Starting a dystopian book club with your child

Is this a good idea?!?! Yes!

My son, J., was a strong early reader and got bored with me reading to him way too early (my opinion, not his), so we began reading the same book tandem-style years ago. That’s how we read the entire Harry Potter series together, and we’ve since moved on to joint-read a lot of graphic novels (he often recommends ones for me to read) and mainly science fiction books (I usually recommend these).

He’s officially a tween now at 11.5, and some if not most of the books we’ve been reading are definitely from the TEEN shelves. One reason for that: it’s hard to find great sci-fi for middle grades (though it’s possible I just don’t know where to look). published this essay about the lack of speculative fiction in the Newberry Award line-up over the years, and I agree. It seems like great fantasy books (which my daughter is into) are easier to come by for this age group than sci-fi (I’m thinking of The Girl Who Drank The Moon, Saavy, My Diary From The Edge of the World). But my son, for whatever reason, is into apocalypses, not dragons and magic. So when reading these books alongside J., I make sure to check in about the violence, romance, etc., and we discuss. Briefly. But brief discussions count!

Also, some context: I also grew up in a house where my parents didn’t care what I read (I mean this in the best way possible!). We kids were turned loose in the library and made our way through the stacks all on our own, without parent recommendation or guidance. So I grew up reading everything and loving all genres of books. 5th grade, when I was my son’s age, I discovered Stephen King. I spent the next few years dwelling in horror and whatever you want to call the V.C. Andrews books, before re-emerging into the light with large Russian novels for some reason. While I would not be super excited to have my son read Stephen King now, at his age…I mean, I turned out all right. Gave me nightmares, still gives me nightmares, but whatever. Anyhow, all this to say, just because The Hunger Games is about kids killing kids, and that sounds awful, it still can be a great book to read with your child, if both you and your child are ready for it. 

Here’s a list of what we’ve been reading, in case you’re interested in starting up your own dystopian (and occasionally fantasy) book club for two.

The House of the Scorpion and its sequel The Lord of Opium, Nancy Farmer: the first book in this 2-book series is one of my son’s favorite books ever (“I just love her writing,” J. said). Sure, the novels deal with poppies, opium, and the drug trade (good time to have that conversation about addiction!), but the books also take place in a richly imagined future, dealing with some of the same cloning ethics that Never Let Me Go also dipped into. Also features a great, imperfect, headstrong, and complex boy hero. (By the way, I’m not saying to read Never Let Me Go with your tween. Please don’t.). J.’s rating: House of Scorpion, 5/5; The Lord of Opium: 5/5

Scythe and Thunderhead, Neal Shusterman: these are my favorite books that we’ve read together. Scythe has some pretty heavy themes and disturbing violence (the mass gleanings, man, those are hard for even me to read). But I think the books, at the same time, handle death and killing so respectfully–compared with, for instance, Star Wars violence, where you can shoot up dozen bad guys and it’s no big deal. The books brings up all these huge issues which have been great to talk about with J., such as, would you want to live forever? Would you want to be a Scythe? What kind of Scythe would you be? There’s also an interesting AI character, The Thunderhead, kind of a uber-Siri, who is trying to keep the world running smoothly but bad humans are getting in the way. I found Scythe by checking out the Printz Honor books (award for teen books by the ALA). J.’s rating: Scythe: 4.5/5; Thunderhead: 4.5/5 

Pure (and the two follow-up books Burn and Fuse), Julianna Baggott: I was super excited about Pure, as it was on the beloved 100 Notable Books of the Year for the New York Times. When does a teen sci-fi book get to be on that list!?! It’s a well-written and deeply moving series set against the backdrop of a nuclear bombed out world. J.’s rating: Pure 4/5; Burn 4/5; Fuse 3.5/5

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: combines computer games, boarding school, bullying, outer space, aliens, and war! J.’s rating: 4.5/5

Divergent (and its sequel Insurgent), Veronica Roth: My son thought Divergent (book 1) was even better than The Hunger Games (and he really liked Hunger Games). I like that the series takes place in Chicago–go Midwest! There’s a strong female lead, score one for the team!, though the romance is kind of heavy (good time to have that conversation too). I would recommend skipping the third book in the series, Allegiant — the (controversial?) ending is bleak. Really bleak. Really, really bleak/sad. I’m all for depressing books but this felt like way too much and didn’t seem to fit the tone of the series. After this VERY WRONG THING happened, I ended up summarizing the rest of the book for J. and told him he might want to stop reading (he did). J.’s rating: Divergent 4/5; Insurgent 4/5; Allegiant, 3/5;  

The Hunger Games (and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins: this was my second read through the series, Jasper’s first. They are enjoyably intense page turners that get political and revolutionary toward the end, though the Katniss, Peeta, Gale love triangle is——I’m just tired of love triangles. Let’s add some polyamory into teen books, please! J.’s rating: The Hunger Games 4.5/5; Catching Fire 4/5; Mockingjay 4/5

Graphic novels

  • Nimona (2015 National Book Award finalist), J.’s rating 4.5/5; 
  • Spill Zone (by Scott Westerfeldter of Uglies fame, another series I want to read with my son) (I remember quite a lot of the F word used in Spill Zone, another opportunity for yet another conversation with J. about language), J’s rating 4/5;
  • The Lottery graphic novel (yes! a graphic novel! illustrated by Shirley Jackson’s grandson! It gave me the chills watching J. interact with Shirley Jackson for the first time), J’s rating 4/5.

Future books

  • The Thief
  • Arena (found this on the 2017 Alex Award list, an ALA award given to adult books that are of interest to teen readers–I’m not sure how these books will go over with J. but I’d like to try).

