Archive for December 8th, 2009

Help Me Out

December 8, 2009 @ 9:10 pm | Filed under:

A while back I read something—it might have been in a book, but I’m pretty sure it was in a post or article online somewhere —that put a name to the emotional response a reader or viewer may have to a particularly moving part of the story. You know, the way you tear up at an episode of Little House on the Prairie. (What, you don’t tear up at those? My husband mocks me ruthlessly because I always, always, always do.) Or an old Hallmark commercial. Or the ending of Stone Fox.

If you’re a sap, like me, then you get choked up easily—for me it’s whenever someone in the book or movie makes a kind of noble gesture or sacrifice, like when Jo March sells her hair, or when Hugh Grant’s character walks onstage with the guitar during Marcus’s excruciating talent show performance in About a Boy. Whatever it was I read recently, it named this response and described it in a way I hadn’t heard articulated before, and it made me go YES! That’s IT!

Not catharsis—that’s deeper, more enduring, and is usually a response to a serious and intense event in a story, not the often cheap plot points that elicit my sappy tears. But a real and definable response nonetheless, with (probably) a Greek term to name it. Not sentimentality, though of course that is closely related. A response to a noble act, that’s the part I remember. Is this ringing any bells? Did any of you read the post I’m half-remembering?

I was trying to think of it today when my girls were teasing me for getting choked up while reading aloud Gloria Whelan’s picture book, The Miracle of Saint Nicholas. Every year, we read this, and every year I cry.

If you don’t know what article I’m talking about, then how about chiming in with your favorite sentimental, move-you-to-tears moments in books and movies?

Time for the Annual Hanna’s Christmas Post

December 8, 2009 @ 7:39 am | Filed under:

Every December I get lots of queries from kind readers wondering where they might find a copy of my out-of-print picture book, Hanna’s Christmas, for something more reasonable than the fifty-dollars-and-upward it’s going for at Amazon Marketplace these days. (Crazy!) Here’s a post I wrote about it in December, 2006. I still don’t have any leads beyond the pricey ones at Amazon, eBay, etc. So sorry, folks!

Hanna_1 Hanna’s Christmas was published in 2001 as a joint effort by HarperFestival (an imprint of HarperCollins) and Hanna Andersson, the clothing retailer. (I used my married name, Peterson, not my pen name, Wiley.) The Hanna folks carried it in their catalog for a season or two, but the print run was small and it was not expected to live much longer than that.

I was commissioned to write the book as a work-for-hire, which means there’s no royalty—the writer gets a flat fee and that’s that, no matter how well the book sells. Most books involving licensed characters or merchandise tie-ins are work-for-hire projects. I don’t do work-for-hire anymore, but it was a good way to hone my craft when I was young and hungry. It was also a good way to pay scary medical bills when we were self-employed.

I’m fond of the Hanna book, although it was a challenge to write. Like every other work-for-hire I’ve done, there were a great many editors involved (senior editor, junior editor, packager, etc). I was hired by HarperCollins to write “a picture book about a little Swedish girl named Hanna who moves to America and is homesick, and it’s Christmas. Oh, and also we’d like there to be a tomten in it.”

They already had sketches of Hanna and the tomten—adorably and whimsically drawn by artist Melissa Iwai. From there it was all up to me. I came up with the storyline, which had to be approved by all the aforementioned folks plus someone at Hanna Andersson itself. Then I wrote a draft, which got bumped back and forth a zillion times as various editors weighed in with contradictory remarks.

Like this. In the first draft, I described the tomten’s hat as “red as a rowanberry.” The junior editor bounced it back with a strikethrough.

“Change to ‘his hat was bright red,'” read the note in the margin. “American readers won’t know rowanberries.”

Sigh. I argued that “bright red” was flat and boring. Okay, I wasn’t that blunt, but that was the gist. I pointed out that we’d be better off cutting the whole sentence, since the artwork would clearly show that the tomten’s hat was red anyway.

Nope, said the editor, go with “his hat was bright red.” So I did, growling at the screen. When you’re reading a book to your kids, you don’t want to get stuck dragging through pedestrian sentences like “his hat was bright red.” Bleh.

And then the next person up the line—the senior editor on the project, whom I’d worked with before, a first-rate editor with an excellent eye—read the manuscript. She sent it back with her comments. There was a note by “his hat was bright red.”

“Flat. Can you punch up?”


She was absolutely right, of course. I changed it to “red as a hollyberry” and that’s the line that made it into the book. I still think rowanberry was better.

But I digress. Anyway, I loved the story and am really very fond of my slightly grumpy Hanna and her even grumpier tomten friend. I was quite pleased that I got to work in the St. Lucia feast day tradition, since that was already such a happy tradition in our little family. I got a kick out of having Hanna and the tomten make a construction paper crown, because that was what I had done for Jane the December before. I loved the artwork—I have never met or even spoken to Melissa Iwai, but I thought her work was gorgeous. (I keep meaning to check out her other books. Looks like she has a lot of them! Her website is cool, too, especially the process section.)

In the end, I was really happy with the book and was a little bummed it was a merch tie-in, because of course that put it in a different category of book and I knew it would never be reviewed by the critics. To my surprise, it did get a nice little review in School Library Journal, but still, it was a commercial property, not intended for a long and dignified life on library shelves. After all, the characters are all wearing Hanna Andersson clothing. Even the endpapers are Hanna prints. (We actually have a baby outfit in the same pattern.)

But in the end, I’m glad I took on the Hanna project. I liked the challenge of trying to tell an engaging and well-crafted story within the confines placed upon me by the various bosses. There’s a certain satisfaction in trying to make art out of something so commercial.

Last year I was amused to discover that the book had taken on a new life in the resale market. People were actually hunting for it, trying to land a copy. This year (2006) it seems there are no copies on the market at all. I guess everyone who bought it last year decided to hold on to it, which is nice to think about.

Over the years, I gave away almost all of my author comps. The book really is going to disappear for good soon, save for a few scattered copies on people’s Christmas shelves. So to the very nice folks who have written me in recent weeks, asking if I know where you can find copies, I’m afraid I have to tell you I’m unable to help you out. But I deeply appreciate your interest!