Passage of the Week

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This week’s passage comes from author/illustrator double-threat Adam Rex. Specifically from Cold Cereal, the first book in Rex’s sharp and super funny Cold Cereal Saga.

The passage is, in fact, two passages – two instances in which Rex introduces one of the story’s minor characters, but does so with such an expert hand that they linger in our minds in a major way.

By briefly, but carefully, considering each of his minor characters, Rex adds more color and life to an already lively and colorful book. And because they had such a memorable entrance and made such a vivid first impression, these characters will be much easier for Rex to bring back in future pages, should he find himself needing to.

For the reader, such passages are simply a delight to read. But reading inventive, deft descriptions also serves to hone our own powers of observation, so that once the book is shut, we’ll look out at the world a little more sharply – and, most likely, find there a little more color and life than we would have otherwise.

From Cold Cereal, by Adam Rex (p. 37 + 65)

Project: Potential was in the afternoon, in a mint-green room that smelled like mentholyptus. It was taught by Ms. Wyvern, a musty, clown-faced woman who spoke with an unplaceable accent that was thick with gurgling r’s and sneezy vowels. Her black bowl-cut hair was interrupted in front by a white skunk stripe, which she claimed appeared right after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. And she seemed to have no idea how much she spat.

. . .

He was an ample, bowling pin-shaped man with a gray beard trimmed close. He wore a threadbare blue bathrobe over his boxers and wifebeater. The robe was pilly in places and no more than a meager crosshatch of thin gauze in others. It appeared to be worn not so much out of modesty as out of a sense of loyalty to the garment itself.

“Turkey Day Tie” (Adam & Zeke)

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Adam answered the phone sounding like he’d lost all his teeth.

“Hehhwo?”

“Adam?” said Zeke.

“Whahh?” he answered.

Zeke frowned down at his cell phone. He was about to ask Adam what was wrong with him, but realized what was going on a split second before he did.

“You’re eating?” he said, disgust and disbelief oozing from his words.

Adam chewed and swallowed. “Yeah,” he said. “Most people do, you know, in the morning. S’called breakfast.”

“Dude,” Zeke said. “You know what day it is, right?”

“Thanksgiving,” Adam said, not missing a beat.

“And you’re eating breakfast . . . ” Zeke said meaningfully.

There was a moment of silence.

After which Adam said, “I don’t think I get it, man.”

Zeke sighed. “You can’t eat breakfast on Thanksgiving. Or lunch. You have to fast.”

“What? Why? That’s stupid.”

“Actually it’s smart,” Zeke said. “You don’t eat all day, and then, at dinner, you can fit more in your stomach.”

“Nuh-uh,” Adam said. “If you don’t eat all day, your stomach – it shrinks. It tightens up, and then you can’t fit anything in there. The thing to do is eat. Then your stomach’s stretchy, and it can handle whatever you put into it.”

“That makes zero sense,” Zeke said.

“And starving yourself does?”

Zeke was silent. On the other end of the line, he heard Adam take another bite of whatever it was he was eating. A peanut butter and banana sandwich, by the sounds of it. His chews were all sticky and gloopy.

“Okay, okay,” Zeke said. “How about this?”

Adam gave a grunt, letting Zeke know that, despite all the gross noise he was making, he was listening.

“Do what you want,” Zeke said. “Eat your face off. And later? Tonight? At dinner?”

There was a pinched sort of sucking sound from Adam’s end of the line, like he was chugging down a glass of milk. After a gasp of satisfaction and a little belch, he said, “Yeah?”

“Keep track of what you eat,” said Zeke. “I’ll call you later and we’ll see who had more.”

“Sounds good,” Adam said. “Have fun starving, idiot.”

Zeke opened his mouth to fire back – but before he could he heard the silence thicken in his ear, and knew Adam had already hung up.

*          *          *

It wasn’t easy not eating, especially with the Thanksgiving Day scents drifting about the house. It was possible, though, thanks in large part to the promise of proving Adam wrong. Because that, Zeke knew, would taste even better than a gravy-slathered turkey thigh, even better than a towering slice of his sister’s justifiably famous chocolate cream pie.

So he stayed away from the kitchen. He distracted himself with every distraction his house had to offer, and chewed a pack and a half of gum.

And finally, he heard it, the call he’d been waiting for since he opened his eyes that morning:

“DINNER!”

*          *          *

A little less than an hour after he pulled the last chocolate smeared fork from between his lips, Zeke finally managed to haul himself upright and hobble upstairs to his room. There, he flopped down onto his bed and reached for his cell phone. He didn’t even have the mental whatnot to dial, and so held his thumb down on the power button and slurred, “Call Adam,” toward the thing.

