Passage of the Week

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As I kid, I could never get enough of Shel Silverstein’s poetry. I had all the books, and I read them constantly. Yet up until about a week ago, I hadn’t gone back to collections like Falling Up, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic.

It only took a few pages of the latter – or, to put it another way, it only took a handful of Silverstein’s poems and accompanying pictures – for me to see what drew me so strongly to the books as a child. They are by turns silly and serious, whimsical and wise, subversive, tender, and now and again just plain strange. In other words, they offer kids precisely what they want – and also, I’d argue, precisely what they need – from books.

That being said, for this week’s passage of the week, I haven’t chosen a poem, but instead a tiny portion of text found on the very last page of Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic – a few lines that it’s possible most of the book’s readers (especially the young ones) never paid any attention to. It’s the acknowledgements page, where Silverstein cites the specific inspirations for a few of his poems. Five poems, to be exact. Five out of well over a hundred. Silverstein doesn’t leave you hanging, though. He tells you where the rest of his poems came from, too. He tells you in just six words – words that could quietly encourage anyone to peer inside their own heads to see what strange and silly things they’ve got lurking in there. And though I can’t ever know for sure, I’ve got a pretty good feeling that the last page of A Light in the Attic was one that this young reader didn’t miss.

Enjoy.

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From “A Light in the Attic,” by Shel Silverstein (p. 176)

“Ladies First” is based on a story of mine with the same title, © 1974, Free to Be Foundation, Inc.
“Sour Face Ann” was taken from an old Russian folktale.
“Backward Bill” was suggested by a bedtime story my brother-in-law, Chuck, told his children. “The Meehoo With an Exactlywatt” was inspired by Abbott and Costello, and “Deaf Donald” showed up after a conversation with Pam Larsson. The rest I just made up.

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A Book That Changed My Life

The next post in the life-changing literature series comes from Vivienne Mathews. With the same blend of wit and wisdom that can be found in her novels and non-fiction works, Vivienne discusses the way that anything and everything – books, songs, poems, paintings, and more – can worm their way into your imagination and influence your creative output. If this little taste of Vivienne’s unique voice doesn’t get you rushing to read more of her sentences, then it’s highly probable that you’ve got a tin ear.

Learn more about Vivienne and her work below, and make sure to click the links embedded in the post – Vivienne’s own blog is more than worth checking out.

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Today, my favorite song is “93 Million Miles” by Jason Mraz.

Not only is it sentimental, optimistic, and of the perfect pedaling rhythm for any cycling playlist, it also makes general cosmic distances (like the 93 million miles between the earth and the sun) easier to remember.

Strangely, that’s not something you can say of many pop songs.

I say “today” because yesterday my favorite song was “Elephants” by Rachael Yamagata. Ask me tomorrow and the answer is as likely to be a wordless tune from some obscure television show as it is to be anything written by Puccini or Dr. Dre. Media is a marvelous thing that way. Be it music or art or literature, it grows and changes as often as we do. Something you heard ten years ago may tomorrow become the most meaningful thing in the world for no reason at all and you’ll never have to make excuses for it. That’s why I can – with the honesty of Abe himself – point to Watership Down, Tale of the Firebird, and any number of Trixie Beldens, Nancy Drews, or stints through the Hundred Acre Wood as being THE story. The one that meant the world. The one that changed everything.

Heart of Darkness is no exception to my casual use of terms like “most-loved” and “life-changing.” A school assignment, I can confidently say I never would have sought out Joseph Conrad’s adventure through the African Congo on my own. But it was so rich in subtext that I didn’t complain about it nearly as much as teenage me was capable of complaining. Quite the opposite. Heart of Darkness gave me something unique because it was the first time I truly enjoyed the study of a book. Every sentence became an adventure to uncover what was lying underneath. And that sense of adventure was of course mirrored by Mr. Marlow’s trip into the unknown.

