Sunday, May 26, 2013

Winn Dixie

I read an interview with Kate DiCamillo once.  What was interesting about this interview is that it was conducted by a student reporter at the premiere of the movie of this book.  The student asked her if she liked to write while listening to music or if she preferred the quiet.  Her answer was music, always.  She then told the student that she not only listened to music, she spent some time figuring out which song was the perfect song for what she was working on, and then, once she had the song figured out, she listened to it over and over and over again while writing the book. 

I found that to be amazing.  I cannot write with music in the background.  It is very distracting to me.  Well, I can write, but I tend to recite what I’m writing out loud as I write it, in order to drown out the distraction of the music.  Therefore, why bother, right?  More than the music in the background, though, was the idea that the music would repeat itself on an endless track over and over and over again. I think I’d go insane, especially if the book took a while to write!  Of course, I had to know what song she listened to while writing Because of Winn-Dixie.  Apparently, so did the reporter because he asked and she answered – Enlightenment by Van Morrison.

When I was getting ready to read this book again, I remembered that interview and looked up the lyrics to Enlightenment.  I then tried to keep those lyrics in mind while reading.  (I was unable to force myself to listen to the song while reading because it about made me insane after only two repeats!) 

In any case, when I read Opal’s description of her daddy, the preacher – “Sometimes he reminded me of a turtle hiding inside its shell, in there thinking about things and not ever sticking his head out into the world.” (p. 16) – I understood why DiCamillo chose Enlightenment for this book.  The lyrics of Enlightenment seemed to have been tailor made for several of the characters in Because of Winn-Dixie.  The following lyrics seemed particularly appropriate: “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.  It says it’s non attachment, non attachment, non attachment.  I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating and still I’m suffering, but that’s my problem.  Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.  Wake up!”  I had to wonder if DiCamillo always pictured the preacher or a different character each time these words came over the speakers. 

DiCamillo’s characters were so vivid, as told through Opal’s eyes.  The preacher, in particular, as seen by Opal, is in desperate need of waking of, of re-connecting with the outer world, of connecting with his daughter.  He is detached, or non-attached, as the song proclaims.  The preacher is not the only one, though.  I think these lyrics could be applied to Otis’ character as well.  Otis is so afraid of the outer world that he only plays his guitar to the animals.  He too is non-attached and in need of both enlightenment and to wake up. 

As we travel through Opal’s world, we meet many new people who share these qualities, people she befriends over time; even those she never imagines as friends become friends in the end.  Opal believes that Winn-Dixie is the catalyst for everything.  In some ways, this is true.  However, I see Opal as the center of this universe, as the child who found the courage, in many ways because of Winn-Dixie, to reach out to those around her.  Winn-Dixie gives her the courage, but Opal is the one who must be brave and ask her father questions about her mother.  Opal is the one who must find the courage to reach out the hand of friendship to Amanda, Stevie and Dunlap. 

Ultimately, this book is about friendship and loss.  It is a treatise on not being detached, on reaching out to others, on risking your heart to feel again, even after terrible loss.  For Opal, it is about finding the courage to reach out to her father.  For the preacher, it is about finding the courage to connect with his daughter and face the memories of what he has lost.  For Otis, it is about risking everything to step into the outer world, to play his guitar for humans again.  The list goes on and on.  These characters feel real because they grapple with real problems.  Their problems are not solved in a day, but they become easier to bear as each individual discovers enlightenment through friendship.  Ultimately, we are given a very satisfying ending, with all of the characters gathered in one location, celebrating friendship and companionship and love.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Holes by Louis Sachar weaves us in and out of a reality that seems at best far-fetched, stitching together a story that spans generations, with coincidences piled upon coincidences.  And yet, this storytelling is done so incredibly well that our ability to believe is not once in question.  We, as readers, are simply along for the ride, willing to accept anything put forward to us.  Why? Perhaps because this is the essence of a good tale, one that almost defies description or categorization.  We are left to ponder whether this is a folktale, a fable, a fairytale, a story of fantasy, a tall tale or something entirely different.  It is hard to categorize and yet, this does not bother us.  We are thrilled with the storytelling and are willing to embrace all of its quirks.Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the novel (at least for me), was the narrator’s voice, and the fact that at certain times (particularly at the beginning and end of the novel), the narrator would actually acknowledge the reader’s existence.   Even more interesting, the narrator would sometimes choose to use the second person to speak directly to us and at other times would use the third person to talk about us.

