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>Magnum Opera

>When Renee Fleming announced that upon consideration she would not, in fact, be singing Norma at the Met (or anyplace else), my first thought was, good call, Renee, but my second was to wonder if writers have any equivalent kind of challenge.

Bellini’s Norma is something of a Mount Everest for sopranos. She’s an allegedly virginal Druid priestess who has in fact been getting it on with with one of the occupying Romans with two children resulting. Then she finds out that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with her number-one handmaiden, Adalgisa. They sing a duet of “Does He Love You (the Way He Loves Me)?” later popularized by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis. Then Norma thinks about killing the children but instead decides to kill herself, and the boyfriend, realizing how good he had it, joins her in self-immolation.

It’s passionate stuff, as you can see, but the challenge comes from marrying the drama with the sheer technical difficulty of Bellini’s bel canto music–lots of fast scales, trills and other coloratura magic coupled with tons of close harmony. You need a big but agile voice and those are rare. There haven’t been any hugely acclaimed Normas since Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland (although I’ve been hearing good things about a recent Edita Gruberova recording). But every big-girl soprano has it in her landscape if not in her sights: will I do it? Can I do it? Will I disgrace myself? etc.

But writers have to make it up for themselves every time; we don’t say, “yeah, Holes was great, but when’s he going to write Walk Two Moons?” I do know that children’s writers, particularly, face the “so when are you going to write a real book” question, but only from amateurs. Is there a mountain a writer is expected to climb? Do you feel the need to write a Big Book? We’ll leave the question of whether you should kill yourself, your boyfriend, your best friend, or your children for another time.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I do know that children’s writers, particularly, face the “so when are you going to write a real book” question, but only from amateurs.

    Crit writers in our field get this question too, meaning “so when are you going to write a children’s book?”

    -Rebecca Rabinowitz

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    >On the illustrator front I’ve often thought (although maybe this is no longer true) that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an Everest of sorts. I’m always trying to convince my favorite illustrators to give it a try.

  3. >Well, an awful lot of YA authors seem to feel a need to write another Catcher in the Rye. And many neoCatchers get a lot of critical attention. So that may be a comparable situation.

    I think many writers feel pressure to write a Breakout Book, which isn’t necessarily the same as a Big Book.

  4. >Sometimes people look at what you’ve written and sort of edge around the question: ‘When are you going to write a *proper* children’s book?’. Some of them mean something in which kids shoot cocaine into their eyeballs, steal cars, seduce and/or murder someone and give birth to illegitimate babies in public toilets (that being realistic or literary fiction). Some of them use ‘proper’ to mean their own favourite book from childhood – Peter Rabbit, Magic Faraway Tree, Chronicles of Narnia, Gulliver’s Travels (that being classic fiction). And some of them (often publishing people) mean Harry Potter – or at least something which will become a movie (that being profitable fiction, the rarest genre of all).

    My personal Everest has always been multi-volume storytelling. I love trilogies and series, like the work of Tamora Pierce and Garth Nix, but I seem to think in standalones myself. I’d love to write something really epic one day – although I don’t know if my sanity could stand it…

  5. >I don’t want to write a BIG book. I just want to write “Charlotte’s Web”.

    Bonny Becker

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Fascinating question.

    My answer is no. I want a lifetime of work, with each new project stretching and growing my capabilities. I do not want one big lump in the middle, and to have people ever after shake their heads over each book that follows and say, “Oh, it’s fine, but she’ll never write another X.”

    It might be a great thing to be remembered for — to have written X — but it’s not a good way to live a writer’s life every day.

    However, if I could somehow arrange to write that Big Book at age 90-something, at the top of my game, after a lifetime of writing well and living well, that would be just fine.

    Nancy Werlin

  7. >I have probably misunderstood the question, but to plunge on regardless: My ‘Norma’–the genre I will never ‘sing’–would be the easy reader. I think Lobel’s Frog & Toad and Marshall’s George & Martha books are *brilliant*, and I know I could never achieve that level of storytelling and humor on a limited vocabulary using so few words while having to worry about whether there are too many diphthongs. Or whatever. (See what I mean? Genius, that’s what those books are.) I’m not even gonna try.

    My ‘Everest’ (to stay with the switch in metaphors) would be the perfect picture book text. One that endures for generations, like Good Night, Moon or Where the Wild Things Are. I am garrulous by nature, which is why novel-writing suits me better. And I love novels best for reading, so am more than content with what I get to do every day. But novels are mostly a private experience, whereas picture books can provide a different kind of pleasure–a shared pleasure between adults and children. So I’ll never stop hoping that someday, I might write a letter-perfect picture book. –Linda Sue Park

  8. >It strikes me that the writer’s job is more akin to the composer’s than the performer’s. The sideways analogy, as Linda Sue suggests above, is approaching a difficult or historically loaded genre. Not ‘can I write Norma?’ but can I write a bel canto opera that can play on the same stage as Norma without shaming me to Siberia in the process?

