Monday, September 28, 2009

Word Play

My husband, like me, is a linguist; unlike me, he prefers to use his linguistic abilities to study any language other than English.  I like to learn other languages, but when it comes to dissecting and analyzing language, I prefer English because it absolutely fascinates me.  Its history, its vocabulary, its quirky sentences that don't follow any pattern expected in the language, its word play. . .

Originally, this post dedicated to word play was prompted by an episode of I Love Lucy.  In one episode, Ricky promises Lucy that he will buy her a mink stole.  When Lucy tells Ethel about the stole, Ethel comments on how expensive it must be, and Ricky begins to tell her that he will be getting the stole wholesale.  Lucy, knowing what he is going to say, kicks Ricky in the shin to keep him quiet.  Afterwards, Ricky tells Lucy, "Don't kick the shin that stoles you."  How great is it that we can say such a sentence in English?  One of the many reason I love the sitcom is the use of word play to make jokes.  Ethel leaves a room, saying she's going to "put on a new face," and Fred crosses his fingers, saying he hopes it works this time because every time she says that she always comes back with the old one.  Ethel comments that Ricky and Fred are cut from the same mold, and Lucy replies, "Yeah, and they're getting moldier all the time."  The examples go on and on.

However, since this blog is devoted to books and reading, I couldn't let the entire post be about word play examples from a TV show.  I promised myself I wouldn't write this post until I had a good example from a book, and yesterday morning, Bridget Jones's Diary, which is also the current "Book of the Week" (see the left sidebar), gave me such an example (taken from page 50):

I made a complete arse of myself today, though.  I got in the lift to go out for a sandwich and found Daniel in there with Simon from Marketing, talking about footballers being arrested for throwing matches.  "Have you heard about this, Bridget?" said Daniel.

"Oh yes," I lied, groping for an opinion.  "Actually, I think it's all rather petty.  I know it's a thuggish way to behave, but as long as they didn't actually set light to anyone I don't see what all the fuss is about."

Simon looked at me as if I was mad and Daniel stared for a moment and then burst out laughing.

How could anyone not love analyzing a language that allows such extensive play with its words?  Whether it's misunderstanding phrases like "throwing matches" and taking them literally or making a verb out of a noun like "the shin that stoles you," English offers its speakers/writers the ability to be creative and have fun while using it.

Historically, the ability to use words as more than one part of speech in English until Middle English, when the language was losing inflections on its words, making it so a noun could look like a verb or adjective and, thus, could be used as either in creative ways.  Many of our "new" words in English are actually old words used in new ways.  One such example appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on July 28, 2009: "Rain was also expected to cause water to pond in low-lying areas across the Kenai."  When I read that sentence the first time, I had to read it through several times before understanding it because I had never heard "pond" used as a verb before.  The American Dialect Society nominates and then votes for the Words of the Year--most of which are old words/phrases that are being used in new ways.  One of my favorites is the 2006 Word of the Year: plutoed, meaning "to demote or devalue someone or something."  I've not actually used the word in my speech yet, but perhaps I will find something to pluto in the near future. . .

Do you have any favorite instances of English word play?  Or, at the least, any recent instances that you've noticed?

Happy reading, and happy searching for interesting instances of word play!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Literature . . . or not

The other day, I talked about how we readers can be quite cruel in making snap judgments about each other based on the books we like to read (or based on the books we read in public, anyway).  That topic stuck around with me, and I've been mulling over it since I wrote the post.  In thinking about how we judge books and their readers, I remembered an incident that occurred when I volunteered for a committee that was in charge of selecting a book for all incoming freshmen to read.  One of the books we had been asked to consider was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

For anyone not familiar with the book, Persepolis is a graphic novel, written as an autobiography of the author's experiences as a child living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  The content of the book intrigued the committee--we had all hoped to choose a book that would make students think outside their own experiences and culture and, perhaps, outside their comfort zone.  Before meeting with the rest of the committee to discuss all the books that had been suggested, I knew that the status of graphic novels in the realm of literature had been debated; however, I had no idea just how hotly people debated over the topic.  And so, I was surprised when the idea of using Persepolis as the book of the year was met with such venomous responses.  I can't forget one person's words: "We're going to let them get out of reading real books by letting them read a comic book on steroids?"  The words had shocked me into silence.  The only clear thought I formed in response was, "Ouch."