Books which didn’t work out for the club

  • Feed, by M.T. Anderson: this book has one of the best opening lines (“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) I love this book. Anderson also went to my MFA program a few years before me, which is really (too?) exciting for me. But the language was overly stylized for J. and he stopped reading after a few pages. Darn.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: not exactly sci-fi but I think of it as a possible inspiration for The Hunger Games. My son refused to read it after encountering this sentence in the first paragraph: “All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat.” Okay, yes, that is a weird sentence. What were you thinking, William Golding?! But darn.  
  • Wizard of Earthsea: J. made it half-way through before losing interest. I love Ursula LeGuin deeply, but this book is not my favorite of hers. It is so serious and somber and almost flat. Maybe not the best suggestion on my part (I was hoping we would make it to future books in the Earthsea series, like The Tombs of Atuan, which I think is much better). 

Emotional truth versus realism

A Poem from The Crossover

The existence of the novel-in-verse YA genre strikes me as so unlikely. Who would have thought such a specific form could exist let alone be appealing and keep winning a lot of Newberry Awards? Speaking as an ex-poet, I love how a novel-in-verse can give poetry a cohesive story and, in doing so, makes poetry feel so much more relevant and enjoyable. It also can strip away unnecessary description and maneuvering from fiction, streamlining the voice in this very powerful way. Inside Out and Back Again, Brown Girl Dreaming, Out of the Dust, and Crank are a few great novels-in-verse  I’ve enjoyed. So during a recent trip to the library, while lugging bags around containing honestly 50 pounds of graphic novels for my son, I spied The Crossover and gladly checked it out. Told in free verse, The Crossover won the Newberry Award in 2015. It’s a story of twins, Josh and Jordan, talented in basketball, and about their relationship to each other and to their father.   

The most powerful poem of The Crossover for me is “Questions.” Josh’s dad is in the hospital, Josh is angry, he’s just sat beside his father, and after the two of them stare at each other for 10 minutes in silence, the dad suggests they take turns asking questions but not answering them. While I can imagine characters thinking these questions, I can’t imagine characters speaking most of these questions out loud, and I wondered for a while whether the non-realism effects the powerfulness of the interchange. In the end I decided so what if this dialogue would never happen in reality: these words capture the emotional truth of the relationship and the situation so well that I don’t think extreme realism matters here.

This idea of capturing emotional truth rather than reality reminds me of several passages from Tom Bissell’s great essay about Warner Herzog, “The Secret Mainstream.” Herzog occasionally scripts dialogue or action for his documentary subjects who, at least in the examples Bissell cites, don’t seem to mind as the scripted parts get at the emotional truth of these people maybe better than their actual life does. Here’s one example as described by Bissell: In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Herzog’s astonishing documentary about the escape and survival of a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler from a Pathet Lao prison camp in 1966, Herzog shows us Dengler entering his San Francisco home, whereupon he opens and closes the front door several times before entering. “Most people,” Dengler explains, “don’t realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have, to be able to open and close the door. That’s the habit I got into, and so be it.” Dengler did not actually have this habit. In fact, it was Herzog’s idea. While it embodied a real feeling Dengler had, it was not a real activity. Assigning to Dengler an activity he did not engage in is what Herzog has called “the ecstatic truth,” wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication.”

Anyhow, here is the passage from The Crossover that I loved.


Have you been practicing your free throws?
Why didn’t you go to the doctor when Mom asked you?

When is the game?
Why didn’t you ever take us fishing?

Does your brother still have a girlfriend?
Are you going to die? 

Do you really want to know?
Why couldn’t I save you? 

Don’t you see that you did?
Do you remember I kept pumping and breathing? 

Aren’t I alive?
. . . ? 

Did y’all arrest Uncle Bob’s turkey? It was just criminal what he did to that bird, wasn’t it?You think this is funny? 

How’s your brother?
Is our family falling apart? 

You still think I should write a book?
What does that have to do with anything? 

What if I call it “Basketball Rules”?
Are you going to die? 

Do you know I love you, son?
Don’t you know the big game’s tomorrow? 

Is it true Mom is letting you play?
You think I shouldn’t play? 

What do you think, Filthy?
What about Jordan? 

Does he want to play?
Don’t you know he won’t as long as you’re in here? 

Don’t you know I know that?
So, why don’t you come home? 

Can’t you see I can’t?
Why not? 

Don’t you know it’s complicated, Filthy?
Why can’t you call me by my real name? 

Josh, do you know what a heart attack is?
Don’t you remember I was there? 

Don’t you see I need to be here so they can fix the damage that’s been done to my heart?
Who’s gonna fix the damage that’s been done to mine?

Two publications and a great book without words

Penny, The Sun, and The Only Child

I have a short piece out in Penny, a cool new journal that pairs a writer with an illustrator (the illustrator for my story was Brandon Reese), as well as offering interesting writing and drawing prompts. I started writing flash pieces about a year and a half ago, when I was bogged down in a slightly experimental novel about the Iraq war, and it was so freeing to work within a 1,000 or 1500 word limit. And fun! I mean, the revision process just can’t go on for months or longer (one hopes) if your story is only a few pages long. Penny’s limit is 500 words and it is such a pleasure to work within those constraints.

Also in the March issue of The Sun I have a short story “The Portal.” Back in 2003 The Sun published my first real short story–about a girl who is trying very hard to be a miraculous saint. The story, and that acceptance, convinced me that I really could be a fiction writer (I was a poet at the time), so it was great to work that magazine again. Not to mention that in “The Portal” I finally got to channel my decades of longing for a real portal to open up and take me to another world. (Do most people outgrow this kind of longing? I might say I wish I could, but if I was totally happy in this world, I probably would give up writing.)

