September 28, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Laurel Snyder's Bigger than a Bread Box is a middle grade novel that even adults can relate to. Filled with complex and interesting characters (and even a touch of magic), this book explores the subject of divorce from a child's perspective with the charm and great storytelling skills I have come to expect from Snyder.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Introspective and rich with delicate imagery, this coming-of-age tale shares themes with Snyder’s Penny Dreadful (2010). The insightful, memorable, and complex characters that Snyder creates result in a story with the same qualities."
I've realized that my new middle grade book, Bigger than a Bread Box, is a painful read for some grownups. How do I know this? They're writing to tell me so.
My friends say that as divorced parents, they don't really want to dwell on what they might have put their own kids through. They don't want to consider the ways in which the book might be true. They wish I'd set divorce in the book as a backdrop (which is often how it functions in books for kids, as a setting).
But I couldn't do that, because while my book is about a magical vintage breadbox with seagulls and Tastykakes and money flying out of it, it's also about families when they aren't going well.
And what I want to say to my friends is this—divorce sucks for kids, almost always. It just does. This doesn't mean that it isn't a good thing. But it SUCKS to have a parent leave. It SUCKS to be unsure of what "family" is. It sucks. I wanted to write a book about that.
Know what else? Kids are used to things sucking. Getting shots is something kids hate. Mean babysitters suck, and tuna casserole sucks. Kids are trapped in their lives, at the mercy of adults, and adults make kids do a lot of things they dislike. Often, these things are good for the kids. We can accept that sometimes we hurt them because it's "for the best."
I wrote Bigger than a Bread Box from the hardest, youngest, most unsure place in my life—my worst year ever. The year I still talk about in therapy. The year my dad moved out. Even now I can't think about it too much without crying. It wasn't (and isn't) a setting. It's a critical plot point in my own story, a moment of character development. Maybe this isn't how divorce functions for everyone, but for me, that was (and is) how it was (and is).
And in order to get to that place—in order to write about it, I spent a year listening to songs that made me cry. I listened to the music of my parents dividing our family in half. Most of these songs belong to one parent or another, pretty clearly. This is telling, I think. That my parents didn't really share music.
Below are the songs I listened to, as my life fell apart. And then again, as I wrote this book, and tried to make something of my thirty-year-old mess. Because that's the best way to write a book for children, right? Right? Because that's healthy?
"You Can Close Your Eyes," James Taylor
"But I can sing this song/ And you can sing this song/When I'm gone…"
My dad sang me most of my bedtime songs. I don't know why. This one is the one I remember as most soothing, most happy. I sing it to my own kids now. I've sung it every night for six years. It still makes me very sad to imagine my dad singing it, knowing he would be gone. I almost can't bear to revisit that moment.
"Story of Isaac," Leonard Cohen
"You who stand above them now/ Your hatchets blunt and bloody…"
Okay, yeah, this was one of my bedtime songs too. How messed up is that? It terrified me. If you don't know this song, you need to go listen to the whole thing to fully understand the weirdness of my dad singing it to me in the darkness. That said, I have loved Cohen all my life. "You who build these alters now/ to sacrifice these children?"
"The Circle Game," Joni Mitchell
"Yesterday, a child came out to wander…"
This is one of the few songs my parents both seemed to really like. I remember, as a kid, thinking it was a song for kids, because it was about a kid. As I got older, I came to understand it differently. It got sadder. Like the Giving Tree, but smarter and not so creepy.
"Idiot Wind," Bob Dylan
"You're an idiot, babe/ It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe…"
Of all the songs my dad sang me, this one seems most random to me now, as a grownup. But when I was writing the book, I realized maybe it wasn't random, and that it probably wasn't directed at me. It's hardly a bedtime song, and it too loud for going to sleep. Also, the lyrics are insane. But my dad sort of growled it, and I couldn't understand any of the lyrics anyway. I thought for years it was called "Yaddeeawah."
"Complainte pour St Catherine," The McGariggles
"SPlahblahbittyyaloodaynateena, blah blah woooooooo!"
Speaking of lyrics you don't understand-- sometimes, in the evenings, before my dad left, my family would dance together. I don't know if this happened every week, or only three times, but some of my best childhood memories are of those dance parties in the living room, and I wrote them into the book. Often on those nights, we listened to the McGarrigles. Someone would put on a record, and we'd dance until the record skipped or ended. I have NO CLUE what these chicks were saying most of the time. I memorized their songs (often in French) as sounds, not words. I can still sing along, but have no idea what on earth I'm saying.
"You're So Vain," Carly Simon
"But you gave away the things you loved/ And one of them was me…"
Another song we sometimes danced to. I remember staring at the record jacket for this one and thinking Carly was a stone cold fox, and also being embarrassed for her that I could see her nipples through her shirt. I associate this song with my mom, as an "independent" woman I guess, which I had such mixed feelings about at the time.
"Smoky Mountain Rain," Ronnie Milsap
"Tears filled my eyes when I found out she was gone…"
Did you get pay day presents when you were a kid? I did. Every two weeks (mostly) my dad would come home with some small gift. One week, I got my very first record, and it was this, randomly, a 45 of "Smoky Mountain Rain." But my dad had given it to me and so I wore it OUT! When I went looking for this song last year I realized I hadn't heard it in decades.
"Angel of the Morning," Juice Newton
"There'll be no strings to tie your hands/ Not if my love can't bind your heart…"
This song was all over the radio in the years I've been reliving, and one strong memory I have from that time is of sitting in the front seat of the car. Perhaps the only good thing I remember about the divorce was that when you only have one parent, you get to sit up front, and fiddle with the radio. For some reason, when I fiddled with the radio, this was the song I remember looking for.
"Same Old Lang Syne," Dan Fogelberg
"Tried to reach beyond the emptiness, but neither one knew how..."
If memory serves, my mom loved this album. I know she played it enough that I memorized the whole thing. At the time, I loved it too, and I'd sway to it when nobody else was watching. It was a twirling sort of song. Now, looking back, I'm pretty sure it's the single worst song I've ever loved. But it was appropriate to the era and it still makes me teary.
"Hungry Heart," Springsteen
"Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back…"
I saved the best, most important song for last! This is the song that means more to me than just about any other song in the entire world. I wrote the lyrics into Bigger than a Bread Box (and then spent months paralyzed with fear Bruce wouldn't grant permission to use them in the book). It's so strange to me that I remember this song as happy, when it's actually about a dad leaving his kids (in my hometown, no less). But somehow I never processed that at the time. It was just a song my family liked to dance to, in the years when we were falling apart. And then, I guess, putting ourselves back together… And now, I sing this one to my kids at night too. Which is funny, I know. But somehow, it makes me feel better to give it new life, new meaning.
I guess that's how these things go.
RIP Clarence Clemons…
Laurel Snyder and Bigger than a Bread Box links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists
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