Travel to places where stories come alive

Walking the Word Worlds

There are real places on this earth which resonate with the stories written about them.

A few years ago, my husband and I went on an Alaska Inside Passage cruise, the last of that season. They were shutting doors behind us all the way as the ship left, battening down the hatches for the winter (this is Alaska. Winter is a serious thing here.)

Our trip included visits to several different destinations – Juneau, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay, and more. Most of them were just names to me, new places which I had not been to before that were beautiful, fascinating, incredibly photogenic – oh, I fell in love with Alaska.

Gold rush SkagwayPhoto of Skagway todayBut one place we made a stop at was not a new place for me, even though I had never been there before either. Not physically. But oh, I HAD been there before. I had walked those streets in the shadow of the hard men who came for the gold. I had walked here before, beside a magnificent dog named Buck, watching him through the eyes of a writer by the name of Jack London.

The novel “Call of the Wild” may or may not have had scenes set in the exact Skagway streets I now walked – but the Gold Rush began in these streets, this is where the men thronged, this is where they drank and whored, this is the place from which they gathered their belongings together in a ratty backpack and went off into the wilderness of the Klondike, some never to return.

Call of the Wild's Buck illustrationOne scene from that book haunted me as I stepped on the shore from a five-star cruise ship, into a highly touristified town, in September and not the dead of winter. Nothing at all was the same as that frozen moment, outside a bar where a half-drunk man made an impossible bet on how his dog could move an unspeakable load on a sled frozen in place on the cold cruel winter street. How the bet was accepted.

How the man sobered up fast when he saw the sled, and the fact that it could not be moved by any effort of man or beast without bursting their heart. How there was no way back, no way out. How the man knelt on the ice, beside the dog in the sled harness, his heart breaking because he knew that he might have killed this animal by his rash act, how he put his arms around the dog’s neck and wept and whispered against the cold fur, “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.”

And then the dog pulled. And nothing happened. And the dog pulled again. And nothing happened. And the dog pulled again… and love moved the frozen load that could not be moved by man or beast alone, and pulled it the required distance, and stopped.

And the man who knelt sobbing by the big hearted dog who had done this miracle, being shaken by the shoulders by rich men offering him a king’s ransom for the dog – the man, looking up fiercely, hugging the dog close, his heart beating against the dog’s, and saying, “This dog is not for sale, sir..”

It was not the Gold Rush. It was not winter. There were no betting men, no flawed protagonists making the wrong choices, no whiskey flowing like water, no snow, no frozen sled. But I walked down the streets of Skagway, and in my ear, a whisper, like a ghost: “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.

The book – the words on a page – changed this place for me, changed my entire experience of it. That is the power of story.

Little mermaid statue photoMany years before that, I had ended up with a day and a half to spare in Copenhagen. It is a glorious city, with its architecture and its cobbled streets and its air of casual elegance and its bikes and its brittle sunshine. But I made my way – as all do, who come here, probably – to a place where a particular little statue lives, smaller than you thought it would be, almost incongruous, perched on a boulder above slate gray waters. A statue to a creature that could not exist, did not exist, was only ever a part of a great storyteller’s imagination – the Little Mermaid.

When I was young and reading fairy tales, it was Hans Christian Andersen who held my soul. It was his stories of love and loss, of empathy, of  cruelty, of foolishness and of wisdom, which enthralled me – and remember, this was back in the days when children were considered to be wise enough to deal with the real fairy tales, the original ones, the harsh ones, before Disney poured syrup into them and make them “safe for the children.”

The story of the Little Mermaid which I inhaled as a girl was the original luminous tale – the mermaid who sold her beautiful voice for her legs, whose every step was pain, whose only salvation was to gain the love of her prince… or else, or else, or else, on the day he married another she would die and become sea foam.

He married another. The mermaid’s sisters came for her, on the ship where her prince and his bride slept in their cabin, and told the mermaid that they had sold their hair to the witch who had taken the mermaid’s voice and in return she had given them a dagger. “Pierce his heart with the dagger,” the sisters begged, “and let his blood fall on your feet – and they will become a tail again, and you can come home to us…”

And she takes the dagger, and goes into the cabin where the lovers sleep and hesitates over their bodies… and then bends over, gives the prince she loves a kiss of farewell on the brow, throws the dearly-bought knife and its salvation into the ocean, and waits to die.

If you haven’t read the real story, the original fairy tale, she doesn’t. She becomes something else entirely. Go read the original version.

But there she sits, immortalized in bronze, the luminous creature from one of the fairy tales  that shaped my life.

No, she isn’t real – not even as possibly real as a dog named Buck might have been.

But as you love me, little mermaid. As you love me. You were and you always will be real in my heart. And being here, on this shore, right beside the statue they raised to your memory, I mourn you as I would mourn anyone whom I loved.

The story made you live. And the streets of this city remember your name, given by the hand of a man who wrote your story, who made you immortal.

There are many places on this earth where you can walk in the footsteps of a character you loved, or hated, or simply once knew; where you can step into a world which once lived between the pages of a book you held between your two hands.

Find them. Walk the word worlds. Live the stories that still breathe softly inside of you.

