Posts Tagged ‘reading’

My Library Valentine

February 12, 2016

When Lois Lowry spoke at our local library event last Spring, she told one little story that didn’t end up in my reportage (and one little story that did—you really MUST read it! It’s amazing!  I’ll wait here until you get back).

The speech was a kickoff to the library’s One Book One Read event, and the One Read, of course, was The Giver.  I first read The Giver when I checked it out from the local library—the same way I “first read” almost all the books I read.  And always have.  When I was a kid I visited the local branch library every Saturday, unless that was one of the Saturdays I took the bus downtown, and in that case I visited the BIG multi-story central operation.  I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like without the public library, and no telling what my adulthood would be like without it either.

So here’s Ms. Lowry’s little story: not long ago, some young friends visited from Europe—France, I think.  A country we would consider “developed” and not blighted by years of Soviet servitude.  While entertaining these girls she took them to the local library, where they browsed the stacks and chose some books to check out on her card.  Back in the car and on their way to somewhere else, one of the girls asked, “What do you have to pay to belong to the library?”

Ms. Lowry was a bit startled by the question, and so I am.  Why, nothing.  That’s what we pay.

Of course it’s not technically true; you just don’t see the library line-item on your county tax statement.  But still, the public library you see in almost every community in America is one of America’s better ideas.  And a surprising number of Americans still think so.

Here’s the good news, from the ALA’s Quotable Facts brochure, printed in 2013:

  • 58% of American adults possess a library card.
  • Americans to libraries (public, school, and academic) over three times more often than they go to the movies.
  • Reference librarians answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week.
  • There are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants.  (You just have to look harder for them—maybe libraries should have the equivalent of golden arches on a fifty-foot pole.)
  • Americans check out an average of eight books/year.  (Since about 24% of adults have not even read a book in the past year, somebody is doing a whole lot of checking.)
  • The highest achieving schools have well-staffed and well-funded libraries–but you already know that!

America even designates Library Week in April.  This isn’t April, but it is close to Valentine’s Day, so this is my whacked-out, bedraggled-lace, hastily-constructed Valentine to America’s libraries.  We’ve been together through good times and bad, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.



Book-Burning and Guilty Consciences

June 10, 2015

I burned a book once.

True confessions: it was an ARC I got at a library or booksellers convention, and I didn’t like it.  Usually I don’t burn books I don’t like—that conjures up all kinds of Nazified images, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  But it was winter, and we had a fire in the wood stove, and I was so irritated with the contents (don’t even remember what the book was now) that I bent its innocent spine and tossed a section at a time into the flames!  I’m not bragging, because I still feel a little guilty.  What is it about books that seem so not-for-burning?

Maybe it’s their humanity.  Humans are sometimes described as embodied souls–not quite accurately, I think–but if that’s so, books are embodied minds.  Every human artefact is in some way an embodiment of the mind, and we do burn old houses and letters and discontinued uniforms and items no longer useful (otherwise known as trash). Books are more personal, though: they don’t just say something about the writer, they also testify to the reader.  When displayed proudly on a shelf they declare our admiration–or pretention, if we haven’t actually read them.  When stuck in a briefcase or hidden under a sweater they assert our guilty pleasure.  When blazing in a bonfire they express our contempt.

Some thoughts, stories, premises, and exploitations are contemptible, and I wouldn’t have a big problem with a bonfire made of Hustler magazines.  When the Ephesian converts brought their occult books and magic scrolls “and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19), they meant to demonstrate the worthlessness of superstition against the power of the Holy Spirit.  Book-burning is a statement—or least it seems like it should be.  Remember the scene in The Day After Tomorrow where the survivors of an apocalypse are burning books in the library just to keep warm?  That was a statement in itself: Look how and how quickly a civilization can fall.   (I couldn’t find a video clip on youtube, but that scene has its own piece of soundtrack, appropriately mournful.)

Each volume, whether it’s Karl Marx or J. K. Rowling or Pope Benedict or Louis L’Amour or E. L. James stamped on the spine, represents some little facet of humanity, whether noble or trashy.  All together, they represent one huge facet of humanity, perhaps the most definitive one: the ability to communicate in words, across continents and down the years.  Even if it was written to formula by a nameless hack in a basement apartment, each book is a little voice crying out—articulately.

