MFA Day 6

This morning we had Susan Goodman’s Writing Dynamic Non-Fiction seminar, for the Writing for Young People group. This seminar was great, not only because Susan is an amazing person, but because the subject was actually really interesting, despite the fact that we all write fiction. This was the class where we had to bring in a nonfiction book we enjoyed and talk about it, which for me was Me…Jane. We looked at some other interesting books, and how they employ narrative arc to make the story really fascinating. After class I also bugged Susan about the process of writing a picture book, and how much you need to have mapped out as far as the page count and where the words fall on the page. Turns out, not much.

The afternoon was the last round of large group workshops, and I was up first. After some nice comments, Tony Abbott looks at me and says “You don’t need us to compliment you, right?” My response, “…no….” And then they started in. It wasn’t that my piece was bad, as I did receive a number of compliments from the others and Tony, but since the time is so limited he focused on my problems. I think he figured I could handle it, or something.

I also ran into Janet this afternoon, and bugged her more about how my proposal for a picture book independent study was going. She’s sent it off to the potential adviser, so now it’s just a waiting game. She doesn’t seem to think it will be a problem, but I have my fingers crossed all the same.

Children’s Books: Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnel

One of the seminars I’ll be taking at the MFA residency focuses on writing non-fiction for young people. The professor wants to read and bring in a non-fiction book, and gave us a nice list of readings we could pick from, if we chose. As much as I trust her judgment in books, I decided to take this chance to read Me . . . Jane, a biography of Jane Goodall by Patrick McDonnell. I think I made the right choice.

Me…Jane focuses on Goodall’s early years, starting with the day she was given a toy chimp: “Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” We are then shown how much Jane loves to be outside and watch the animals. She even likes to study them, drawing pictures and taking notes (we’re given an interesting two-page spread of these, showing how passionate and meticulous the young Goodall was). She hides in a chicken coop to see where eggs come from, “and observed the miracle.” Small Jane climbed a tree to read about Tarzan, and dreamed of going to Africa. She imagines giraffes and elephants, and that she is swinging through a jungle. At the end she falls asleep, and then awakes an adult, “to her dream come true.” The last image is the only photograph, as she reaches and touches fingers with a baby chimpanzee.

The story is simply told, with one or two short sentences, or even just phrases, opposite the main art. The simplicity reminds you that this is the story of a child, but it also makes the emotion more poignant:

Jane often climbed her favorite tree,
which she named Beech.

She would lay her cheek against its trunk
and seem to feel the sap
flowing beneath the bark.

Jane could feel her own heart

The art is very cute, drawn by the same person who created the newspaper comic Mutts. While I’m not a regular reader, I’ve always found that comic charming and heartwarming. That charm is visible here as Jane smiles at every animal, and Jubilee could be real as Jane holds his hand. The art is also still simple enough that any little girl could imagine herself as Jane, dreaming her big dream and watching it become real. That’s also why I like the photograph at the end of the book; going to Africa is no longer some fantasy, but something that actually happened, because she wanted it so badly.

Jane Goodall has done a lot of good in her adult life, as the more direct biography at the end of the book explains. But it’s so much easier to feel close to and happy for a person when you see her as a child, and McDonnell does a fine job of creating that empathy. There’s no large drama in this book to make it exciting, but Me…Jane is an uplifting, and empowering, story.