On the topic of longing for other worlds: Stella and I spent the last few days reading The Only Child (by Guojing), a wordless book told in heartbreakingly lovely pictures, and I really savored that time with her. Stella is in first grade and these days prefers long chapter books, ideally books with scary things in it, such as monsters, adventures, and danger (I’m glad I snuck in the Little House books with her when I could). Or, now that she is reading. she wants to spend our time reading Elephant and Piggy books to me. It feels like my days of reading great picture books to her (and maybe reading aloud to her in general?) are numbered. The Only Child was perfect for us though, as we took turns telling each other the story that was happening on each page – I told the story on the left page, she told the story on the right. It’s about a child who is left alone one day because her parents need to work. The child leaves the apartment and takes the bus by herself, hopefully to go find her grandmother. But she becomes lost and enters a warm and compassionate fantasy world instead.  


It’s especially moving that this takes place against the backdrop of China’s one child policy and draws on the author’s own life. Guojing writes in the author’s note, “The story in this book is fantasy, but it reflects the very real feeling of isolation and loneliness I experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China. When I was young, both of my parents had to work to support our family, so during the day, my grandmother would take care of me. But still, sometimes–if they had to rush to work or if Nai Nai was busy–they would leave me home alone. This experience was common in many families at that time. I belonged to a very lonely generation of children.” 

That loneliness is evident in the first 1/4 of the book, where the drawings of the real world are dimmer, as if seen through a smear of smog. But after the child leaves the apartment and becomes lost in the woods, and rides a stag into to cloud steps into a sky, the pictures brighten, and the joy of the child playing in the clouds with her animal friends is just brilliant. That sense of joy becomes moving when remembering that such happiness, and the child’s adventure itself, is just imaginary. But then again, maybe imaginary only to us adult readers. To the child it seems real or real enough. 

I’ve been interested in alternative ways to tell stories: certain video games are telling some pretty fascinating narratives (That Cancer, Dragon; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; and To the Moon come to mind); or graphic novels; or stories without words (another favorite is The Arrival by Shaun Tan). Perhaps a Twine game is in my future. Or even going back to stories being told aloud, as sound rather than only written words (this audio reading of Dracula is a pretty fabulous example – that book works so much better to me when spoken rather than read on the page). 

I’ve been thinking of the one-child law recently after going back and rereading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. This book is partly about imagining the world without humans, but it also is about extinction and global warming. His solution is fixing overpopulation by every couple having only one child. The Only Child is an interesting counter-argument against Weisman’s proposal (though what is the solution then? perhaps finding another livable planet – go exoplanets!). 

Children Writing Books

Stella wants to be a writer / personal trainer when she grows up. Some nights she drags out exercise equipment and encourages me to do the really complicated exercises she dreams up. Other evenings she spends working on her writing. Being a first grader, she’s smack in the middle of learning to read / write / spell, which sounds like a magical time, when words stop being symbols and they start clicking into focus. She wrote some of her first independent sentences for this book she made in honor of her cousin Andre’s first birthday. Seeing her work so hard on her word choice, and what happens next, and what she wanted to communicate to her reader made me think that writing when you’re 6 isn’t a whole lot different than writing when you’re older, only my 6 year old seems less anguished about it. In fact she radiated pure joy every time she got down a sentence. I love the sweetness of her plot and how everybody in her story is happy. I wish it was possible to write like that as an adult. Here’s the text / translation of Stella’s story. 

Clap clap cat said baby andre.
The baby andre had a cat. Did the baby andre have a dog? 
Baby andre did not have a dog. Hi stella said baby andre.
Little baby andre hid with stella.
Baby andre played with stella.
Baby andre laughed with stella.
Baby Andre pretended to fly. Stella did too.
Baby Andre climbed and ran. Stella did too.
Love stella

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The very sad ending to The Emerald City of Oz

Emerald City of OzStella and I finally finished reading The Emerald City of Oz–not my favorite book in the series but still worth a read, if only to understand how Dorothy, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry are choosing here to never return home to Kansas (would you make the same choice? Would I? Hmmmm). The ending was a shocker though: Glinda makes the world of Oz invisible to everyone outside of Oz, including to us readers, and Dorothy soon after sends Frank L. Baum a letter written on a stork’s wing explaining we will never hear anything else from her again. There is something unfair about this. Many magical worlds at least leave open the possibility of us stumbling on in (like Narnia, for instance–if only we could find the right closet!).

This was supposed to be the last Oz book, though it’s not: apparently Baum realized he needed the money and wrote several more. Still, even knowing there were more books to come, the ending was a little hard for me to read, in part because everybody in Oz, including Dorothy, is so happy about being cut off from our world. They have no need for our ordinariness. Probably they would find our lives a bore, and part of me thinks, who can blame them? But another part of me wishes they would pretend to need us, at least as their readers.

“Then,” said Ozma, “I suppose you know what is in my mind, and that I am seeking a way to prevent any one in the future from discovering the Land of Oz.”

“Yes; I know that. And while you were on your journey I have thought of a way to accomplish your desire. For it seems to me unwise to allow too many outside people to come here. Dorothy, with her uncle and aunt, has now returned to Oz to live always, and there is no reason why we should leave any way open for others to travel uninvited to our fairyland. Let us make it impossible for any one ever to communicate with us in any way, after this. Then we may live peacefully and contentedly.”

“Your advice is wise,” returned Ozma. “I thank you, Glinda, for your promise to assist me.”

“But how can you do it?” asked Dorothy. “How can you keep every one from ever finding Oz?”

“By making our country invisible to all eyes but our own,” replied the Sorceress, smiling. “I have a magic charm powerful enough to accomplish that wonderful feat, and now that we have been warned of our danger by the Nome King’s invasion, I believe we must not hesitate to separate ourselves forever from all the rest of the world.”