I don't pretend to be an expert on literature.  I am a reader--and an avid one at that.  But if you ask me to talk to you about classic novels or literary eras, I would have to be doing the listening and not the contributing.  Even without being a literature expert, though, I feel I am a good judge of books simply because I have read so many, and I tend to disagree with a lot of the book choices schools include on their reading lists for students.  In part, I disagree with many selections because I see reading as a personal journey that must be met with some degree of self-motivated interest for it to succeed.  I fail to see how a piece of classic literature can better relate to students and get them talking about reading than, say, a graphic novel.  Some people see comic-style illustrations and automatically assume they are looking at something that is somehow less of an intellectual impact.  I look at those people and think they are being too closed minded.

The first graphic novel I ever read was introduced to me by my college roommate, who suggested I read Maus by Art Spiegelman.  In Maus (a story told through two books), Spiegelman recounts the stories he had heard from his father about the Holocaust.  As a graphic novel, he turned the story of his father's survival of the Holocaust into one where the Jews are portrayed as mice while the Germans are the cats.  Other ethnicities get thrown into the mix, each with their own animal (Americans are dogs, if you want to have fun with that comparison).  I was at once amazed by his ability to weave such an in-depth story through illustrations and captions and also horrified at the level of reality of the story.  Often, when we read about the Holocaust, the material is edited--cleaned up for the weak at heart.  By using animals instead of people, Spiegelman drew terrifying pictures (quite literally) that my 18-year-old mind had not considered prior to reading the book.  His story breathed life into the real-life pictures I had seen of the after-effects of the Holocaust in history courses.  Graphic novels have a unique ability to open doors into otherwise "rated" material that, if taken seriously, can open readers' eyes to the reality--the dirtiness--of situations.

I applaud the schools whose administrators/teachers have realized the possible impact of graphic novels on their students and, thus, included those novels on reading lists.  When compiling reading lists or lists of essential books, we need to keep in mind the reality of what can help to best serve the students' needs.  I understand students should be introduced to classic literature--I'm not arguing that we should forego reading classics in lieu of reading all modern works.  Instead, I am arguing that we should provide a healthy mix of genres so that students are introduced to a wide variety of types of books in the hopes that they will find something they like and begin their own reading journeys.  I am arguing that we maintain open minds when approaching books we feel are on the fringe of what is considered "literature."

We did not select Persepolis for the incoming freshmen to read because certain committee members absolutely refused to consider the book.  While the book we ended up choosing is a fine one, I worry that too many students will miss out on the opportunities for thriving discussions that Persepolis would have offered.  I also worry that too many students will continue to see reading as something they are forced to do, not as something they can get excited about or involved in.

Happy reading the genres that make you want to read more!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not-So-Static Dreams

I recently finished reading a book called Firefly Lane, written by Kristin Hannah.  My step-mom had read the book a couple weeks ago, and as soon as she finished the book, she mailed it to me.  In the box, she included a single tissue.  At first, I was a bit confused, wondering if she had meant the tissue as some sort of padding for the box to keep the book from sliding around.  But that didn't quite seem right since the box was about the same size as the book--there wasn't a whole lot of wiggle room.  A note was also included, which explained the tissue.  It was a "starter tissue" because she couldn't fit an entire box of tissues in with the book.  She promised I'd need more than just the one, and she was right.  I got to the end of the book, the most emotional bit of the story, while my students were writing an in-class essay.  As they wrote, I silently (and at times not-so-silently) cried.  And sniffled.  One thing I love about books like Firefly Lane is that in between the main events that further the plot line, meaningful interstitial issues force me to take stock of my own life and beliefs.

