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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wise Bugs and the Way to Go

I got my contributor's copes for the February 2011 issue of Cricket Magazine, in which I have four poems, adaptations from the Tao Te Ching.

I knew it would be thrilling to be in Cricket, a magazine I loved as a child.

I foresaw that it would be beautifully typeset and illustrated.

But what I was not prepared for -- and which completely blew me away -- was Cricket, Ladybug, Sluggo, George, and Muffin talking about my poems in the margins!!

If you did not get Cricket as a kid, it may be impossible to explain to you why this caused my heart to stop. There is something about the way that feisty, funny community of marginal characters weaves the content of the magazine together in a way which situates the stories they make fun of, expound upon, footnote, and struggle to understand, in a whole different space than the rest of literature.

I mean, I knew I was in Cricket, and that it was a cool magazine and a nice publication credit and all that sensible adult stuff. What I didn't realize is that I was where Cricket and Ladybug are.

I have written myself into their universe.

This "Tao Te Ching for kids" thing has been a secret project of mine for the last five years or so.

This is how it started: five or six years ago, I read Ursula K. Le Guin's beautiful rendition of the Tao Te Ching. (A "rendition" is when, for instance, you don't actually read ancient Chinese -- so you're not exactly "translating", but instead write poems based on previous translations, and on philological explanations of the individual characters.) I was so delighted with it that I started reading excerpts of it to my kids.

"Daddy," Aviva said, sternly. "I would probably like this... if it were translated into kid language."

So translate it I did. I got, and pored over, a bunch of additional English translations of the Tao Te Ching (including the Mair, Mitchell, and Henricks versions, and some others, including several online versions), and translated all eighty-one poems into Kid Language, replacing spring festivals with birthday parties, uncut wood and raw silk with blank paper and clay right out of the jar, and advice on ruling ancient China with (identical) advice on surviving elementary school.

This resulted in a book called "The Way to Go".

After Aviva and Noah were satisfied with it, I ran it through some critiquers and showed it to a few agents and editors; folks liked it, but the impression I got was that it did not lend itself to easy mainstream publication. There's not really an existing channel for long books of translated, non-narrative, philosophical poetry for middle graders, and I was resistant to the idea of adding characters and a plot (I didn't think Lao Tse would approve).

I really wanted it to be Lao Tse's work, itself, made wholly accessible to kids, not merely a modern kids' book which was a homage to the Tao Te Ching. (You can see where that's kind of a crazy, intrinsically impossible, outsider-art kind of an ambition...)

What this means, I think, is that the NYC publishing industry is probably not the right delivery mechanism for the project; I'd need to find a small press willing to do something quirky, or serialize it in a new agey lifestyle magazine, or figure out a way to turn it into an online project, or a graphic novel, or interpretive dance street theater, or something. At a minimum, if nothing else seems like it's going to happen, I should just blog the poems.

Then, a couple years back, I sold four of the poems to Cricket. That put the project of the book as a whole on ice, because they had first rights, and issues take a while to come out. So I haven't been thinking about "The Way to Go" for awhile.

But now the issue is (thrillingly -- hello everybuggy!) about to come out. What do you think I should do with the rest of The Way to Go?

Posted by benrosen at January 29, 2011 12:20 PM | Up to blog

Ben, can any of the poems be viewed online?

Posted by: valerie at January 29, 2011 04:38 PM

Also have a friend with a small art book printing biz in Berkeley- he has a young daughter and I think would like a project like this. Contact me if you want me to pursue it.

Posted by: Valerie at January 29, 2011 04:40 PM

Congratulations - what a fabulous market for those poems! And good luck placing the rest of them. It sounds like a book I'd love to read to MrD in a few years.

Posted by: Steph Burgis at January 29, 2011 05:55 PM

If I were you, I'd contact the good folks at Milkweed Press, here in Minneapolis. They are one of my favorite publishers, with a long list of interesting, quirky and soulful children's literature (in addition to lots and lots of beautiful books for non-kid-types as well). I'll bet they'd be into it.

Posted by: Kelly Barnhill at January 29, 2011 06:49 PM

Wow. That's awesome about Sluggo et al!

Da Capo Press has published various Tao-related books over the years (a parent's guide to Tao Te Ching, etc.). Might be worth dropping someone there a line.


Posted by: Tim Pratt at January 29, 2011 06:51 PM

Valerie -- I haven't put up any of the poems yet. Well, okay, until now. Here's one -- "Not-Doing", based on Lao Tse's poems 2 and 3.

If everybody thinks the same things are beautiful,
that's ugly.
If everybody agrees about what's good,
that's bad.

You can't have easy without hard.
You can't have high without low.

Wise kids do nothing, and stuff gets done.
They can teach without talking.

So if wise kids were in charge
they'd give people food
instead of ideas and wishes.
If someone knew how to fix everything,
the wise kids would say,

If you do not-doing, nothing is broken.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 31, 2011 05:51 PM

Thanks everyone, and thanks Tim, Val & Kelly for the leads -- I'm putting them on my list...!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 31, 2011 05:53 PM
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