Reading in Foolish Ways and Places

There’s nothing like cleaning up a seldom-used room for turning up forgotten photographs.  A small pile of candid shots were dislodged as I was re-shelving some books  and drifted toward the rug. My husband picked up this one and handed it back to me with a smile saying, “Is there a reason I never see you read while you’re sitting in a chair?  No, there probably isn’t  except that after thirty years of marriage, he should know that reading isn’t a chair-limited activity to me.  In fact, some of my best reading is in unlikely places.

I am grateful no photos exist of me reading in the tub but that’s not from lack of opportunity.  Tub-reading has always seemed like the height of luxury to me, since it combines words with relaxing in water.  Of course it requires skill to keep the water-soluble print from the H2O (especially if shampoo is involved) but this is one I hone with regular practice.  Outside of this, the only difficulty with tub-reading depends on the hot water supply.  In a good scene, there is never enough.

I have been known to read in the car although never as a driver while the vehicle was in motion.  (That’s my story, Officer, and I’m sticking to it.)  As a passenger, reading a traditional format book over the bumps and turns usually gave me motion sickness and I avoided car-reading for years.  E-readers have solved that problem, although I couldn’t say why, and audiobooks are a blessing but there are times when a traditional book must be read and a car is the only option.  Once was the 16th of July, 2005, the night Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published.  Like so many, I had fallen in love with J. K. Rowling’s creation and set aside my phobia of crowds to pick up the novel at its midnight release.  Once the bells rang at midnight, the bunch of us surged to purchase our books and then out in the parking-lot, green and purple volumes clutched to our chests.  Parents boosted over-excited and tired children into car-seats, fastened seat belts and peeled out of the parking lot. Exhausted book-sellers closed up the store.  Everyone was eager to get back to comfort, except me.  I sat in my Jeep with the windows rolled down and the interior light on, reading the first chapter while I slapped at marauding mosquitoes.  Only after I knew how the story began could I drive the twenty miles towards home.

In the end, the need to find a place to read is more about word-addiction than site.  To plow through a 250 page story on a smart phone screen that only shows 32 words at a time shows the same demented focus as reading during a migraine with a hand clapped over one eye – the damn fool reader doesn’t know when or how to put the book down.  Well, that’s me, guilty on both counts.  So if you see some dare-devil risking his or her life with their face stuck in a book, feel a little compassion.  That’s not a risk-taker enjoying the setting, just one more fool addicted to words.

The Tales of Autumn

Fall is unequivocally here, on the calendar and in the air.  Daytime highs are comfortably lower, nights are longer and the primary religion here has changed to college football.  The leaves are just beginning to turn and fall but there are some early spots of color.  Everything is changing along with the books we’re choosing – there’s nothing quite like autumn reading.

Perhaps it comes from the years we all spent in school, but autumn is the season when we reach for meaningful books, for stories that bring something with them besides primary characters and plot.  History, both fictional and non-fiction, become more relevant in this season since autumn reminds us that time is passing.  A new generation is starting school, while another has reached maturity and still another is passing on.  After a summer of living in the moment, fall is a good time to reflect on life and to find your place in the scheme of things.  

That doesn’t mean autumn tales are lacking in story.  The greatest holiday for stories, Halloween, is in the middle of fall and reams of words surround it.  Everything about Halloween stirs the imagination from elaborate costumes (Come As You’re Not Parties)…

 

 …to the belief that a point of the earth’s orbit thins the membrane between life and death until it becomes permeable.   All kinds of things can happen in the world like that and there are stories for every possibility.  There’s a reason so many writers love Halloween.  It’s a holiday composed of memory and imagination.
 

More than anything, autumn is a time of gathering in, for the harvest and for the soul, a time when an evening’s chill can make a good book and a warm fire the best company in the believable world.  Fall may not contain the same verve that drove spring and summer but there’s a generosity here that favors and enriches the season.  Here is the welcome of hearth and home and loving friends, real and in fiction.  Enjoy this gold-spangled season and the tales that it offers.  They are wondrous to behold.

An Interview with Liz the Great

Full disclosure:  The love of words brought my late mom and Liz Kennedy together.  I’m glad Liz stayed in touch with me because she’s someone I admire.  After taking her B. A. in English Lit. at Brown, she earned an M. S. at Emporia State University.  She’s also been a teacher, a museum educator, a mom and for the last several years the resident expert in children’s literature at the website, about.com.  Her column, (http://childrensbooks.about.com/) is a must-read if you want the skinny on current kid-lit.  She was kind enough to (virtually) sit down with me and talk about one of our favorite things : books.