    Illustrators of classic texts, as Monica suggests, face the performer’s challenge of making something new in the face of long audience experience and strong historical precedent. For me, anyone taking on a Grimm story or – god forbid – the Bible had better come prepared to throw down with the big boys.

    Ultimate Illustration Nightmare: the Nativity.

  9. >Ooooh…

    Goodness gracious, doesn’t everyone want That Book? Perhaps my youth is speaking here. But really. Doesn’t everyone want that classic, that eternal story? True, it would be nice to be responsible for something so successful as Harry, but oh! To have a story of one’s own be cherished by children who become adults who tell it to their children and so on?

    My idea of Big is something that lasts.

  10. >Just writing a children’s novel of practically any description (as long as it was good!) would be my Everest. I can write picture books and chapter books and nonfiction of any length, but I’ll never feel like a “real” writer until I come out with the kind of book I loved as a child . . . alas, I don’t have any particular talent in that direction.

  11. >I second that, Bonny and Linda.

    My personal Everest would be that retelling of Dante’s Vita Nuova I’ve always wanted to do. It would be a historical fantasy that starts with an assassination and ends with half the city burning down.

    I’ve had the idea in my sights for years. But, to quote Dante himself, “after reflecting somewhat on such a decision, it seemed to me that I had undertaken too lofty a theme for myself, so that I dared not begin writing, and I remained for several days afterwards with the desire to write and the fear of beginning.”

    Not to mention that I have an awful lot of territory to cover before I try to take the man on.

  12. >As I children’s poet, I often get asked–mostly by people outside the field–when I am going to write a “real book”–i.e., a novel (preferrably adult). Poetry just doesn’t click with everyone, whereas novels are appreciated by all. Alas, I often ask MYSELF that same question. I think nw said it best (above): “I’ll never feel like a ‘real’ writer until I come out with the kind of book I loved as a child.” I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but my plot-challenged brain is always dreaming of novels . . .

  13. >My Everest keeps changing on me. I did finally manage to write the kind of book I had always loved as a child– E. Nesbit was my personal hero, for example, along with many other British writers of that era– but alas, their use of certain parts of speech, which I absorbed into my bones, is not universally admired today. My new Everest is to make a speech– “In Defense of the Adverb”– with the result that, upon hearing my impassioned endorsement, the (exceptionally literate) audience will leap to its feet as one, converted.

    This is a high and lofty peak, but I am getting my pitons and ice axe ready.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >Reach exceeds grasp = throwing down with the big boys = pushing the work deeper with every book = personal (small-e) everest.

    This is a GREAT question.

    — Kathe

  15. Roger Sutton says:

    >I’m beginning to think there’s no need for book critics, what with how hard you writers can be on yourselves. 😉

    I hadn’t thought of the illustrator’s challenge that Monica and Tim B mention, and it’s much more analogous to the opera-singing example. I wish there were stories that illustrators were wary of, but market forces dictate otherwise: if you can sell a vulgar or mediocre nativity (and you can) then why not?

  16. Marc Aronson says:

    >My own personal Casta Diva would be to write The Story of Humanity as a true middlegrade/YA book. I really would like to do that. But, perhaps because something so vast appeals to me, writing a picture book seems much harder.

  17. Anonymous says:

    >Me? I think writers climb Everest every time we get into a new book. And we stop at various places along the way gazing hopelessly at the top.

    Maybe Natalie B got to the top with TUCK EVERLASTING and White to the top with CHARLOTTE’S WEB and maybe the BAT POET is awfully close. (And no, I don’t think HOLES or any HARRY POTTER is there, not even within a sprinting distance.) But this of course is a personal list. YMMV.

    The problem is that each book we write is so different from the last (well, maybe not if you are writing BABYSITTERS or GOSSIP GIRLS or R. L. Stein stuff) that we have to relearn everything all over again. And all that practicing of scales just reinforces how little we really know THIS time. I mean did OWL MOON really prepare me for THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC? I think not.

    My two and a half cents.

    Jane Yolen

  18. K Barsotti says:

    >I think there's pressure to write something literary or "important." If you write in a genre…it's a big like selling out. Then, of course, one tries to write a book, and gains a new respect for page-turners and even mediocre stories that manage to reach The End.

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