Monday, May 18, 2015

The Author Who Never Met a Genre He Didn't Like (or Write)

Clyde Robert Bulla and the Power of Persistence

Starting with the publication of The Donkey Cart in 1946 and for the next six decades, Clyde Robert Bulla published nearly one hundred books for children. Aimed at readers in the third through the sixth grades, his books ran the gamut of fiction genres, and also included non-fiction, songs, musical scores and plays.

Not bad for a farm boy who dropped out of high school after his first year to help support his family. 

Bulla described himself as largely self-educated, and in his writing tried always to remember how difficult reading was for some of his classmates in the one-room schoolhouse they attended. His plots were always complex enough to interest older readers but Bulla kept the language of the story simple, direct and to the point so as not to discourage those for whom the printed page was more of a challenge.

In this, Bulla echoes today's stated purpose of Hi-Lo books, books with high-interest (more mature) themes combined with lower reading levels. I don't know that I'd classify Bulla's stories that way. Most - not all - of the content of current Hi-Lo books seem to focus on teen issues involving various types of dysfunctional situations involving drugs, alcoholism, and families, or issues involving sexuality and self-identification. Or sports. Lots of Hi-Los are about sports. These books address a vital need as a sort of last-ditch effort to get kids reading before they're out of the school system and trying to make their way in the world. The focus is on attaining competency, not creating great literature.

Bulla's protagonists, in contrast, are younger, and the language he uses to tell their stories is deceptively simple, yet so effective and so eloquent that Bulla conveys in two short sentences what a writer of lesser skill would expend two pages to much lesser effect.

I pulled several of Bulla's books to read for this post. My object was to pick one to review, but after reading them - each one a different genre - there was no way I could leave any of them behind.  That being said, today's post takes a look at three books by Clyde Robert Bulla, from oldest to most recent, every one a gem.

Let's see how he does it.

Book #14: White Bird by Clyde Robert Bulla (1966).  Illustrated by Donald Cook. 63 pages.

This is a quiet book about a young boy, John Thomas, and the man who raised him, Luke Vail, on an isolated farm Half-Moon Valley, in very early 1800s Tennessee.

After a period of heavy rain and flooding, Luke Vail, a farmer who lives alone goes down to the river and discovers a baby's cradle floating with the current, with a baby inside.  That baby is John Thomas, who Luke brings home and raises by himself, with help from his only neighbors, the childless Hannah and Will Barlow.

When John Thomas is four, the Barlows, tired of the hard life in the Valley, decide to relocate to the Mississippi Valley. They want to take John Thomas, But on the day of their departure, Luke hides with the boy, and the Barlows leave without him.

Several years pass. Luke teaches John Thomas all about farming and hunting, and teaches him to read from his only book, the Bible.  When they need supplies, Luke rides into town on the other side of the hill.  John Thomas has never been to the town.  Luke doesn't trust people, and wants to protect John Thomas from the world.  Luke gets mad when he discovers that John Thomas waved to some people on a raft traveling down the river.  He tells John Thomas to hide whenever he spots another person.

John Thomas is happy, but lonely.  He gets it in his head that he wants a dog, but Luke refuses, saying that he's only get too attached to a dog and then be sad when the dog dies.  One day, soon after, John Thomas discovers a wounded white crow, an albino, in a tree trunk struck by lightning.  Despite Luke's insistence that he set the bird free, John Thomas keeps it and nurses it back to health. One day, two men and a boy approach the farm, saying that they're looking for land to buy.  Luke is unfriendly, and the three are soon on their way, but not before the boy sees John Thomas's bird and asks John Thomas to give it to him.  John Thomas refuses, but the next day, when the three are gone, John Thomas discovers that his bird is missing.

Luke refuses to let John Thomas go after them, so John Thomas leaves on his own.  He tracks them to town, where he meets the proprietor of the general store, Dave Cressey, who allows him to stay overnight before continuing on. He meets a young girl, Isabel, and eats visits with her family, and then attends a dance and discovers that he loves music.  Finally, he tracks down the men and the boy.  The boy tells him that the white bird is gone, the men forced him to let it go.

