Thursday, December 18, 2014

Learning to Read by the Colors

I attended Highland Elementary School in National City, Calif., through third grade before moving to Chula Vista and starting at Lauderbach Elementary. I've mentioned elsewhere that I was motivated to read mostly because Uncle Bob, well-intentioned though he was, was not very good at reading comic books aloud. Although those comics of the early Silver Age served as my primers, I also got a big reading boost in the classroom through the SRA Reading Lab, a series of color-coded "reading cards" which helped children improve vocabulary and comprehension as they were entertained with engaging stories or interesting articles. As I progressed from card to card within a particular color coding, I gathered more and more reading skills, and by the time I reached the last card in a color I was ready to start in on the next color, which required a larger vocabulary, higher levels of comprehension, and featured more complex subjects or plots. As I recall, most kids in my classes didn't like the SRA Lab exercises anymore than they liked anything else required in school. Personally, however, I enjoyed them so much I barely realized they were actual classwork, and might have worked straight through them to the exception of all else, had my teachers not exercised their dictatorial powers.

Donald H Parker
The SRA Program was the creation of Donald H Parker, who was a reading teacher in rural America and noticed that his students did not do well when taught from the same reading book all at the same time. Some lagged behind, becoming frustrated when they were pushed to keep up, while the better readers in class experienced frustration from being held back by underachievers and normal readers. In 1950, he invented a system of teaching reading skills on an individual basis while in a communal classroom environment. After receiving his PhD from Columbia University, he approached Chicago-based Science Research Laboratories and pitched them the idea for a program marketed to schools nationwide. If you want to read about his struggle to bring his idea to market a great article has been posted by SRA Reading Labs on its website.

I have to admit, when I was initially evaluated for SRA placement, I was pretty far down the ladder, not quite at the bottom, but uncomfortably (and embarrassingly) close. But tests are not always as revealing, or as accurate, as they are touted to gullible school administrators. To the amazement of all, except myself, I went through those early lessons like a blowtorch through butter. First, the teacher thought I was deluded, that I had convinced myself I was a good reader when I was not, then she was certain that I was somehow cheating, even if she did not know how. Silly teachers! It was not till third grade that I was assigned a teacher with a brain, a sensible lady named Mrs Decker, who not only let me proceed through the SRA Lab for my grade at my own speed (which was fast), but also encouraged me to write my own, anyone who has a beef with my writing can probably blame Mrs Decker.

Unfortunately, third grade does not last forever, but I was looking forward to fourth grade for a number of reasons--I would be back in the main building rather than in the original two-room schoolhouse (alas, now demolished), I could look down on third graders (metaphorically, since I was the shortest kid in class), my marble-shooting skills had really improved (yes, I will win all your marbles), and I would be moving on to the upper level SRA Reading Lab (yes!). I had big plans for fourth grade, but the best-laid plans of mice and schoolchildren oft go astray.

In the summer of that year, my parents moved us ten miles south to Chula Vista, back in the days when a veteran could qualify for a home with $1 down and a mortgage payment a bit less than 25% of one person's income. I was wary of the move. Yes, I would be glad to have my own room, but what about the school? I didn't know what a "Lauderbach" was, but it didn't sound good. Of course, my parents told me everything would be all right, but parents always make baseless statements like that, don't they? A school was a school, they said, and I probably wouldn't even know the difference. "Sigh." On the first day of school, I learned the horrible truth--the school building was of a "modern" design, I didn't know who to look down on since they were all strangers, no one at the new school played marbles, and, worse of all, this school didn't use the SRA Program. When I walked into class, I looked around and asked the teacher (nameless here to protect the guilty) where the SRA Reading Lab was. She didn't know what I was talking about. Silly teacher!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Fourth for the Three Dogs

The fourth book in the Paws & Claws series, The Death & Life of an American Dog, is now available. Fourth. Hard to believe, for me at least...