“I agree with you,” said the Ruler of Oz.

“Won’t it make any difference to us?” asked Dorothy, doubtfully.

“No, my dear,” Glinda answered, assuringly. “We shall still be able to see each other and everything in the Land of Oz. It won’t affect us at all; but those who fly through the air over our country will look down and see nothing at all. Those who come to the edge of the desert, or try to cross it, will catch no glimpse of Oz, or know in what direction it lies. No one will try to tunnel to us again because we cannot be seen and therefore cannot be found. In other words, the Land of Oz will entirely disappear from the knowledge of the rest of the world.”

“That’s all right,” said Dorothy, cheerfully. “You may make Oz invis’ble as soon as you please, for all I care.”

“It is already invisible,” Glinda stated. “I knew Ozma’s wishes, and performed the Magic Spell before you arrived.”

Ozma seized the hand of the Sorceress and pressed it gratefully.

“Thank you!” she said.

Chapter 30. How the Story of Oz Came to an End

The writer of these Oz stories has received a little note from Princess Dorothy of Oz which, for a time, has made him feel rather disconcerted. The note was written on a broad, white feather from a stork’s wing, and it said:


This seemed to me too bad, at first, for Oz is a very interesting fairyland. Still, we have no right to feel grieved, for we have had enough of the history of the Land of Oz to fill six story books, and from its quaint people and their strange adventures we have been able to learn many useful and amusing things.

So good luck to little Dorothy and her companions. May they live long in their invisible country and be very happy!

why forests are essential to good stories

the seduction of going into the woods


Stella and I are reading The Emerald City of Oz together, and I have to admit the first half hasn’t gripped me like, say, Ozma of Oz did. The gnome king is not an engaging villain; the illustrations of him are really odd; and to top it all off, the plot progression on the whole is dull. Much of the beginning follows the gnome king’s general as he visits weird evil creatures such as the whimsies, who have small heads so they wear fake big heads like masks. In alternate chapters, Dorothy and her friends tour similarly weird communities, such as Bunbury, where a lot of talking pastries reside (though I do find the idea interesting of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry finally moving to Oz–this happens at the start of Emerald, meaning Dorothy never needs to go home again to Kansas). Anyhow so I wasn’t gripped with this book until p. 180, where something very, very exciting happens: Dorothy becomes lost in the woods.

“Wandering through the woods, without knowing where you are going or what adventure you are about to meet next, is not as pleasant as one might think. The woods are always beautiful and impressive, and if you are not worried or hungry you may enjoy them immensely; but Dorothy was worried and hungry that morning, so she paid little attention to the beauties of the forest, and hurried along as fast as she could go. She tried to keep in one direction and not circle around, but she was not at all sure that the direction she had chosen would lead her to the camp.

By and by, to her great joy, she came upon a path. It ran to the right and to the left, being lost in the trees in both directions, and just before her, upon a big oak, were fastened two signs, with arms pointing both ways. One sign read:


and the second sign read:


“Well!” exclaimed Billina, eyeing the signs, “this looks as if we were getting back to civilization again.”

“I’m not sure about the civil’zation, dear,” replied the little girl; “but it looks as if we might get SOMEWHERE, and that’s a big relief, anyhow.”

“Which path shall we take?” inquired the Yellow Hen.

Dorothy stared at the signs thoughtfully.

“Bunbury sounds like something to eat,” she said. “Let’s go there.”

As a reader–and also as a writer–I love it when characters enter the woods. The woods are often transformative: things happen to you in there. There are choices to make: do you stay on the path, or do you stray from it? Do you go to the right or to the left? Do you follow the advice you were given? Do you take the path with very few footsteps or do you go the way everybody else did? In the daylight, the woods may seem friendly enough, but in the night, or in certain dark sections of the woods where very little light shines, the mood changes to one of danger, fear, expectation, and nervousness. At the basic level, there is something archetypal and very old about the boundary between what is outside the woods and what is inside them, and what will happen when you step over the threshold.

The woods, of course, are central to fairy tales, and while enjoying Philip Pullman’s strong translation of the Grimm tales, I began to make a list of the different types of forests appearing in these stories. The translations below are Pullman’s; I have multiple examples of each type but I’ll list just one. 

The forest of loneliness (from “The Goose Girl”)

Once upon a time there was a very old woman who lived with her flock of geese in a lonely place among the mountains, where her little house lay surrounded by a deep forest.

The scary forest (from “The Robber Bridgegroom”)

One day the prospective bridegroom said to her, ‘You know, my dear, we’re engaged to be married, but you’ve never paid me a visit. Why not come to my house? After all, it will soon be your own home.’ ‘I don’t know where your house is,’ the girl said. ‘It’s out in the forest,’ he told her. ‘A beautiful situation, you’ll see.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find my way there,’ she said. ‘No, no, you must come on Sunday. I’ve already invited some guests – they’re looking forward to meeting you. I’ll make a trail of ashes, so you can follow it through the trees.’ On Sunday the girl felt an awful foreboding; she’d rather do anything than set off through the woods to the bridegroom’s house. She filled her pockets with peas, to mark the trail in case anything happened. At the edge of the forest she found the trail of ashes, and after every step she threw a couple of peas to left and right. She walked almost the whole day till she came to a part of the forest where the trees grew so thick and high that it was dark underneath them, and there, right in the heart of the woods, she found the bridegroom’s house. It was dark and silent and seemed to be deserted; there was no one inside but a bird in a cage, and he was no comfort either, because all he could sing was: ‘Turn back! Get out! Go home! Take care! This is a murderer’s house! Beware!’”

