Robert D. Sutherland



(Essay published in SIGNAL, VI, 9 (May 1981), 1. 3-4, 13. (SIGNAL is the official newsletter of the International Reading Association’s Special Interest Group on Literature for the Adolescent Reader.)

     Having spent the last nine years writing, illustrating, and publishing a novel for adolescent readers—Sticklewort and Feverfew (Normal, IL: The Pikestaff Press, 1980)—I’d like to share some reflections on the process in the hope they’ll be of interest to people concerned with literature for adolescents. I learned a great deal in the nine years, both about writing for young people (which I’d never before attempted), and about principles of book illustration.

     Sticklewort and Feverfew is a fantasy in realistic mode. It is 355 pages long (approximately 110,000 words), with 74 pencil illustrations (69 of them full-page), and a map. The characters are a mixture of humanized animals and people working together to put an end to a newly-built factory’s industrial pollution that threatens their very survival. During their struggle they become closer-knit as a community, gain political awareness, and come to a deeper understanding of themselves. In addition to this main plotline, there are a number of subplots—such as the ongoing attempts of Fergus fisher to cross radishes with watermelons, the efforts of Miss Proudie Fairblossom and others to convince Roscoe Lynx to publish his collected poems, and the “education” of Doctor Badger as he grudgingly comes to accept the medical practices of Izzy the Witch. The book is non-sexist and was orally tested throughout for pleasure in reading aloud.

     I began writing the book in 1970-71 for my sons David and Allan (then 9 and 7, respectively). I wanted them to have the experience of watching a book take shape, and of participating in its creation. Before it was finished, the book went through four complete writings, and each draft benefited from their criticisms. Their comments, the reactions of a fourth-grade teacher friend who read the manuscript to his pupils in second draft, and the enthusiastic response of various college student readers soon made it clear that the story would be of interest not only to children, but also to adolescents and adults. This realization prompted me to frame the novel as a work of general, or universal, appeal—a decision which gave rise to a cluster of immediate practical problems.

     How could I ensure that the events and actions depicted would speak to all age and experience levels? How could I differentiate the 48 characters and develop them individually to engage both younger and older readers? How should the book’s language be controlled so as to be accessible to very young readers, yet be stimulating and entertaining to adolescents and adults? I knew from experience that books of such universal appeal had been written; for as a child I had encountered some few which had “grown with me” over the years, sustaining my interest and continuing to delight me as my broadening experience gave me fresh insights into their riches.

     In outlining the ways I addressed these problems, I hope I don’t give the impression that the creation of Sticklewort and Feverfew was a totally self-conscious process. On the contrary, much of the composition was intuitive, evolutionary, and the result of trial-and-error. Nonetheless, the creation of a long and complex work of fiction does entail a great deal of conscious thought: in strategic planning and decision-making, close attention to detail, and making continual tactical choices and esthetic judgments.

     Assuming that if I enjoyed the book, at least some other people would also, I decided simply to trust my intuition. I gave my humor free play, and allowed the child in me to write a book which he enjoyed. At the same time (and increasingly in the last two drafts), I brought to bear my adult awareness of psychological complexity, social and political issues, and rhetorical finesse (irony, dramatic pacing, understatement, the building of suspense). This combination of intuition and self-conscious critical judgment was kept “on target” by my continuously pilot-testing the book with various age-groups at all stages of its composition.

     I began writing with a sense of the story-line, knowing in a general way what the action would be, and how the book would end. Within this frame, I gave my imagination free rein. Strong, interesting, distinctive characters began to emerge, with whom readers could identify, for and about whom they would be truly concerned: Priscilla Possum, dress- and bonnet-maker, known for creating “Possum Originals”; M. Lucius Ferret, a book-seller who had read all the books in his shop but could not bear to part with any of them; Estella Higgins, Mayor of Grover, level-headed and not inclined to compromise; Parker Packrat, long building a tall junk sculpture deep in the Chickalooga Forest; Hilda Badger, the doctor’s wife, keeping faith in Izzy’s cures despite her husband’s blustering; Simon skunk, maker of cabinets and fine furniture; Thorstein nd Rebecca Raccoon; their daughter Arabella, fossil-hunter, composer, and seller of shoes; Matthew Muddie, the village school-master; Peter and Peggy, Groundsquirrel Twins who liked to play jokes on their Uncle Franklin. And those others: Mr. Snade, the factory manager, a man committed to the principle that production must prevail; Amos Tinker, the Sudge-Buddle spy; J. Philpot Skinner, of the firm Butcher, Skinner, Flesher, and Tanner, Attorneys at Law.

     I knew that a compelling sense of drama had to inform the major plotline and the various subplots—both to generate excitement and pathos, and to make the reader wish to keep reading. I tried to achieve this by having the narrative continually point forward, thinking that the prospect of things to come would build anticipation and suspense for both the characters and the readers—particularly when there was an understood possibility that the outcomes of these anticipations and foreshadowings could embody reversal of expectation and surprise. To pace the action, I devised a rhythmic structure to span the entire work: variations in tempo and dynamics (as in music), a sequence of peaks and plateaus (each peak higher than the one before), and the systolic/diastolic pulse-and-resting of the heartbeat.
I wished the dramatic sense to work progressively and simultaneously on several levels. For example, on one level is the subtle interplay of diverse and eccentric personalities (allowing me to differentiate the many characters and to develop them individually). On another, a continual deepening of the characters’ (and the reader’s) sense of community as need increases for ever closer cooperation and more explicit expression of mutual support. On still another, a continual “tightening of the screw,” a “raising of the ante” to higher and higher stakes, as action progresses faster and faster through a series of crises, each more intense than the one preceding. In addition, there is a pervasive blending of, or alternation between, high seriousness and humor—the humor being of many types, ranging from slapstick/absurdist to that subtle sort which comes about when we see personalities we know well coping with bizarre or unfamiliar situations. What seems so cut-and-dried in the telling was in fact much more spontaneous in the creation (at least in the first two drafts). Only when writing the third draft did I become analytically aware of the dynamic structures shaping the story; and by that time, my primary concern was to make sure that everything was internally consistent.