When I wrote the first book in the series, I did not anticipate writing any other books about the Three Dog Detective Agency. It was a project I had long discussed with Levi, but I had never gotten beyond the general concept, and did not actually undertake until 2012, as part of National Novel Writing Month, the process of which I shared here. Had I known then that I would write more than just the one book, I probably would have given it a different title, probably the subtitle, A Three Dog Mystery instead of Paws & Claws. Since then, I have revised the text, added photos of locations and characters, and created a new cover. But I kept the title, mostly because it always annoyed me when I would buy what I thought was a new book, then find out it was one I had already read, published under a new title.

Speaking of titles, when I decided early in 2013 that I wanted to continue telling the adventures of Levi, Sunny and Yoda, I sat down and charted a course, not through outlines or a series of synopses, but by way of a list of titles. I don't know if other writers use this method of stimulating the little grey cells, but it's one that works for me--the title suggests a situation, which requires the right setting, which suggests the best opening and characters, and...well, once the characters get involved, I just write down what they say and do. Of course, it means I'm at the mercy of my characters, and sometimes they do double-cross me, as Levi did in K-9 Blues, where he was supposed to smell one scent but reported something completely different, forcing a complete rethinking of the plot and climax. Back to Paws & Claws notebook starts with a list of more than a dozen titles, none with any explanation, and the fourth is The Death and Life of an American Dog.

The title suggested a canine veteran, a war dog, and since I had been in the Army, it made since that the dog had as well. The title also suggested a kind of rebirth, a return to life from a deathlike state. It reminded me of The Light of Day, a 1962 book by Eric Ambler about Arthur Abdel Simpson, who finds himself in a very dark situation and yearns to return to the light of day. It also brought to mind Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz, also published in 1962, in which a corrupt land owner in post-Revolutionary Mexico must journey back in his mind to find a state of grace.

So, I had a war dog who was in a bad place, a dark place, perhaps a prisoner of his own fears, trapped in a trauma-caused dream. But did the danger stem purely from the depths of his own mind? Obviously not, otherwise Levi, Sunny and Yoda would have to open the Three Dog Psychiatric Agency, and I had no plans to write the canine equivalent of Flowers for Algernon. The story needed villains, and they had to come from the land where it all had to start--Afghanistan.

Of course, the setting is a given--Chula Vista, for that is the home of the Three Dog Detective Agency, almost a character itself. From Afghanistan to Chula Vista, with villains following...the back story begins to form, and it's when a back story is revealed, piece by piece over the course of the plot that all the twists begin to straighten, all the puzzling incidents begin to make sense. As for an opening, there are always two in the Paws & Claws series, the prologue and the story itself, and this book was no different. As I thought about the plight of the war dog and how it all might have started, I heard a voice shouting "Iblis! Iblis!" from the midst of flames. I then realized the Army dog was having a nightmare, and the nightmare became the prologue. As for the start of the story itself, I saw Yoda, the impetuous and usually snarky Pomeranian of the group, on a solitary patrol one day and...well there you are.

I hope I have not bored anyone too much with this account of how The Death & Life of an American Dog came into being (and if I did, why are you still reading?), but I'm always interested in how writers create stories, and thought I would share. Of course, this was just the start of the story, for even fiction requires research. A long time ago, Isaac Asimov wrote, "I don't look to fiction for facts, but I don't look to it for errors either." It's a maxim I've always taken to heart, which is why I extensively research, of which only about 10% actually makes it into any book or story. For this book, I researched dog breeds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, military dog training, how pizza is made, the Veterans Administration, PTSD, Islamic mythology, folklore, Battlestar Galactica, herding calls, storm drains, Victorian architecture, and a host of other subjects.

No matter how the book starts, however, no matter all the various bits and pieces poured into it to create an interesting and moving plot, it's always about one thing--the dogs. I always keep in mind that my main characters are not detectives who are dogs, but dogs who are detectives. A subtle note, perhaps, but one which makes all the difference in the world.