How The West Was WonHow Deserts And Sense Of Place Influence Children’s Literature By Lauren Regenhardt
“Customarily we concur that to imagine a desert is to picture nature in one of her most extreme aspects: inher most rugged, scorching, barren, arid, and forbidding form. Consequently our images o deserts usually include vast, timeless landscapes whose principlecomponents are windswept sand and obdurate stone and whose only growths are stunted shrubs and stubborn cacti. Such images as these imply that deserts are forsaken places eschewing human participation, places to cross, but not to dwell, places fit only for toxic creatures like scorpions and rattlesnakes.” -Keith Polette
Sense Of PlaceSense of place is important in a child‟s development. Beingaware of place and location and its role in their lives can bringthem a sense of self and an appreciation for diversity. Itstimulates their imagination by connecting them to otherchildren‟s lives and places and gives them the ability to seehow place has impacted other children‟s activities, belies,interests, and interactions. (Wasta, p. 189).
Sense Of Place• “Children tend to assume that subject learning that doesn‟t feel real to them isn‟t real, or that its relevance ends when the school day is over” (Hutchison, para. 1).• If a child doesn‟t see a place, how can it be real to them? Their minds function on the visible and the seen, so it is important to teach them at an early age about different places and cultures so they can gain an understanding of where they are.
Think About Where You Live…• Is it a desert? Mountainous region? Urban city?• How does that influence your interactions, activities, traditions, morals, values?• Now compare those to people who live in different places and settings, are they similar?• Setting is so important in a children‟s book-let‟s see some examples!
This presentation will discuss three children‟sbooks that take place in a desert landscapesetting and why the setting is important. Ichose this topic because being from Las Vegas,the desert is what I know, and I wanted to sharethat with my peers! I had the pleasure ofspeaking with a couple Las Vegas authors andam excited to share those experiences as well.
Play In The Clouds• Play In The Clouds by Mike Miller is just one installment in the Tomas the Tortoise adventures.• The book was selected by the state of Nevada as the single book that will represent Nevada in September at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., and will go into the Library of Congress.• Tomas the Tortoise visits many places in Southern Nevada, which is known for its desert landscape, such as Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston, and even a Ghost Town! His friends are all desert creatures-a coyote, rabbit, owl, mouse, among others. The educational aspect of the series illustrates the desert landscape with the influences of the Southern Nevada culture and locations.
Play In The Clouds Con’t• In Play In The Clouds, Tomas the Tortoise decides to climb to the sky to see if the clouds are as soft and inviting as they look. Chacko the Coyote joins him for some of his journey but when he turns back, Tomas encounters Miguel the Mouse, Snowshoe the Rabbit, a Snowman, and Hooty Owl, who all help him as he makes his trek up Southern Nevada‟s Mount Charleston. When he finally reaches his destination, he is so glad that the clouds invited him to play, and he has the most fun he‟s ever had!
My Interview With Mike MillerI had the honor of speaking with the author of the Tomas theTortoise series, Mike Miller. Here I have summarized my talk withhim to offer a better look at Tomas the Tortoise.• Mr. Miller moved to Las Vegas in 1962 after working for Disney Studios at MGM in the animation department. He worked on Disney movies 101 Dalmatians and Sleeping Beauty, among other projects. He moved to Las Vegas to do design and paint stage scenery and stage shows, and chose to stay.• He got into the commercial end of the business and opened up a design and advertising studio.
Con’t…• After doing dome political cartooning, a friend approached him and asked him if he would illustrate a children‟s book with him. When they went to find a publisher, Mr. Miller took the idea to a client, Stephens Press. After finding out what the publisher wanted in terms of children‟s books, Mike wrote up a separate script and an idea and sent it back, and Stephens Press accepted the pitch.• There were some criteria, however. Stephens Press, located in Las Vegas, wanted something uniquely set in Southern Nevada that was geared toward kids. They wanted a Hispanic influence, so Mr. Miller named all the characters with Hispanic names.
