I spent last Saturday at the National Book Festival, which now takes place in a huge convention center and not in the circus-like tents it formally occupied on the National Mall. Worse ambience now, but better climate control.
The day felt like a series of meditations on the theme, "Why write?" First up was Kwame Alexander, who won the Newbery Medal this year for his novel-in-poetry,
"There's no such thing as a reluctant reader," he said, only someone who hasn't found what they want to read (a man after my own heart). His own discovery of poetry at age 12 connected him more intensely to the written word. He talked about poetry, because of its economy of language, as a basic building block, one from which the reader can move on to other genres. When children are small, he said, they love poetry -- Seuss, Silverstein. "My goal [in writing] is to bring back that love." Start with poetry, he says, and other kinds of reading will follow.
For others, it has to do with the author's need to write. The person who introduced Libba Bray, author of a slew of hugely popular YA novels, many of them historical/magical, quoted from her website bio:
Three weeks after high school graduation, I had a serious car accident. I demolished my face and lost my left eye. ... It took many years to put me back together again, but most of the pieces seem to be in the right places, and anyway, that’s when I discovered how powerful writing can be, because writing everything down kept me alive. This is how I know that writing can save your life. ... Should you ever find yourself in a bad, hopeless place, please know that you can write your way out of something that feels completely unwinnable and into something better and, just possibly, into something wonderful.
She talked a lot about how uncomfortable she had been with deafness, not identifying with other deaf kids when she was growing up. A child in the audience asked how it felt to write about herself. "It was terrifying to write an autobiography." she said. "I live in a hearing world. I was terrified I would offend others who are deaf." The result of taking the risk and writing about herself, though, brought a profound result: deaf people reacted to her account, she met more members of the deaf community than she ever had. "I've made new friends who are deaf. It's been a great ride," she said, with a trace of tears in her eyes. Writing about her isolation led to new connections.
Books as a connection among people came up frequently at the festival. I spent some time listening to kids who had won writing contests read their essays. Allison Templeton, a winner in the "A Book That Shaped Me" contest, credited the Harry Potter series with staving off loneliness. She wrote about changing schools in fourth grade, and finding new classmates who were also reading the series. The most important thing, though, was how the books kept an old friendship going:
Without the same teachers, classes, or even friends in common any more, we turned to Harry Potter as a topic of conversation. We spent hours debating whether Professor Snape was good or evil. We laughed about Fred and George Weasley's funny sayings. Being able to discuss our favorite characters, our emotions while reading and predictions about what would happen next helped hold our friendship together.Anyone who was of reading age when the books first came out will recognize this behavior. For an earlier generation, Harry Potter was a mass phenomenon. It makes me happy to see that Harry provides the same connections -- of immersion, anticipation, speculation -- on a smaller scale for succeeding generations.
How does your family feel about Harry Potter? Does Eleanor have interest in reading the books?