Me:  Liz, you’ve created an amazing career as an expert in children’s literature.   What journey brought you to this point?
LK:  Serendipity and my love of reading and learning were factors. I love to read, libraries and bookstores are my favorite places, and I have a background in education. However, what particularly helped at the beginning is that I also knew html, which when I got started 15 years ago, was very important to writing for the Web. My husband taught me.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child?  Do you still re-read any of them now?
LK: My all-time favorite children’s book is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My mother gave me her copy of the novel, which is beautifully illustrated. It’s the first book I ever read that made me feel I was actually there – inside the story, experiencing what the characters were experiencing – an unforgettable feeling. I try to reread the book every year.
Me:  As an expert, you’ve written about hundreds of books.  Which ones made the biggest impression on you?
LK:I tend to be a visual person so particularly enjoy well-illustrated picture books and books, fiction and nonfiction, in which the author’s words create pictures in my mind of locations, characters, experiences, etc.
Me:  Children’s literature has changed over the years.  What are the trends you have noticed?
LK: There is an increased emphasis on more diversity in children’s books that I hope will result in more books that reflect the diversity we see in everyday life.
The definition of middle grade books is expanding; it used to be that publishers used “middle grade” to refer to books for ages 8 or 9 to 12, and “young adult” to refer to books for ages 12 to 18, but now many publishers are also referring to books for ages 10 to 14 as middle grade.
Me:   Let’s get out your crystal ball.  Any guesses about the future of children’s lit?
LK: I see a bright future, with books available in not one, but many, formats, including traditional books, audiobooks and eBooks.
I do, however, have a concern about funding for libraries. Public libraries are crucial to a literate population. For many children and families, they are their only source of books and book-related programs. Libraries are an important part of a community’s quality of life. Yet, too often, public libraries are woefully underfunded.
Me:       A big part of children’s literature comes from the joy of reading aloud.  Do you have any favorites or memories of books being read out loud?
LK: When I was five years old, my mother read me the first few Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, which I loved. I also loved reading aloud to my own kids and did so for a number of years, from Pat the Bunny and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to The Chronicles of Narnia.  
Me:  You’ve got two book-related wishes.  What kinds of books would you like to see more kids reading, and which literary character or writer would you like to have dinner with and why?
LK: 1. I’d like see kids reading more books for fun, books they want to read, rather than just books that have a certain number of AR points or that meet some other kind of arbitrary criteria.
2. I’d love to have dinner with author and illustrator Brian Selznick whose middle grade books have expanded the definition of “picture book.” I think he is a genius. His latest book, The Marvels, an amazing book, comes out in September and I’ll be reviewing it soon.

Thank you Liz for being my Mama’s dear friend and for being a friend to everyone who loves books.

Cooking with Words

God never meant me to cook good food.  When it comes to spices, herbs, flavors and proteins, I’m a major disaster.  I mean major.  My home economics teacher recognized this when I put tablespoons of oregano in her braised radishes instead of the teaspoons she specified.  (Who braises radishes anyway?) My husband figured it out the night I added sugar to the meatloaf instead of salt.  He thanked me for inventing meat cake and took me out for a burger instead.   The fact is, the kitchen never excited me as much as the printed page does.  So instead of cooking the regular way, I cook with words.

