Neil Gaiman, Your Mother, and the Telemarketer

fortunately__the_milk_by_skottieyoung-d6jdt8e

Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman’s latest book for young readers, is more of a yarn than it is a novel. It’s fast-paced yet rambling, full of all sorts of improbable, delightful leaps. One page you’re reading about a minor domestic dilemma – the family has run out of milk, and the kids need it for their cereal, their father for his tea – and then next you’re on the end of a pirate ship’s plank, dangling over piranha-infested waters.

Keep turning the pages and you’ll find yourself riding in a hot-air balloon with Professor Steg, a world-famous inventor who also happens to be a stegosaurus. Then there are the black-haired jungle savages and their angry volcano god, vampires, and aliens who may or may not be giant piles of snot. Oh, and all of this is wrapped up in a plot concerning “transtemporal metascience” – that is, space/time travel and the quirky laws that govern it. (And as if this isn’t exciting enough, the whole book is stuffed full of Skottie Young’s fantastic illustrations.)

In other words, the book is a surprising one. And as such, it is the perfect introduction to Neil Gaiman’s varied, but invariably excellent, body of work.

While there are certain themes and tones that run through Gaiman’s books – and humor, too; he’s always funny – you really never know what he’s going to come out with next. Last year, along with Fortunately, the Milk, Gaiman released a novel for adults (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), a children’s book (Chu’s Day, wonderfully illustrated by Adam Rex), the two-volume omnibus of his Sandman comics, and the text of a commencement address he gave at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (Make Good Art). He also edited a couple story collections and collaborated with other writers and artists on a handful of additional projects.

The guy is prolific, and brilliant. But what I want to say here is that his prolificacy and brilliantness are, in part, products of his refusing to be hemmed-in, pigeonholed, or otherwise categorized.

People have a tendency to categorize. It’s helpful. It allows us to assimilate and store information, to make sense of a big, busy world and the new experiences we are constantly having within it. But people also have a tendency to get pretty pissed off when someone or something disrupts those categories. Because it means work. It means we have to sit down and rethink things, accept that our previous understanding was faulty (which can be a hard thing to accept/admit in itself) and then come up with a new one.

Think about how mad some people get when a favorite character on a long-running TV show or in a series of books does something unexpected? It can feel like a betrayal. Or have you ever discovered something strange and new about a longtime friend?

Not too long ago an old friend casually mentioned to me that she was excited for the upcoming weekend since she finally had time to go back to the humane society at which she regularly volunteered. I was furious. We’d been friends a long time – how come this was the first I was hearing about these human-society visits?! Thirty seconds earlier, I wouldn’t have even said that she, my supposedly good friend, was someone who had a particular fondness for dogs and cats.

But the fault wasn’t hers. And it wasn’t really mine, either. I’d found out something new and unexpected about a friend, that’s all. And as soon as the initial annoyance passed – which it did (and within seconds) – I was actually excited to have done so. The discovery led me to reevaluate my friend, to adjust and even do away with the categories into which I had previously fit her. It brought to mind a fact that I’m aware of, but conveniently forget on a day-to-day basis – that the human beings around me are every bit as complicated, various, and in-flux as I myself am.

This, in my opinion, is a very good thing to be reminded of now and again. It brings about empathy. And that (to begin getting back to the original topic of this post) is also what good books do.

Which is why we’re lucky to have a guy like Neil Gaiman out there, surprising us not only within the covers of a single book, but over the course of his entire career. He reminds us that expectations are a form of narrow-mindedness, and that if you insist too much on seeing the world categorically, you’re not really seeing it at all.

This is one of the main reasons I read – to be constantly reminded of these things. It can be difficult and exhausting to try and always remember that everyone – artists and non-artists alike – has their very own big and intricate inner life. But it is essential that we do try. It will help make sure that we don’t miss out on any great books lurking inside of authors such as Neil Gaiman, but it will also help make the world a little bit nicer of a place to live in.

So try it. Go about your everyday life, but as you do try to remember that every person you encounter – the barista making your coffee, the telemarketer who calls at an inconvenient time, your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife, your best friend, your kid, your sibling or your parent or your colleague – is just as complicated, just as difficult to categorize and wonderfully un-simple as you are.