One theme that struck me is the ability (or inability) to know what you want out of life.  So many people spend life wishing they had more--or at the least, something else.  I was--and am still--a person who has a hard time identifying exactly what she wants to do in life.  Growing up, I changed my mind about every six months.  I wanted to be a doctor, astronaut, veterinarian, cartoonist, clothing store owner, interior decorator, lawyer, teacher, and the list goes on.  And on.  As an adult, the only thing I can say for sure is that I need language to be a part of my life.  Most of you are probably shaking your heads, thinking that everyone has to use language to communicate, so really unless I stopped communicating altogether, I'd still have language in my life.  But when I say I need language in my life, I mean I need to do something with language--I need to be able to play with it, whether that's accomplished through writing, reading, analyzing, or studying it.  I used to feel the need to apologize for not knowing "what I want to be when I grow up."  Now, though, I'm not only coming to terms with the fact that I may never know exactly what I want to be, I'm starting to revel in the freedom of wanting more than one career goal.  I still feel a small stab of jealousy for those people who know exactly what they want at all times, and yet I know even those people still end up questioning whether they should have done more or something else entirely.  Mary Lou Retton summed that conundrum up nicely when she said, "Many medal winners dream of competing in a sport other than the one they're famous for."

Speaking for the people who can't quite make up their minds about what they want out of life, Kristin Hannah wrote the following in Firefly Lane (on page 127):

"How could she tell her best friend that she no longer shared their dream?  It should be easy to say.  They'd been girls all those years ago when they'd chosen to embark on their tandem life.  In the years between then and now, the world had changed so much.  The war in Vietnam had been lost Nixon had resigned, Mount St. Helens had blown up, and cocaine had become the Chex mix for a new generation of partygoers.  The U.S. hockey team had pulled off a miracle win at the Olympics and a B-rate actor was president.  Dreams could hardly remain static in such uncertain times."

My mantra has become that last line: "Dreams [can] hardly remain static in such uncertain times."  I am learning to love that my dreams change as I grow.  For me, I think static dreams would be reflective of my giving up on myself, of my thinking that I was finished accomplishing anything new.  I sincerely hope I never get to that point.

Thank you to Janet for sending the book to me, and thank you to all the supporters in my life who stand behind me no matter what proclamation I make about my life goals.  It's nice to know I've got people surrounding me who don't laugh when I announce that I want to be the next Miss America. . .

Happy reading, and happy dreaming!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Judging Books

We've all heard the old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover."  While the saying is intended to go deeper than actually judging books and be applied to not judging people on first impressions or looks or something similar, I realized I am guilty of another type of judging: Judging people based on their books.  Actually, I am more guilty of worrying about other people judging me based on my book choices and going out of my way to make sure I have an "appropriate" book with me when I'm out in public (one reason I absolutely love the Kindle--it takes away the fear of being judged because no one can see what I'm reading unless they're looking over my shoulder at the screen).  I then tend to admire the people who could care less and read whatever it is they want to read regardless of who is looking their way.

I realized I am not the only one who worries about being judged on silly things when one of my favorite authors, Sarah Addison Allen, posted as her Facebook status, "Today I realized that I get embarrassed when I look around and see that my windshield wipers are going faster than everyone else's."  The status post cracked me up and made me realize that I get an odd sense of satisfaction if I can keep my windshield wipers going at a slower pace than everyone else's.  As if my ability to see through rain is my very own super power.  As if other people are watching the speed of my wipers, wishing they could be as savvy as I am.  As if anyone actually cares.

My realization that I am not alone in thinking I am being judged for many silly things in life was further backed up by Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, a book I am now reading at my sister's repeated suggestion.  On the very first page of text is a list of Bridget's resolutions; the first list is an "I will not" list, one of her "will nots" being the following:

"Waste money on . . . books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves . . ."

