Sunday, November 15, 2009

The writer, reading (listening)

“Read a lot” or “read widely,” writers are often advised. But most of my reading these days takes place in the car, with books on tape, and most of the books I listen to are children’s books. My daughter does not want to hear fiction written for adults—or any of the Teaching Company lectures (on Mark Twain, on great books, on the history of music, etc.) I was able to listen to when she was a baby and couldn’t complain about it.

She also likes to read one author at a time, everything they've written in order of publication, or all books in a series in exact numeric order. And so, over the course of a year, we listened to every Little House book. We listened to all the Beverly Cleary books that were available on tape, and I read the rest to her (first the Henry Huggins books then the Ramona series), a chapter at night before bed. She has been on an Andrew Clements kick lately and I sometimes find myself just as eager as she is to get in the car and see how the child protaganist(s) will figure out how to right things before the end of the book.

The thing about listening to books on tape instead of reading them is that, in my mind, the voice of the narrator often becomes the voice of the actor performing the book. When I think of the Little House books I now hear the raspy, slightly twangy voice of Cherry Jones (she of "24" fame). Ramona's story comes to me in the matter-of-fact delivery of Stockard Channing now. I'm not sure this would be a good thing for most people, but for me it has extended my repertoire of interior voices I hear when I read--I used to hear Dan Rather's voice when I read the newspaper, or the voice of a generic professor when I read anything philosophical. Now I am inspired to hear fictional characters in more than one voice when I read in silence, and I try to give them more individuality when I read aloud to her.

I've come to appreciate the complex simplicity of children's books (though my appreciation hasn't yet compelled me to attempt writing one). The plots may be simple, but the best writers really capture what it is like to be a child and/or present what it is that children want to hear. I am amazed that Beverly Cleary, already a responsible adult, was able to sit down and write about being seven years old. That Clements could take his experiences as a teacher and turn them around so that the children are at the center of his stories—the teachers are just there for occasional guidance and reaction. And, that the Little House books continue to present a world, as a teacher of mine in library school said, that children can relate to because it is one where children matter.

And so we ride along the streets, immersed in stories. Who knows what the other people sitting at the traffic light are listening to—talk radio? shock jocks? light rock? We are rehearsing for a holiday concert, struggling to survive in a prairie cabin, or walking to school in our new rain boots. And, sometimes, when we delve into fantastic tales like the Spiderwick Chronicles, we can almost see the fairies flying by.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Very nice. The best children's books are great books.