Voices from the flames give me the creeps.

I tend to hold on to books the way hoarders hold on to old tools, old clothes, pieces of string: I might need those particular words someday.  But limited space demands culling every now and then, especially since I now get unsolicited copies for possible review. So . . . what to do with unwanted books?  Not just the unsolicited ones, but the ones you now realize you’ll never get around to reading, the ones you’ve outgrown, the ones that were gifts from Aunt Marge who totally doesn’t get you?

  1. That’s what library sales are for, and once I’ve dropped off the two-three boxes I accumulate every year I try not to think about what happens to the books that don’t sell.  Not my problem.
  2. Some trendy couples use books as decorating items.  If you google “Creative Uses for Old Books,” or similar key words, you’ll get pages and pages of ideas: knickknack shelves, furniture, desk accessories, clocks, paper roses.  A few years ago a very creative lady I know make these as giveaways for all the authors attending the Warrensburg Children’s Literature Festival:

JC book

(Those little voices may have cried out when the saber saw cut into them, but I don’t care–I’m keeping mine forever!)

  1. And did you know there’s a whole creative field of book sculpture?  I love these—a striking blend of thought and deed, word and form, spirit and flesh.  The artist said, “Let there be . . .” and it was so.


My admiration for books-as-art doesn’t change the fact that most of us can’t do this for all their unwanted titles.  It’s an understated secret that publishers submit their unsold copies to the pulping machine.  I shiver at the thought—some of MY books have met that fate–but at least those unappreciated pages can be reincarnated to new pages.  And life goes on . . .

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:


(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.


To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?


Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)

Can a Book Really Change Your Life?

May 16, 2015

Well, technically anything can change your life, from the high jump that secured your state track record and won your scholarship to the University where you met your wife and fixed your geographical location . . . to the speck of dust that flew in your eye and got under your contact while you were driving across the bridge that caused you to swerve and then over-correct and plunge over the guardrail into the river, ending it all.

But really . . . can a book change your life (always excluding books like, you know, the Bible)?

Changing might not be the best word, but I was interested in the results of a BuzzFeed post on the subject.  In answer to the question, “What children’s book changed your life?” readers a posted jacket images with a brief exposition on the book’s life-changing properties.  Some of these were quite specific: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (which I have never been able to finish) launched one reader’s lifelong interest in linguistics, leading to a college major.  Another has never killed a spider since Charlotte’s Web.  Meet Samatha (American Girl) taught proper table manners.  Other reported changes are more nebulous: “This is the first book I remember my mother reading to me and it reminds me of how much she loves me” (Goodnight Moon).  “These books taught me to value everything in life because nothing is forever” (A Series of Unfortunate Events).   “It taught me never to follow the crowd” (Sophie’s Ponytail).    Other books could have taught those same people the same lessons–as in romance, there’s no “one” for you,  but several “ones” who, in intense communion with you at a particular time and place, will change your life.

When I was about ten years old I read this book (The Silver Sword by Ian Serralier).  It was a Weekly  Reader Children’s Book Club selection silver-swordfor the month, and the copy in the picture is not the actual copy I read, though it looks that old and beat up.  (Found this one at a Good Will.)  It’s’ a great story that holds up well fifty-five years later, but I can’t say for sure that it taught me about courage and perseverance and sacrifice, although the story offers indelible models of all those virtues.  It probably did, but what I know for sure is that this book make a reader out of me.  That is, someone who doesn’t just read for pleasure and enlightenment, but for a particular kind of pleasure and enlightenment that can’t come any other way.  With this book I first experienced the sharp pang of discovery when a story wraps around your heart and shakes hands with itself–when something happens that’s so poignant and right and piercing, you know you’ve been changed.   To this day I can turn to the very page where it happened; I wrote about it here.  When you read such a passage, you know you’ll read it again–not to find out what happens, of course.  That particular secret is out, but the deeper secret of how it touched you can be discovered again.  And again.