Wanting impressive books appears to be one possible side effect of a national disease: wanting to "keep up with the Joneses."  We, oh so naturally, assume that our book choices directly reflect our intelligence or cultural status and, thus, feel pressured to reach for that more impressive, intelligent-sounding book to show off our literary genius.

Going on in the book, Bridget's mom and mom's friends try to set Bridget up with Mark Darcy, the son of other family friends, at a party.  It is an awkward situation, to say the least, and both Bridget and Mark feel that pressure from being stuck in a situation neither wants to be in.  After Mark learns Bridget works in the publishing world, he attempts to start a conversation:


"I.  Um.  Are you reading any, ah . . . Have you read any good books lately?" he said.

Oh, for God's sake.

I racked my brain frantically to think when I last read a proper book. . . . I'm halfway through Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which Jude lent me, but I didn't think Mark Darcy, though clearly odd, was ready to accept himself as a Martian quite yet.  Then I had a brainwave.

"Backlash, actually, by Susan Faludi," I said triumphantly.  Hah!  I haven't exactly read it as such, but feel I have as Sharon has been ranting about it so much.  Anyway, completely safe option as no way diamond-pattern-jumpered goody-goody would have read five-hundred-page feminist treatise.

"Ah.  Really?" he said.  "I read that when it first came out.  Didn't you find there was rather a lot of special pleading?"

"Oh, well, not too much . . . ," I said wildly, racking my brains for a way to get off the subject.  "Have you been staying with your parents over New Year?"


This conversation cracks me up because I have found myself putting a literary foot in my mouth when I try to impress someone else by claiming to have read a book when really all I read was the back cover.  Then when asked a specific question, the floor seems to drop from below me as I try to cover up the fact that I have not, in fact, read the book.  Or have any intention of ever reading the book.  I have an ingrained fear of admitting to not knowing.  Not knowing about the latest news flash.  Not knowing about a literary author.  Not knowing how exactly one defines "post-modernism."  I especially feel this fear when I'm at work, as I am surrounded by literary specialists.  My one literature course in college was Shakespeare--a course that didn't require reading long classic novels and being able to define literary eras.

One specific instance of my own paranoia of people judging my book choices is when I was selecting a book to bring with me to the doctor's office (I always carry a book because I hate just sitting in waiting rooms with nothing to do).  I was reading a Janet Evanovich novel but instead brought along Pride and Prejudice as my reading material.  I was sure all the other patients would be impressed at my selection and immediately know how brilliantly fascinating I am.  I don't think a single person even bothered to glance my way as I shifted restlessly in the uncomfortable chair, flipping through the pages.

My challenge to myself is to get over the fear of being judged and read the books I've chosen with pride. After all, who really cares if I enjoy reading pop culture fiction?

Happy reading the books you want to read, whether they be literary classics or pop culture novels.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where Has All the Magic Gone?

Growing up, trips to the library were full of magic.  Shelf after shelf overflowed with books: reference books, entertaining books, small books, big books, colorful books, stately books, old books, new books.  I couldn't imagine more types of books than what our local library had to offer.  The smell of all those books mingling together remains to be one of my favorite smells in the world--it is the enhanced version of what I smelled every time I held a book in my thumbs and let the pages slide one after the other off my thumb.  The puffs of air that wafted toward my nose smelled of adventure, knowledge, the unknown.  To this day, when I get a new book, I open it and smell the pages.  Maybe that is admitting too much to people who may not know me, yet I can't apologize for loving the smell of books.  Not only did the library have books, it also had activities.  Story hours, reading programs for kids to get involved in, summer activities...