When speaking to us, in the second person, we are drawn into the story, so that in some ways, we become participants in the story itself.  For example, in the beginning, the narrator provides some advice about rattlesnakes, stating the following:  “If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  Usually.” Right from this moment, we are participants in the story, in possible danger of being bitten, perhaps by a rattlesnake, or perhaps, we are warned in the following paragraphs, by a yellow-spotted lizard, in which case “you might as well go into the shade of the oak trees and lie in the hammock.  There is nothing anyone can do to you anymore.” (p. 4)

By contrast, at other times, the narrator refers to the reader in the third person, which interestingly enough, almost has the opposite effect of the second person references.  By referring to us as “readers”, we are instantly aware that we are being told a story.  In some ways, it removes us from the role of participant and firmly re-establishes our roles as consumers of the story.  For example, at the beginning of the novel, the narrator states, “The reader is probably asking:  Why would anyone go to Camp Green Lake?” (p. 5).  Later, toward the end of the story, in one of my favorites lines in the book, the narrator states that, “The reader might find it interesting, however, that…” (I won’t continue this quote for fear of spoiling the novel for some who have not yet read it).

In any case, I think because of this narration style, where we, as consumers of the story, are being referred to as both “the reader” and as “you”, I am constantly reminded of oral storytelling traditions.  Holes is written in such a way that one could almost imagine someone else is reciting the story to us, that we are not reading it at all, but instead are listening to it, as it is being passed down from generation to generation, from elder to great-grandchild.

Because it feels like a story that has been circulated orally for generations and because that story intertwines families and fates seamlessly, Holes has a very folktale feel to it.  In addition, even though we do not have any talking animals, as are usually found in fables, we do have a mystical donkey and some lizards, not to mention the required moral lesson to be learned (always keep your promises, loyalty pays off, greed will be punished… take your pick).

Ultimately, though hard to categorize, Holes pleases the reader because it provides a true sense of justice being well-served, in so many different ways (again, I will refrain from detailing the ways, to keep from revealing spoilers!)  I think this is an important element to the story, however, because children have very strong ideas about justice.  In many ways, their sense of right and wrong is much more acute than that of an adult’s because when things go wrong, when things are not just, children have extreme difficulty accepting.  They want the world to be just, they want things to be equal and fair.  Books with a strong sense of justice, where all that is wrong is ultimately set to right, are extremely popular among this age set because they meet the expectation that good will be rewarded and that evil will be punished.  While children of this age have most likely learned that life is not always fair, they are constantly seeking out proof that it is, in their books, in the movies they watch, in their lives.

I think perhaps, this is what makes superhero stories so exciting and compelling for so many children, and perhaps even, for so many adults.  We want a world where fair is fair and justice will be served.  Holes has given us that and more.  We are thrilled to know that in Stanley’s world, justice, long in coming, has finally prevailed.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


As a child, I loved Judy Blume’s books featuring Peter and Fudge and I have found that I still love them as an adult.  I recently re-read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing with a smile on my face, anticipating that moment (the moment I still remember 30+ years later) when Fudge swallows Peter’s turtle.  What makes these books so relatable?  The characters are completely understandable to children and adults.  Their actions are utterly believable.  Peter’s unhappiness and disgust at the adults around him who are completely besotted with Fudge’s behavior is palpable.  The sibling relationship is one everyone who has siblings understands.  Whether a younger child or an older one, we all have those memories of a sibling making us crazy, of a sibling breaking into our room to touch things that are ours, of being blamed for something that a sibling did.  The parents who do not understand us, who give more attention to the other child, who have no sympathy for our wounds when we are clearly devastated is also relatable to children and adults.

This is a story (a series of stories) about a family that is real, a family with real-life problems and real-life situations.  We are completely riveted to the story of Peter and Fudge.  Whether the story is told from the older brother or the younger brother’s perspective (as is done in later stories), we can relate to the angst and the trauma and the ultimate feeling of family that prevails in all of the books.

Judy Blume often broke with tradition in writing her novels.  In her books, Blume often dealt with taboo subjects like divorce, racial equality (as in Iggie’s House), and in the case of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, a young girl’s first period.  When I think of Blume’s groundbreaking novels, I often think of Blubber.  This book placed a spotlight on bullying when it wasn’t even acknowledged as an issue. 

