter for this because she is closer to those experiences of young people than I am.

Do you remember learning to read? Did you like to read as a child? What kinds of books influenced your childhood?

I don’t remember when I learned to read. But as an only child, books were my refuge (along with drawing) from boredom.

In high school I read one book a week, sometimes three, and they ranged from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

My mother was in several book clubs and kept our house full of interesting titles, and I was in a science fiction book club, receiving a new title every month.

I describe this early reading experience in the chapter titled “In the Beginning” in The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016).

You are a cartoonist, how does this inform your writing?

Well, every picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and our nation’s cartoonists (and graphic novel illustrators) are storytellers, too.

In others words, I’ve always had since childhood a very strong visual imagination, and I’m sure that shows in the descriptive passages in my novels, where I work for as much granularity of detail and specificity as possible.

A blank writing page is for me like a painter’s blank canvas—and that is a beautiful thing, a white surface onto which I can project images that hitherto existed in my head where no one could see them.

An illustration from Charles Johnson’s Emery Jones series

Can you talk about the differences in reading, writing and books over the three generations (your childhood, your daughter’s experiences, and now reading to your grandson, Emery).

In the early 20th century, and into the early 1970s (a period still suffering from racial segregation), white, mainstream commercial publishers seldom published black writers and artists. That’s why what we call the “black press” (Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, Players, Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago) came into existence.

As a cartoonist in my teens and early twenties, I published drawings and one book (Black Humor, 1970) with black publishers, then from 1974 until today with so-called “mainstream” publishers.

So the publishing situation for black writers and artists became somewhat freer since the 1980s than during my childhood. But today, sadly, and as I mentioned in my response to your first question, we still have a situation described eloquently by author and illustrator Christopher Myers in his essay “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (New York Times, 2014):

“Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination…at best background characters, and more often than not absent. …They recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves within the lines.”

So our goal with the Emery Jones books is to break down those borders and lines, and free the imagination of as many young readers (of all backgrounds) as possible.

Beth Bacon: Freeing the imagination was one goal I had in mind when writing I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles, 2017).

Children who find reading difficult—whatever the reason—face real barriers. Not just barriers on the page, but challenges from parents, obstructive comments from peers, and isolation at school.

What if we authors for children approached our writing projects asking, “How can I include struggling readers within the boundaries of this text?”

My two books for struggling readers are barrier-breakers. They break the barriers of linear narrative; the barriers of a single authorial voice; the rules of separating words and pictures. And that’s just the form.

The content of the books break barriers, too, by directly acknowledging the experience of reluctant readers and honoring those kids whose feel like they’re on the outside in their own classrooms.

Sometimes writers have to go beyond the margins of a book to reach the readers on the margins. Let’s acknowledge and address the experience of young readers as they develop the magical skill of reading.

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing.