Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Like to Read...

It really should come as no great surprise that a writer enjoys reading, but the possibility exists that some of you may not think that way, so I just thought that I’d put it out there: I like to read. I don’t get anywhere near as much time as I would like to do as much personal reading as I want to do.
Personally, I tend to prefer fiction. Having just typed that sentence, I have to confess that I am fighting the urge to apologize for that. There is a mindset, often found in persons who perceive themselves as intellectuals, that fiction is a waste of time. When I turn on the television news – something I do when the kids aren’t around – I get a whole bunch of reality. I get news and insight from newspapers. I escape into a book. I want characters, not people.
What I really like is when the writing makes me believe that the characters are people; when I become so caught up in the story that I start to feel like I know the main characters in the book. When that happens, I can tell that the author is being honest with me – I know (or believe that I know) if the protagonist is acting out of character. I can also compare myself to the characters: How would I have handled that situation? Am I as honorable/dishonorable/honest/resourceful/wise as he is?
I love the way good writers find that they can use the English language. Non-fiction writing, I think, tends to be more restrictive in its use of the language. Fiction writers can “paint” more. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, and the way he puts words together is one of the reasons (another is his story-telling talent). In his novel The Stand, a character – a person – slips while climbing a steep slope, and King describes his fingernail as “peeling back like a decal.” I shivered when I read that the first time, and I’m still struck by the image. I guess horror, fantasy and crime fiction make descriptive imagery a little easier.
If asked to name a favorite book, I suspect that most people would probably name a children’s book. Maybe it’s because children’s books are more likely to be read repeatedly than adult books are. Maybe it’s because the magic in the written word is more real when we’re younger. I can’t choose a single favorite book, but most of the books that I would choose as favorites are children’s books. Some of them I came to know as an adult.
When I taught preschool, one of the things that I truly loved to do was read “chapter books” to the children at rest time. Imagine: the lights are down, they’re on their mats, and it has a settling effect. For the children, I mean. The kids would all tell you that I didn’t get to take naps because I had to keep an eye on them.
I got to pick the books (usually), so I knew that I, at least, would enjoy them, and generally speaking, the children did, as well. There was a pretty fair amount of repetition – the room’s population changed every year – but we read E.B. White’s three children’s books (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan), Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Ruth Stiles Gannett’s Dragon books (My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland) and A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.
It’s important to read to children. That’s something that we all know, even if we don’t always do it. Our lives are busy – it can be tough to take even a few minutes of our days to sit and read a picture book to a child. But there’s always bedtime. Books are good calming tools. We have a pretty successful bedtime routine at our house. We read with a booklight – the kind that clips on to the book. The room’s lights are off, eyes are closed, and it becomes settling down time.
Another cool thing: Booklights and chapter books are great during a power failure.
Some cool trivia about two cool children’s books:
Dr. Seuss was commissioned by Houghton Mifflin to write a children’s book, but was given the stipulation that he could use only 225 words from a list of 400 words. The result was The Cat in the Hat, which contains 220 different words.
It is, perhaps, an apocryphal story that Random House publisher Bennett Cerf bet Dr. Seuss that he couldn't write a book using 50 words or fewer. The result was Green Eggs and Ham. Legend tells us that Cerf never paid up.
Something from a children’s book that should be a bumper sticker, a T-shirt or both:
“Some do and some don’t. You never can tell with Heffalumps.”
Finally, my favorite passage from Charlotte’s Web, which may be the truest thing E.B. White ever wrote:
“Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”

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