My son turned six in March, and among the many presents he received on his birthday—Hot Wheels tracks, Lego sets, a bag of eerily gelatinous sand—was Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. This gift came from me, intended as the latest in a string of Dahl books that my wife and I have read to him in recent months: Matilda, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’d never heard of Danny before buying it, its description seemed right up my son’s alley: a young boy and his dad exact vengeance on a wealthy twit by stealing all his pheasants. Who doesn’t like pheasant theft?
We’d steered him towards such storybooks about a year ago, when we introduced E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to his steady diet of picture books. I wasn’t sure how he would take to Charlotte, with its rural setting and homicidal barnyard talk (“Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer…there’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime”). But, like Templeton the rat slurping at a rotten egg, my son happily ate it up. He also enjoyed White’s Stuart Little, though it nearly bored me into a coma. But what I found dull and episodic, he thought of as cool. After all, Stuart is a mouse who drives a wind-up car.
After years of reading picture books to my son, this transition has been, like so many as a parent, an instance to make me stop and see that the kid is growing—like a lost front tooth or the need to buy bigger shoes. To be sure, he still likes children’s books; Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss remain very easy sells. But he approaches these longer, sparsely-illustrated stories with a new and eager seriousness, as if each is its own small project. When I ask him if he’s in the mood to hear Charlotte’s Web or Danny, it’s like asking if he wants to head outside to tinker with the car. “Sure,” he’ll say after a pause, his head cocked in consideration. “Yeah, let’s read it.”
Unlike the way he interacts with an Elephant and Piggie book or If I Ran the Zoo—a kind of wouldja-look-at-that sort of romp—his engagement with White and Dahl has been vastly different. There’s so much more to follow in these books, and so much he can’t understand. “I eased my foot off the accelerator,” says Danny as he tries to drive a car. “I pressed down the clutch and held it there. I found the gear lever and pulled it straight back, from first into second. I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator.” What six-year-old (or, for that matter, 36-year-old) can keep such action straight? And why would my son sit still for it? If that scene had come in a Willems book, he would have squirmed like a worm on a hook. Any sustained lull in a picture book usually spells doom; a mild desperation comes over me when things aren’t “fun” enough, and I can feel my son growing restless.
But with White and Dahl and others, a lack of entertainment has not been a problem. Their books send my son to a different mental area—a deeper, spongier chamber. With no foxes in socks or bifocaled elephants, he’s forced to focus inward, where he creates the pictures himself. This is, of course, no revelation; it’s what reading is. But to see a child venture into this place for the first time has been both heartening and strange. What is he seeing in there? An animated version of Quentin Blake’s artwork? A chaotic Peter Max jumble? Something more cinematic? There is no way to know.
And it ultimately may not matter. I’m beginning to think that when my wife and I read these books to him, the story itself is somewhat beside the point. I suspect that the real draw, for him, is not just the chance to find out what happens in the next chapter, but to nestle in beside us on his football-shaped beanbag chair. Because Dahl doesn’t just make our son think differently; he draws him to us. There’s something about having to direct the action himself that makes him nudge in closer as we read. It’s as if, finally forced to explore a story without the guidance of pictures, he wants us to be near—like when he’s walking through the house after it’s gotten too dark to see.
My fondest memories of my father have to do with the same moment in my own childhood, when he read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My dad had been in a classic-book-of-the month club, and his Mark Twain volumes were sturdy, slipcovered editions with plates of N.C. Wyeth art. I doubt I understood much in these books beyond their characters’ bare actions—the fence-painting, the river-rafting, the girl-irritating—and I remember almost nothing from them now. But the feeling of being on my dad’s lap, his voice deep and sonorous above me, has stuck with me through the years. His reading enabled a warmth and a closeness that otherwise wasn’t much there. He could’ve been reading the dictionary, and I would have sat there, rapt.
Because of this dynamic—the storybook’s drawing of the child to the reader—I feel closer to my son when we’re reading Roald Dahl. For all the talk of the importance of reading to your child—often eat-your-peas harangues that have more to do with a fear of future failure than enjoyment of the actual act—the emotional and physical closeness that reading facilitates doesn’t get much play. But given my own Mark Twain memories and what happens on the beanbag chair, I’ve come to consider such closeness to be vital and unique. I can think of no other time that my son will sit, his head propped on my shoulder, for a half an hour or more. That I can sense the drama popping in his mind as I read is an obvious added bonus. Reading storybooks has put us at the neat intersection of stillness and excitement.
My wife is currently reading him Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which, as I understand it, takes Charlie into 2001 territory. Meanwhile, we’re closing in on the end of Danny the Champion of the World; we should finish in a couple of days. It’s a quiet, almost sad little story about fighting your own insignificance. But, of course, my son just likes to hear about pheasant poaching and making a rich guy mad. As I’d hoped when he unwrapped it on his birthday, he loves Danny, and begs pathetically for more when I stop reading for the night. Sometimes I give in and read another page or two. All I ask in return is that he’ll remember it fondly 30 years from now.
Image Credit: Flickr/solarisgirl.