Other books could have done that–and would have, since I was certain to become a reader.  But for me it was this one.

Expand Your Reading Prowess!

March 6, 2015

I think kids should learn to enjoy all kinds of books.  When I was homeschooling, library days were exploration days, when I told the kids check out books from each hundred-degree variation of the Dewey decimal system.  Not all in one day, of course, but over the course of a year or semester they’d be browsing the stacks of pure science (600’s), arts and crafts (7oo’s–and p.s., that’s where the comic books are!), philosophy (100’s), history (900’s), until they’d covered them all.

But that’s not what I’m talking about in this post.

nontrad.reading1I’m talking about what you read, but how and where you read.  You can devour Thoreau and Plato and Sun Tzu and Tolstoy, but in my opinion you are not an accomplished reader until you’ve mastered positions and places.  It’s never too late to start!  If you’ve been a conventional, butt-in-the-chair type of reader, with an occasional “daring adventure” on the bus, train, or family car,  it’s high time you moved up to the next level.  Which would be

1. Horizontal.  Most of us have mastered this one, but I’m starting with the basics.  Who hasn’t read in bed?  It’s much safer than smoking and the only downside is it can rob you of your full eight hours sleep.  If you’re a kid, it can be hard on flashlight batteries, too.  Don’t limit the experience to beds, however–try hammocks, floors, blankets on the grass, kitchen counters, sleeping bags, tree limbs.  Be imaginative!

2. On your feet.  The great advantage for us fifty-ups is it keeps us from falling asleep (usually).  On cold nights, it’s much easier to stand over a heat register than crouch on it.  On warm days, why not get in a little reading time while standing over the barbecue?  If you need to lose a few pounds, remember that the stationary leg gets the workout, so try switching legs.  And if you get tired, there’s always a leanable object nearby:

gotta read

3. In Motion.  This is actually a sub-position, to be combined with others.  If you’re in a hammock, give it a push (same with a porch swing, but points off for sitting).  Forward motion in a car or train doesn’t really count unless you get motion sickness–then it’s heroic.  As is reading on the back of a motorcycle. For skydiving or parasailing, see #7, below. But with just a little practice anyone can read-while-walking, and you will wow your friends and neighbors so long as they aren’t always picking you up off the dirt.  Follow these simple tips: a) choose a familiar route; b) check for potholes; c) avoid running into people, who tend to get tetchy; d) don’t trip over small animals.  You might want to practice on a flat, unpopulated surface, like a racetrack.

4. Around water.  For many of us, this may mean the bathroom.   Beaches don’t count, neither do toilets (no fair sitting!!).  I’m a practiced bathtub reader (tub positions are not sitting!! they are semi-reclining!!), with only one fatality on my record (if it happens to you, try this).  Avoid clawfoot tubs, which tend to have curved railings that present balance problems.  Also avoid those aluminum frames with the sliding shower doors–I hate those!  Speaking of showers, I hear it’s possible to read in them, but I’ve nontrad.reading2never tried that.  I make up for it by reading while washing dishes (standing and around water).  If you try this, a book chair is very helpful.  Add a clear piece of plexiglass, and kiss your concerns about sloshes and splashes good-bye.  Some try to, as they say, go “all in,” but I think they’re mostly showoffs.  Or they have one of these, in which case they are extremely devout .

5. Upside down.  This is mostly a novelty act, though I hear it’s actually a thing–some people read just as well upside down as rightside up.  (And no, I don’t mean they read equally badly in both positions, so don’t go there.)  They are rock stars!gotta read2

6. Contortionist style.  Mainly a specialty of people in the 11-17 age range, and not for beginners!  Readers attempting contortionist style would be well advised to start with simple positions, making ample use of friendly furniture

and gradually build up to the more challenging poses:


Results may vary!












7. Extreme Reading.  I hate to be a killjoy, but at some point, reading ceases to be reading and becomes something else, like an Olympic event or a circus act.  So enjoy your base jumping or paragliding-cumJane-Eyre, but I do not choose to participate.  And I’ll bet you don’t remember anything you read.