When I walked into the library as a child, I rarely walked in with a specific book or author to look for; instead, I walked through the doors with an open mind and lazily scanned the titles on the shelves until a book caught my eye.  Then I planted myself in that aisle and pulled books from the shelves until I had a small stack of books I wanted to read.  Being able to borrow books was liberating for my young self--the library trusted me with its property.  When I passed some unknown test of responsibility, my parents let me get my very own library card, which I thought was the coolest, most adult-like gift I could have been given.  The librarian placed my card in front of me to sign, and my hand held the pen just over the surface, where it hovered.  I contemplated whether I should use my newly minted cursive signature or rely on my more trustworthy printed version.  I chose the cursive, let the pen hit the card, and immediately regretted my decision as my signature came out looking clumpy.  I wanted to cross it out and try again, but I had only had one shot at signing my name.  The child-like signature secretly embarrassed me every time I pulled that card out to use it.

I stopped going to the library when I began using book fairs and school book orders as my preferred method of finding books to read.  I liked owning my books, having them on my shelves without a stamp telling me to return them by a certain date.  And so the library became a thing of the past for me.  Recently, I got my first library card since my childhood card because my budget no longer cooperated with my lengthy visits to bookstores.  I walked into the local library in the town I was then living in, expecting some wave of familiarity to rush over me.  Rather than a soothing wave, though, I got a crashing tidal wave.  The library was too clean, too impersonal, too full of computers.  Once I got over the embarrassment of having to ask for help (I could, after all, find my way around academic libraries and so could not understand why a local library would pose so many difficulties), I went to the shelves to find the books I had come to find.  But they weren't there.  I was so frustrated that I couldn't find the books I was looking for that I didn't give myself extra time in the aisles to wander and find a treasure I hadn't even considered looking for.  My adult self was far too cynical to have an open mind and walked out the doors empty-handed.

As I sit here writing this, I'm saddened by the loss of the awe of libraries that I once held onto so dearly.  I am also saddened by the loss of my ability to share reading with those around me.  I used to love going to the activities and programs libraries coordinated for kids, but as an adult, I can't even bring myself to join a book club out of fear that talking about the books I'm reading with other people could somehow put dents in my reading experience, making me enjoy it less.  Writing this blog is my own personal throwing down of the gauntlet to myself.  Can I learn to share reading?

I hope to relearn to love the local library.  Now that I live in yet another new town (and thus have another new library to learn my way around), I have a plan: I will go get a library card.  And maybe, just maybe, I'll think about signing up for a book club...

Happy reading, whether the books are yours or borrowed!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fuzzy "Feel Goods"

Today is a day of enjoying the fuzzy "feel goods" of life--you know, all those things that make you smile even when you feel like you might be losing a lung every time you take a deep breath.  I am sitting at home, writing my blog, rather than sitting in my office during my scheduled office hours because ... I am sick.  I wish I could say I am simply playing hooky and enjoying life, but, sadly, I cannot.  On sick days (especially those like today, where the outside weather matches my mood with clouds and drizzles), I like to go back to my fuzzy "feel goods" of life.  So I'm watching my favorite movies (right now Fried Green Tomatoes), eating hot soup, drinking hot chocolate, wearing my favorite sweatshirt with pajamas, and celebrating books that make me smile.  To be more precise, I'm taking today to celebrate one author in particular:  Mary Higgins Clark.

Before I start with any praises, I will acknowledge one major flaw with MHC's books:  her writing style.  I am not a fan of her writing style because often times her sentences have the start-and-stop quality that can make readers feel like they are stuck in a traffic jam rather than reading quality work.  For instance, the opening lines of one of my favorites from MHC, While My Pretty One Sleeps, kind of make me feel like I am reading a telegraph:  "He drove cautiously up the Thruway toward Morrison State Park.  The thirty-five-mile trip from Manhattan to Rockland County had been a nightmare.  Even though it was six o'clock, there was no sense of approaching dawn."  If I've just read a book written with stylistic flair, the redundancy of sentence structures frustrates me.  And yet, I push on.

