Epistolary Day: The Reading Circus


From Letter Two, Reader, Come Home

Today I’m replying to Chapter Two of Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home with a letter. Because–well, how else, really?

Dear Maryanne Wolf,

You made me think about a single word in an entirely new way. Tracks.


You reminded me that reading isn’t hardwired in my brain, that my brain’s “plasticity within limits” is the wondrous principle that has rearranged my circuits to make reading possible. You made me aware of the multiple acts by specialized neurons that release meaning within single letters, combinations of letters, design, prefixes and suffixes and plurals, probability and prediction, context (verb or noun or something else?), and then the next layer still, memory and association and emotional meanings. A kind of “Circuit du Soleil,” you said, thus imprinting that image indelibly.

All this happens in the single moment, when my eye lands upon that word? I felt the same awe that comes to me when I think of the chemical communications of tree roots or the nests of cliff swallows. Who needs miracles? Being alive in the world is miracle enough.

Your choice of word, too, is particularly apt. You could have picked any word. It seems, on the surface, as if any word will do. But this one has connotations that lift me up from the last chapter and transport me into the next, so that Letter Two becomes itself a track upon with my circus train starts to rattle on towards its next destination.

You write:

Anyone who still believes the archaic canard that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.

When I revise my words today, I’ll do so with a new respect for the work I’m asking my readers’ brains to do.

Sincerely yours,

Your Reader

The Reading Brain, Kindness, and Contemplation

Proust and the SquidRemember Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s 2007 account of how humans learned to engage in that seemingly unnatural activity we call reading? How the brain was changed by that unprecedented development and is now on the brink of changing yet again?

Here is the follow-up to that book. It’s epistolary in form, consisting of a series of letters to readers.

It’s titled Reader, Come Home.

Speaking for myself, I can’t resist a good invitation. I am now reading a letter a day from Maryanne Wolf to–me!

ReaderComeHomeOr at least that’s how it feels. This line, for example:

To be sure, when I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood.

That was the child me. I have ended up living a life of words, a life built around reading but I sometimes wonder if I have lost the ability to leap into a book and lose myself, the way I did as a child, when the boundaries of the real world just dissolved and I was impervious to all distraction.

Proust and the Squid fascinated me and left me with questions about the young readers I write for and whether reading would be changed by emerging media. Now, more than a decade later, those questions have coalesced into worry, as we find ourselves deeply entrenched in a culture of digital media with all its bells and whistles, quickness and instant bling.

I’m delving right now into the last round of edits on a middle grade nonfiction project that is definitely all about the long haul, about thinking deeply and embracing kindness. That potential reader, 8 or 10 or 12 years old, is never far from my thoughts. For many reasons, this book seems particularly timely.

There’s something about the format of the letter that is at once anachronistic and entirely appropriate to the subject. A letter invites me to pause, to think about a point, to feel in communication with the writer. Wolf cites Rainer Maria Rilke’s kindness in Letters to a Young Poet as a source of inspiration. She writes about Aristotle’s good society with its three lives–knowledge and productivity; entertainment and leisure; and contemplation–and suggests there are three kinds of reading lives as well. She wonders if that third life of contemplation is in danger from the sequestered kind of reading that everyone does nowadays, reading only what we agree with, reading only in easily consumable bites.

The reading brain, she says, is the “canary in our minds. We would be the worst of fools to ignore what it has to teach us.”

Rilke writes in the first of his letters:

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.

Wolf warns us against losing that very ability to “go within.” It’s a skill we’ve spent millennia acquiring. It seems a shame to toss it away now.

Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

Readers Live Longer? Really?

Not that this is necessarily a blessing, but a New York Times report suggests that reading books is tied to a longer life. As little as half an hour a day of book reading seems to give us what they succinctly refer to as a “survival advantage.” Only by an average of two years, which is not that much, but still. I always knew reading was good for me.

Highlights from the article on which the report is based:

  • Book reading provides a survival advantage among the elderly.
  • Books are more advantageous for survival than newspapers/magazines.
  • The survival advantage of reading books works through a cognitive mediator.
  • Books are protective regardless of gender, wealth, education, or health.

forgettingtimeIs writing good for me or not, longevity-wise, I wonder. If writing were to parallel reading or add to its good effects that would be grand. If not, well then, maybe, at the least, it does me no harm. Or maybe it’s bad for me, in which case I could be back where I started and it all cancels out.

In any case, I had better finish the book I’m reading now, The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, which has me by the throat at the moment and will not let go. (Thank you, Karen Rivers, for this thoughtful gift.)

As a writer who writes for young people, I used to scramble to try and keep up with each year’s new offerings. Now I read children’s and YA books regularly. But I also make it a point to keep reading grownup books often, for my own pleasure. It’s reassuring to be told now that I can live longer by indulging myself this way.

Is it Craft or is it Magic?

Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA  are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?

My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.


Photo courtesy of VCFA

And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.

Forgiveness, Part 2

If you’re worried about plot spoilers, don’t read on. Personally, plot points don’t make or break a story. Not knowing how a story ends is not the point for me. It’s how it got there that matters. the japanese lover

I’ve now finished reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover. The love story of Alma Mendel, later Belasco, a Polish war refugee, and Ichimei Fukuda, the Nisei boy whose family gets sent to internment camp. It’s a sprawling story held together by the experience of a Moldovan refugee, Irina Bazili, who encounters Alma in a retirement community and forges a friendship with her grandson, Seth.

Betrayal, lust, love, childhood, longing—the storylines are all there, intertwining gracefully. Yet the characters feel thin, their motivations authorially manipulated. I went from delight to disappointment. Perhaps, I thought, it’s the translation that’s clunky—e.g., the sprinkling of dialogue attribution tags seems overdone, but does this convention sound fine in the original Spanish? I’ll never know.


Some of the stereotyping really surprised me—Ichimei is “serene,” “noble,” “spiritual.” That is surely a function of the text and not the translation. The gay husband Nathaniel dies, predictably, of AIDS. No, really? Why is it that when you take reality and plunk it down into fiction it seems contrived?

And yet…and yet….In spite of all this, I found myself returning to the book for its great leaps of story and its small intimacies. It contains some of the Allende magic, in its fairytale setup, its delicate narrative and its minute, subtle promises. It’s just that most of them somehow never get realized.

There was a time when I had to decide if I liked a book or not. Like? Dislike? There was no in between. Not true any more. This one falls in the half-light. It’s memorable. Imperfect. I’m glad I read it.

Reading is an Act of Forgiveness

the japanese loverI’m reading this book in small increments, a few pages daily. It’s uncommonly beautiful, which is nothing less than I’d expect from a writer of Allende’s genius. It feels like a sparkling narrative, a fairy tale of sorts.

The House of the Spirits it’s not.

The Lark House community is colorful even if some of the characters feel a little thin. Alma herself is tenderly drawn but is that a bit of stereotyping going on with those “serene” Japanese? Still, I’m trusting this storytelling voice and so far, halfway through, I’m engaged.

Reading at its best is an act of surrender but it’s also an act of forgiveness. One can say the same of life, or love, I suppose.

At the end, I will have an opinion, or more than one. But the opinion will matter less than the feeling the book left me with. Will I want to go back and reread it? Or will it be set aside, an experience to be done with, easy to let go? Much will depend on what the flaws are. Which ones will I forgive? Which ones will stick in my memory like unpleasant burrs? Much will depend on me, the reader. That’s a humbling fact, worth remembering when I’m back in writer mode.