Wednesday, February 6, 2013

There Are Penguins in My Swimming Pool

What follows is a story I wrote in 2004 for a class on writing for children. The story was targeted toward early readers, with the idea being that it would more likely be read to a child by their parent or teacher. Were it an actual finished book, it would also have been filled with illustrations, which would have been the real selling point. But I am not an artist, and there are no pictures here, so you must imagine.

Now, without further ado, here is, exactly as submitted nine years ago, quite probably the best thing I ever wrote:

There Are Penguins in My Swimming Pool

"There are penguins in my swimming pool," said Tommy.

"Stop saying that! You know it's not true!" said all the other kids.

Tommy never stopped insisting that his pool was full of penguins, even though none of the other children ever believed him. Most of the kids, in fact, had already taken to ignoring him, but there were a handful still who continued to listen, if for no other reason than to try and prove him wrong.

"They came from Antarctica," Tommy explained. "You see, when it's winter here, it's summer over there. The penguins migrated to my pool because it's too warm right now in Antarctica."

None of the others knew enough about Antarctica to know if Tommy was telling the truth about it being summertime there. Some were willing to take his word for it, because they knew Tommy was smarter when it came to such things. But even if that part was true, the kids still found Tommy's story hard to believe. The doubting persisted.

"How could they migrate from Antarctica?" asked Sarah. "Penguins can't fly."

"I know that!" responded Tommy. "Of course the penguins didn't fly from Antarctica. They swam."

Once again, the others could not be sure whether or not Tommy's explanation was possible. They knew that Antarctica was far away, but they didn't know if it was too far for penguins to swim. And their town was near the beach, so it seemed a likely enough place for weary penguins to stay. After all, the penguins probably wouldn't want to walk very far after swimming all that way.

"But why, out of all the places they could go, would they stay at your pool?" asked Sarah. "I have a pool, and I bet it's just as cold as yours."

"The penguins told me your pool is too small and the water is dirty," Tommy said.

Sarah frowned. She had never seen Tommy's pool to compare, but her own pool wasn't as big or as clean as some others she had seen in magazines.

"Wait a minute!" she said. "Penguins can't talk!"

"How do you know? Have you ever met a penguin?" asked Tommy. "Are you trying to tell me that my penguins can't speak, even though I know I just spoke to them this morning?"

"Prove it!" Sarah demanded. "Let us see these talking penguins in your pool!"

"Sorry," Tommy replied. "My parents don't like me bringing people over. Speaking of which, I have to go home now. My mom won't be happy if I'm late for lunch."

Tommy walked off, and the remaining children went on to discuss other topics. All except for Sarah, who could not put Tommy's story out of her mind.

"It's not fair," she muttered to herself. "I wish I could have talking penguins in my swimming pool."

Yes, that's the whole thing.

Reading it now, it definitely seems too short. At most, I could have gotten six illustrated pages out of it, and even that would have necessitated a couple pictures of just the kids standing around and talking. If I were to revise the piece, I would probably have to add at least four or five descriptions by Tommy of what activities the penguins actually did in his pool. The object would be to get page after page of illustrations of the penguins doing specific things. Alas, I find my imagination no more constructive now than it was nine years ago, as I really cannot think of any specific pool-appropriate examples.

Oddly enough, my professor and classmates at the time provided no feedback whatsoever on the length of the story. My professor instead said simply that the ending was weak, which was fair, even though the ending had been one of the first things I had clearly settled on and felt sure of. I had meant it to be humorously ironic, which is perhaps not what one should go for when writing for young children. As it is, it's just kind of abrupt and inconclusive, leaving the reader unsure how to feel coming away from it.

That said, my professor did give me an A-minus for the story. That was a frustrating class for many of my classmates, I remember, because that professor seemed especially stingy with the A grade. In some of the fiction classes, I suppose, students were awarded A's so long as they fully and thoughtfully fulfilled their assignments. The professors were surely experienced enough to identify immature writing (which would have been most of what they received), but maybe, recognizing that true quality is rare at any level and, moreover, that a work of fiction's worth is often (if not always) a matter of taste, they graded generously for effort in the absence of skill.

Diane D'Andrade, professor of our children's literature class, however, was one of those who asked that we truly earn our A grades. My peers were frustrated because, when they asked her what it took to earn an A, she could only say “a certain je ne sais quoi,” which was really no answer at all. And so we were resigned to understand that getting an A was largely out of our control, as it seemed to depend on our work somehow just striking a chord with the professor for reasons she herself could not articulate.

She was formerly an editor at Harcourt, however, so we trusted that she knew her stuff, even if she could not define it to our satisfaction. Most importantly, she knew what it took to get published. Among some of us students, there even came to be the whispered inference that any work that she judged to have "that certain je ne sais quoi,” if not yet ready for publication, at least had the potential. And, of course, some even went that leap of logic further to reckon that any piece that received an A grade from her was therefore fit to be published.

Looking back at my own grossly unpolished story now, that was clearly a ridiculous notion, and about the only thing I'd say I got out of that class was the inside joke, saying this or that book or movie lacked "that certain je ne sais quoi," any time I want to delicately disparage a work or artist. But, at the time, I suppose that A, even if it was only an A-minus, did please me.

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