Arts and Entertainment

Children’s author practices the art of omission

Lies are true in author George Shannon’s books.

They are just not the whole truth.

Shannon’s new collection “More True Lies; Eighteen Tales for You to Judge” invites young readers to resolve paradoxes embedded in language.

“I keep the solutions distinct from the stories because I wanted readers to be involved in decoding answers,” Shannon said. “The stories are, in some ways, like elongated riddles.”

In a folk tale from Trinidad, a man is sentenced to prison for picking up a piece of rope he finds lying on the ground. The story shifts, however, when the turn of the page reveals the whole truth; the rope was attached to a cow.

The slipperiness of language is the subtext of Shannon’s deceitful truthtelling. A word’s double meaning or the lie created by the omission of a single detail point readers to the multi-layered richness of language around the globe.

Shannon hews to traditional folk tales, he says, to honor the stories that exist in every country. “More True Lies” is a sampling from from Suriname to Serbia.

“I try to find two or three sources for each folk tale,” Shannon said. “There are amazing consistencies. What’s scary here is also scary there.

“And virtually every culture appreciates the clever and kind prevailing over the brawny.”

The writing in “More True Tales” is condensed and simple. Shannon compares children’s books to such distilled art forms as the Japanese haiku poem, where challenge is to tell the story in as few words as possible while conveying larger themes.

The author has refined his own writing skills since he penned his first book in junior high school.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer,” Shannon said. “My father gave me a piece of good advice about my career choice, though. He said, ‘Study to be a librarian.

‘That way, you can support yourself and always be near books.’”

Shannon worked as a children’s librarian for years, and has also taught full-time.

Now his 35 books that range from guides for teachers to adult fiction, compose half his income, he says, while the rest comes from lecturing and leading workshops for aspiring young writers.

Shannon says he prefers working with fourth- through eighth-grade students.

“They’re not worried about being sophisticated – and that makes me feel comfortable,” he said.

Shannon says that his biggest goal when he gives a workshop is to get participants at home with the writing process.

He believes his approach works because children sense that he is not so much “teaching” as sharing what he himself likes to do.

“Children understand that it is my own passion,” Shannon said, “not a subject from a curriculum.”

Writing children’s books is a good deal, Shannon believes, because as some readers outgrow his books, new readers are always learning to read them. “Children’s books have a built-in audience,” Shannon says. “If a book survives the first crucial two years, it’s likely to be around for quite a while.”

Even with many of his 35 books still in print, Shannon is modest about his accomplishments.

“I’m a mid-list author and I know my place,” he jokes.

Shannon calls himself a ‘journeyman writer,’ and says he is happy to fill the niche.

“Twenty years ago, I wanted to write the Important Book,” Shannon said. “One of the benefits of getting older is that you forget about that .

“I write because that’s what I want to do.”

* * * * *

George Shannon reads from “More True Lies; Eighteen Tales for You to Judge,” published by Greenwillow Books, with illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist John O’Brien, at 12 p.m. Nov. 17 at Eagle Harbor Book Co. For children five years and older. Call 842-5332.

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