Thursday, April 28, 2011

Happy and Safe?

What would you do if you were told you could be “cured” of the emotional roller coaster of life, and that a timeproven “procedure” would keep you forever “happy and safe”? You’d say, “What’s the catch?”

Delirium by Lauren Oliver allows teens to examine the tradeoffs—without undergoing irrevocable surgery. The idea of forbidden love goes back to David and Bathsheba, Romeo and Juliet. Lena’s feelings for Alex are taboo. Even though he has the mark of the “cured,” Alex stirs in Lena symptoms of delirium. She finds herself doing things she’d never done before, forbidden things.

The larger theme of the book is the ability to question, so central to adolescence and becoming an independent adult. We have to create a distance from the rules to decide which of them makes sense for us as individuals. Lauren Oliver paints an extreme case in which no one, not even adults, is allowed outside the boundaries of certain behaviors nor permitted outside of certain physical territories bounded by a fence. Outside the fence are the Wilds. But Lena, haunted by the memory of her mother, wonders if her mother was telling Lena to go her own way. Lena’s best friend breaks the rules, which at first cause Lena to lash out at her, but then prompts her to question why the rules are so stringent. Why does the society want to control them?

Lena is not someone who rebels for rebellion’s sake. She resists the rules that seem to go against human nature, that try to curb curiosity, love, and freedom.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Words to Keep

Perhaps, like me, you might at first resist the idea of the subtitle for Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets: 100 Poems to Rip Out & Read, edited by Bruno Navasky. Rip the page from a book? I still grapple with whether it’s truly okay to underline favorite phrases in pencil or mark the margins. Of course, you don’t have to rip out the pages.

But that idea of owning the poem, ripping it out, sticking it in your pocket and committing it to memory—or taking it out to share it with someone else—is a valuable idea. It took me a long time to feel as if I “owned” a book, that it was truly mine, to mark up and dog-ear. It’s still easier for me to take a pencil to a set of galleys or a paperback than a hardcover. But part of the fun is revisiting where I’ve been. The notes I made in the margins of my books in college are fun to look back on now. Do the same passages move me today that moved me then?

In his acceptance speech for the Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry for Guyku: A Book of Haiku for Boys, poet Bob Raczka said that he often goes back to the words of Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

At the risk of sounding a refrain, allow me to repeat: that’s what poetry does best. It teaches us to live in the moment, to see things anew. I’m taken with May Swenson’s “Analysis of Baseball” (in Poem in Your Pocket) because she drills down to the game’s essence, the relationship between bat, ball, and mitt. She invites us to review our own experience of the game and see if her observations match up with ours. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but during that time of reflection, we relive some great moments in baseball and sharpen our minds.

If you are not already a poetry lover, I’m betting that Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Connie Schultz can convert you with this week’s piece, “The Familiarity of a Poem.” She admits, “I was in my 40s before I was willing to share my love of poetry.” Now she has a poem delivered to her inbox every Monday. If you’re already a poetry convert, you likely know about Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which offers a new poem every day. (Today’s poem is by William Wordsworth.)

Like Schultz, I, too, bristle at the idea of relegating Black History or Women’s History or Poetry to one month out of an entire year. But if that monthly theme grabs the attention of just one person and opens his or her eyes to a fact or a person or an event or a poem that he hadn’t known about before, then I’m all for it. Then let the newly anointed come along with the converted among us, who celebrate all year long.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Nature Celebration

Poetry is about savoring the moments. Haiku celebrates moments to be savored in nature. Bob Raczka’s Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, captures small events worth celebrating: the discovery of a penny on the train tracks, the decision not to put worms on the fish hook but to use hot dogs instead, the realization that the temperature is warm enough so the snowman won’t hold his form—spring has arrived. Raczka and Reynolds conjure moments so specific that they become universal experiences of childhood. We can all relate to and connect with them. Raczka wrote a stirring acceptance speech when he won the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award at the Bank Street College of Education about preserving the sanctity of childhood play, outside in nature.

I love that Raczka says in the title that this is a book for boys. Love that Dog by Sharon Creech stars a boy who comes to love (and write) poetry. Often a boy’s instinctive response to poetry is “ewww.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Raczka and Creech make a great case to boys that poetry is written for them, too. (Girls will also enjoy these, but they also tend not to be put off by poetry. By the way, Raczka assures us that he is working on a book of haiku for girls next: Herku? Galku?)

Poems are a way of rediscovering the familiar. What a cool idea—that you can be an explorer in your own backyard or the woods down the street or the pond by the school. Yes. That is the gift of poetry. The best poetry inspires you to see the world differently and to write about it, too. So here’s my advice, via one of my favorite poets, Karla Kuskin:

Write about a radish.
Too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
The stars are small and high
The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
Hills gleam dimly
Distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

(from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? by Karla Kuskin [HarperCollins])

Friday, April 1, 2011

A New Kind of Reader

Reading Press Here by HervĂ© Tullet approximates the experience one would have with an app. Yet, it is not an app. It’s a book. One of the genius qualities of Press Here is that even though it’s clearly making a case for the great glory of books, it never adopts an attitude. It celebrates the pure joy of page flippings, book turnings, and the ability to grab the two covers in both hands and toss it up and down. I am not one of those people who frets about the future of the book. A great story--or, in this case, a great experience with words and pictures and ideas--will always be in demand, whether it’s a book, an e-book, an enhanced book or an app.

However, I believe that we need to think about how we use books with pages and pictures, and how we use electronic devices with young people. Just the way we would television or radio or any other means of conveying content for educational or entertainment use. One of my favorite anecdotes about the new kind of reader who's emerging today involves a 22-month-old and Freight Train by Donald Crews. A dear friend of mine who runs a library system in Connecticut visited her toddler grandson at Christmastime. She bought him a board book of Freight Train, wrapped it up and put it under the tree. In the days leading up to Christmas, his mother bought the Freight Train app for him to play with on her iPad. He happily pressed the screen for the different parts of the train, and saw and heard different things happening depending upon where he pressed. When he pressed the cattle car, for instance, the cows said, “Moo.” On Christmas morning, when he tore off the wrappings for Freight Train the board book, he instantly recognized it. He went to the page with the cattle car picture, and he pressed it. Nothing happened. He pressed it again and again. Nothing. Next he started pressing and saying, “Moo! Moo!” as if providing the soundtrack himself.

Did he feel like the experience of the board book was missing something? I don’t know. But when we talk about the generation of readers who will change their reading habits because of electronic devices, in my view, this is the generation who will drive the future of reading. The children who are growing up with the option of electronics to aid their fluid experience of content, from pre-reading experiences on to decoding words (learning to recognize letters and simple words by sight) and then to reading for information and entertainment will ultimately set the new standards for reading preferences.

The more kids read, the better, as far as I’m concerned, in whichever way they prefer. My great hope is that they can still have the experience of sustained reading, of getting lost in a book—by page or by screen—for long stretches. As they get older it becomes more challenging to read without interruption by phone calls and text messages, sports practice and play rehearsals. Children can build worlds out of words or blocks or forts in the woods or create plots for their Lego characters or the dolls in their dollhouses. Those long interrupted periods of reading and playtime develop imagination and concentration, and we need to help children honor and defend those opportunities until they can do that for themselves.