John Thomas's goes to the clearing the boy described, meets another boy there, Nim, and learns that the bird was shot. The two talk, and John Thomas leaves the next day.  He wants to work for Dave and support himself, but Dave convinces him to go home to Luke, who has been worrying about him.  John Thomas doesn't want to, because Luke let the boy take his bird, but then Dave reminds him of all the good in Luke, and John Thomas relents.  He returns home, realizes how hard his leaving was on Luke, and gains a better understanding and appreciation for what the two of them share.

Bulla always did a great amount of research on his stories, and you can see that effort in this short book.

WIth very few sentences, the reader gets a full picture of the time and place of rural Tennessee, and the nature of the people who lived there. When John Thomas meets Isabel, he also meets Alex, a tall black man who handles the hunting dogs and addresses the little girl as Miss Isabel. Alex is a slave, also of the time and place. Show, not tell.

This is a book for younger readers that not only delivers a piece of history, but also tackles the complex themes of loneliness, isolation, love and empathy.  John Thomas is mad at Luke, but comes to realize that Luke loves him, made sacrifices for him, and sees the world in a different way than John Thomas sees the world.  It's not wrong, it's just different, and he comes by it courtesy of his own life's experiences.

White Bird at Amazon.

Book #15: My Friend the Monster by Clyde Robert Bulla (1980). Illustrated by Michele Chessare. 75 pages.

Oh, I love this book, love this book. It's a fantasy, a fairy tale, and absolutely wonderful.

Prince Hal is a disappointment to his parents, the King and Queen. He's not attractive, he's not brilliant, he is, in fact, just an ordinary boy.  The King and Queen spend very little time with their son, and keep him isolated in a tower room, where he has all types of material goods, but no companionship.

Hal is forbidden from joining the common children he sees playing outside his window, as it is not fitting for a prince to mingle with commoners.

One day, a little girl steals her way into his room. She trades a book of his for one of hers, an old book about monsters who live in Black Rock Mountain after being driven there by a king who waged war against them. When Hal says that he never heard about that in his history books, the girl replied that the king wouldn't let it be written about, since he was ashamed that any of the monsters escaped. (History written by the winners? A lesson in bias, perhaps?) Neither the girl or Hal can read the writing in the book, it's an unfamiliar script. When the Queen discovers what's happened, she has the girl whipped, the children banished, and throws the book into the fire, over the protests of the prince.

The prince, upset over the turn of events and haunted by nightmares of pleading monsters, grows pale and thin. Alarmed, his parents send him to visit his aunt, who just happens to live near Black Rock Mountain.  Hal's aunt has an odious son, Archer,  who loves to hunt and collect animals in cages. Hal tells Archer that the animals are unhappy, and need to be set free. Archer is angry and drives Hal away.  Rather than going home, Hall heads to Black Rock Mountain, where, as luck and the story would have it, he meets a young monster who is exploring Hal's world.

The young monster is Humbert, who initially fears that Hall, a Small-Eyes, will kill him. (Monsters have large eyes). He explains that his father taught him the magic of how to move between the monster land and the land beyond the mountain, Hal's land.  Despite the danger, Humbert visits continuously, because Hal's land is so beautiful. But now, through Hal's doing, the black fir tree twig that Humbert needs to make the magic work is lost, and Humbert can't go home.  Hal tells Humbert that there is a black fir tree in the garden of the palace, and to wait in hiding until Hal can get another twig and return.

Hal makes it back to the palace, passing as a commoner and as a result seeing more of the everyday life of the people, and gets another black fir twig. When he returns, he learns that Archer has captured Humbert, and has put him on display in a cage. Hal rescues him, but is injured, and the two boys make their way back to Humbert's world, passing through the The Land Between before entering the monster's world. There, Hal is nursed to health by Humbert's mother, who resents his presence because he is a Small-Eyes and puts her in danger with the other monsters.

One day, the other monsters stone Humbert's house and Hal is forced to leave, with Humbert's help. Back at the castle, he learns that Archer has been banished for a year and all of the animals set free. A doctor examines him, and declares that he has been under a spell of the Witch of the Woods, pointing to Hal's scar as proof. Hal lets them all believe that, it certainly raised his parent's estimation of him, and whenever possible, goes back to Black Rock Mountain and plays with Humbert in The Land Between.