Ultimately, I think what makes Judy Blume such an incredibly gifted writer is that she takes ordinary events and places a spotlight on them, shining this light on the minuscule moments of existence.  She brings what is taboo or forbidden into the light and allows all of us to experience these things, through the eyes of a child or a pre-teen or a teenager or one on the cusp of adulthood.  We see these events, we experience them through the eyes of a child and we relate, intensely, intricately, profoundly with the lives of the people she has brought to life for us.  How does she do this?  How is she able in one novel, some of them quite short, to make us completely relate to her characters and the events of their lives?

In the case of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, she sinks us into the first person narrative of Peter.  When I compare this novel to Charlotte’s Web, I am amazed at what Blume was able to accomplish in a very short 120 pages, something that E.B. White was unable to accomplish in 184.  E.B. White’s narrative is detached in many ways, distant from the experiences of its characters.  We see them as if from afar.  Even when Wilbur is wailing because he does not want to die, or when Charlotte quietly passes away, we do not feel this viscerally because in many ways, we are not sunk into any one individual’s perspective.  We are kept distant from the narrative, perhaps through the use of its formal and stiff language.

By contrast, Judy Blume has us with Peter every step of the way.  We are not set apart from him.  We are Peter.  We feel with him, we endure with him, we mourn for his turtle with him.  And again, with him, we are outraged that no one, not once, acknowledges the tragedy of his turtle’s loss.  Somehow the gift of a puppy is supposed to make up for the fact that a turtle has died.  No one has any real respect for the life of that turtle.  No one but Peter.  We are gratified with him, when he names his dog Turtle, to remind himself, and perhaps to remind his entire family, of the turtle who once lived in their home and whom Fudge so thoughtlessly consumed.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Charlotte's Web

What is interesting to me when reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is that I am as little impressed with it as an adult as I was as a child.  I know so many people love this story and it is a great, imaginative story.  However, I have always founds something lacking in the reading of it.  As a child, the stiff and formal language bothered me, as did other things I couldn’t quite identify.  As an adult, I know exactly what it is.  There is at times an inconsistency in the storytelling that drives me nuts.  We are several chapters into the story before we are given Wilbur’s perspective.  It is not until that moment that we have any inkling that he will be a talking pig (well, of course, I knew this from my memory, but in writing, it was very jarring).  We are receiving a very wordy description of the family, the farm, the saving of Wilbur by Fern, his move to the Zuckermans’ farm and her visiting him.  Finally, finally, on page 16, we have a scene with Wilbur and he thinks, “There’s never anything to do around here.”  Suddenly, the tone of the entire novel is changed.  This is no longer the story of a young girl and her pet pig, but it is the story of a barnyard full of animals who can talk.  Perhaps this is the genius of this piece, but I find it disconcerting.  Why did we not have Wilbur’s perspective from the moment he was born?  Why were we not treated to his observations of Fern and her aunt and uncle’s farm?  Why now at the Zuckermans?

Other small things like this would bother me as well, in the reading.  For example, we have multiple scenes with Fern observing everything that is happening in the barn except we are not even aware that she is there.  The first time she leaves and goes home and tells her family about the animals talking, I am amazed.  While we were told that Fern visited the farm regularly, she was not actually placed in the scene and we did not have her impressions of that scene.  She never joined the conversation or said anything, so we had no idea she understood their conversation (or frankly that she was even there, unless we took note of the picture placing her in the scene).  It was only when she repeated the conversation to her aunt and uncle that we realized she was there and that she had understood the entire conversation.  Even when she shares it with her aunt and uncle, we don’t really get any sense that Fern understands that it is unusual for animals to be talking or for her to understand them.

Another example of this is on page 104.  We have an entire scene with the animals trying to decide which word to write into the web next and Wilbur performing tricks for Charlotte to help her determine if he is radiant.  We then have two stories from Charlotte and she sings to Wilbur to lull him to sleep.  The text then says, “When the song ended, Fern got up and went home.”  Really??  I had no idea Fern was even there.  She wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the scene.  It’s like E.B. White suddenly remembered that he was telling a story, not just about the animals, but about the little girl who could understand them, and threw her in at the last minute, just to remind us that Fern existed.

These inconsistencies and in my opinion, lazy writing, are what keep me from fully enjoying Charlotte’s Web.   I do find the story itself to be enchanting and there is a sort of hypnotic rhythm to the words that pulls you in and does not let you go.  However, I am consistently and constantly jarred away from the story by these little moments and it severely limits my enjoyment of the story as a whole and, as a child, kept me from re-reading the book endlessly.  I was always the type of child (and adult) who would re-read my favorite books until they fell apart.  This book never qualified for such love and attention.