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You could say that this doesn’t really measure up to the idea of “life-changing,” and you’d be right. But Heart of Darkness led me to Lord Jim. Which led me to Moby Dick. Which led me to Master and Commander. Which led me to the realization that maybe I had a thing for boats, hard-headed captains, and flights of fancy. Before I explain how I now write about all of these things (albeit in anthropomorphic form) in The Sons of Masguard – which is nothing if not proof that every book you will ever read has the power to be influential – you should know that Googling “psychiatric help for nautical obsessions” is less than helpful and inexplicably leads to an article about Captain Crunch.

My point certainly isn’t that everyone is as fickle as I am (honestly, I’m already on my way to changing that first song to “Weird Beard” by the Mad Caddies) or that there is anything wrong with Captain Crunch. But we are complex creatures who can never say for certain just where we’re going to end up. This unpredictable life is full of life-changing books, songs, poems, and paintings, if only we’re willing to let them find their meaning in their own place and time. Who knows? That reading assignment you’re groaning about today may one day be the reason you get to eat something more than the breakfast cereal at the wrong end of some poor schmuck’s midnight research.

That’s right, universe.

You fed me a flawless classic with widespread appeal and were given a snarky series about otter pirates in return.

You’re welcome.

. . .

Author Heashot Vivienne Mathews is a nerdy ice queen who talks with her hands and owns far too many hats. A beekeeper with a bee allergy, no one would ever accuse her of being sensible. She spends most of her days in Hermitville, just past Nowhere, with her loving husband, three dogs, and a child who won’t stop growing, no matter how desperately she tries to keep him young. More than anything, she hopes you enjoy these books as much as she enjoys writing them.

Site: www.viviennemathews.blogspot.com

Twitter: @VivienneMathews

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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.

Postmodern Picture Books

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Books are interactive objects. They require effort and input from their readers. In return, they offer information, empathetic experiences, and countless other pleasures. This information will come as no surprise to kids and adults, whether they’re avid or reluctant readers.

But younger children, relatively new to books or even encountering them for the first time, don’t always know what to make of these flat, colorful things that people keep handing to them. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are only just learning their way around language, just getting a sense for what books are and what they can do.

Over the past few years, a handful of children’s books have addressed their own interactive nature head on, some even going so far as to make their interactivity central to their stories. There’s Hervé Tullet’s Press Here and more-recent Mix It Up!, both of which invite readers to touch or tap or rub their pages and illustrations. In fact, Tullet’s books insist so strongly on the reader’s participation that, without it, the narrative stalls and refuses to move along.

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And now, a new entry into this delightful little tradition: Richard Byrne’s This book just ate my dog! In Byrne’s book, its own gutter (the inner spine, where the pages meet) begins swallowing up its characters. Like all brilliant ideas, this one seems so simple and obvious that, the instant you realize what’s going on, you curse yourself and wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

As in Tullet’s books, This book just ate my dog! requires the active, physical participation of its readers. The narrative gets stuck (just like the story’s characters are stuck in the book’s gutter), and the only way to get it moving again is for the reader to grab ahold of the thing and – well, I don’t want to ruin it for you. You’ll just have to go out and get the book to see for yourself.

Byrne’s book, like Tullet’s, both revels in and relies on its own interactive nature. It makes reading a fun, physical experience, serving as a sort of sensory precursor to the more complicated, imaginative narrative-engagement that kids can take part in once they’re a bit older.

Given time, children can learn about the properties and powers of books by themselves. But it can’t hurt to show them early on, and even adults – and maybe especially adults – can always use the fun, exciting reminder that the books above provide. Because hidden within their seemingly simple, straightforward stories is a big, important message: books, these books declare, are living things, objects to be felt and wrestled with – and this in both a physical and a metaphorical sense. Books, in other words, exist so that they can be truly, intensely, wholeheartedly read.

A Poem That Changed My Life

The second piece in the life-changing literature series comes from Faye Rapoport DesPres, accomplished essayist, poet, and fiction-writer. I was delighted when Faye told me that she had chosen to write about a poem, and doubly delighted when I discovered that the poem was one that had played quite an important role in my own life, too. In just a handful of paragraphs, Faye somehow manages to do what all great writing does – transform what is singular and personal into something universal – speaking in the end to the hope that lives inside all writers’ hearts and drives us back to the desk every day.