The forest with paths (from “The Two Traveling Companions”)

After they’d been traveling for some time, they came to a great forest. There were two paths that led through it to the capital, but one of them took two days’ walking and the other took seven, and they didn’t know which was which. They sat down beneath an oak tree and talked about it. Should they carry seven days’ food, or only two?….It was as quiet as a church under the trees. There was no breeze, no murmuring brook, no birdsong, and not a single sunbeam found its way through the dense leaves.” – two traveling companions – the gallows are right outside the forest

The forest as prison (from “Rapunzel”)

When she was twelve years old, the witch took her into the depths of the forest and shut her in a tower that had no door, no stairs and no windows except one very small one in a room right at the top.

The forest as punishment (from “Hansel and Gretel”)–interesting how only children become lost in this forest

But no matter which way they went, they couldn’t find the way home. They walked all through the night and then all through the following day, and still they were lost. They were hungry, too, terribly hungry, because all they’d had to eat was a few berries that they’d found. They were so tired by this time that they lay down under a tree and fell asleep at once. And when they awoke on the third morning, and struggled to their feet, they were still lost, and with every step they seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the forest. If they didn’t find help soon, they’d die.

Forests thankfully are still being used to spectacular effect in modern literature too. Tana French via In the Woods places the woods in the center of her novel’s mystery. She creates one of the most haunting and creepiest forests I’ve encountered.

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle. In the ruined tower, someone’s abandoned stronghold, nettles thick as your wrist seize between the stones, and at dawn rabbits bring their kittens out from the foundations to play on ancient graves….They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?

In Far, Far Away (Tom McNeal), one of the Grimm brothers is narrating the story, which has the lovely and dreamy feel of a realistic fairy tale. When the characters finally enter the woods toward the end of the novel however, a huge disturbing plot twist reveals itself there, and the story transforms into a nightmare.

Ginger turned to the baker. “So how far is this cabin, anyhow?” “A ways yet. It’s a beautiful spot, close to a small lake, deep in the woods.” The baker’s voice was as kindly as ever, but at the mention of deep woods, a dim note of alarm sounded within me. Wald, Forst, and most especially, im tiefen Wald—in deep forests— were the words that wrapped black tendrils around a story and foretold ghastly creatures lying in wait or children losing their way. But those were the forests of fairy tales, I told myself, not the ordinary pines of everyday life.

In Wild Life (Molly Gloss), the heart of the story takes place in an ancient Oregon forest in the early 1900’s which is in the process of being logged. Bad things have happened in this forest too, but the narrator does eventually find beauty there (though only after she lets go of some of her human-ness).

We followed the margin of the creek into the primeval forest until the trees standing about us were giants thick as the Washington Monument and surely standing well grown when Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Such trees as these were common  around Skamokawa in my childhood but long since gone to lumber, and I suppose I began to suffer a bit from a feeling of puniness and anxiety, which much be the human response to such supernatural forests. We have become too domesticated–imagining a forest should resemble a park, with a few judiciously spaced trees whose dead branches have been pruned away, flowers in weeded beds, grass neatly mown. Here, the shrubbery was meager from want of sunlight but great carcasses of windthrown timber lay about in unequal progress toward decay, with infant trees shooting up Indian file along the nurse-logs; and in damp, dark hollows yellow flower spikes of skunk cabbage were all abloom, which gaudy brilliance in the gray light served, contrariwise, to darken my mood more than raise it. There is something about those great fleshy leaves and spathes that always has struck me as repellent, loathsome; and in my low state I imagined them a tetratogenic flower garden tended by monsters. Everything was wild. Of course that is the meaning of forests, they are wild.”

Great forests also appear in Harry Potter, and The Hobbit, and The Book of Three, and Alice in Wonderland, and I can probably go on and on….

In my own writing, I realize I keep sending my characters into the woods myself: the woods seem to play an important role in maybe 60-75% of my stories. That line of trees, the border of any forest, marking the open fields of sunlight from the dim shade, makes for such a great threshold. I’ve had narrators who abandon their best friend in the forest to a pack of boys; a mom who has to drive into a forest to a cult to find out why her daughter is dead; characters who are waiting in a forest hoping something transformative will happen to them; a future world where outcasts are sent to live in the forest and you aren’t even supposed to look into the trees; a mom who drags her child into the forest to protect her from God; a man who had to drive into a forest to get to a lodge where he then re-enacts the little mermaid story (I think the forest scene in that story god cut but I liked the idea of the forest as a passage, like a tunnel); and a female vet begins to tell a story to her daughter about the woods then gradually begins to lose her hold on reality, what is the real woods vs. the story woods. Having way too much fun with this, in my short story manuscript, I use the word “woods” 62 times; “forest” 34 times; “forests” 1 time; “trees” 58 times; and “tree” 21 times.

The relief of realism

Or Why Ramona Quimby is Great

I feel rather bloated with fantasy right now. I think part of it was reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which I loved, and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I loved until 5/7 of the way through, very quickly in succession. In addition, my 5 year old and I are often reading fantasy together–we had just finished up Half Magic (Edward Eager). So when I began to read the Ramona books to Stella, she kept asking about when the magical things were going to take place, and when I told her there wasn’t magic in these books, she was disappointed, probably like when you first realize there isn’t actual magic in this world.

Ramona and Her FatherHonestly the Ramona books were a bit of a shock to me too at first. The pacing is slow. In fact, not a lot happens in them except Ramona goes to school and gets into mischief in various ways. There are no mysteries to solve, and Ramona stumbles upon no magic coins. It’s a lot like real life. The parents are sometimes grumpy. I love the scene in Ramona Quimby Age 8 where, after a very miserable day, Ramona’s dad demands the whole family go out to dinner and have a great time even if it kills them. (Side note: the age of the dad is revealed in an earlier book to be 33, which made me kind of….sad. As I am a few years past that point. I am older than Ramona’s dad! Geez.) (I also can’t believe the Ramona books were written over 40 years ago). But despite the absence really of a plot, these books have a strong pull to them, and by the end our first Ramona book, both Stella and I were enchanted.