Why?  MHC weaves fascinating plots that leave me wanting more.  Even if her characters fall flat or stylistic qualities are rocky, her plots never fail to intrigue me.  I started reading MHC quite simply because my mom read her books, and so in middle school when I started perusing my mom's bookshelves, I grabbed my first MHC book: A Stranger is Watching.  I remember reading the book and feeling breathless throughout the entire book because, quite frankly, the story both terrified and fascinated me.  Even when I was so tired that I was repeatedly prying my eyes back open with my fingers, I kept telling myself, "Just one more chapter."  Inevitably, though, every time I finished a chapter, I repeated my mantra: "Just one more chapter."  I did that all the way through the end of the book.  Once I finished that one, I moved on to A Cry in the Night and, once again, read the book while holding my breath and continuously asking, "What's going to happen?"  Since my introduction to MHC, I have read nearly every book she has written and have yet to find one of her books that doesn't have me saying, "Just one more chapter."  (By saying "books," I am excluding her short stories and novellas, which do not have the same effect on me.)

I like that MHC books don't require a certain level of concentration--I can read her books through any number of distractions, including outside distractions like the hum of other passengers on airplanes and inner distractions like the haze created from feeling sick and taking DayQuil.  Picking up a Mary Higgins Clark book creates the same feeling for me that a cup of hot chocolate creates on a cold, wintry day.  It warms me up from the inside out because her books remind me of my youth, of late-night reading sessions, and, perhaps most importantly, of home.

Happy reading your own fuzzy "feel goods!"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Movin' On Up"

The Mount McKinley of my young reading career.

I can't remember my bookshelves without The Little Gymnast.  The 135-page monster sat on a shelf, innocent-looking enough, and taunted me, wanting to know why I couldn't move up in the world and start reading books without pictures.  And so I tried.  When I couldn't quite make it through, I slipped the book back on the shelf but still pulled it out occasionally to stare longingly at its beautifully designed cover.  I'm not sure why I fell in love with the book--maybe it was my inner gymnast, who never got a day in the spotlight since my physical body would never cooperate and do anything more demanding than a cartwheel.  Most likely it was the cover.  How could any little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl not fall in love with that cover?  I tried several more times to read it until one day ... I actually made it through the entire book.  It was the summer before second grade, and reading this book granted me an invisible key that allowed me to open a new door into reading more substantial books.  In other words, it gave me a key to start perusing my older sister's bookshelves.

I digested her books, many of which were parts of series: The Baby-Sitters' Club books, Candice F. Ransom's books that followed Kobie from Almost Ten and a Half to Fifteen at Last, Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, and the gymnast books (I can't remember the exact title of the series).  When we visited our family in Colorado, I raided my cousins' bookshelves and read books from other series like Sweet Valley High.  I enjoyed the books I read, and series were especially fun because it was nice to have the chance to get to know characters over time--like they were real people.  And yet, it wasn't enough for me because I hadn't found that one series that could become mine.  That one series that would grace my bookshelves.

That changed one sweet day at a Scholastic Book Fair when I picked up my first book in the Sleepover Friends series.  The Sleepover Friends inspired me to have more sleepovers, try new activities, think "outside the box" when I was stuck at home but wanted something new to do, and change my name to Patricia (the only one my parents wouldn't support).  From the Sleepover Friends, I moved on to find more series, including Lois Gladys Leppard's Mandie books and Louis Sachar's Wayside School books.

With these books, I began my very own collection.  I wanted my bedroom to be full of books--a dream that has since changed into wanting a house full of books.  With those series, I had a full-access pass into the world of reading because the characters had lives beyond one story, and so as they grew from story to story, I also grew--as a reader and as a person.

In the fourth grade, I met the Mount Everest of my reading career.  My fourth grade teacher allowed me to pick any book I wanted to read for one of the Lit Group sessions of the year because I had already read the book she had selected for my group.  I chose Banner in the Sky.  At 285 pages, it was the largest book I had ever picked up to read in my young life.  It was slow going at times, but I made it through (if for no other reason than I knew once I picked the book I had to stick with it).  Finishing that book opened yet another door to me: the door that led to books written for young adults and even those written for adults.

