Monday, April 25, 2011

Books on a budget

In celebration of finally finishing my thesis, I went to my favorite antique store to buy books. This particular shop has lots of books, and tons of them are categorized as children's literature.

The process of choosing is always a difficult one. This time, I gave myself the following limits (otherwise I might have been tempted to go straight to that big glass case in the back and get those beautiful old copies of Dream Days and The Golden Age):

My total bill could not exceed $20
I could not buy copies of the usual suspects (Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows)
Purchased books must be children's literature (or literature children could read)

Buying books for less than $20 in an antique shop isn't easy, but with a little diligence and the willingness to be disappointed (like finding a first American edition of Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke and hoping the dealer doesn't know what it's worth but realizing he definitely does know and has marked it up for good measure), you really can find wonderful treasures. The following came out to $21.20 because of tax, so I did break my rule a bit, but the total before tax was exactly $20.

Here's what I found:

Though another much more beautiful and expensive first edition copy of Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers was on the shelf right beside this one, I stuck to my limit and spent only $4 on this. It's an old library hardcover copy in good condition with the dust cover. This may be the most romantic book I own, and I don't mean like lovey-dovey romance. I mean the attitude of the thing. Beautifully illustrated flowers all daintily colored and lovely women blessed with perfect faces grace almost every page. And the text adds to the romance, though it's also very informative. Who knew oak leaves speak of bravery and weeping willows of mourning? (Harry Potter fans might read through to make onomastic connections like the one on the page below.)

The second book I found was Marigold Garden, another $4 Greenaway piece with pretty illustrations. Also a discarded library book, it appears to have been used to teach children poetry. In the front, some thoughtful teacher inscribed, "Poems to teach: page 7, 6, 9..." and so on. My personal favorite of those marked is on page 22:

When You and I Grow Up

When you and I
Grow up--Polly--
    I mean that you and me,
Shall go sailing in a big ship
    Right over all the sea.
We'll wait till we are older,
    For if we went to-day,
You know that we might lose ourselves,
    And never find the way.

If you've read the next book already, don't ruin it for me. It's one I've been wanting to read, partly to give me an excuse to visit The Manor. It's not a beautiful copy, but that makes it perfect for reading. And for only $4 with the library sleeve still attached in the back, I couldn't pass it up. It seems to have been checked out regularly from August 1961 to May 1978. That's a nice long shelf life.

My most expensive purchase was a $6 copy of Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever. I know the title is presumptuous, but it may well be true. I actually gasped a little when I saw the following illustration because it took me to such a specific and vivid time in my childhood:

I can't be the only person who is immediately transported back in time at the sight of that crow. Then there's that old cat peering across the table in The Country Mouse and the City Mouse:

This book is completely full of stories from my childhood. I read them over and over back then, probably because they were some of the first things I read on my own that had a decent story, but I can't remember for sure. I do know the illustrations made an impression on me. Isn't it intriguing that out of all the things my brain could store for later, it keeps artwork from a children's book?

With only $2 left, I managed to find a tiny book with a big message. The yellow and brown motif isn't my favorite, but the story inside (at just over 90 words) is hopeful and rebels against common sense, two characteristics I don't often hear attributed to board books. Plus, even in yellow and brown, you can't help but love Crockett Johnson's illustrations and think of Harold (though he and his purple crayon came 10 years later):

Even with all of these treasures now living on my shelves, I still slightly regret not having the Grahame books from the big glass case. You wouldn't happen to be looking for the perfect graduation present for me? Oh, you are?! Just go straight back and to the right corner...or there's always the Pullman first edition hidden on the bottom shelf...or that beautiful Greenaway near the front door...

I've got an idea--just surprise me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thinking rocks

When I was five, we lived in a house with big rocks in the yard. It's not uncommon in the northeastern part of Tennessee to have to deal with such rocks when laying foundations, and many people see them as a nuisance. Our rocks weren't a nuisance to me. They were little mountains mixed in amongst a thin stand of trees and were perfect for climbing and using as rugged terrain for toy cars and trucks. I knew every cliff and valley, and their colors, a mix of grays with little sparkly dots of quartz mixed in, are still fresh in my mind.

Those were my thinking rocks. I spent countless hours with them, sometimes playing pretend, sometimes pulling weeds out of the little crevices full of gravelly sand and dirt, sometimes lying across them in the hot sun. Many of life's mysteries were faced on those mountains.

I distinctly remember one warm afternoon in particular. It was sometime in early elementary school. I don't know now why the thought hit me so hard, I just remember suddenly realizing about written language: that the letters we'd been learning at school formed words, the very words I spoke every day. But none of the symbols made sense. All I could see were straight lines and curvy lines. I knew they meant something, that there was a hidden message, but it was closed to me. No matter how hard I tried to understand, I couldn't. And so, I cried bitterly on the rocks that day, fully sure the mystery of words would never be solved. I remember thinking, "I will never learn to read," just as someone drove by our house and honked. I was so deep in miserable thought, that friendly neighbor passed in a blur of tears without so much as a nod from me. 

