A BOOK’S FAMILY TREE by Paul Fleischman
If you become a writer, I can tell you right now what question you’ll be asked more than any other: Where do you get your ideas? Natural enough. The mystery of something seeming to come from nothing fascinates us.
But books don’t come from nothing. Often they have other books as parents. And grandparents and aunts and great-uncles. Let me show you, using my own latest book, Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines.
When I was in high school, one of my teachers assigned us Man and His Symbols by the psychologist Carl Jung. The book was a tour of the human subconscious, but it was the illustrations as much as the words that affected me. To show how forbidden impulses and universal needs played out around us, the book was filled not only with famous works of art but with news photos, stills from movies, quotes, and images of daily life. In the section on totem animals that represent a group, there was a photo of a uniformed cadet holding a falcon, the mascot of the Air Force Academy. I was soon to go off to college at Berkeley, the realm of the Bears. Man and His Symbols went with me–and on countless moves since. It’s still on my shelf, 45 years later.
After two years at Berkeley I was ready for a break from school. I rode my bike to Vancouver, took the train across Canada, rode another thousand miles around the East, and ended up housesitting the house in the photo, in a clearing in the woods of New Hampshire. I’d never been out of the West, never seen snow coming down, never lived in the woods. Everything was foreign. To get a grip, I got a book–the pocket-sized paperback Birds, part of the Golden Nature Guide series. Before that book I couldn’t have identified anything beyond a crow or sea gull. But suddenly I realized that those were barn swallows swooping over my field and that the cheerful chirpers who followed me down the road were black-capped chickadees.
I love the beginning of the learning curve, when big things that have been hiding in plain sight all around you are suddenly revealed. From Birds, I went on to buy Trees, then Stars, then Weather, then Insects. I have them all still. (They’re still available, with different covers, from St. Martin’s Press.)
Human babies takes nine months to develop. Book babies could take nine weeks, or nine years. Or 38 years, which is how long it was before Man and His Symbols and Birds produced their child. I was living back in California, in the little town of Aromas, and began noticing dead bees on my driveway. First one, then two, then new ones in new places every day. Then it hit me that the swallows I used to see sweeping the sky for insects were gone. So were bats at night. What was going on?
If you follow the trail from those tiny dead bees you quickly find yourself facing big issues: population, development, agriculture, pesticides, things we take for granted that are having a major impact on the environment we depend on. We’ve only recently become aware of this. Suddenly everything needs rethinking, from cars to suburbs to fast food to cheap prices. Our historical moment is perhaps the most dramatic in history, but that drama is hiding in plain sight, unnoticed by many. I wanted to open readers’ eyes to this in the same way my own eyes had been opened to birds. I wanted to give them names for what was around them. Instead of goldfinches and Eastern kingbirds I’d teach them to spot vested interests and regression. Instead of being able to read the forest, I’d show them how to read the newspaper. And I’d do it with the help of photos and quotes and headlines and bumper stickers in the margin, just as in Man and His Symbols, showing that the various topics were indeed playing out all around them. And so Eyes Wide Open was born.
The adult book Collapse by Jared Diamond is an older cousin of Eyes Wide Open. It too deals with the environment and came out several years earlier, sparking my interest in writing about the topic. Eyes Wide Open has an uncle as well, an earlier book of mine called Dateline: Troy. It has the Trojan War story on one side of the page across from actual news clippings of parallel events from our own era–one of Western culture’s oldest stories hiding in plain sight in our daily paper. It took me five years off and on to find the clippings but I loved the hunt and wanted to do another book that used headlines. Originally Eyes Wide Open had the same format–clippings about the environment on one page, history and context on the facing page. The book eventually outgrew that structure, but headlines remain in the subtitle, on many of the pages, and on the opening page of the book’s website, EyesWideOpenUpdates.com.
Eyes Wide Open is too young to have had books of its own yet. But it’s already given birth to articles written by readers and posted on the Field Reports page of the website. All are invited. As for my next book, I have no idea what I’ll be writing. But I can tell you this: it will have an interesting family tree. Books always do.
Paul Fleischman has written novels, plays, poetry, picture books, and nonfiction. He’s won the Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a Newbery Honor for Graven Images, and was a National Book Award finalist for Breakout. In 2012 he was the United States’ nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award for the body of his work. He lives in California. For info about him and his books, go to www.paulfleischman.net. For more about Eyes Wide Open, check out EyesWideOpenUpdates.com.