At the time, I never thought about my reading some of those books as extraordinary in terms of being an advanced reader for my age.  I simply thought about them in terms of setting goals and achieving them, which usually came out as something even simpler: "I want to read that book."  Books became more to me than just pages with words placed between two covers: They became my friends, my allies, and even my nemeses.  My favorite books are those that challenge me--whether the challenge comes from its content, style, or sheer length.

I kept The Little Gymnast, the Sleepover Friends books, Mandie books, Wayside School books, and Banner in the Sky because I can't imagine my bookshelves without them; they pushed me to take reading to the next level, making reading personal.  With them, books went from being a source of entertainment to being a part of me.

Happy reading . . . and happy remembering all the books that made reading personal!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Budding Linguist

Children's books inspire language play.  Kids most likely have no idea just how fun the language can be in the books they are reading, yet that language fun can open doors of interest.

I already said I went on adventures with Amelia Bedelia as a child, one of my favorites being the hardback version of Amelia Bedelia and the Surprise Shower.  Its tired red edges and faded front picture showed its age, but the inside of the book was pristine (even at a young age, I took care of my books).  One of the great things about Amelia Bedelia books is that they show off the fun you can have with ambiguity in the English language.  In the surprise shower book, Amelia is one of the guests for a surprise wedding shower.  What does Amelia bring with her to the shower?  A hose, of course.  After all, what is a shower without water spraying over all the guests?  Amelia has a tendency to take things quite literally, which leaves kids shaking in laughter and people like me amazed at the quirkiness of our language.  Reading books that explore the nooks of language planted a seed that would grow much later in life when I found out that there was a whole study devoted to having fun with language (linguistics).

As I read to my son, I notice the many ways children's books play with language that, sadly, adult books do not always do.  Take alliteration, for example.  While reading a book about the Backyardigans (Super Senses Save the Day!) to my son, the massive amount of alliteration made the story more fun to read out loud.  One great alliterative sentence is "The alarm sounded, and the four Super Senses skidded to the scene."  The author, Irene Kilpatrick, included many such alliterations that make some sentences roll right off your tongue and others like tongue twisters that make you work for the correct pronunciation.  Anyone who thinks that writing children's books must be easy should first look at all the elements the authors have to think about, starting with how to make the language fun for a child to listen to.  I especially like the authors/script writers who work on the Backyardigans--how could I not love a group of singing and dancing animals whose songs have words like "duplicitous" worked into them?

A lot of adult books don't have that quality of readability about them.  One author whose work I've noticed lately that does have that quality is Sir Conan Doyle.  His Sherlock Holmes stories and books were meant to be read aloud, and I find myself whispering the words as I read because they also roll right off my tongue, with poetic stress patterns, alliteration, and even some near rhymes.  Not all books need language that begs to be read out in front of an attentive audience, but I sometimes wonder if I would be more willing to listen to stories or books on tape (er, CD) if the language of modern-day books were more "listener-friendly."

Last night, my husband leaned over my shoulder and started reading out loud from the pages of the book in my hand; I shut the book and asked him to stop.  If I had been holding a Sherlock Holmes book, I would have been inclined to hand him the book, ask him to keep going, and let myself float away on sentential tides ... "I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman with fiery red hair.  With an apology for my intrusion, I was about to withdraw when Holmes pulled me abruptly into the room and closed the door behind me." ...

(Excerpt taken from "The Red-Headed League")

Happy reading, whether it be aloud or to yourself!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

First Books

I don't remember learning how to read.  I figure I can't remember because either (1) I was a young reader and, thus, too young to form memories of the process; (2) I simply lost track of that particular set of memories (i.e., I forgot); or (3) I let go of the memories because being able to read was much more important to me than remembering the process of getting there (highly related to Hypothesis 2).  I may never find the answer because no one else remembers when I learned to read, either.  When I flip back through my rolodex of memories, I am a reader even in the earliest ones.  As a young reader, I got attached to certain books; by "attached," I mean every time I reached for a book, I'd reach for one of a select few.  Sure, I'd branch out every now and then, but I had a very special place in my heart/life for my favorites.