Enjoy the post, and then learn more about Faye and her work below.

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I had a mixed reaction when Jarrett first asked me to write about “A Book (or Story, or Poem) That Changed My Life.” So many books have altered my life in small or large ways, and it seemed daunting to have to choose just one. My mind skimmed immediately over the most obvious choices; it ran through a quick list of the Russian classics — Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and The Brothers Karamazov, among others — because I read them in my twenties and became so absorbed in every aspect of them. I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare because I was never the same after being introduced to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets; as both a writer and an actor in my younger years I was enchanted. It’s obvious from these first musings that I am attracted to the classics. Reading classic literature at a relatively young age altered the way I perceived the potential of the written word and my perception of the human condition.

But all of that sounds so obvious, and what was interesting to me was that as these titles and ideas passed through my mind something less obvious simmered underneath. I also love poetry, and there is one particular poem that has stayed with me over the years in ways that few others have: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

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Although I’ve studied the poem, it’s not the academic aspects of “Prufrock” that have stayed with me. In fact, T.S. Eliot is one of those poets who forces me to accept my literary limitations; there are many references in “Prufrock” that I have to research to this day if I want to attempt anything close to a complete understanding of the poem. If you are interested in an academic analysis, in fact, you can quickly find much more erudite interpretations than I can offer with one or two clicks of a mouse. For example, J. Hillis Miller, in Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, writes: “… only an objective time can be other than the self, so that the flow of time can mean change for that self. But time, like space, has only a subjective existence for Prufrock. As a result, past, present, and future are equally immediate, and Prufrock is paralyzed” (Miller, 1965). I have to think hard about that before I can say I understand it, and even then I’m not certain that I do.

What I love about the poem is that I don’t have to analyze it to appreciate it. Instead, I just enjoy the affect it has on me. I am moved by it in a new way every single time I read it. My understanding of the poet’s message evolves over time; true, it changes as my understanding of literature and history improves, but it also changes with my understanding of life. The world T.S. Eliot described in the early 20th century was wildly different from the world I exist in a century later (“Prufrock” was published in 1915, which means that next year will be the 100th anniversary of the poem). Yet Eliot could have written this poem yesterday; a hundred years melts away the instant I read the first few words. “Let us go then, you and I,” the poet writes (Eliot, 1915). And I every single time, I go.

There is even more to my reverence than that timelessness, however—something more that makes me feel as if this poem changed my life. When I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I have a visceral reaction. It’s as if, over the years, every word, every image, every detail of the rhyme scheme and the rhythm have become a part of me. Reading the poem is like hearing a song I’ve never forgotten or greeting an old friend who both challenges and comforts me. I can read the lines over and over again, and it’s a little hard to breathe every time because there’s something so masterful and perfect in every line.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” changed my life because once I read it I knew what could be achieved through poetry and language. I understood what I would never be capable of and, at the same time, what I might be able to do. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to write something as rich and complete and beautiful as that poem, something that might affect readers the way “Prufrock” affects me. I have no doubt that I’ll never achieve anything even close. But how exquisite it is to know that it is possible.

Works Cited

1. Miller, J. (1965). Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
2. Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Barlteby.com. Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html Accessed November 14, 2014.

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Faye_Five_copyFaye Rapoport DesPres earned her M.F.A. from the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Her essays, fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Eleven Eleven, Hamilton Stone Review, Platte Valley Review, Prime Number Magazine, Superstition Review, In the Arts, Fourth Genre, and the Writer’s Chronicle. Her first book, a memoir-in-essays titled Message From a Blue Jay, was published in May 2014 by Buddhapuss Ink. Faye is a freelance writer/editor and an Adjunct Professor of English at Lasell College. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and four rescued cats, and her website is www.fayerapoportdespres.com.

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Click here to buy Message From a Blue Jay on Amazon.

