Thursday, December 10, 2009

Books as Broccoli

I think today will have to be a Day of Domesticity. I need to do some baking, a lot of cleaning and some decorating. Oh, and I need to tackle my in-box. My e-mail runneth over. It doesn't help that I wait to reply because I like to think about what I'm going to say, and then by the time I've thought about it enough, I start to think that I've actually responded, until I see the overflowing in-box and realize that I've only responded in my head.

Though I do have to play Famous Author for a little while today. I'm being interviewed by a neighborhood student for a school project. I guess it's one of those career exploration things, where they have to write a paper on someone in the field they want to go into, and when she didn't know how to find an author, she was a very smart student and asked the librarian for help. And the librarian is a friend of mine from high school. So I'll get to sit at the coffee shop and pretend it's one of those Parade profiles, where they mention that the interview is being conducted over whatever the celebrity orders at whatever swanky restaurant.

This doesn't mean that I'm now fair game for everyone's school projects. I agreed to do this in part because there are certain bonds of loyalty that develop when you're in a school play with someone, so I look at it mostly as doing a favor for a friend.

I do get the occasional e-mail that's an obvious quest for assistance on a book report -- like "I really like your books. What theme do your books convey?" I once even replied with "Working on a book report, huh?" When I was in school, I don't think it would have occurred to me to contact the author when I was writing a book report, but then when I was in school I thought that writers were celestial beings and not normal people who could be contacted.

The thing is, asking the author may not get you an answer your teacher will accept. I remember having to address the question of what the author was trying to say with a book or why he wrote it when I was doing book reports, and I always had a feeling that it wasn't anything as high-minded as what the teacher wanted to hear. "To tell a good story" probably wouldn't have been accepted, and I'm sure that "to make money" would be right out -- even though we know that, yeah, Dickens wanted to expose injustice and the treatment of the poor, but he also had a bunch of kids to feed, he had a fear of poverty and he was being paid by the word.

I suppose there are themes in my books, but I didn't set out with the intention of conveying those themes. I only discovered them after I'd written the book, just as anyone trying to analyze these books would find them for themselves. I didn't even realize I'd put a recurring motif in Once Upon Stilettos until after the book was published. The overall theme of the series might be described as "find your own magic" because it's all about how being ordinary is like a superpower for Katie, since it's what she can contribute to the cause that the others around her can't contribute. But that's not what I had in mind when I wrote the books, and it's not the reason I wrote the series.

I wrote these books because they were exactly what I wanted to read that I wasn't finding. I wanted something with the magic and whimsy of the Harry Potter world, but with adults, a touch of romance without it being a romance novel, the "reality" found in chick lit novels dealing with bad jobs and dating difficulties, some adventure, a lot of humor, and a New York setting. I wrote to amuse myself, and then I had so much fun with it I was sure other people might enjoy it. And, yeah, I wanted to make money because I'd been out of work for a while and didn't want to have to go back to a regular job.

That's not the kind of thing that most teachers will accept in a book report, probably not even when it's backed up by an e-mail from the author, herself. And I think that's part of why reading is on the decline. Too often, teachers treat books like they're broccoli -- they're good for you, so you have to have them, but don't worry about enjoying them. They can't be just fun. They have to be Meaningful and Important. They have to make a Statement. Not every teacher is like that, I know, and often teachers' hands are tied because they have to adhere to mandated curricula. But if you can leach the fun out of my books by insisting that students find themes to validate the fact that they read these books, then you're doing something wrong.

I had two teachers who I think really helped encourage a love of reading. My fourth-grade teacher would read out loud to us after recess as a way of getting us calmed down, and she read purely fun books, like the works of Roald Dahl, and The Hobbit. All we had to do was listen. She didn't ask us to analyze, just to enjoy. Then in the second half of sixth grade (we moved midway through the school year), I had an English teacher who devoted one class period per week to just reading. We could read anything we wanted, and to get credit, we just had to tell her what the book was about. On reading day, we'd go one-by-one to her desk while everyone else read and give our brief book summaries. There was no judging, no analyzing other than being able to follow plot and characters. In those cases, books weren't broccoli.

I should add that I happen to love broccoli, but while I do eat it plain, I can also see the merits of a good cheese sauce to make it more fun.

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