Part of the pleasure of these books is that they take place pre-computer, in the relative quiet before the internet, smart phones, texting, ipads, and so forth. Kids spend their time banging bricks into powder outside, or Ramona’s older sister Beezus lays in bed reading books. The parents are not obsessed about local organic food. There are no CSA’s giving you lots of root vegetables which your children claim they will never eat, no matter how creatively you cook them. No one seems to be in after school activities or therapy. Even the school day is nostalgic for me in some ways. Desks. Worksheets. Arts and crafts made from paper bags. No mention of tests. I really want to go back to that time.

So far we’ve read: Ramona the Pest (kindergarten), Ramona the Brave (first grade); Ramona and Her Father (second grade I think), and Ramona Quimby Age 8 (third grade). There’s some lovely writing in all of them, as well as the faint memory for me of reading all these books when I was in first or second grade myself (the nativity scene; Ramona pretending to be a cat in a commercial–why these particular moments have stuck with me I’m not sure). Even to have a character who still says her prayers every night, goes to Sunday school weekly, and talks to God now and again, not in any obsessive way, but, you know, it’s just part of her life. What second grader is given the opportunity to have a religious experience in a book these days? (“A shivery feeling ran down Ramona’s backbone, as if magic were taking place. She looked up at Beezus, smiling tenderly down at the flashlight, and it seemed as if Baby Jesus really could be inside the blanket.”)

I love the dad in Ramona and Her Father. He’s cranky. He lost his job. No one is hiring him. He smokes. He’s trying to quit. So often parents in children’s books seem either to be their child’s best friend and doing a really good job of parenting, or else they’re horrible parents making really enormous mistakes. It’s a relief to see Ramona’s parents fumbling around and trying to do their best. Ramona’s mom has to get a full time job, and she arrives home exhausted every night, and now Ramona has to eat store-bought cookies. Her mom is also too tired to make Ramona the sheep costume she wants for the nativity scene at church. It’s painful to watch parents with good intentions still disappointing their children but, at the same time, it’s a relief to see this portrayed with such generosity. Have the Ramona books made anyone else cry? Something in them is this gentle acknowledgment, to both child and parent readers, that being part of a family is really hard. That there are no perfect families. That there will be moments of joy amid all the trouble. That you don’t have to be happy to love each other. 

Here’s one of my favorite passages. Ramona and her dad decide to draw the longest picture in the world together. I love the dad’s inability to promise something his daughter wants and how he isn’t able to look at his daughter when he says he’ll try. What a great detail. The line about the geese at the end, ending the chapter, is lovely. 

“Together they went to work, Ramona on the end of the shelf paper and her father half-way across the kitchen. With crayons Ramona drew a long black bridge with a girl standing astride a line in the center. She drew blue water under the bridge, even though the Columbia River always looked gray. She added gray clouds, gray dots for raindrops, and all the while she was drawing she was trying to find courage to tell her father something.

Ramona glanced at her father’s picture, and sure enough he had drawn Mount Hood peaked with a hump on the south side exactly the way it looked in real life on the days when the clouds lifted.

“I think you draw better than anybody in the whole world,” said Ramona.

Mr. Quimby smiled.“Not quite,” he said.

“Daddy—” Ramona summoned courage.

“I’m sorry I was mean to you.”

“You weren’t mean.” Mr. Quimby was adding trees at the base of the mountain.

“You’re right, you know.”

“Am I?” Ramona wanted to be sure.


This answer gave Ramona even more courage.“Is that why you didn’t have a cigarette with your coffee? Are you going to stop smoking?”

“I’ll try,” answered Mr. Quimby, his eyes on his drawing. “I’ll try.”

Ramona was filled with joy, enthusiasm, and relief. “You can do it, Daddy! I know you can do it.”

Her father seemed less positive. “I hope so,” he answered, “but if I succeed, Picky-picky will still have to eat Puss-puddy.”

“He can try, too,” said Ramona and slashed dark V’s across her gray sky to represent a flock of geese flying south for the winter.

Good read aloud books for a 5 year old round-up

good books to read with your five year oldIt was Stella’s 5th birthday recently so I got her way too many books, mainly longer chapter books, the kind that she’ll want (I hope) to keep on her shelf until she’s very old. The birthday list:

  • A Little History of the World: found it on a dad’s blog about reading to his kid. This dad insisted all his kids, including a 5 year old, loved it. Stella won’t let me open it! But I do love how this book is written and am biding my time.  
  • Mrs. Piggle Wiggle: both my kids adore this book. Whenever there is upset or unhappiness in the house, I can suggest why don’t we all read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and the mood instantly brightens. Though the book was written in 1947, and okay, okay, it has a very let’s call it “quaint” image of motherhood, it does amaze me that the problems Mrs. Piggle Wiggle solves are the same exact ones I’m facing, such as constant sibling fighting, or trouble sharing, or no one wanting to pick up after themselves. Only I don’t have Mrs. Piggle Wiggle! I found the sequel Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s Magic a bit too….magical though my kids loved it too. Writing is nice and sharp in both books in any case.
  • Pippi Longstocking: a nice illustrated version illustrated by Lauren Child (see why I love this book)
  • Treasure Island: still probably should not read this to Stella quite yet but at least it has pictures! And at least this version is not abridged (though it is huge!)
  • A very bad translation of Pinocchio: I had such an amazing experience reading Jasper this book about two years ago. It was some older version from the library with not the greatest illustrations but a very strong translation. This version, part of the Candlewick Illustrated Classics, is a bad translation of Pinocchio with really strange pictures. Don’t do it! (we are trying this version now instead— if Umberto Eco is writing the introduction, it has to be a better translation, right?).