If you don’t like Amazon, click here to buy it from Barnes & Noble.

Visit Message From a Blue Jay on Facebook here.

And keep up with Faye on Twitter by following @FayeRapoDesPres.

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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.

Passage of the Week

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Every few months, my local library hosts an incredible weekend-long book sale. They clear shelf and storage space and put the money they make toward funding programs and bettering they’re already-excellent catalogue. I love these sales. And what’s not to love? You walk off with an armload of great – and cheap! – books, and can feel good about the fact that every penny you spent is supporting the library.

At this last sale, I came across J. K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I remembered hearing about the book when it came out, but hadn’t looked much into it, and hadn’t picked it up. I knew it contained five fables from the Wizarding world, one of which had played an important part in the last book of the Harry Potter series. What I didn’t know, though, was that the book included a brief commentary on each story from none other than Dumbledore himself.

I was already leaning toward putting the book in my must-buy stack, but this fact sealed the deal. I was already eager to find out how Rowling handled introducing young readers to metafictional ideas and techniques, and excited to see how she took advantage of the many funny, fascinating, and profound “tricks” open to authors writing stories-within-stories (and, further, a character’s commentaries to stories-within-stories).

Unsurprisingly, Rowling took full advantage of her chosen form. The stories are excellent in themselves – fairy tales, you could argue, perfect for our modern age. They broach big, messy moral conundrums, and all of this within the confines of entertaining, exciting – and, importantly, non-preachy – stories. Each of the five tales compactly display what Rowling does (and does and does again) so well in her larger novels.

One of my favorite passages in the book comes during Dumbledore’s commentary on “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” a story, broadly, about an unkind wizard’s eventual comeuppance. Within the passage, Rowling cleverly makes all kinds of important points about children’s literature – including the mistakes inherent in any bowdlerized versions of it – and, in a way, answers the legions of detractors who banned her books and/or claimed that they promoted all kinds of obscene and immoral behavior. I’ll even risk getting a little grandiose and say that, in these few finely tuned paragraphs (along with the accompanying story), Rowling advances a vision of childhood and an argument for the kind of literature that children not only want, but also desperately need.

Enjoy.

. . .

From “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” by J. K. Rowling (pp. 17-19)

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The final objection to “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” remains alive in certain quarters today. It was summed up best, perhaps, by Beatrix Bloxam (1794—1910), author of the infamous Toadstool Tales. Mrs. Bloxam believed that The Tales of Beedle the Bard were damaging to children, because of what she called “their unhealthy preoccupation with the most horrid subjects, such as death, disease, bloodshed, wicked magic, unwholesome characters, and bodily effusions and eruptions of the most disgusting kind.” Mrs. Bloxam took a variety of old stories, including several of Beedle’s, and rewrote them according to her ideals, which she expressed as “filling the pure minds of our little angels with healthy, happy thoughts, keeping their sweet slumber free of wicked dreams, and protecting the precious flower of their innocence.”

The final paragraph of Mrs. Bloxam’s pure and precious reworking of “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” reads:

Then the little golden pot danced with delight – hoppitty hoppitty hop! – on its tiny rosy toes! Wee Willykins had cured all the dollies of their poorly tum-tums, and the little pot was so happy that it filled up with sweeties for Wee Willykins and the dollies!

“But don’t forget to brush your teethy-pegs!” cried the pot.

And Wee Willykins kissed and huggled the hoppitty pot and promised always to help the dollies and never to be an old grumpy-wumpkins again.

Mrs. Bloxam’s tale has met the same response from generations of Wizarding children: uncontrollable retching, followed by an immediate demand to have the book taken from them and mashed into a pulp.

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To Quit or Not to Quit (A Bad Book)

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Lately I’ve been thinking about bad books. Or not “bad” books, but “not-so-great” books. Books that, at the particular time of your life that you pick them up, don’t seem to have much to offer.

The question is: Do you push on? No matter what? Or do you put the thing down (or, perhaps, toss it across the room)? When? After a certain number of pages? Or just as soon as your boredom, frustration, and/or disgust grow too intense to any longer bear.

