What has stayed with me most strongly from the past two semesters has been students’ remarks that the most important thing they will take with them from English classes into the rest of their lives is the ability to bring out what is deepest in themselves with clarity, to take that terrible risk, and to be heard and understood by someone, whether a teacher, their classmates, or an even broader audience.
Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category
To be a good academic writer, it helps to be an effective reader. Close reading of texts is the key. I found a great set of tips here:
Craig Childs’ book, The Animal Dialogues (Uncommon Encounters in the Wild), is an insightful look at how a naturalist spends his free time. Liam, who is our animal-nut around these parts, is lapping up the delightful (and, at times, downright scary) encounters between human and beast.
Childs divides the book into chapters that each contains a single animal. He then details the intersection between his curiosity and the animal’s natural instincts… often to the point where you wonder: What on earth were you thinking, Craig?
What makes this book such a delightful choice for you and your kids is… you guessed it: the writing. Childs is a natural story-teller. He grabs you by the shirt-collar and holds you against the wall until your pulse finally slackens as he demonstrates his improbable escapes.
Here’s a sample of his terrific writing:
“The grizzly bear is six to eight hundred pounds of smugness. It has no need to hide. If it were a person, it would laugh loudly in quiet restaurants, boastfully wear the wrong clothes for special occasions, and probably play hockey. It would also pursue secret solitude, disappearing for weeks on end while people were expecting it at upcoming meetings. At the moment, it was bold and aloof, making sure we knew we were being watched, but keeping its distance.”
The first section includes the following animals:
Cat and Mouse (A hilarious chapter! We couldn’t stop laughing.)
He continues with birds (raptors!), moutain animals like elk and bighorn sheep, and then runs through the gamut of unusual fellows such as rattlesnakes, rainbow trout and even mosquitoes. His final ode is to the most complex beast of all: the human.
Childs is frequently a guest on NPR so you may have heard him share his bits of naturalistic advice and wisdom there. More than anything, I find this to be a perfect read-aloud. Each chapter has suspense and closure. You can read each one over a several month period, one per week, or read them all in a row (like we are).
Johannah wrote to me from college to tell me I must read Peter Pan. Then she wrote again later to tell me that the first five chapters are genius but after that it gets a bit racist. Still when Johannah calls writing genius, I listen. She’s a great reader, better than I am.
So I followed her link to the online version and began reading today any time I needed a break from SAT/ACT essays (which was often, I confess). Then I had to keep interrupting Jon from his work because I was laughing so hard, I felt guilty unless I involved another party.
Tonight as I closed up shop online, I took another quick peek at the first chapter (couldn’t resist) and read the following. Instantly I thought of you all.
Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.
Good night, good mothers.
Every now and then, a writer I’ve read countless times tricks me into rereading her work. As I selected passages for the September issue of the Arrow from Little House on the Prairie (a book I’ve read so many times, I can practically narrate it chapter by chapter from memory), I meant to simply thumb through my 1960s hardback volume to my favorite quotations and then jot them down…
Instead, my teaspoon poised itself in front of my mouth as my French onion soup went cold while I read the first four chapters without a pause or a breath… I rushed to the part where we find out whether or not Laura’s dog Jack survives being washed downstream in a rising creek after his long journey from Wisconsin to Kansas, running the whole way on foot under the covered wagon.
I know how it turns out. I know it so well, I can almost quote the poignant description. But somehow, any time I start reading the opening lines of this book, I can’t stop until I get to that most exquisite writing which releases me from the prison of narrative tension.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is one writer who gets more done with simple language than just about any other children’s writer. She so thoroughly inhabits the mind life of a little girl, you forget that she’s in her sixties at the time of writing.
I first heard the Little House series read to me by my mother. She sat in my bed, back against the headboard, reading the books chapter by chapter in her soothing voice. So special did our readings become that for years afterwards, my mother continued to purchase and give to me Laura paraphernalia and any other books related to her life as they were published. I have the full set of hard back books as well as many other Laura related publications all housed in my bookcase.
Eight years ago, I finally had the joy of visiting South Dakota where Laura spent her long winter. Our kids were with me and I had just finished reading the series aloud to them… for the second time. We marveled at the tiny house whose drawing room Laura considered large and spacious. We admired the trees planted for each of the girls. All those years later, they towered over us. What an astonishing experience to see that all we had read found its roots in a real place, among real people. In an odd way, I felt as though we were visiting family. That is the power of Laura’s wonderful writing.
Laura’s books are a gift to every generation. More than a portrait of a moment in history, of pioneering life, Laura Ingalls Wilder offers us timeless writing. If you haven’t read her books, now’s a great time to start.