Realizing Treasure Island still should not be read to a 5 year old, and Stella is not into a Small History of the World, I also decided to get her, post-birthday, a few more books:

  • the 5 book set of color illustrated Little House on the Prairie Books: how could you go wrong? The only downside is the books are heavy (because the paper is coated and thick) – but we brought one on vacation anyway.
  • a color version of Charlotte’s Web: I love that publishers are going back and tastefully adding color to children’s classics. Stella and I read this book together over the past few weeks and it was a great reading experience for us both. I was worried of course whether Stella was ready to have a beloved character die, so I kept preparing her for it as we neared the end. She was totally fine while I was the one crying–it is sad, even if you’re ready for it! 

Here are some other books that Stella (now 5) and I have loved reading together lately. Secret Garden

  • The Secret Garden: this illustrated version (drawings by Inga Moore) is amazing. I love how the pictures just explode across the pages when the garden comes to life. The beginning starts out so perfectly — India, an orphan, a hunchback, an old house, the sound of someone crying– and then the book becomes…about the garden of course. It’s beautiful writing, and a beautiful almost metaphysical message, but perhaps it struck me as a little slow at points, especially compared to say the Wizard of Oz. I was impressed Stella was able to keep with it but I think she fell in love with all the characters. The pictures really helped. It did make me want to garden at some point in my life.
  • The Wizard of Oz: our third time through. This is really one of the perfect books to read to a young child. The chapters are just the right length, Dorothy is the ideal gentle heroine, her companions are just the sort of people that you’d want to take with you on a long journey.
  • Ozma of Oz: We tried reading The Land of Oz once together (the second book in the series) and I had to put it down, after an army of girls starting doing foolish, boring and old-fashioned things, in my opinion. But Ozma of Oz! Though I read all the Oz books as a kid, this is the one I remember as a child. It also appears on the 100 best children’s novels by the School Library Journal.    
  • Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Stella has been reading these two books with her dad Harold for the last two months. Lucky guy. I tried reading Alice in Wonderland to Stella about a year ago but she found the language too wild. She’s enjoying it much more now, especially since Harold tends to act the scenes out using crazy voices. For Alice in Wonderland, I love the version illustrated by Alison Jay, which is able to capture the beautiful surrealism of the setting. With Through the Looking Glass, there are fewer options — Helen Oxenburg’s seemed the best.
  • Stella reads Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryCharlie and the Chocolate Factory: Stella claimed to have no interest. But come on, chocolate! A factory! I was finally able to convince her. I do wish a full color, more realistically illustrated version would come out though. Maybe Inga Moore could do it? Stella ended up loving this book. We brought it on a 2 week vacation to the Canadian Rockies and it was the perfect book to read to both kids during our time on the road. Stella’s disappointment when Charlie didn’t find the ticket at first — and her joy when Charlie finally uncovered the ticket (pictured above) — was so moving to me. She is really able to feel the emotions of the characters which is why reading must be so pleasurable to her. 
  • Ramona, Age 8: Though it felt a little over Stella’s head at times — no one in kindergarten can be as mean as Yard Ape (at least I hope that’s true) — she loved many parts of this book. Poor Ramona cracking a raw egg onto her head! Poor Ramona throwing up in class in front of everybody! I read this book many times as a kid of course but perhaps enjoy it even more as an adult — the book captures the moods of a family so well, and is so compassionate toward the irritations and disappointments of the parents, of Ramona’s mom and dad, even when seen from an 8 year old’s eyes. I love the descriptions of the grumpy Sunday when everyone in the family is miserable, which in turns makes everyone else more miserable, and the misery feeds upon misery until finally the father demands everyone must out to eat and they will enjoy themselves if it kills them all. What parent can’t relate to days of misery like that? It’s lovely to read about a relatively unplugged childhood as well, other than the occasional TV. The fact that the book can appeal to such a degree to kids and adults simultaneously is pretty amazing. Stella and I are both excited to read Ramona the Pest (where Ramona is in kindergarten) very soon. 

Books I’m considering whether to read with Stella soon

  • Ella, Enchanted: I’m on the fence about this one. I love this book and I know, all common sense says to wait a few more years. But Stella loves fairy tales and Ella is such a strong character (and I love this book!). If only it had a few pictures….
  • The Penderwicks: I read this awhile ago and found it enjoyable. Since there are some small children, I’m thinking it would hold Stella’s interest. But maybe next year.

Books I probably should read to Stella but am dragging my feet

  • Anything with talking animals. Wind and the Willows, the Rats of Nihm, the Mouse and the Motorcycle, Catwings (even if it’s by Ursula LeGuin!), Beatrix Potter (thankfully Harold loves Beatrice Potter). I have a totally irrational aversion to animals who talk. Hobbits are fine, and okay so is the original Winnie the Pooh, but all the other talking creatures of the forest? Can’t do it.  I don’t quite understand it myself.

What can be learned about writing from two translations of Pinocchio?

