Thursday, August 20, 2009

What's it about?

Yesterday a friend of mine mentioned to me that she was reading Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile and I rolled my eyes. I ROLLED MY EYES AT BOLANO. Terrible, I know. She was explaining to me about the poetry of his words and the rhythmic nature of his rolling sentences and how the absence of chapters seemed to signify the absence of time and all I could think was this: what the heck happened to all the plot?

It's a question I have been mulling over a lot lately, given that I spend quite a bit of time in the children's lit world where plot and character are sacred things. It isn't enough to have poetic language or a sound metaphoric structure. No, stuff has to HAPPEN.

I dig that.

While I was getting my MFA plot seemed to be the farthest thing from anyone's mind. My fellow students would mull over language and tone and style and perhaps even setting, but plot? How terribly trite. Ask someone what their story was ABOUT and they'd get antsy. "It's a representation," they'd say, irritably. And then, "duh."

I am constantly jostled between two camps, the first that believes when you sit down to write you must write for you alone otherwise the result will inevitably be inauthentic and the camp that believes that writing, at its best, is a dialogue between author and reader. I admit lately that I seem to be identifying much more with the later.

I'd like to return just momentarily to the question that serves as the title of this post: "what's it about?" Wander through any bookstore and listen in on conversations around the shelves and this is one you're bound to hear over and over again. It is the first question readers want to know: If I'm going to invest my time, money and energy into this, well, what's the story?

Rarely do you hear someone ask "is the language up to snuff?" or "is it written in a minimalist style?" Now I'm not suggesting that there isn't great worth in experimental writing. Pushing the limits on form is part of what defines art and should always, always be a priority. What I'm suggesting is that there are those of us out there (many of us) who want to sink our teeth into a good tale. One that is well written, absolutely, but also one that will capture our attention. That will delight.

This is part of the reason I became so enamored with children's books so many years ago and while I still read them today. And it's not just the Harry Potter's and Ramona's that I'm talking about. It's the picture books, too. How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz was a favorite summer read of mine as was Amelia Bedilia and Eloise, both old friends I returned to this month.

I have often said that I think more adults should read children's literature. Not because they impart great lessons or because reading these books helps parents to understand and better educate their own children (although both are true) but because it is important every once in awhile to return to what made us love literature to begin with, to remind ourselves of a darn good story and to remember that reading doesn't always have to be so serious to be worthwhile.

If we are to teach children to love and appreciate narrative we must also show them stories that can and will spark that love (stay tuned for next week's post in which I review my top five summer children's lit reads). We must give them books that challenge and provoke but also excite and inspire. I'm not suggesting Bolano does not inspire. There are oodles of poems in my document's folder that probably would not have been written without his influence (and might I suggest that could have been a good thing), what I am saying is that as adults we shouldn't be afraid of wanting plot, of wanting juice, of wanting to devour a book as we would a chocolate milkshake.

So the next time you see someone in an aisle at Barnes and Noble asking the age-old question, "what's it about?" perhaps consider pointing them in the direction of the children's section. True, it may not be what they are looking for but it may be just what they need.


  1. I remember you reading me with such delight the back of "Freaky Friday" which you had basically memorized! "You're not going to believe this. Nobody in their right mind could possibly believe this. But it's true." :)

    Looks like a wonderful, noble endeavor! Rock on. May you have much success!!

  2. Hi Rebecca, great first post to a blog I'm excited to follow.

    In my writing life, I tend to be most concerned with language and stylistic prose. My daughter is two, now, and I've been reading to her every night since she was born. The stories we love the most are definitely those in which something happens. She loves Olivia and Eloise, Where the Wild Things Are, and other adventurous tales. I wonder if this has something to do with how fantastical children's literature can be. In these books there is an imagined world and a real world playing against each other. In a large percentage of today's lit, we only really see the real world.

    Looking forward to your top 5 summer reads for kids!

  3. Hi Teresa, welcome! How wonderful that you and your daughter already have a strong relationship with books. The real and the imagined are much closer for children than they are for adults which makes fantasy all the more delightful. Sometimes I wish I could find that same level of suspended disbelief that a three year old has. It's magic.