     Three matters, though, did occupy my conscious concern: avoiding sexist stereotypes, controlling the language (in both word-choice and syntax), and monitoring the oral/auditory quality of the writing. Since I wished the book to be read aloud for enjoyment, I wanted the prose to feel good in the mouth and sound good to the ear (one of the best tests, incidentally, of good writing). It was in the second draft version—about 1972-73—that I began consciously to write the novel in a non-sexist manner. This was of necessity a self-conscious process: for being then a 35-year-old American male brought up in a traditional manner, I was forced to unlearn some of my early training and re-think some of my culturally-determined assumptions about masculine superiority. In this second draft I worked diligently to remove vestiges of stereotyped notions of gender roles and to make sure that female characters had important parts to play in the action and in the life of the community. I maintained this concern through the textual refinements of the subsequent two drafts.

     In finding a level of language that would be accessible to the very young yet appealing to adults, I was guided by the example set by Lewis Carroll in writing the Alice books. I confined myself as much as possible to the native Anglo-Saxon wordstock, avoided Latinate polysyllables (except where they were appropriate and would make a point, as in the speech of Mr. Skinner the lawyer), and aimed at all times for ease and directness in syntax. These decisions in no way compromised the integrity of my expression or hindered my saying what I wished. Nor did they produce a simplistic level of language which would have bored my older readers or patronized my younger ones by “talking down to them”. (The younger readers still have to stretch. The teacher who read the manuscript to his fourth-grade pupils feels that the book is an excellent vocabulary builder. “Difficult” words—such as ‘probation’ or Mr. Skinner’s legalistic jargon—are defined internally within the text at first encounter.) In pursuing the course outlined above I learned a great deal about the marvelous flexibility and expressive power of the native English wordstock; when I look back at the text, I’m astounded to see how many of the words have only one syllable, or two at most. I will leave it to readers of Sticklewort and Feverfew to judge how effective the level of diction is for dealing with difficult and complex matters and for revealing nuances of character.

     I’d like to conclude this account by discussing the illustrations which figure so prominently in the book. From the moment I conceived writing Sticklewort and Feverfew, I knew that the book would be illustrated and that I would do the illustrations. Since I’d had no formal art training, and my previous drawing had been only in cartoon style, I was required to teach myself principles of composition, design, execution, and the handling of light and shadow. In addition, I had to learn pencil technique to accomplish the fine rendering I hoped for which would simulate the textural effects of stone lithography.

     I simply began, learning as I went. After finishing several pictures, I became dissatisfied with them, canceled the set, and started over. I strove for the illustrations to have a pleasing variety in style and treatment while exhibiting an underlying consistency of spirit. Since I was learning as I progressed, and each picture in the series embodies a specific technical problem I set for myself, the set as a whole constitutes seventy-four experiments in pencil technique. Book illustration is a highly specialized form of art, and I had much to learn regarding it as well. Two problems face the illustrator: determining which passages of the text are to be illustrated, and (once that’s been decided) adopting a form of presentation that will best realize the potentials of the passages and achieve the illustrator’s immediate esthetic aims.

    To address the first problem, I visualized the narrative unrolling like motion-picture film. My job was to select from the flow of action the single “frame” for illustration which would best reveal the essence of the passage and serve my multiple purposes. In general, these were to provide: dramatic impact, revelation of character, pleasing composition, memorable images, irony, humor (or pathos), and room for the viewer’s imagination to play. Choices tended to be easy: there was generally one best frame that would accomplish the multiple tasks required.
As for the second problem—deciding how the scene should be graphically presented—I followed the principles suggested by Ezra Jack Keats in a radio broadcast from Urbana, Illinois which I heard in Iowa City in July, 1963. I think Keats’ principles are excellent, and I paraphrase them here. (1) Illustrations should not simply depict in a literal manner a scene or event in the text; rather, they should add another dimension of meaning to the text, providing a counterpoint to what’s going on in the words. (2) Illustrations should be an experience in themselves, in harmony with, but distinct from, that provided by the text; seen in order, as a group, they should have their own sequential meaning—paralleling the story but not simply telling the story in pictures. (3) They should avoid “cleverness”— cuteness or slavish accommodation to a current vogue of illustration which renders them shallow or empty of feeling. (4) They should allow the reader to participate in apprehending the full significance of the story, being neither so literal nor so explicit as to leave no work for the reader to do. They should be evocative and suggestive; while being consistent with the text, they should provide interesting detail or possibilities not specifically mentioned in the text, thus stimulating the reader’s imagination. To the best of my ability I followed these principles in illustrating Sticklewort and Feverfew.

     In these comments I’ve said all that I’m prepared to say at this time regarding the creation of Sticklewort and Feverfew. I’ve tried to give an accurate account of the process as I understand it. If readers of the novel find that they have additional questions about its composition and meanings, there would be nothing surprising in that: I still have many myself. What I do hope is that these reflections have been of interest. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity of sharing them.

[Sticklewort and Feverfew was awarded the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator.]





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