“Love That Dog” and “Hate That Cat”

love that dog + hate that cat

For many people, poetry is like a skunk unexpectedly encountered in the dead of night: it’s frightening, and if you hang around it too long you’re liable to end up smelling terribly.

Jack, the boy at the center of Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog and Hate That Cat, feels similarly. The books begin with him refusing to even attempt to write a poem:

I don’t want to
because boys
don’t write poetry.

Girls do.

Jack goes on to attack the poetry of the authors his teacher, Miss Stretchberry, reads aloud to the class. He accuses William Carlos Williams of being obscure, and calls Robert Frost lazy.

But with some guidance and encouragement from Miss Stretchberry as well as the exposure to some more contemporary poetry, Jack gradually begins to try his hand at poetry. By the end of Love That Dog, Jack has used his words to work through the death of his beloved pet, Sky, memorializing the animal in a poem all his own.

In Hate That Cat, Jack tackles another series of difficulties using reading and writing. But most fascinatingly, I think, are the difficulties Jack engages with while actually doing that reading and writing. I’ve never seen a book for young readers get so meta. What’s even more remarkable – Creech pulls it off.

Hate That Cat introduces the character of Uncle Bill, “who is a teacher / in a college” and insists on telling his nephew that his poems are not, in fact, poems but merely

words
coming
out
of
my
head
and that a poem has to rhyme
and have regular meter
and SYMBOLS and METAPHORS
and onomoto-something and
alliter-something.

Everybody’s met an Uncle Bill, the rule-bound nitpickers of the world who interrupt you in the middle of a casual conversation to correct your grammar or pronunciation (and usually only to make themselves feel better about themselves). I’m pretty sure Jack speaks for all of us when he says,

And I wanted
to
punch
him.

Miss Stretchberry is the opposite of Uncle Bill, and throughout these books she’s the unseen force helping Jack during many of his struggles, both of the literary and non-literary variety. She shows him that alliteration, metaphor, and rhyme are tools that can be put to powerful use or simply ignored. Perhaps even more importantly, she doesn’t let Jack give up when he comes across a poem whose greatness he doesn’t think he could ever match or when Uncle Bill, over for dinner, unloads another bunch of “rules” on him. More than once Jack declares

I feel stupid.
I am a bad writer.
I’m going to quit.

But the next day (the books are structured like journals, with dated entries) he’s back, toying with words and playing with his phrasing, trying to exactly capture the feelings he’s got buzzing around inside of him.

And isn’t that the writing process in a nutshell? Gradually growing despondent and “quitting,” only to get up the next morning and sit back down in front of your notebook or computer? Masochistic as it sounds (and maybe is), the answer is yes.

The writing process is filled with pleasures and thrills, but there are plenty of rougher patches, too, ones that lead to boredom, self-doubt, and mind-numbing, soul-shaking frustration. It’s necessary throughout Love That Dog and Hate That Cat for Jack to continue to feel stupid and fail to find the right words for what he’s trying to say, just as it’s necessary for him to “copy” or “cover” the poems he loves most, writing with someone else’s voice until he can shrug it off and discover his very own. In other words, it’s necessary for him to struggle.

That’s what I enjoyed so much about these books. It was exciting to watch a kid find his voice, to see him endure the countless ups and downs on the journey from self-doubt –

I will never be
a
real
poet.

– to unabashed, fluent expression (which can be seen not only in the quantity and quality of Jack’s own writing, but in his increasingly being okay with Miss Stretchberry pasting his poems up on the wall for public consumption).

I spent some time trying to think of other books that show kids or young adults so thoroughly engaged with the creative process. I came up with a few (and I’m sure there are others out there that I’ve never even heard of), but I don’t think I’ve read anything that so truthfully depicts all the false starts, do-overs, and periods of crippling uncertainty that come with the creation of anything.

By talking so much about Creech’s bravery in showing the challenges inherent in creative writing, I’m probably making these books sound like a couple of downers. But that’s the thing – by showing that the reading and writing of poetry is scary not like a skunk but more like, say, a rollercoaster, Creech makes both activities (reading and writing, that is) more approachable. Because encountering a skunk isn’t much like riding a rollercoaster. Sure, your knees may quake as you wait in line and then get strapped into the cart, and your stomach may sour on a few of the larger drops. But so long as you stick with it, so long as you commit yourself fully, you’ll probably end up having some fun, too.