Tag Archive for Madeleine L’Engle

Thoughts on Books: Please Disturb

“The writer whose words are going to be read by children 

has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact

that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough 

than many people realize, and they have an openness

and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts

which many adults have lost.”

— Madeleine L’Engle

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disturbing readers.

Shaking them up.

In fact, I believe that many readers, consciously or unconsciously, crave the experience.

When I think about personal growth — perhaps in viewing my own three children — I imagine that it can be characterized by periods of equilibrium, followed by passages of disequilibrium, followed (hopefully) by a new, higher level of equilibrium.

Comfort, discomfort, growth.

 

disturb-the-universe

 

I came to understand some of this through my experience writing my first “horror” series, Scary Tales, for young readers. I placed horror in quotes because, well, it’s not that scary; nobody gets hurt, everything turns out okay in the end. Every time. But, sure, there are some clammy palpitations along the way.

I often visit schools and the response to “scary” in grades 3-5, particularly, is wildly enthusiastic. Kids love this creepy stuff with its twisting plots, and they have long before I ever entered the scene. But I’ve also learned that there is a lot of fear out there — from adults. The redoubtable gatekeepers. A question I’ll hear at Book Festivals: “Will this book give my child nightmares?”

Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. How should I respond?

SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_loresOkay, I’m a parent. I get it, mostly. We don’t want our kids to wake up screaming, scared out of their minds. And to that end, we don’t want to irresponsibly expose them to content that might be developmentally inappropriate. Well, a caveat there: Most people have no problem, bizarrely, with “inappropriate” content if it’s on TV or a movie. Even something as cherished as the Harry Potter books and movies — where characters are murdered, and the stories get continually darker as agents of pure evil plot death and destruction. Everybody is fine with that! But a story about a kid trapped in a cave with bats? Or unfriendly snowmen guarding a castle? Or a swamp monster?

Those things might prove . . . upsetting.

And here’s the thing: Maybe we like scary stories exactly because of that disturbance. On some deep level, maybe even unconsciously, we want to be disturbed. Because we know that it is necessary to our growth.

What does the reader learn, after losing her balance, when she discovers, Whew, I’m actually okay. I survived this.

Might there be value in that discovery?

I recently got a letter from an 8th-grade reader who was disturbed by a scene in my middle-grade novel, Bystander, where a boy, Eric, gets beaten up. It upset his sense of fairness. In the letter-writer’s mind, “Eric was being very friendly,” and he “didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

The scene bothered this reader. It shook him up a little. A part of him preferred that it didn’t exist at all.

And I think, well, good. It was supposed to do that. It was designed to make you feel something. These are the troubling scenes we remember our entire lives.

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Now I’m not talking about pure shock, artlessly rendered. The head lopped off and bouncing, boing-boing-boing, down the carpeted staircase. Though, I guess, that might have value too. I’m talking about the fiendish clown in Stephen King’s It. Or the heartbreaking moment of when Travis is forced to shoot his rabid dog in Old Yeller. The moments that give us dis-ease.

I think that’s one of the things that good books can do for us. They disturb our tranquility a little bit. Which is also why, an aside, this entire notion of eliminating “trigger books” in the college curriculum is so misguided. The notion is that some people might be upset if they encounter certain kinds of things, or triggers, in assigned books: a mother with cancer, a rape, social prejudice, world hunger, whatever their personal trigger might be. Some believe that students should be warned about these triggers, in the hope of avoiding them.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be upset.

And I think: Good luck with that.

And also: Isn’t that kind of the point?

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

When I’m not writing Scary Tales, which is most of the time, I tend to write realistic fiction. My books have included childhood cancer, fistfights, bullying, suicide, lost pets, and car accidents. Scary stuff, life.

A book, of course, is a safe way for a child or adult to address different fears. A book can be mastered. A book can be closed. It can, simply, not be read at all. Or put aside to be read another day when the reader feels prepared. And then, on that day, guess what? The reader miraculously survives. Calm is restored.

“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

— Neil Gaiman

One Thing I Did for Banned Books Week

Back in September, the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group invited me to participate in “something special” that they had cooked up for Banned Books Week (September 30 – October 6).

Essentially, I was one of several authors invited to place three copies of MCPG’s most challenged books in public places during Banned Books Week.

I said, “Count me in.” And added, “Thanks for asking.”

