Thursday, September 30, 2010

Childhood Challenge: HARRIET THE SPY

This month, I chose to re-read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

From My Memory
I read Harriet the Spy when I was in the fifth grade. I adored it. It inspired me to write more frequently in my journal, made me want to become a spy, and left me wishing I could live in a big city. If I had to provide a summary of what I remember about the book, my summary would be very short: Harriet goes around her city neighborhood, observing the lives around her and writing all those details in her notebook.

After Re-Reading
Given the summary I just provided, you may not be surprised to find that I was pleasantly surprised at how much more there was to the book than I had remembered. Harriet the Spy has much more depth than being a story about a girl who writes everything down--Harriet writes down observations that are, quite frankly, rude. Yet honest. Painfully honest. Harriet started the book as a girl worried about her own life, not caring to think too much about how her observations might teach her about the people she's surrounded by: a nanny who has a complicated relationship with her mother, a best friend who has to be the adult for his often-drunk dad, a best friend who is misunderstood by everyone (including her family), and parents who don't know what to do with a child. As the book progresses, Harriet goes through a painful growing process when her nanny leaves and her friends discover her journals--the same journals that have all those frighteningly honest observations in them.

Through Harriet's turmoil, the thing that impresses me most is Louise Fitzhugh's ability to write such an honest character. Harriet doesn't let go of her ego-centric tendencies very easily (as most 11-year-olds don't), she throws tantrums, she behaves badly, she refuses to apologize... But she is lovable because readers can recognize a bit of themselves in her. Harriet is the definition of an honest character. Even while she's behaving badly, though, Harriet still writes observations in her journal that are so simplistic, they are poignant, like this entry, which was written after her nanny (Ole Golly) left:

(Harriet's journal entries are written in all-caps in the book.) As I read the book, I found myself thinking it would be a perfect book for a young girl to read with an adult. It made me wish my niece lived a little closer to me so I could share it with her (but at least I know she can share the book with my sister). Re-reading Harriet the Spy was possibly my favorite part of September.

Happy re-reading and re-creating your childhood joie de lire!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


After writing my last post, I finally hit my stride with Inkdeath and started flying through the pages (still at a slower pace than I would typically read but faster than I had been reading). By the time I got near the end of the book, I was unable to put it down and carried it around with me everywhere I went so I could snag any free seconds I had and immerse myself back into the book.

My prediction was correct: The Inkheart trilogy still lives with me even after I finished the book, and somewhere down deep inside me, I'm hoping Cornelia Funke will write another trilogy, one devoted Meggie's little brother. In the meantime, though, I'm dreaming of the Inkworld and reveling in its ability to make me slightly uneasy because it inspires me to think of things I should be doing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Slow Reads can be Good Reads, Too

I am finally reading the conclusion to the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke: Inkdeath. I bought all three books two years ago and read the first one (Inkheart) right away. Even though I enjoyed the book, it was a long read, and I didn't immediately start the second book. When I finally did start the second book (Inkspell), it took me nearly a year of reading it on-again-off-again to complete it. One of my friends had told me she'd had difficulties reading the second one but that the third one was worth it, so I kept going. She was right. I am immensely enjoying Inkdeath, yet I am finding that reading the book is slow going for me.

I am normally a pretty fast reader, and when I get pulled into a book, I often find that when I am released (usually because the phone rings or I realize I haven't eaten for a while or someone interrupts my spell), I will have read a hundred pages in what feels like no time at all. With the Inkheart books, though, it's more like I'll make it through twenty pages instead of a hundred. On the surface, it didn't make much sense to me that it was taking so long to read the books--the books are written for young readers, so I'm not dealing with words I don't know or hard-to-read sentences or anything like that. These books are just slow reads for me.

Before I encountered good books that are slow reads, I probably would have guessed that not being able to read through any book at a normal pace is caused by lack of interest. That is not always the case (in fact, a lack of interest sometimes causes me to speed up just to try to get through the book). I am now finding that sometimes a book speaks to me at such a deep level that part of my energy is focused on digesting the deeper connection, leaving only a fraction of my mental space open for digesting the words I'm reading on the page.

I am infatuated with the world Funke created in her Inkheart books; based on its vivid descriptions, Inkworld is a fabulous place, and I want to feel the complex emotions Funke so painstakingly describes at every step of the story. I want to meet these characters--even the evil ones--because she has put so much thought into making each and every one of them a round character and not simply a flat, stock character who plays his destined role in the background.

And more than anything else, her books are making me want to write. Her words are sparking ideas in me that I had left dormant because my schedule has been rather filled lately. Her words are making me feel guilty for not doing what's on my to-do list. So yet another part of me is pulled away from focusing on the words on the page, pestering me about what I should be doing with my time.

Although I'm a couple hundred pages from finishing (Inkdeath is around 700 pages, so I'm still a good way through the book), I already know that when I close its covers, I'm going to love the series. Even now, I acknowledge that the second book didn't quite draw me in as much as the first one did or the last one is, but I can't say I don't like Inkspell. Maybe it didn't draw me in as much because it was like the second movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy--I watched it because I needed the middle part of the story, but the second movie was so dependent on continuing what had already happened in the first movie and setting viewers up for the third movie that it didn't feel like a movie in its own rights. The second movie was my least favorite of the three. It felt like nothing happened because nothing was really begun or finished in its duration. I think maybe Inkspell was the same way for me. I can't like it the best because nothing was begun or finished in its duration.

Why mention the possibility of a good book being a slow read? Because I've found a new twist in my reading journey; I've found a new definition of 'joie de lire'. I used to associate good books with my hypnotic reading states--those periods of reading where I forget a world exists around me, and I end up reading an entire book in one or two sittings. And now I'm beginning to realize that not all good books do that to me. Some books, even those that could potentially end up on my 'top ten' book list, will not cause me to go into a reading stupor but instead will make me feel antsy with inspiration and provocation, making it nearly impossible to get through the book at my normal reading pace.

Have any good books caused you to slow down?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak over the weekend (I loved the book, by the way); when I finished the book, I read the reader's guide information at the back of the book. One of the discussion questions included a question about the foreshadowing in the book, which got me thinking about how I defined foreshadowing.

Before reading The Book Thief, I read The House at Riverton by Kate Morton.

Morton's book is a beautifully tragic mystery, in which readers are given pieces of the finished puzzle and have to put those pieces together for themselves. The mystery (i.e., the missing pieces of the puzzle) that drives the central plot is not completely revealed until the last pages of the book. Along the way, there are clues cleverly placed for readers to figure out little bits on their own, but Morton makes her readers wait until the end to get the entire picture. To me, this type of technique is foreshadowing--giving clues along the way that give readers hints as to what will happen (or, in some cases, as to what has already happened but been kept secret).

Zusak's The Book Thief, on the other hand, doesn't do what I would call foreshadowing--when the narrator introduces new story lines, he tells the readers what the end of the story will be (so you get the end result of the puzzle) and then tells readers the details for how the story got to be that way. So it's like looking at a finished puzzle that's been lacquered together already and having to figure out where the individual pieces are and how they build off each other. I don't think that is foreshadowing--I would call it presenting the story out of chronological order but not foreshadowing. When the end is told to you before the beginning, any clues given along the way are simply building the picture you already know.

Do you agree? (Or do you have a better literary term that I should become familiar with for how the story is told in The Book Thief?)