It’s true, both in life and in writing — we so often don’t know where we’re going until we get there. It’s something to keep in mind when opening a fresh notebook or a blank document and chasing down a brand-new idea. Henry James called novels loose, baggy monsters, and your first drafts should be significantly looser, baggier, and more monstrous than any final, polished piece. The writing of a first draft should be a fast and wild trip down a hillside with your imaginary friends (some call them “characters”) all seated right beside you. Have fun. Later on you can go back and clean things up.
The novel is one of the more flexible artistic mediums in existence. Ever since its beginning, writers have been experimenting with it, testing its limits. And as new media have appeared on the scene – first photography, then film and radio, and finally TV – the novel has extended itself in order to compete with and contain these other forms.
In this week’s passage, from S. F. Said’s Varjak Paw, we see how one author brings the dramatic movement and music of cinema to the printed page. By using repetition and rhyme, and by briefly breaking free of the confines of a left-to-right, neatly ordered sentence, Said shows us what it might feel like to be a cat caught beneath a pack of speeding cars.
This sort of technique is, in my opinion, best used sparingly. Rely on it too much, and the reader is likely to get annoyed, and maybe even suspect the author of using it as a crutch. But now and again, when a regular sentence really can’t seem to capture the violence or thrill of a particular moment, such poetic leaps can work wonders, quickening your reader’s pulse and pulling them deeper into your story.
From Varjak Paw, by S. F. Said (p. 92-94)
But the monsters weren’t slowing. They were speeding. They were shrieking, roaring, bearing down on him. Huge, deadly. Stand your ground, stand your . . .
Monsters roared over his head –
– to his left –
– to his right –
– to his left –
– and were gone.
A new — and exquisitely irreverent — post in the life-changing literature series from the multi-talented and very well-read Ann Marie Stephens. Read about not one, but four books that changed Ann Marie’s life, then learn more about her and her work below.
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“A Book that Changed My Life” is not exactly going to be the title for my post. Sorry, Jarrett. I’m calling it “Four Books that Changed My Life.” I tried to pick just one book, but Anne Frank got offended when I chose To Kill a Mockingbird, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales had some pretty scary comments for all the sweet animals in What do People Do All Day? Admittedly, there are hundreds of other books I could mention, including adult books. I do read a few of those. However, these four children’s books stand out the most.
I’ll begin with What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry. Yes. An oversized, anthropomorphic book, where animals run a town called Busytown, changed my life. I was in elementary school when I opened this book for the fist time. I didn’t even make it past the end pages before I was mesmerized by the promise of opportunity. A pig could be a banker, a lion could be a doctor, and a mouse baked bread for the whole town! Each character got attention, from the tiniest bug to Lowly, the worm (one of my favorites). No one was forgotten. Everyone collaborated to make their town the best it could be. These days, its more about the world, not just our own towns. A few years ago, while on a vacation in Belize, I took a tour of a banana farm. I saw the picking, the transporting, the sorting, the packing, the shipping, and very little resting. Until that day I just bought bananas at the store. I never really knew about the back-breaking, pennies-a-day work involved to get those bananas into my hands. Richard Scarry knew exactly what it takes to make a town (the world) run smoothly. He showed me that everyone counts. As an elementary teacher, the principles of Busytown have been at the core of what I teach in between all of the required SOLs: “Have compassion, be kind, work hard, work together, and nice matters”. As an author, I want to write books that make these same kinds of connections with their readers.
Speaking of connections, I had an instant bond with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the complete opposite of the aforementioned book. I think it was the diversity of the characters, their outlandish behavior, and their conflicting choices that grabbed me. Some were lazy, others were mean, and almost everyone had a flaw. I loved it! The good guys had to be brave and full of determination to outsmart characters like The Three Spinsters and Rumpelstiltskin. The endings weren’t always happy and people died. Incidentally, no one ever died in Busytown, so between these two books I had a healthy mix of happy and sad. As a teacher today, I can’t imagine reading these stories to my first grade class. I’d lose my job. My memories of these stories serve as reminders: Being good or being bad is a choice. Choose wisely for there will be consequences. It’s never too late to change. And if you don’t? You might end up in an oven, lost in a forest, or have no one to kiss but a frog. I choose not to write picture books where my characters die or force each other to do bad things. I think I’d lose my agent if I did.
Let’s talk more about choices. In middle school and high school, I was not given the choice of what books I would read each summer. There was “the list”. (Cue scary music.) Word on the street says these lists of required reading are still out there. For shame! Can’t we offer suggestions instead? (That’s another blog post.) One summer, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was on my list. For starters, the cover looked boring, and it was a diary! A diary? I had kept my own over the years and now I had to read someone else’s? (God, I hope no one ever reads mine from back then.) But I’m thankful I was a rule-follower. I read every book on that list including Anne’s diary. Previous to reading it, I had taken six years of German in school, and private lessons outside of school. I loved my German teacher and her German family, who became my German friends. I knew nothing of Nazis or the Holocaust. This book ripped my heart out of my chest. I cried and wanted so desperately to help Anne and her family. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I looked up to her for her insight and her bravery. I felt like a shmuck because I’d been complaining about stupid boys and time-consuming homework. Get a real problem! I ended up reading Anne’s diary more than once. I rarely read novels more than once. Seeing her words and knowing the outcome of the events of her life changed how I live mine. Tolerance, compassion, and respect are my necessities. My students feel no prejudice from me, and we work on the prejudice they sometimes feel for each other. Obviously, I’m not a supporter of required reading, though I admit I’m glad this one made the cut.