Con’t…• “The worst thing about writing and publishing books is finding a publisher. When you write a manuscript and send it to a publisher, if it is not solicited they will send it right back without looking at it. In ten years, if they publish a book with even a page that is similar, they can sue, so unless you‟re already an established author, most won‟t even look at it. That‟s why I went to the publisher and asked what they wanted, and that opened up a discussion. They told me what they wanted, and it was smooth sailing from there.” -Mike Miller
Character Development“Tomas the Tortoise needed to travel with friends. Part of thelearning process and action is the introduction of different desertcharacters so kids can learn. The coyote‟s personality is verywhimsical. The lizard loves to just lay on the rock and put on sunblock. Rapido the Roadrunner is nothing but speed. Thecharacters all have diverse personalities, which all lend to thestorytelling and to the kids‟ learning because they all interactdifferently. One of the things I do with presentations is that I sayto them, look around you, the five or six people around you areyour friends. They are all totally different, none of them walk likeyou, talk like you, act like you. That‟s what friendship is about-diversity.”
The Writing Process• The Tomas the Tortoise series is all written in meter, a form of poetry.• To begin, Mike sat down with a yellow pad and figured out one scene at a time. For example, one story had a flash flood, there‟s a lesson to be learned, so he develops the story scene by scene, developing a sequence with a story that has a beginning and an end. He draws first then describes the drawings with the written story. That‟s when he has to implement the poetry. Then it is all proofed and the copies go to the publisher and then the copy editor, who moves things around and improves upon the text.• Since the Tomas the Tortoise series, he has illustrated another 8-10 books as well as seven books for the Public Education Foundation of Clark County.• (personal communication with Mike Miller, telephone conversation/email correspondence, August 6, 2012)
Thanks Mr. Miller!• Mike Miller spoke with me over the telephone for 30 minutes from Southern California. It was exciting to get to talk to him and I appreciate the opportunity to learn how Tomas the Tortoise came to be and about the learning process. Living in the desert and writing specifically about the location and the animals found in this setting, Mike can understand the importance of place in a children‟s book!
Holes• Holes by Louis Sachar is a prime example of the desert as a setting. Stanley Yelnats (yes, that‟s his first name spelled backwards!) attracts bad luck like a magnet, so when he is falsely accused of stealing a pair of shoes, he is sent to a boy‟s camp as his punishment. There, he and all the other juvenile delinquents are forced to dig holes all day, every day and are told to give anything that they find to Warden Walker. Warden Walker is searching for the buried treasure of Kissin‟ Kate Barlow, and as Stanley and his new friend Zero put together the pieces and actually find the treasure buried in the desert sand, they realize that Stanley‟s past is directly tied to not only Kissin‟ Kate, but to Zero as well.
Holes, Con’t• The desert plays a huge role in the story and plot. When the boys dig in the sand, they must encounter the desert landscape, between the sand, poisonous reptiles, and unbearable heat. Without this setting, the story would have been different and would not have been so effective.• Winner of the Newbery Award and National Book Award• Now a Major Motion Picture starring Shia Lebeouf, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voigt, and Patricia Arquette.
Eve• Eve by Anna Carey is a post-apocalyptic dystopian book, the first in a trilogy. In a world after a plague takes the lives of much of the population, the New America is underway. Girls and boys are separated, with the girls going to school to decide on their specified craft and the boys to work camp. When Eve discovers that the schools aren‟t just for teaching and education, she runs, meeting and falling in love with a „stray‟, Caleb. When Eve is caught and taken to the City of Sand, her life is forever turned upside down with news that changes how she thinks and acts.
Eve, con’t• The City of Sand is actually the ruins of Las Vegas. The Stratosphere is the King‟s look-out tower, the Venetian Casino office buildings, McCarran Airport the labor camps. The New America‟s new capital becomes Las Vegas, the surrounding area desert and barren land. Eve‟s journey and her love takes her from California to Las Vegas, the mountainous terrain changing to the desert. The setting in the desert is important in the story, as it changes everything for the main character of Eve, becoming her new home, new life, new prison.
The Desert Awaits… The sand…cacti…mirages…everything that is so stereotypical aboutdeserts is true. But that‟s only one side of the desert. On the other is thebeautiful sunsets, the thunderstorms that shake the earth, the comforting sound of the cicadas and crickets. Each side of the desert offers a different but equally as important glimpse into the desert life, and I hopethat each example given illustrates how the desert‟s beauty can be equally enchanting and deceiving.