A couple of weeks later, a letter from Marketing Director Elizabeth Fithian came along with three beautiful books: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander.

Elizabeth wrote:

“Enclosed are the books we ask you to place in public areas. Please add a personal note in each book and if you are willing to do so, add your signature.”

I was concerned that the books might just sit there, or be disposed of, unless they were properly identified, so I adhered labels with that key word, FREE.

Here’s a closer look:

I enjoyed lurking about, leaving those terrific books in public places. Yes, that includes a bathroom. It was sneaky and mildly subversive and mostly fun.

Elizabeth also directed me to this two-minute video you might enjoy, put together by the Association of American Publishers:

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Confession: I Finally Got Around to Reading “A Wrinkle In Time”

“. . . one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.”

— Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time.

When I was a kid, growing up in the 60’s, I didn’t read many children’s books. P.D. Eastman, of course, whom I liked better than Suess, some of the Little Golden Books, and later, the Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe, I think their names were. I have no memory of either of my parents reading to me, ever. It may have happened, must have happened, but I can’t recall it. I was the youngest of seven, born in 1961, and bed time wasn’t the hour-long ritual it’s become for so many kids today, with reading and talking and snuggling and sharing, etc. When I was a kid, it was more like, “Good night. And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”

The words that formed my reading habit came from the sports pages of The New York Daily News and The Long Island Press. I still maintain that my writing style, such as it is, was probably more influenced by Dick Young than anybody else: I faithfully read his column for many (formative) years. I also remember, as I reached my middle grade period, talking to my older brothers and sisters about books. They were readers, all of them, and loved Bradbury and Vonnegut and Brautigan and Robbins, so I picked up those books. I have a vivid recollection of writing a book report in 7th grade on any book I wanted. I chose Anthem by Ayn Rand, probably because it was a slenderest paperback on the family bookshelf.

I also read sports biographies, being an ex-boy, and still hold a special fondness for Go Up for Glory Bill Russell. It hit me like a thunderbolt, and for a time I was determined to grow into a very tall black man who’d willingly pass up a shot in order to set a fierce pick and then gladly roll into the paint, looking for the put-back.

Anyway, I basically missed the entire canon of children’s literature. I didn’t read Where the Wild Things Are until I worked at Scholastic as a junior copywriter in 1985, hauling in $12,500 a year, thank you very much. These days I still try to fill in the holes, though I’ll admit it: I love adult literature. After all, I’m an adult. Those are the books that lit my fuse. I am not giving up my grown-up books.

Now, about A Wrinkle In Time. I liked it. Some parts — the first few chapters, especially — I really, really admired. Other parts — after the tessering, and into the full-blown fantasy — I didn’t care for as much. It reminded me of the original Star Trek series (my brothers loved Star Trek and we watched it religiously). In sum: Dated, kind of corny, a little obvious, but entertaining and fast-paced and intelligent and provocative, too. There’s a quality to the book, a beating heart that you seldom find in most books, and after a while the beating of your own heart seems to match it, thump for thump, and book and reader are one. It must have been ground-breaking at the time, I  suppose, especially for the targeted audience. Today it reads a little like cliche, perhaps because it’s been so idolized and mimicked over the decades.

The problem: I’m not twelve anymore. And that’s what I wished for while I was reading the book. I wished I could have read it as a kid, experienced it with youthful eyes and heart. I’d bet the concept of “IT” might have blown me away, as opposed to now, when it feels too familiar and hackneyed. Very B-movie. So my appreciation comes from a distance; even that word, “appreciation,” feels cold and analytical and, I’m afraid, exactly right. I understand that it is widely considered one of the all-time greats of children’s literature, but I did not love the book on a visceral level; it didn’t speak to me. Not across so many years and these wrinkles in time on my face. I feel bad about that, like somehow I’ve let down the home team. But there it is, I said it.

I was born in 1961; L’Engle’s book was published in 1962. We should have grown up together, thump for thump, beat for beat. But, alas, we didn’t. And I think that was the main difficulty.

A few random lines I liked . . .

* But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears.

* “Why must everything happen to me?” she demanded of a large teddy bear.

* Mrs. Whatsit tugged at her second boot. “I said,” she grunted, shoving her foot down in, “that there is” — shove — “such a thing” — shove — “as a tesseract.” [Note: I read that sentence over and over, marveling at the punctuation.]

* “Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”