Epistolary Day: In Praise of the Quiet Eye

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I was always an easily distractible person. I still am. I can’t write if there’s music playing or if anyone is talking (other than the imaginary people in my head, that is). Sometimes, when I’m working on a draft, I have to pull the blinds down so I don’t end up spending hours staring at falling leaves or dragonflies instead.

As a child, my report cards frequently read, “Does not pay attention.” It was true. I was a hummingbird of a kid, whirling round in dizzy gladness, drawn from one bright object to the next.

But from the time I began to read, one thing always stilled me.  A book.

Give me a book and I would instantly get lost in its pages. I would become somebody else. I would go somewhere else, and somewhen as well. I would be transformed. Back in the 1960’s I didn’t have the bright objects that children have today. No screens with easy click-throughs to tempt my easily sidetracked brain away. Books allowed me to develop the “quiet eye,” the path to theologian John S. Dunne‘s “essence of things.” It would be years before I’d realize what a gift that was.

And because I didn’t have that many books, I reread the ones I had, over and over again. You quoted Anne Fadiman, Maryanne, on reading compared to rereading:

… the former had more velocity; the latter had more depth.

It made me see how I’m skimming so much more now, reading for information and not for immersion. The screen will do this to a person. It can fool you into thinking you know a lot. In reality, that kind of reading can result in knowing about many things, while knowing very little about any of them.

You cited Lorca’s poem, “My Ancient Heart of a Child.” And I wondered, if I, the distractible ex-child, who see myself now as a literate adult, am worrying about losing my own ability to read deeply,  what can I possibly do, as a writer for children, to stay true to the magic of the perfect word? How pass along the lineage I have inherited of generations upon generations of books, all speaking to one another and so, in the end, speaking to me? It seems to me that is the heart of a reading life, something that now feels as endangered as icebergs.

Poetry and Claiming Voice

IMG_1335.JPGIn Vermont this January, when author-illustrator Don Tate signed a copy of his beautiful picture book for me, he wrote, “Love words.” I always have. For many of us it was words and their power that drew us to the uncertain and often unpredictable vocation of a writer. And no form distills words better than poetry.

In times of crisis, poetry gives us a way to claim voice, assert ourselves, protest injustice; it enables us to “live in the along,” as Gwendolyn Brooks put it. It helps us maintain a kind of necessary conviction that we will, in the end, be right, even if that juster, kinder end seems deeply endangered at the moment.

Don talked to us in workshop about how he went about the work of creating this glorious picture book about poet George Moses Horton. What a story this is! Here’s an excerpt from the entry on Horton on the University of North Carolina’s web site, Documenting the American South:

By the time he was twenty, George Moses Horton had begun visiting the campus of The University of North Carolina….There he sold students acrostics on the names of their sweethearts at twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five cents. For several decades he “bought his time” from his masters through the sale of his poems and through the wages collected as a campus laborer.

Horton loved words. That’s where it all began.

I was especially fascinated by how Don has integrated the poet’s experience of words into the design of his book.

img_1337Here is the preacher’s soaring rhetoric.

 

 

 

 

 

img_1339Here are the alphabets floating into the boy’s understanding, as he’s drawn irresistibly to the empowering skill of reading, a skill forbidden to his people.

There are lessons in this book that arise organically from its story and fall gently upon the mind. They arise from love and family and community, and from a boy’s deep, abiding desire to know the written word. A compelling story, brought to the page with a loving hand.

Thank you, Don Tate and Peachtree Publishers.

Jane Kurtz and Ethiopia Reads

Jane_Kurtz_swing In addition to her prolific career as a writer for young readers, Jane Kurtz is an ambassador for literacy worldwide, with a special focus on Ethiopia, the country of her childhood. Many people know her as well as a founding member of Ethiopia Reads, a non-profit organization with the mission of raising funds and providing expertise to bring books and children together in Ethiopia. They have built a network of libraries that grows every year — over 65 currently, with at least one in every region of Ethiopia. Their horse-powered literacy program reaches rural children with no access to schools. Jane’s vision has been a huge part of making this happen.

 

ethiopiareads


In May 2014 Jane was awarded a “Spirit of Achievement Award” honoring 
her work with Ethiopia Reads. The award “for excellence in leadership and dedication to the mission of Ethiopia Reads” acknowledged her many years and hours of work to spread literacy, specifically in Ethiopia. I’m proud to say that Jane is also my colleague on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Congratulations, Jane!