BibliographyCarey, A. (2011). Eve. New York: Harper.Folette, K. (1997). Desert voices: Southwestern children‟s literature. Children‟s Literature in Education, 28 (3), 163-175.Hutchison, D. (2007). Drawing on children‟s „sense of place‟: The starting point for teaching social studies andgeography [Research monograph #8]. What Works? Research Into Practice. Retrieved fromhttp://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/Hutchinson.pdfMiller, M. (2004). Play in the clouds. Las Vegas: Stephens Press.Personal Communication with Kevin Janison via telephone, June 26, 2012Personal Communication with Mike Miller via telephone, August 6, 2012.Sachar, L. (1998). Holes. New York: Frances Foster Books.Wasta, S. (2010). Be my neighbor: Exploring sense of place through children‟s literature. Social Studies, 101 (5),189-193. doi: 10.1080/00377990903583745
Appendix: Interview with Kevin Janison• When I first started this project, I wanted to focus on Las Vegas children‟s book authors. I knew Kevin Janison was an author from here, as he is a weatherman/meteorologist on our local news channel! When I got further along on the project I realized that there wasn‟t much research to be done on my subject so I had to switch gears a bit, making my interview irrelevant, but I wanted to include the interview so others can see!• He wrote a picture book series called Deputy Dorkface, but the setting is not really in Las Vegas or the desert.
• What are your inspirations for Deputy Dorkface? How did you come up with the idea? What kind of morals do you try to teach in your books? The stories began as bedtime stories I used to tell my children. When they were young it was next to impossible to get them to take a bath, so that‟s how they all started. Each night the story would be modified, it wouldn‟t be the same story. It would be the same gist of the story, it might have a different ending but still each night they want to hear a Deputy Dorkface story. Even if I was tired, I‟d just lay on the floor and let it go. At sleepovers the kids loved it, and I got to speak at classrooms.• Did you get any inspiration from Las Vegas and if so, how did you implement that into the storyline or characters? No, not really. The only thing would be Las Vegas kids using the classmates of my childrens‟ as guinea pigs to see if they enjoyed the stories. Other than the fact that the original story takes place in the Mojave Desert, that‟s the only connection to Las Vegas within the three books.
• What is your favorite children‟s book and who is your favorite children‟s author? I would go to the Nevada reading week and visit schools and read to students. I would read Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. I really enjoy the book and obviously there is a weather tie-in so it‟s a great story. I had to segue from Cloudy to our stories because I wanted to see if the kids liked my stories as much as they liked Cloudy With A Chance. In a perfect world I would want to make a movie for my books. Were hopeful something bigger will come down the road. It just takes a lot of work and a lot of luck.• Do you have any plans to branch away from Deputy Dorkface and venture in the juvenile or young adult genre? You know, I really enjoy doing the picture books. I like to think that we have enough elements and a complex enough story line that they aren‟t just „A is for Apple, B is for Boys‟ books. There‟s a plot, the kids are involved and are eventually heroes or solve their own issues. I‟d like to think we can come up with a few more of those, and by that time I might be too old to be doing anything more than picture books. I would like to do this while I‟m still young enough to be able to go out and share them with students. Even with these books I like to take time to come up with different elements to make a few events memorable in each books. Something would have to give.
• Please explain to me the process of writing a children‟s book. What I normally do is I come up with ideas based on something I‟ve seen or experienced maybe in my house that I think is funny, like not taking a bath or kids being too full for dinner but not for dessert. I come up with an idea that‟s highly fictional that gets the message across that one might have an idea, but it‟s not always the best. I figure out what kind of mayhem could be caused by their actions or inactions and Ill outline three or four elements. I‟ll write them out and take it to the elementary school students to use as guinea pigs to tell what they like and don‟t like. It‟s kid-tested, and then I submit it to the publisher for additional editing. I like to take focus groups to get impressions and see if I‟m going in the right direction. Do kids laugh when it‟s funny and look intense during intense moments? Or are they fidgety and bored? That‟s why I like to test drive it on the kids.