My dad must have been watching because the next part of the memory is me crying to him on the porch as I confessed my fears. With a certain twinkle in his eye, he took my concerns very seriously and spoke to me with true wisdom as if the problem at hand were very real, because it was. I wish I could remember his exact words, but I at least remember their spirit:

"Oh, you'll learn to read, babe. You wait and see. You're quick as a whip. You'll learn, you don't have to worry about that. But you'll have to work for it. You can't just get what you want by wanting it. Keep working at it, and you'll see. You'll be reading before you know it."

I believed him. I didn't know how it would happen or how he could know it would, but I believed him. And he was right. One day, it all came together--letters and words and sentences and ideas.

Dad was right about a lot of things. He still is. I did learn. And I keep learning. I bet that's what the twinkle in his eye meant. He knew all along how it would be. First I'd start reading, then I'd start writing, and then who knew the places I'd go.

How did it get so late so soon?
It's night before it's afternoon.
December is here before it's June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
~ Theodor Seuss Geisel

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Read to learn to write

I believe a good book is second only to discipline as the ideal writing teacher.

I've always heard the best thing a writer can do is read good books. But I usually get so involved in the story that no time is spent figuring out how the author made her masterpiece. I always thought it would ruin the magic to look too closely. But this semester, I've been reading and analyzing writerly elements in classic stories, finding style and point of view and character development and so on. And I've found it's true--to read a good book closely is to learn something about writing. The following is a list of a few things I learned this semester by reading from a writerly point of view.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • If you can afford it, ignore the market. Quiet character-driven books only need to be written well in order to be magical all on their own, no wand necessary.
  • Some of your beautiful descriptions will be skimmed. Write them anyway.
  • Pacing is a powerful poetic tool. If a character's appeal is her freedom of imagination and action, dulling those traits in a sudden swoop of summarizing narrative can be off-putting.
  • A story about a girl doesn't have to include a boy love interest. But if you must, and if he's an ass, let her break a slate over his head and hold a grudge till nearly the end.
Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The imagination of an adult can fill in the blank space between sparse descriptions beautifully. Just think what the imagination of a child can do.
  • Children's books are sometimes about adults. Especially classics.
  • Babies cry and behave badly at least sometimes. Surely.
Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers
  • Irony and fantastic elements can give figurative language added depth. If done well, the reader hopes and guesses at what is true and what is imagined. When a cow curtsies to a King, it's literal. So when trees are said to dance, do they really? No need to answer. Let the reader decide.
  • There's a strong irony in opposites. Sometimes children like disagreeable adults.
  • If someone asks what your protagonist's motivation is, and you can't answer, that doesn't mean you've done something wrong. Necessarily.
James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
  • Similes are good. But they're also overused. Stretch your figurative wings.
  • "Show, don't tell" is a suggestion, not a rule. Sometimes, "Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short" pretty much sums it up.
  • It's totally worth it to get good at ending chapters with cliffhangers.
  • Illustrations can greatly enhance or greatly detract.
The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • A book without parents isn't always a book without parents.
  • Sometimes a character could be omitted and the story wouldn't change. If so, maybe that character should get the ax or needs more purpose.
  • For early readers, sometimes just a little tension is plenty enough to engage. The adult mind will not necessarily be entertained by every children's book.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle
  • If a character has unbelievable abilities, one way to keep him convincing is to allow the narrator to acknowledge the juxtaposition.
  • Not showing the bad guy might be scarier than showing him, especially if he's just a slimy brain thing.
  • However, to children, a slimy brain thing might well be terrifying.
  • Therefore, always remember that you are an adult and shouldn't get yourself upset if, for example, you think Harry should have ended up with Hermione or something like that. You are only allowed to read certain books because you've got the money to buy them, not because they were ever intended to entertain you (not that I'm suggesting a particular readership for Harry, I'm just saying, if you're all grown up and sticking your nose in, just remember, it's not really about you).
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Sometimes your protagonist can get away with murder.
  • Really obvious foreshadowing does not necessarily decrease tension, but you'd better be able to write damn good action scenes if you're going to tell the reader all ends well. And consider including stabbings and gunshot wounds. And treasure. And a parrot.
  • Your narrator can switch to a different character in the middle of the book and then switch back or never come back or whatever you want really.
  • It's okay to write a terribly frustrating character, one the reader loves on one page and hates on the next, but I suspect it takes a lot of skill.
  • The reader does not have to understand every word to enjoy your story. Write it as it should be written and hope you inspire ownership of dictionaries.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
  • Parental figures don't have to die for protagonists to have adventures. Sometimes they're just not around at the moment.
  • Stories are saying something. Even if what they're saying is over your head.
  • Authors are saying something. Even if they won't tell what they're saying.
  • Allegory can work, but consistency (in everything) is key.