Wednesday, May 07, 2008

reading and writing... for kids!

i'm helping cheryl out at her elementary school.  it's wednesday night, shortly after 9 pm.  taking a break from organizing pictures from a field trip on iphoto, i glance over at the book order and see a book entitled "the cat-- you go, graduate!" it looks like something that may appeal to children, but all in all, it looks rather silly.  further inspection reveals that this is a sticker book.  even in elementary school, i had no interest in those; still, kids in my class did order them, leaving not the question of who buys this, but, rather, who makes this?  were they proud of it, or is it a sort of embarassing job, and do they really want to do graphic design for a high class ad agency, or write for time magazine?  is the photographer, using an extreme-wide angle lens to photograph a cat in a graduation cap, hiding this in their resume, or is this a marketable style, off which one can live well?
scanning the rest of the book order cover, it's easy to look over it and think that these are written by writers who never achieved their dreams, and to feel the tragedy with that.  perhaps they dreamt of being a new york times bestseller, and yet have produced nothing more than a short series of paperbacks featured in an elementary school book order.  and while not everyone's life success is based on their professional accomplishments (i've been working with adam baldwin the past few days; on his imdb page, he says that acting is not his life's work; his family is. that's oh so cool), professional success is not determined by the most glamorous or critically acclaimed, either.  there's a good chance many of these people are doing what they enjoy: writing for children.  

when i was in fifth grade, the robert asp middle school had a book fair.  the lunchroom-gymnasium was filled with wheeled bookshelves that could be folded shut and rolled away, off to the next school.  near the back corner of the room, close to the right side of the school stage, i saw a book entitled, my teacher is an alien.  i generally liked school, and never suspected my teachers as being anything more than good people, but this title was still too much to resist.  i loved the story, and it turned out to be by the same author as monster of the year, another book i'd picked up earlier.  the author was bruce coville, a name i didn't need to look up or struggle to remember.
throughout my middle school years, i loved bruce coville's books.  jeremy thatcher, dragon hatcher; the monster's ring; stories about boys my age but where my imagination wanted to go, where the fantastic was allowed to mingle.
of all of his books, the my teacher is an alien series was the best.  the first three books were each written from the perspective of a different student, all introduced in the first, providing not only wonderful viewpoints of mutual events (although the stories were largely separate from one another), but also three very distinct narrators, allowing a middle school mind to experience varying characters and backgrounds.  of that series, the third book has always been my favorite (it was also the last one i acquired, if i remember correctly).  my teacher glows in the dark picked up where the first book ended, with the nerdy kid choosing to leave with the eponymous teacher-alien.  what was so enthralling about the story was that the boundaries of imagination seemed to have been taken down.  mr. coville created an alien spaceship and culture that, even now, seems as realistic as anything i've heard of, provided we let ourselves believe in an alien superculture.
unlike the aliens in the majority of sci-fi, be it the hallowed "star wars" trilogy or "aliens" or whatever you like, the creatures are just scary, goofy, furry, slimy, or different creatures.  but they're still creatures--like something we might find in a cave in the himalayas or the yucatan.  the captain of the spaceship put it best, bemoaning, "you carbon-based life forms are so molecular-centric.  until you meet another form of life, you seem convinced that carbon is the only way to grow." (p.30)  the reasoning behind this is clarified when you know that the ship's captain was best described as a large tank with crystals floating inside.
and that is what i loved about the story.  aliens who created with smells, others who were seemingly little more than a shadow, communicating through flickering; explanations on how language translation works amongst a multitude of races; descriptions of how a ship moves across intergalactic distances, and even transportation within a spaceship the size of new jersey (incidentally, the ship is named, "the new jersey" for that reason).
and when they discuss the issue of humans developing interplanetary travel (which leads to the thesis of the whole series, one that gets overly preachy yet still raises good questions for young readers), the captain explaining they "don't mind you exploring your own solar system; there's not much there anyway.  but if we cannot allow you to carry this sickness, whatever it is, into the galaxy at large," well, things like that just let my mind wander.  (page 32)

"i nodded to him, and he made a gesture which translated into, 'i salute your sinus cavities'--something i'm sure had more meaning for him than it did for me." (p.88) 

for writing children's books, for making them available in scholastic book orders, for letting my imagination roam when i was 12, and for sustaining the wonder a decade and a half later, mr. coville, i salute your sinus cavities.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

I liked those books too. Not the sticker books---the teacher is an alien books. And I had a weird thing for Lurlene McDaniel books...she wrote sad stories about kids & teenagers who get cancer and stuff. That was a slightly morbid obsession for a while. Weird. I did love book fairs though!