Stella of late has become enamored with all the Disney versions of the fairy tales. This is rather painful for me, so for her 5th birthday, I wanted to get her a copy of “real” Pinocchio but an illustrated version. I have such fond memories of reading Jasper the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi when he Stella’s age. Sure, the book is dark and more than a little creepy (Pinocchio smashes the cricket of conscience, for instance, early on, and at one point the little wooden boy is hung from a tree by a noose), but I also remember it being wildly beautiful, surreal, complex, and fun. Honestly I can’t find which translation of the book Jasper and I read–it was just a random one from the library, and I guess we had good luck.

pinocchio-Sara Fanelli

For Stella’s birthday, I made a very bad decision and went with the Candlewick Illustrated Classics. Not only are the collages by Sara Fanelli rather odd, at least to a 5-year-old’s eyes, but the translation by Emma Rose is less than ideal (also a sans serif for a font choice for a 19th story? Save me!). Stella was fidgety while I was reading it to her, as was I, and I wondered if I had imagined the goodness of this book. She asked to stop reading a few chapters in.

Fulvio-Testa-pinocchioBut I wasn’t ready to give up on Pinocchio quite yet. So I ordered another version, this one illustrated by the Italian artist Fulvio Testa and translated by poet Geoffrey Brock (who has also done translations of Umberto Eco’s work). What a difference a good translation makes (and good illustrations too!).

Honestly I still don’t know if this will be Stella’s favorite book – she’s kind of fallen in love with the more innocent Pinocchio from Disney, and she hated that the “real” Pinocchio killed the cricket, even if by accident. I think there may be too much cruelness in the book for her right now.

But I’m enjoying the Brock translation. It’s fascinating how subtle word choice can ruin, or elevate, a story, and I’m hoping it will teach my something about sentence revision.

Here are a few comparisons–the first version is the Rose translation, the second the much stronger Brock translation.

  • “He was delighted” versus “He cheered right up.”
  • The flattening that happens when cliches are used: “And then, quick as a flash, he picked up his ax to strip the bark and whittle the wood down” versus “Wasting no time, he picked up his sharp hatchet to start removing the log’s bark and trimming it down…”
  • Or having Mr. Cherry swearing that he heard a voice — “He could have sworn he’d heard a voice–a thin little voice–exclaim ‘Please don’t hit hard.’” versus having him actually hear a voice (“because a heard a little high-pitched voice pleading, ‘Don’t hit me too hard!’”).
  • Or “You can imagine how amazed Mr. Cherry was” — so flat!–versus the subtly different “Just imagine dear old Master Cherry’s reaction!”
  • Or “No, that’s ridiculous.” versus “I can’t believe that.” Much more effective to have the I present in the sentence and that word “believe” is full of a power that “ridiculous” lacks.
  • Or “He picked up the ax again and gave the piece of wood a good whack.” versus “And picking the hatchet back up, he dealt the piece of wood a heavy blow” (I think it’s the useless adjective “good” that bothers me there).
  • Or “‘Ouch!’ yelped the same little voice. ‘That hurt!” versus “‘Ouch! You hurt me!’ cried the same little voice, bitterly.” What richness that adverb “bitterly” adds.
  • Or see how grammar helps the flow of the sentence. The first uses short choppy sentences that feel awkward and seem to accentuate the cliched, over the top description. “This time Mr. Cherry was left speechless. His eyes bulged out of their sockets. His mouth gaped open. His tongue hung down his chin. He looked like one of those stone faces you may have seen on water fountains.” But look what a colon can do: “This time Master Cherry was struck dumb: his eyes bugged out of his head in fright, his mouth gaped, his tongue dangled down to his chin, like those grotesque faces carved on fountains. “ 


Should you read your child abridged versions of really good books?

Stella reading Treasure Island

No! At least in the case of Treasure Island.

Treasure Island was yet another classic book I missed as a kid, so I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across it in my early 30’s and think, wow, here is probably one of the most perfect adventure books ever created, complete with pirates, buried treasure, a big old ship, and beautifully bright writing. Despite the countless examples of hard drinking, violence, and, in general, bad pirate behavior – this is not one of those moralistic children books where people behave, or learn to behave, kindly toward each other — I was counting down the years before I could read it to my kids.

So when, at a library used book sale, I stumbled across this abridged version of Treasure Island, part of the Treasury of Illustrated Classics series, I snatched it up, despite the horrifically crude pictures. My son read this version on his own last year and enjoyed it (he was 6 then), so I thought I would read it to my 4 year old recently. This was not a great idea for several reasons.

First, even the abridged version could not exclude all the hard drinking, cruelty, murder, and violence of a pirate’s life. Though I was able to gloss over some of the rum references, it may not be 4 year old material, in my opinion. Which might be obvious.

Secondly, the abridged version was awful. I imagined “abridged” as taking large chunks out but keeping the spirit and voice of the original (Treasure Island is, after all, first person, so voice counts for a lot). But this edition seems to be an entire rewriting. Worse, abridged, in this case, seems to mean rewriting while somehow managing to take out all of the brightness and beauty of the original, while underestimating, I think, a child’s ability to follow complex sentences. It’s a little like comparing one of the new translations of the Bible after drowning in the beauty of the King James’ version (which, by the way, I’ve been doing in the mornings as research for a new story, thanks to Bible Gateway). Though honestly the idea of any abridged book makes me queasy, as something essential must be lost in the process of shortening.

(But here’s the disclaimer: I do need to mention Stella loves the book. She was totally engrossed in it when I read it to her and did not seem to care about the poorly written voice or the bad pirate behavior. In fact, when the book was somehow lost among the cacophony of books in her room, she became very upset, and likewise, when we found this unfortunate book again, she is insisting on putting it in our reading queue, after The Secret Garden and Wizard of Oz.)

Still, I found myself wondering, had I imagined the greatness of the original version? Is Treasure Island just another poorly written adventure novel? So I went back to the original to compare. It’s a great example of how important voice is and how two writers, one good (Robert Louis Stevenson) and one not so good (sorry Barbara Green) can take the same material and either make it work or ruin it.