In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading improves the mind -- literally

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm intrigued by the latest question you've posed, about contemporary adult books which would be appropriate for the YA shelf, and I've started thinking about possible answers.  Over the last several days, however, both Eleanor and I were felled by a nasty flu, and we're in recovery mode.  So here's a promise of a nice juicy post on Margaret Atwood next week, and a brief reflection on sick reading and the beauty and power of well-constructed sentences.

Post-fever but not quite ourselves again, Eleanor and I stayed home and spent much of the day reading Natalie Babbitt's The Search for Delicious, which you sent Eleanor a while back.  I don't think I'd ever read it before, though I know Babbitt from the brilliant and wrenching Tuck Everlasting.  What a lovely book!

It's a fable of sorts.  Babbitt sets up a story on two levels: a magical level filled with ageless creatures who care for different parts of the earth (dwarves in the mountains, mermaids in the waters, woldwellers in the forests, winds in the skies), and a human level with kingdoms and people who fight each other all the time.  The backstory involves a lovely young mermaid named Ardis, who loses her favorite doll and weeps for it for hundreds of years.  The hero is a 12-year-old boy named Gaylen, who is tasked with going out into the kingdom as the king's messenger to poll the people on what food should become the definition of the word "delicious" in the Prime Minister's new dictionary.  Simply asking this question gets everybody upset, and with the aid of a bad guy, brings the country to the brink of civil war.  Gaylen meets all kinds of people in his travels, from the human world and the natural/ageless magical world.  Of course, the stories come together, and the ending is satisfying to all.

There's a lot to like about this book -- interesting and thoughtful perspectives about the ways in which nature and human beings interact, and how nature's time frame is very different from human time (much like Tuck Everlasting, actually).  As our reader Annette pointed out months ago during our discussion of books with maps, there's quite a nice map of Gaylen's journey on the first pages.

I was struck today, however, by the beauty of Natalie Babbitt's language.  What a joy to read aloud!  She has well-balanced sentences, a wide-ranging and evocative vocabulary, and a way with similes and metaphors.  A few samples (try reading them aloud to see how good they feel to say):

There was a lovely greenish glow in the forest, a glow pierced everywhere by tree trunks like fingers thrust into an aquarium full of tinted water; and Gaylen slipped between them like a small fish.  With the trees all around him and the rain dancing on the leaves high over his head, he felt as if he were going deeper and deeper into a world that existed tranquil and quite separate from the one he had left behind (42).

The woman on the porch peered out at the boy and the big horse in his royal draperies, and her eyes opened very wide.  She put aside the bowl of potatoes she had been peeling and called in a loud voice, "Mildew! Mildew!  Come here at once!"  Then she came down the path.  She was a big woman with a red face and red hands and she wore a dark jacket and a great many skirts and petticoats.  The man who had been plowing loped puffing to her side and they both stood staring up at Gaylen with their mouths open (66).

Gaylen sat behind the boulder and frowned.  Everywhere he went, it seemed, Hemlock came after or had already been, weaving in and out of his path like an ill-intentioned wasp.  He waited until the clang and echo of Ballywrack's hoofbeats faded before he came out of the shadows.  He wrapped the loop of Marrow's reins around a loose rock, gave the horse a pat of reassurance, and stole away to the tunnel to follow.  Feeling his way, he crept into black darkness down a twisting corridor of cool, smooth stone.  The corridor was dry and fragrant -- it smelled, surprisingly, of apples, like the cellar of a well-kept farmhouse (94-95).

As I was reading these passages to Eleanor today, and enjoying them immensely, I was reminded of a New York Times article I read last week.  According to the latest research in neuroscience, reading vivid descriptions of sensory details or intense emotional exchanges stimulates the same regions of the brain that actually experiencing these sensory details or interactions would stimulate:

Last month,...a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

I highly recommend the rest of the article.  And then, of course, recommend that you go right back to reading fiction.

Love, Annie

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