Depending on the length of the book (and, of course, my reasons for reading it), I tend to push on. I’m not sure whether it’s a love of dragging my eyes across pages or just foolishness and gullibility, but I’m somehow able to slog through a book even if it’s constantly threatening to put me to sleep – and yes, this even though I know there are more truly great books out there than I’ll ever get a chance to read. (This is no doubt partly due to the writer in me, who’s always interested in seeing how others tell their stories. After all, there’s such a thing as a badly-executed-but-good idea, and you can always learn something from studying failed attempts.)

The question becomes even more complicated when you consider the delicate task of introducing children (or reluctant “tweens” and adolescents) to reading. Pushing a kid (or even an adult, for that matter) to finish a book can certainly have disastrous consequences – they could, in the worst-case scenario, forever resent reading.

But some books, often the great ones, are hard. They challenge us, both intellectually and emotionally. And some of reading’s greatest rewards can only be reaped once we’ve waded or climbed or crawled through the toughest passages.

I remember being eight or nine and asking my dad some questions about World War II. He’d written dozens of books, including one about the war, so I thought of him as something of an authority. And he answered my questions. We had a good conversation. But being a book-lover and a humble, what he’d probably call “amateur,” historian (of World War II, at least), he then presented me with a spine-bowing stack of fat, dense texts – the best, he said, ever written on the subject.

Damage to my spine aside, there’s something positive to be said about my dad’s having given me that armload of tomes, despite the fact – or perhaps even because of the fact – that he knew there was no way I’d ever make it through as much as one of them (not at that age). He knew me well enough to do it. He knew that he couldn’t possibly damage my love for reading, but that that stack of books, sitting there on my dresser, would serve to constantly encourage me to push, to press on, to wade or climb or crawl a little further.

As I’ve said before on this blog, a good book is a good book is a good book. But it isn’t always the right book. It’s like pairing up people. There’s the girl you kind of hung out with in high school, who has, in the years since, become one of your best friends. Or the guy you took for a jerk who, seen in different situations, proves himself to be one of the more kind and caring individuals you know.

Be careful with your reading recommendations, especially when you’re recommending to kids. And next time you find yourself stopping midway through a page to sigh or roll your eyes or give your teeth a good hard grinding, consider whether it’s worth pushing on. Is there perhaps a reward at the end of this toughness? Are these the pains of being beneficially challenged? Or is this just bad writing about people and a subject that you don’t care to learn more about?

If you decide it’s the latter, by all means put the book down, but maybe don’t get rid of it. Stick it back up on the shelf or even toss it in a bin in the attic or the closet. But keep it around. Come back to it later on, in a month or a year or ten, when you’re more different from the person who first encountered the book than you ever would’ve believed you could be. You may find that the book has changed, too. That there are things in it you hadn’t previously seen. Valuable things that had been invisible, and even worthless, to the younger you.

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Thanks to Michael Dellert (@MDellertDotCom) and VJ Schultz (@VJSchultz) for their insightful tweets on this topic. More about Michael can be found here. More about VJ can be found here.

The Greatest Failure

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Are you a fan of:

1. detective fiction?
2. satire?
3. clever, intricate plotting?
4. subtle storytelling?
5. witty prose?
6. unique characters?
7. spot-on illustrations?
8. surprising moments of tenderness?
9. general hilarity?
10. polar bears?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, drop everything you’re doing and go get your hands on Stephan Pastis’s Timmy Failure books. The third volume of the founder/president/CEO of Total Failure, Inc.’s memoir just came out, and somehow, it’s even better than the two previous ones.

I don’t see how anyone couldn’t find something to love in these books. If that someone is out there, I’d venture to guess that they are profoundly troubled – and a good book (especially a good funny book) is some of the best (and cheapest) medicine you can get.

. . .

Click here to read a post I wrote after the first Timmy Failure book came out, in which I discuss Timmy and another great good/bad detective, Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently.