Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reading Like a Ten-Year-Old

by Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford

My childhood days conjure memories of chocolate ice cream and Cheetos fingerprints smeared across dogeared pages. Books accompanied me to baseball games; they lulled me to sleep (or kept me awake); they helped pass the time on long winter days while I snuggled under a blanket fort or on endless summer days poolside. In short, reading was sheer pleasure.

At some time during the seismic shift that was puberty, books ceased to provide the steady, reliable comfort I'd always known. Not to say that I'd always read about happy topics. But seventh grade was the beginning of the end of my literary innocence. Perhaps my enjoyment of Treasure Island was foiled by too-high expectations for entertainment and excitement. But a successive spate of reading assignments like The Last of the Mohicans, The Scarlet Letter, Billy Budd, and Intruder in the Dust had a cumulative effect of making literature distinctly unfun.

I am not, of course, arguing against a solid education in the classics. I am arguing against a rigid curriculum that allows very little room (or time) for individual choice. By high school, busy as I was between track and soccer and band and SATs and drawing Venn diagrams about Tom Jones for homework, I am sad to admit that I was no longer an avid reader.

Our high school reading list (and this was in the '80s, not the Dark Ages) was comprised entirely of novels and plays written by men. I appreciated many gems my teachers introduced -- Cry, the Beloved Country; Huck Finn; Macbeth; The Grapes of Wrath. I especially appreciated the wisdom of a teacher, Mr. Bennett, when I complained about the the appearance of a five-and-a-half-page sentence in a Faulkner novel. Was the point of writing not to be clear? I asked him. After all, I had studied Strunk and White and George Orwell in his class. Bless him, he did not disagree with me.

In college, I read dense journal articles and was expected to learn to emulate this jargony "academic" style in my own writing. I decided a career in academia was not for me.
Now, reading and writing both being highly subjective activities, I realize that my Little House on the Prairie might be someone else's Treasure Island.

But as I grew more serious about writing for children, I also realized that kids' literature has changed significantly since my own childhood. The body of work is, as a whole, much higher in quality; it is also, as a whole, much darker.

Again, my argument is not that children can't handle depressing material or that they should be shielded from it. However, I do believe that it is in many ways easier to write passably well about death, depression, rape, abuse and other weighty issues than it is to present a convincing slice-of-life story that is relatable and also manages to stand the test of time.

When I was at Vermont College, MFA students were required to write two critical essays per month. I read so many books in a row that I disliked that a wise mentor advised me to go back to a book I'd loved and examine what I'd loved about it. Relief! Bliss!

A lot (nearly everything) may have changed in 30 years; but the same words and characters that delighted me as a kid are still there, still as powerful and magical to me as ever.

I am a person who subsisted for a week of my adult life on Cheetos and chocolate alone. While I agree with Mary Ann that a diet of literary potato chips is not good for the digestion or for the soul, my humble hope is not to write Ulysses. I'd be much happier leaving my mark with the literary equivalent of a Hershey's Kiss or, perhaps, a nice, juicy plum.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast.
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.
-- William Carlos Williams

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