Thinking back, the books I chose often featured animals, and I especially loved the books that had not-so-typical animals in them.  Danny and his dinosaur taught me that I could dream about having pets beyond dogs, so I started believing it was possible for me to someday be the proud owner of a bear.  And not just any bear, but a polar bear.  I never thought through how I'd go about getting the bear or what I'd do once I got it, but I was sure that when I grew up, I'd be able to call a bear my own.  Morris taught me that moose were capable of being excellent first graders, making me realize that I didn't need live students to play teacher.  My stuffed animals became my students, much to their delight.

Yet the book that was (and still is) "nearest and dearest" to my childhood heart is Mercer Mayer's Just for You.  The whimsical illustrations... The easy-to-love little critter that tries so hard... The little spider and grasshopper that appear on every page...  I loved it all.

I had a cassette that went along with the book, and I spent countless hours in my bedroom during the summer months listening to the book on tape while flipping through the pages and following along.  Maybe that's how I learned to read...  I must have read Just for You thousands of times while sitting on the floor of my room.

My lesson?  I held on to books for my own reasons, and I am learning that when I read with my son, he needs to be the one picking the books he holds "near and dear."  Even though I get tired of reading the same books to him over and over and over and over again, I have to remember that I did the same as a child.  And I can't imagine the heartbreak I would have felt had my parents ever told me, "You've read Just for You one too many times.  It's time to move on to a new book."  I might never have realized the full potential of reading in my life if I had not been able to foster those relationships/attachments to books.  So to anyone out there who inwardly groans when a child picks that book once again, keep in mind that by playing along, you just might be helping to foster the growth of a young child's love for books.  Tonight when my son reaches for The Good Knight, The Five Super Senses Save the Day, or one of his other favorites, I will smile and summon up all the energy I can to read whatever book he has chosen for the hundredth time.

Happy reading!

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Thanks to Gilda Radner, I know that "not all stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end," and yet I am compelled to write a beginning blog before jumping into discussions of books and authors and all that is related to reading.

Today is a pretty typical Saturday for me: a lazy day shaped around stolen hours of reading and at least one outing for the day (so I can pretend to have a weekend life).  During the week, I am a professor; Sundays are spent prepping for the week, the week is spent trying to keep up with courses, but Saturdays are mine.  At least, I like to pretend they are.  My son and husband sometimes disagree with that, but I try to get as much time to myself as I can on Saturdays.  When I have time to myself, my first instinct is to reach for a book.  I love nothing more than curling up in my comfy green chair and losing myself in a world that exists between book covers.  When most people think of their "happy places," they think of beaches or meadows or log cabins.  What is my happy place?  I close my eyes and see a younger version of me curled up and leaning against the wooden headboard of the twin-sized bed of my childhood bedroom with my yellow "blankie" that has since gone missing.  I've got my oversized reading glasses on (that have since been replaced with full-time glasses), and I'm holding a book in my hands.  Yes, my happy place is one in which I am reading.

These days, the best I can do to re-create my happy place is to make sure I have a book in my hands.  I can't always curl up the way I want to since my knees don't like to regularly cooperate with me, and I often have to settle for whatever place I can find to do my reading: in the living room while my son watches TV, in the office between student visits, in the bedroom after my son has gone to sleep but before my husband is finished with his work, in various waiting rooms around town, in the car (but I promise I'm not the one driving when I read in the car)...

My love for reading started at a very young age, through adventures with Little Critter, Amelia Bedelia, Winnie the Pooh, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My next few posts are going to start with discussions on books that helped begin my love for reading, and then I will move on to my current favorites and most recent reads.  And thus an adventure begins...