Thursday, June 14, 2007

Growing a Book

Blog entry by Caroline Arnold:

Wiggle and Waggle gets the prize for the longest gestation period of any of my published books. I began writing stories about Wiggle and Waggle more than thirty years ago when my children were in preschool. Our family had recently moved from our tiny apartment in New York City to an old farmhouse in the country. One of the attractions of rural life was the chance to grow our own food. We picked apples in the orchard, tapped the maple trees for sap to make syrup, built a chicken coop, which we filled with fifty baby chicks we ordered from Sears, and behind the barn, in what had once been the barnyard, we dug a garden in the deep, rich earth. As we turned over the ground to prepare it for planting, we watched the worms wiggle back into the soil, after being so rudely exposed to the sunlight. Without the worms to aerate the soil and recycle the plant residue, our garden would not have been nearly so successful.

That first summer we put in tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and zucchini. The plants sprang up practically overnight and I soon learned how to make pickles to use up the glut of cucumbers and zucchini. Our tomatoes hung heavy on the vines in huge clusters, but because we started the garden late, they had not yet ripened by the first frost in September. So, following instructions from our gardening book, we wrapped them in newspaper and brought them inside–all five hundred of them! They slowly turned red and we enjoyed the ripe fruit until Thanksgiving.

Our gardening knowledge came from reading books and trial and error. Each summer the plot grew larger, requiring more fence to keep the woodchucks at bay. One of the joys of winter was poring over seed catalogues with their colorful photos and hundreds of varieties of seeds. Should we plant blue lake or runner beans? White or red Swiss chard? Cherry, salad, or beefsteak tomatoes? Summer or winter squash? We chose the Little Sweetie pumpkin, good for both pies and jack-o-lanterns. The pumpkin vines always had minds of their own, climbing over the fence and trailing off into the field. Luckily woodchucks didn’t seem to like them.

We learned to follow the cycle of the seasons, planting cool weather crops as soon as we could work the ground. The first hot spell always provoked the lettuce to bolt, turning it bitter and telling us it was time to pull it out and plant summer vegetables. In the fall, we left our brussels sprouts in the ground to be picked after the first frost, which turned them sweet and mild. Almost everything we planted grew with little help from us, aside from occasional weeding. Our luck was the fertile garden soil, inhabited by industrious worms.

About the same time that I was learning to garden, I was immersing myself in the world of children’s books. Every two weeks, my son and daughter and I went to the library and checked out piles of books, which I read aloud before naps and at bedtime. We all loved the stories and pictures and I began to think that perhaps I could write stories too. Using our garden as inspiration, I created the characters of Wiggle and Waggle (then called Wilbur and Ronald.). I discovered that writing for children was harder than it looked. The original stories of Wiggle and Waggle were too long, not well connected, and the characters didn’t always motivate the action. I put the stories away and turned to other projects, but every now and then I would get them out and work on them again. One part that never changed was having the worms “write” words with the shape of their tunnels.

Like the seasons, my writing career has also come full cycle. I started writing when my own children were small and mainly focused on books for young readers. As my children grew up, I shifted to writing more for older readers. My son and daughter are now grown and have their own children, who have inspired me to go back to writing for younger readers. As I got out Wiggle and Waggle once again, I reshaped the manuscript into five stories for beginning readers. Finally, after thirty-one years, those stories have become a book. The writing of Wiggle and Waggle may illustrate the value of perseverance–or perhaps it was just one of those garden plants that didn’t mature in the first year, but required more time to reach its peak.

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