My Friend the Monster at Amazon.

Book #16: A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla (1981). Illustrated by Michele Chessare. 115 pages.

In his Historical Note at the end of the book, Bulla writes that A Lion to Guard Us was inspired by the 1609 voyage of the Sea Adventure, which with eight other ships sailed from Plymouth, England to Virginia, then an English colony. The ships were bringing supplies and men to Jamestown, settled two years previous and not in dire straits.  During the voyage, a storm drove the ships apart and the Sea Adventure was shipwrecked on an island in the Bermudas, six hundred miles from Virginia.  Using the wreckage of the Sea Adventure to build two new ships, nine months later all of the original passengers sailed to Virginia, delivering food, supplies and help to Jamestown. News of these events were published in England, some of which, Bulla claims, were read by a man who wrote plays named William Shakespeare, who went on to write a play about a ship, a storm and an enchanted Island called The Tempest.

When their mother, a servant in a London household, dies, the three Freebold children, Amanda, Meg, and Jemmy, must find a way to get to their father, who emigrated to Jamestown several years before.  Thrown out of the house where their mother was a servant, they are taken in by a kindly Dr. Crider, who books all four of them a passage to Virginia on the Sea Adventure.

During the course of the voyage, the doctor is lost overboard, so when the ship is wrecked during a storm, the three children make their own house on the island rather than live with another family.  The youngest, Jemmy, has the brass knocker of a lion, the one from their house in London, stolen from him and he goes off to find it, almost making the three children miss the departure of the two newly built ships sailing to Virginia.  But they make it, and once they arrive at Jamestown, Amanda, the oldest, finds their father, who has survived but is very ill. The family is together again.

Excellent historical fiction, very readable and a terrific read-aloud.

A Lion to Guard Us at Amazon.

Clyde Rober Bulla (1914 - 2007) was born on a farm near the small town of King City, Missouri.  He had two older sisters and an older brother.  He attended Bray School, a one room schoolhouse, an this first teacher was his older sister, Corrine.  As soon as he learned to read and write, he was fascinated with words, wanting more than anything to learn new ones, put them together, and see what he could make them say.  In 1924, he won a one dollar prize for a story about a grain of wheat in a contest sponsored by a newspaper.  He was now an official writer.

Bulla's family wasn't particularly supportive, but they weren't opposed to his goal. After his first year of high school he had to drop out to work the family farm and help support his family. He worked as a farmer until 1943. The stories that Bulla sold during the lean years of the Depression helped with the family finances. After his mother became ill, the family moved into town and Bulla went to work as a linotyper for a newspaper, also writing a column called 'People and Places.'

Bulla joined a group of writers that corresponded with each other and critiqued each others work.  Through that group, he came to know a woman named Emma Celeste Thibodaux, a teacher and writer of children's stories from Louisiana. She was convinced that Bulla, who at that point had written only for adults, should try writing for children. Bulla didn't agree, but when pressed, he did write a story based on her suggestion, The Donkey Cart. Bulla sent it to his agent, who was underwhelmed.

Thibodaux would not be deterred, and several years later, after meeting and forming a friendship with author-illustrator Lois Lenski, suggested to Bulla that he send The Donkey Cart to Ms. Lenski.  Bulla resisted, then received a letter from Lois Lenski, where she told him that Thibodaux had sent her some of Bulla's columns, and that based on those columns wanted to see his unpublished manuscript for The Donkey Cart. Bulla sent her a copy, Lenski showed it to her editor, Elizabeth Riley at Thomas Y. Crowell Company, who loved it and after considerable revisions by Bulla, published it. And asked for more.

A career was born.

Bulla spent the rest of his life traveling, researching, writing, painting and composing.  He was a huge opera buff, and collaborated on a series of "Read & Sing" books with Lois Lenski.

A side note. Clyde Robert Bulla referred to Emma Celeste Thibodaux, Em Celeste, as his best friend.  The two never met in person.

Clyde Robert Bulla Papers at University of Southerm Mississippi de Grummond Collection.

Clyde Robert Bulla Papers  at the University of Central Missouri Sadler Research Collection.

Guide to Clyde Robert Bulla Papers  from Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA) at the University of Oregon

No comments:

Post a Comment