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
don’t write poetry.
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
and that a poem has to rhyme
and have regular meter
and SYMBOLS and METAPHORS
and onomoto-something and
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
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
– 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.