It rang, and Zeke dragged his body a little further up the bed and laid his head down atop the phone.

Adam picked up after the fourth ring, just before Zeke was shunted over to voicemail.

“Unnnghhh,” Adam said.

“Bughhhhh,” answered Zeke.

There was some more groaning and grunting from Adam’s end. He seemed to be summoning all his strength. “How much,” he said, “you eat?”

“Too much,” said Zeke. “You?”

“Yeah,” Adam said. “Same.”

There was a bit more grunting and groaning. And then the friends, failing to say goodbye or even hang up, each drifted off into a separate – but equally full-bellied – sleep.

Passage of the Week

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This week’s passage consists of a single, particularly spot-on description. The passage comes from Jen Kirkman’s I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, and is near and dear to my heart, as it describes the inhabitants of the city I consider home. Kirkman is probably best known for her work as a stand-up comedian, screenwriter, and actress, but on top of all that, she can put together a damn good – and consistently hilarious – book of essays.

In the middle of an essay about meeting and marrying her (now ex-) husband, Kirkman mentions a discussion the two had about the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the team that referred to themselves as “the Idiots” and that, after nearly a century, broke the Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series. After a brief qualifying statement – “In case you didn’t know because you’ve been living in a vacuum-sealed hut off the coast of New Zealand or are a Goth teenager…” – Kirkman goes on to explain the curse and, more generally, the Red Sox’s place in the lives of Massachusetts residents and Bostonians in particular.

Never before have I come across such an apt description of the peculiar spirit and mentality that Bostonians spend their lives trudging around with. And, as you’ll see, Kirkman’s description also serves as an eloquent and, to my mind, very sound argument as to why – amazing city that we are – we’ve helped produce some of the most talented and hilarious individuals in the arts.

Hopefully, Kirkman’s passage (and her book as a whole, if you go out and read it, which you should) will bring you to a better understanding of the people in your lives from the great state of Massachusetts – or, as us idiots like to call it, the center of the universe.

From I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, by Jen Kirkman (p. 72)

Most people from Massachusetts know a little bit about the ride of Paul Revere but “a lot a bit” about the curse of the Boston Red Sox. It served as a metaphor for all of our lives on an as-needed basis. If something didn’t go right in your life, you could remember that nothing was going right for the Red Sox either. The entire state was cursed. The entire state was an underdog. Sometimes things don’t work out and maybe we’re working against a punishing power higher than ourselves that doesn’t want us to win. That kind of “I’m the piece of shit that the world revolves around” attitude is unique to Massachusetts and I think it’s why so many comedians are from Boston, and why most people in Boston are sarcastic, angry, and wicked drunk.

Porcine Wonders and Toast with a Great Deal of Butter

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Kate DiCamillo can’t write a bad book. I’m convinced of it. Evidence suggests that she can’t even write a plain old good book. Everything she puts out is at least great, and is more often than not even better.

DiCamillo’s series about Mercy Watson, toast-obsessed pet pig, is no exception. In each of the series’ six volumes, you can find DiCamillo’s standard blend of quirky humor and sympathetic heart. The books also feature a diverse and tremendously vivid cast of characters. There are neighbors, policemen and firemen, an ambitious animal patrol officer and a reformed thief – all of them verging on caricature, but also, when you least expect it, packing a surprising level of depth. Also, of course, there’s Mercy, maybe the most delightful character of them all.

Things had yet to get stale after six volumes of Mercy’s adventures, but as with all series (especially those for such young readers), the possibility of staleness was on the horizon. DiCamillo sensed it, and wisely chose to end the series on a high note. However, unable to keep herself from thinking about the inhabitants of Deckawoo Drive – and unable to keep her readers from clamoring for more stories about them – DiCamillo recently launched a brand-new series, one aimed at slightly more advanced readers (those who, perhaps, became readers with the help of the Mercy Watson books as they first originally came out). As readers of any of DiCamillo’s novels know, with more room to let her stories roam, she only gets better. And no matter what age you are, no matter how advanced your reading is, you won’t be able to help but be delighted by the Mercy Watson and the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series. Enjoying them is as easy as enjoying a piece of toast topped with a great deal of butter.

Passage of the Week

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Walter Dean Myers is perhaps best known for his novels of gritty realism. Over the course of his career, he developed countless techniques to make his readers feel as though they were with his characters in the cramped apartments and on the vibrant but violent streets of Harlem and the surrounding neighborhoods of New York City. One of those techniques involved introducing, right in the middle of his stories, characters and incidents that seem to have nothing at all to do with anything. This week’s passage provides an example of this technique in action.