One thing I have learned is that Great Cooks aren’t Born, They Are Made. Julia Child had to go to school, August Escoffier learned through an apprenticeship, and Justin Wilson was taught by his mother.  The same goes for cooking with words.  All writers start out as great readers, picking up skills by studying the best.  And like all students who’ve watched accomplished teachers, those would-be creators studied their texts,  picked up their tools and concocted….horrendous messes.  Good books and teachers can help you get started but nothing is a substitute for practice, practice, practice and lots of failure, failure, failure.
Maybe that’s why, at the age of (ahem) fifty-six, the only dish I make well enough to serve is a hot cup of tea.  I’ve been a hot tea drinker since the age of twelve when my mom told me about living in England. Getting tea right means using good ingredients, proper proportions (water should be hot but not boiling) and a clean, warmed tea pot.  I made bad cups of tea until I could finally make good ones and now I make those in my sleep.  And while I am no Gordon Ramsay at the key-board, I’ve written so many five-paragraph essays, I can churn those out as well.  
A quick word about those ingredients, word-wise: nouns and verbs are your friends.  Action verbs with some zing to them (i.e. howled, scrape, slinging, etc.) are great spice words but use spice accordingly.  It should enhance the dish, not dominate it.  I think conjunctions must be alcohol and I’ll probably need a twelve-step program for these, one day.  It’s easy and fun to compare concepts by sticking them together with a conjunction but if you combine too many, the sentences get blurry. Be careful with conjunctions.  Like Humpty-Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I find adjectives are fairly manageable words as long as they’re spaced well apart.  Adverbs should be approached with great care as they can actually weaken a sentence.   If you’ve got a sentence drenched in words that end in “ly”, take them all out and read the sentence again without them.  Is the sentiment still clear but stronger without all those adverbs?  If it is, don’t say I told you so.
To become really good at anything requires a compulsive interest in the subject.  Great chefs don’t create a brilliant dish once and then never make it again.  They analyze how and why that creation works and create variations or re-invent it as needed.  They know how to make a great plate of food, but they’re always interested in making it better.   If you watch writers at work (which is so entertaining, your insomnia will be cured right away) they’re just as obsessive about getting the rhythm right in each sentence and paragraph. This may look as productive as someone re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but each sentence requires a lot of tinkering to make it sound just right  and they will re-read, re-write, and re-arrange their composition until they either give up, whimpering, or go back to rework it some more.  That’s an obsession but sometimes OCD is required if you want to compose something worth seeing (or eating).
So, I’ll never be much good in the kitchen, I think, except for a great cup of tea.  That’s all right.  I respect the people who work there and improve the world with their art.  I’m grateful for what they do. In the meantime, you’ll find me staring at a screen or piece of paper while phrases swirl round in my head.  Someday I’ll serve and say “Bon appetit!”

A Lesson in the Art of Reading

I learned to read  because of envy.  Some little girl in my pre-kindergarten class walked in one day, waving a Little Golden book like it was a fan. During show-and-tell she read aloud to the class.  The teachers all went nuts.  How smart she was, how sweet she was and wasn’t she wonderful to entertain the other children?  Phooey. A show-off in a pinafore is what she was and I wasn’t interested in being her audience.  I buckled down to understanding the Little Bear books Mom had been reading aloud and soon there were two readers in my Pre-Kindergarten. With a little help from Dr. Seuss, I left Blondie behind in the dust. Since then, I’ve read most things with ease.

The thing is, even a talent for reading won’t make every book easy and some worthwhile works require effort.  I found that out in high school when we were assigned Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and all those Russian characters were confusing me.  That is also where I learned the single greatest reading trick.  When you sit down to read a challenging work, have something close you can write on.

Let me go back to “The Cherry Orchard”

This play may be instantly comprehensible to people who grew up in Russia but it can drive American teenagers crazy.  Almost every character has at least three names and they were usually referred to by at least two of them.  We couldn’t even pronounce the lines, much less make sense of the plot.  So our teacher had us create a page for each character and write everything we learned about them on their particular page. (Always short of notebook paper, I put 3 or 4 on a page).  At any rate, as I learned things about the characters, I added data to the collections of notes, drawing arrows from one entry to another as I memorized the relationships between them.  (Lyubov mother to> Anya is an example).  It was slow going at first, since I was writing down everything, but pretty soon I was writing down my impressions as well (Is Yasha fooling around with Lyubov?  He’d better not, he’s dating Dunyasha!)  and the characters were coming to life.  Fairly soon I could remember all the characters and I didn’t need to rely on the notepad.

That practice served me well a few years ago when J. K. Rowling published The Casual Vacancy.   After her like-able and easy to read Potter series, The Casual Vacancy was an unwelcome surprise to those who secretly expected all of her books to be charming.  Instead there was a huge cast of unpleasant people trying to manipulate each other.  A lot of readers gave up.  Me, I’m stubborn so I got out the old steno pad and started making notes.  By a third of the way through I could see where the author was going  (she has a huge social conscience) and I didn’t need the pad any more.  Now when I can’t keep focused on the text, out comes the  pencil and paper.

A lot of people think reading should be easy, and popular literature follows that mantra, but some really good books require effort. If you want to try something a bit more sophisticated but you’re having trouble keeping up with the characters, break out the pencil and paper.  Give big characters a page of their own where you can write about them, allow extras to share a page.  Write down what you know, and draw arrows or underline until you understand what’s going on.  And if you see my English teacher, Mr. Schultz, tell him the old technique still works.