Ad Age recently revealed that McDonald’s is getting into the publishing business. For the first two weeks of November, children’s books with a nutritional theme will replace the toys in Happy Meals. With titles like The Goat Who Ate Everything and Dodi the Dodo Goes to Orlando, the books are processed products through and through, created by the ad agency Leo Burnett, intended to create good press for the fast-food company by signaling its commitment to literacy and nutrition. McDonald’s ran a similar campaign earlier this year in the U.K., which inspired a list of satirical book titles (e.g., Harry Potter and the Deathly Swallows) under a #mcbooks hashtag on Twitter.The hashtag has been revived with the announcement of the new campaign.
This is not, however, the first time McDonald’s has distributed children’s books. In 1979, when I was five years old, living in Wilmington, DE, my family took one of our painfully rare trips to McDonald’s to get Happy Meals for my sisters and me. There were few things more exciting at the time than opening up that iconic box to see what sort of toy was inside. On this visit, however, there was no toy. The counterperson handed over a little paperback with a drawing on the cover of a boy whitewashing a fence.
McDonald’s introduced me — and I would venture thousands of other kids — not only to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but also to the notion of a classic. In 1977 and again in 1979, the fast food chain paired up with the publisher I. Waldman & Son to distribute Illustrated Classics Editions in their restaurants. Waldman had published children’s versions of classic literature, such as The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby-Dick, in 1977 under the brand name Moby Books and, in 1979, the publisher paired with Playmore, Inc. to distribute the series in supermarkets, drugstores, and other retail sites. They released 12 titles that year and another dozen in 1983. The books measured 5.5 by 4 inches and were typically 238 pages long, with each page of text facing an illustration.
Over the next few years, I collected a half dozen Illustrated Classics books, but that first encounter with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the moment when I discovered literature.
Granted, Deidre S. Laiken’s adaptation of Twain’s novel might not count for everyone as literature. Here is Twain’s opening:
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
Here is Laiken:
Tom Sawyer was always getting into trouble. He was the kind of boy who just could not resist adventure.
In this textbook example of the difference between writing that shows versus writing that tells, Twain gives us an immediate sense of what Laiken can only report to us. Tom Sawyer in the original is such a miscreant that he does not even bother to show up for the start of the novel that bears his name, while the Illustrated Classics version frames Tom’s character and the entire narrative for its readers, wary of letting us interpret too much on our own.
What really mattered to me in the long term, however, was not the quality of the text but the authority behind it. There were few institutions I respected more than McDonald’s, so when I saw that it had endorsed a line of books grouped under this mysterious rubric “classic,” I knew that this was a work worth reading. More significantly, I learned from McDonald’s that there was a whole class of books out there that were especially worth reading. I read a lot of junk as a kid — loads of books about movie monsters, World War II, and science fiction, plus a mountain of comics — but I took special pride in reading classics and presidential biographies and was thrilled when adults complimented me on my taste and sophistication.
All this reading and complimenting eventually led to a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where I learned that what McDonald’s had introduced me to at the age of five was the concept of cultural capital. The term comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and it refers to “forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society.” Speaking Standard English, knowing how to order and eat at a four-star restaurant, and being able to discuss art and music are all forms of cultural capital. They are ways of signaling one’s membership in a class and even of advancing within and beyond it. My primary motive for reading Illustrated Classics, to be sure, was pleasure (as is the case with my reading of literature today), but I was aware early on that some of that enjoyment derived from the sense of distinction I felt in doing so.
I used to enjoy the irony that I have held onto the taste for literature that I picked up at McDonald’s much longer than I did the taste for its food. Nowadays, I feel more wistful for a moment in time when a fast food company thought it could promote itself by providing kids with editions of Twain, Dumas, and Dickens. I am not naïve enough to think McDonald’s did so on account of its pure love of literature. The company entered into this promotion with the same sense of self-interest and desire for synergy that it did when it embarked on it first cross-promotion of a film with the Star Trek Happy Meal in 1979, the year the Happy Meal debuted. And in much the same way that this upcoming publishing endeavor is likely intended to wash away some of the association of the McDonald’s name with junk food and childhood obesity, the Illustrated Classics scheme was probably meant to raise the brow of a company whose main contribution to culture was a mountain of advertising featuring a creepy clown and his oddly shaped friends.
What seems unbelievable now — and even sweet — is that McDonald’s ever cared about its brow enough to try raising it. McDonald’s and I had that in common: we wanted to elevate ourselves by association with the classics, only I held onto that desire long after the fast food chain did. I went to grad school for a lot of reasons, but McDonald’s Illustrated Classics played their own little part in that decision. It’s not a choice I regret, but, in this deeply pessimistic moment for English departments, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when literature’s cultural stock was so high that even McDonald’s wanted to invest in it.
I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so.
At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming.
Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write.
Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck:
1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness.
Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers.
2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/”The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice.
Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea.
3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland
Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something…extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing.
Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor.
4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good.
Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing — good or bad — I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity.
5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage.
Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel.
6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself.
Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But…so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was.
7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on.
Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round…or maybe not. And that’s okay, too.
8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost.
Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on.
9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed.
10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you.
Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people — as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret.
Image Credit: Wikipedia