Jimmy, the protagonist of Myers’s Somewhere in the Darkness, is on a road trip with his father, a man who appeared at the door of his caretaker’s apartment after being in jail for nearly a decade and, Jimmy is painfully aware, never once wrote him. Jimmy’s father, called Crab, convinces the boy to come with him to Chicago, where he says he has a job waiting for him. Jimmy has reservations about leaving Mama Jean, who has become a mother to him, but also longs to get to know his father, and is assured by him over and over again that all will be fine once they make it to Chicago. Soon, perhaps, Crab will even be able to pay for Mama Jean to come join them.

At a pit stop in Cleveland, however, things begin to go south. Crab suggests that they stay there in Cleveland rather than continue on to Chicago, saying he’s got friends in the area. Jimmy is confused – what about the job in Chicago? – and after an evasive answer from Crab, begins to have doubts about this trip and, more generally, about his father. A beat later, a man enters the diner they’re eating in. He’s there to sell fish. Asked about the freshness of his wares, the man says, “They so fresh they think they out for a walk on the beach. I told them I’m taking them back to the water soon as I have my coffee!” One of the other diners comments, “If they believe that then they some stupid fish.”

If this brief, 167-word aside did nothing but add a touch of realism to this scene, then it would serve a purpose and deserve a place in Myers’s book. Myers, however, is better, and smarter, than that. The scene also serves as a sort of commentary on Jimmy’s situation. He is himself, figuratively speaking, a fish out of water, and as readers, we are here asked to consider whether he is in fact a stupid fish out of water, whether this drive with his father is “a walk on the beach” that will only end badly. As a sensitive boy, Jimmy’s feelings of empathy for the barrel of dead, “tricked” fish open him up to the possibility that he’s made a mistake, and help give shape to the doubts and concerns that have been hanging hazily in the back of his mind since he first set out with his father.

Myers, who could write like the most lyrical of poets when he chose to, often wrote in spare, unadorned prose. But he made his words work hard. And here we see how masterful he was at using those words to construct scenes, how a seemingly random and almost inane aside can not only add a dash of realism to a moment, but at the same time advance the plot, deeper a character, and challenge the reader.

From Somewhere in the Darkness, by Walter Dean Myers (p. 43-44)

“I got some friends in Cleveland,” Crab said. “We could stay here a while.”

“I thought you had a job in Chicago,” Jimmy said.

Crab pushed the bacon to one side and broke the yolks of his eggs with his toast. He blotted up the egg yolk with the toast and then put the toast in his mouth. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said.

He looked tired.

The door opened and a man came in rolling a small barrel.

“Somebody go ask Paris if he wants some fish,” the man said.

“He wants some fish,” the girl who had served them said. “They fresh?”

“They so fresh they think they out for a walk on the beach,” the man said, grinning and showing a gold tooth. “I told them I’m taking them back to the water soon as I have my coffee!”

“If they believe that then they some stupid fish,” the man with the tools on his belt said.

“All fish are stupid,” the fish man said. “That’s why you can put them goldfish in a bowl and they just swim back and forth and don’t even care.”

“Give me twenty pounds of fish,” the girl said. She had come around the counter and looked into the barrel. “They porgies, right?”

“Mostly porgies,” the fish man said. “Got a few whitings in there, too.” 

“Yeah, well, make it thirty pounds,” the girl said.

Jimmy saw Crab jump. He was holding back the curtain so he could see out the window. Jimmy looked over and saw a cop talking to the service station attendant. They talked for a while and then the cop walked on. Crab let the curtain go and went back to his eating.

Where Are All the Short Stories?

When I sit down in front of a blank notebook page or a brand-new document, nothing but the cursor blinking in the top left corner of the screen, I rarely know more than one or two things about what I’m going to write, and never is one of those things the final word count of this yet-to-be-written story. Makes sense, right? To know such a thing would be preposterous. Sometimes a 60,000-word novel comes out, sometimes just a couple thousand-word scenes. Stories have a natural length. Unless you’re actively seeking to artificially extend them, they’ll find their proper word count.

Which leads me to ask the question hanging out up there over this post – where are all the short stories? Go to the bookstore or library and take a look around the Young Adult and Middle Grade sections. It’s pretty much all novels. And yes, sure, the novels vary widely in length. Some of the slimmer ones come in around the 30,000-word mark, while others get up into six-digit figures. But there’s an entire form of story, the short kind, that can be read in a single sitting, or even a single breath, and that is basically absent from these shelves.