Another one on “the list” was To Kill a Mockingbird. Will this book ever stop making money? Very doubtful. It’s worth every penny. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Scout’s unfiltered mouth and careless actions. She was the epitome of bravery and curiosity all rolled into a ham costume. As scary as the book was at times, Jem and Atticus were never far away. One of them always gave the dose of safety or sensibility that Scout and I needed. And then there was Boo. My Boo. He tugged at my heart (which was still damaged from Anne Frank) and triggered that compassion thing again. Way to go, Boo! I know I have to address the racism, the accusations, and the injustices as well. This stuff killed me. My dad is both a judge and a lawyer, so I felt like I had some kind of edge on the court scenes. I was talking to the book, yelling out my opinions, and shooting dirty looks. Atticus even reminded me of my dad: cool, calm, and kicking butt in court. Couldn’t everyone just tell the truth and call it a day? The settings were very familiar to me: home, school, court. This kind of stuff could happen in real life. Did happen in real life. At the time, my small town held remnants of similar prejudices. There were plenty of lines drawn according to race, but not in my house. I had friends of all colors and backgrounds. How could I not? To Kill a Mockingbird had shown me hate and the upshot of condoning it. I didn’t want to go there. I hope my young first graders will one day read this book too. I won’t make them, though I will strongly suggest it. I couldn’t dream of writing a book as beautiful and necessary, and I’ve accepted this. I’ll keep standing in awe, Harper Lee.
I’m making myself stop here. (Did I just hear you exhale, Jarrett?) These four books are only a small part of the massive pile of books worthy of a shout-out. They are all still in print and I suspect two of them might possibly be on someone’s required reading list. The author in me feels overwhelmed and inspired to know that words on paper, bound together, can change a life. That’s power. As a teacher, I use that power every day. Mwah-ah-ah-ah. Don’t worry; I never abuse it.
Please take the time to reflect on your own life. What books changed you? Share them on social media, write a post for Jarrett or another blogger. Let us all know what we should be reading. Make suggestions, not requirements. Take the time to notice the little things, the bugs, the diversity, the silence, and where that food you’re eating came from. Make choices you can live with. Like Richard Scarry said, “My goodness! Just look back and think of all the things we can do when we all work together.”
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Ann Marie Stephens has two forthcoming picture books, Scuba Dog (Little Bee Books, 2016) and Cy Makes a Friend (Boyds Mills Press, 2017).
She can be found at:
Vine: Ann Marie Stephens
The days are cooler, the evenings duskier, and if you step outside late at night and breathe in slow and deep, you can catch a whiff of the crisp, piney approach of fall. And in the morning, if you’re lucky, you’ll find brand-new batches of free books perched along the curbs for miles in every direction.
No, this is not a fantastic description of a place very much like Paradise (though the only thing it’s missing, as far as I’m concerned, is a handful of banana trees). This is early September in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Here, late August and early September is the time of lease-signing. And after the leases get signed? Then comes the cleaning and the packing and the moving, and because some human beings apparently have this thing in them that allows them to get rid of their books – I, to my enduring satisfaction and my fiancée’s endless frustration, was not made of such stuff – more and more slightly used but still fully functioning books appear on the sidewalk with a Post-it note proclaiming them “FREE!” every day.
If you’ve read my blog before, you probably know that I believe every reading life deserves a healthy dose of serendipity in it. And really, there’s no better way to keep your to-read pile surprising and diverse than by picking up a random book or two on your way to work in the morning.
Sometimes, picking through the piles and bags and boxes on the sidewalks, I’ll find titles that, if spotted at a yard sale or a used bookstore, I probably would pay money for. But I try to keep myself particularly open to those books that I probably wouldn’t buy. Every now and again, you find a great new author, or discover a taste for a genre you never thought you’d enjoy. When it comes to such happy accidents, I’d say I’m batting around a .350 – that is, a little more than one great (and not merely okay) find for every three books I pick up. Considering the fact that Ty Cobb, the holder of the highest career batting average in baseball history, swung a .366, I consider my “picking” average pretty darn good.
Below I’ve included a photo of some of my recent finds (and here are a couple links to previous posts about reading randomly, or serendipitously: aquí and ici). I’ve already dug into this stack, and think my average is holding up.
If you live in the area, or in a city full of readers, happy free book-hunting! And thanks to my bookworm neighbors for passing along all the great reads. My fiancée is slowly but surely convincing me of the good aspects of getting rid of, so perhaps I’ll be paying the favor forward soon.