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Lonely Planet has explored 10 places that bring children’s literature to life, from a walk through King Arthur country, to digging on Treasure Island. Take a look HERE

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YA and the ‘Real World’

The Were Chronicles: “Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”

At a certain level, the line between YA and adult literature becomes so fine as to be totally irrelevant.

Yes, there are always some readers whose worlds are so cushioned, so protected, so absolutely walled off from reality that they can can find reading about real problems to be distancing and completely alien. But those readers are very few, And even they, growing up, have to deal with SOME issues in their lives no matter how gilded they are.

There are books which are labelled YA that deal with a lot of subjects which might be considered difficult. Subjects like suicide, like discrimination, like loss, like fear, like helplessness.

The books aren’t there to exacerbate or underline a reader’s own issues. As with all literature, they exist primarily to tell a story. At least, the best of them do. They don’t moralize, they don’t frighten or terrorize, they don’t stroke a love of violence

But they do have real power. It lies in the fact that they let readers know that they are not alone, that they aren’t the only ones to suffer such things or feel such feelings. That can be empowering for the reader. Sometimes it is safer to sublimate such feelings into the pages of a powerful story, to learn how to deal with one’s own situation through the prism of storytelling, than it is to blunder about trying to solve overwhelming problems.

YA literature isn’t sweetness and light. It can be harrowing. Because young people can sometimes live harrowing lives.

When Weres become human

The Were Chronicles logoWhen I set out to write The Were Chronicles books, the whole thing started as a light-hearted thing. The project began as a short story intended for a Were-creatures anthology which wanted something other than the traditional wolves. So I pulled an odd creation out of the story-cauldron, something I’d never seen anyone play with before – a Random Were, a creature which can literally become the last living warm-blooded thing they see just before the Turn comes upon them. The idea had immense comic possibilities. In fact – as I put it in the first book – due to an “unfortunate farmyard accident”, my main protagonist’s mother is a Were-Chicken.

But while I was clucking to myself about that… the story changed under my touch, became bigger and darker. What was originally a short story became abook – and the book became series. It changed into that most amazing thing, a YA story but also a story about what it means to be human.

My Weres became a persecuted minority in society, and themes of discrimination and bullying reared up and demanded to be addressed. What do you do when your peers are bullying and threatening you and making you miserable, because you are “different”? That’s hard enough as and of itself, but what happens if those attitudes are then taken up by people in authority over you, whom you aren’t in a position to question or to fight?

My Weres touched off a nerve – because they explored, in my fantasy setting what it means *in our own world* for people to be a different color, or a different faith, or a different sexual orientation. I wrote about the power of persecution, and the power of spirit necessary to rise against and above that.

And then the themes multiplied. What does it mean to be considered an abject failure at something – by your own peers, your own class? How far would you be willing to go to prove yourself worthy? What things, what people, what ideas in your life are you willing to fight and die for? What happens if you are the only one of your kind, and you don’t know where you came from, or what is going to happen to you because there is no precedent for what you are?

The story unwound in a powerful and explosive way, the same story seen through the POV of three different characters who play a major part in the tale, a story seen through three separate prisms which thus acquires a certain three-dimensionality which was never before so obvious in any of my stories.

This is a work of fiction, a work of FANTASY no less, but its world… is our world, and it matters. It matters deeply. These are some of my most beloved, most astonishing characters, avatars of so many out there who face pain with courage and with knowledge and with earned wisdom.

The power of story

That is part of the power of story – this identification with a protagonist, who somehow arrives out of nowhere ready to completely understand our own innermost feelings and secrets. For adult readers who have had years of living under their belt, who have been working to acquire that necessary wisdom for a long time, stories like this may be memories – a look back into a time when things were difficult for themselves, and a recollection (with or without pain) of how they dealt with those situations.

For young readers, stories like these are part of that acquisition of wisdom and experience. If there is a good reason for a YA label at all then this is it – stories of people LIKE THE YOUNG READER, characters who are potential friends, but also potential role models in how they react and respond to fictional situations that the reader might find something to identify with. The best such stories are not moralizing or didactic or arrive with a knuckle-rapping “lesson” embedded inside – the best such stories are involving, enveloping, enfolding, they are things in which you can wrap yourself, and come out of wearing them as armour against the realities which might be out there waiting to assault you.

The best “lessons” are not the ones that are forcefully and insistently taught, but those answers which you find within yourself when a story like this helps you ask the right questions. What, then, would you do? In that story, in similar circumstances, what then would you do? How would you overcome?

The story gives you the pieces, the hints, but they don’t add up to anything that is a overweening Answer To Everything. Those pieces are different for every reader. They combine with pieces you bring to the story yourself. And every book connects with every reader in a different way, and the answers are always YOURS, deeply and personally yours, because every reader is unique and there are no two questions out there about people’s identity or their life situation which are exactly alike.

Stories are powerful. And stories aimed at, and read by, young readers are amongst the most powerful stories of all. We may read many books during the course of our lives – but by the time we get to be forty, fifty, sixty years old and half a century has rolled away from underneath us… for all too many of us, it is the books we read when we were sixteen which somehow remain with us, and in which we finds the roots of many things that we grew up to become.

You can find the first book in The Were Chronicles, Random, HERE

Wolf is HERE

Shifter is HERE

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