Short stories have their own peculiar delights to offer. They are, I’d argue, as different from a novel as a novel is from a poem. Also – and this is a factor of especial importance for younger readers – they are, well, short. This is good not only for the reluctant readers out there, who may be too daunted or preemptively bored to pick up a novel that’s thicker than their wrist, but also for the budding writers. Considering a big, finished, printed and bound novel – or, perhaps, sitting down to try and write their own – even a particularly ambitious boy or girl is likely to feel frustrated or even defeated, and perhaps permanently so. If they stick with it, they’ll come to see that this is an essential part of the process, but to be confronted so early on by the absurd, paradoxical fact that you must fail, and then fail a little better, and then fail a little better still, in order to one day succeed – it’s not so healthy for a kid’s creativity. (There’s a reason why they don’t read Beckett in grade school.)

But give a kid a book of short stories – or, better still, print one out on the same blank or lined paper that they themselves use to get down their thoughts and build their own sentences – and their much more likely to think, “Hey. Maybe I could do this.”

I know this firsthand. Before I’d even considered being a writer, before I’d even really understood that a writer was something you could grow up and be, I wrote short stories. (My mom still has a folder full of my earliest efforts, from the spooky – “Séance” – to the slices of life – “Sleepover at Bobby’s.”) I shiver to think how I might’ve ended up had my fourth-grade teacher not given us a bundle of short stories and, when asked what we were supposed to do once we’d finished reading them, casually shrugged and said, “Write your own.” I might’ve become an accountant. Or a lawyer. (Talk about spooky.)

I’m confident that most, if not all, Middle Grade and Young Adult authors have a handful of short stories in them. It’s even possible that these stories are being written – and then, unfortunately for their readers, just sitting around collecting figurative dust on their hard drives. Now and again, if you’re really keeping an eye out for them, you’ll see a book of short stories pop up. But they’re a rarity, and when they appear, such books usually have to justify their existence otherwise – as a group of loosely linked stories or as an anthology focused on a particular issue or theme. (I wrote about one of these rare birds for last week’s Passage of the Week.)

For all I know, there are some solid reasons why short stories so rarely make their way into our libraries’ and bookstores’ children’s sections. Maybe a team of experts in childhood literacy looked into it, and wrote up a report advising against such bite-sized narratives. Or maybe the marketing departments of the major publishers have come to the conclusion that the things just don’t sell. But for the sake of the younger generations’ reluctant readers and nascent writers, and for the sake of all of our having as rich a literary landscape as possible, I certainly hope they change their minds.

Passage of the Week

the library card

Before writers become writers, they’re readers. So it should come as no surprise that so many writers, in their own books, wax poetic about the wonder of books and the joys of reading. In The Library Card, Jerry Spinelli does so countless times, and in all different kinds of ways. The book, a set of four loosely interlinked short stories, is, among other things, a love letter to libraries, the books such buildings contain, and the reading encouraged and celebrated by them.

Below is a passage from The Library’s Card’s first story, “Mongoose.” It may very well be the most spot-on and delightful description of the wonder of books and the joys of reading that I’ve ever come across. Every reader will recognize and relate to the heady hunger Mongoose experiences, and feel a kinship with Spinelli himself, who we can tell is writing here from firsthand experience. And how can you not feel grateful and reassured that there are authors out there like Spinelli, adding volumes to our library shelves, bringing a bit more wonder and joy into our world?

From The Library Card, by Jerry Spinelli (p. 22-23)

“Yo, Goose.”

“Say, Weaz.”

“What’s up?”

“Not much.”

They were walking to school a week later, being cool, being twelve.

And Mongoose had just lied. A lot was up. So much was up he was practically twitching. He had finally made his way to the front of I Wonder. He had tried numerous times to read it straight through, but he just couldn’t do it. He kept skipping ahead, skipping back, jumping all over the place. Same problem he had with a banana split. Each of its many parts was so tempting, he barely nibbled at one before being lured away by another. Different though, because when he finished a split, he was stuffed, felt like he’d never eat again. With this book, he could wolf it down at breakfast and be ready for more before lunchtime. Wherever I Wonder was going, it wasn’t to his stomach.

Another difference: banana splits made Mongoose greedy. No grizzly bear ever guarded her cubs more ferociously than Jamie Mongoose Hill guarded a split. But with this book, appetite seemed to move in more than one direction. His hunger was to feed not only himself but someone else, to both take and give, to share. Which is what he did all week to his mother and father and older brother – till they were stuffed. But Weasel, he wasn’t biting.

And now, on this bright cold December morning, Mongoose had reached the end of his patience. Right there on the sidewalk he grabbed his best pal’s arm and said, “Weaz, listen to this.”

Weasel frowned. “You look goofy.”

Mongoose felt goofy. “You ain’t gonna believe this.”