Monday, September 26, 2016

Just for Laughs

Remember Mary Poppins' sage advice? “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” and King Solomon’s wisdom: “A merry heart does good like medicine,” not to mention, “There is a time to laugh?”

Are you, like me, often so consumed with the execution of daily duties, you forget that life should have a bit of levity thrown in to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously? Think of how a silly movie can make you forget your pressures or how a joking friend can lighten your load if you enter into his humor and let yourself giggle.

Jesus said, “Unless you become as a little child…” and I note that most children have plenty of time for laughter, silliness, and are ready at any moment to bubble up with fun. When a mother recently wrote me to ask why her six-year-old only enjoyed reading “funny books,” I had to consider whether that is a problem. Perhaps that fun-loving boy is trying to tell his mother, so set on his loving to read, that if she could read him something funny, he might find the all-important book reading to be more palatable.

I grant that the library and bookstore shelves are well stocked, yes, even overstocked, with ridiculous nonsense books that insult the intelligence of our children, but weighing our children down with only intense, serious, and purposeful reading is possibly not the only alternative. Children who need to gain confidence and competence in reading need to read—a lot, millions of words, but a steady diet of seriousness will make Jack (Or Jackie) a very dull boy (or girl).

May I suggest a series, because most children (and even some of their parents) love a series. The predictability of plot bothers young readers not at all, is comforting in fact, and a set of familiar characters who reappear in new settings and predicaments makes figuring out who everyone is an easier task. Though we may roll our eyes at the 34th paperback in the latest fad series, our children relish repetition.

Have you heard about Freddy? He’s a pig. A talking pig. Together with a menagerie of other farm animals, he solves crimes. Yes, and besides being a sleuth, he’s a newspaperman, and a poet, some time banker and politician. The Freddy the Pig series by Walter Brooks is full of chuckles, giggles, and bursts of laughter as Freddy dashes from one tight spot to the next. The characters are true-to-life, yet far-fetched enough to keep the reader from getting too analytical. Begun in the 1920’s, the series remains popular and many titles have been reprinted through the decades. (Believe it or not, there’s even a fan club called the Friends of Freddy Society). Freddy is loyal, hardworking, creative, ingenious. And lovable.

I have read Freddy the Detective with my children, and recently, after a season of intense deadlines and pressures, picked up Freddy Goes Camping and found just the “spoonful of sugar” to lighten my mind. The books are full of worthwhile life lessons your children will absorb incidentally as they cackle their way through the ridiculous and heart warming adventures of this endearing pig.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, September 12, 2016

From A Writer on Writing

An author is nearly always that shadowy soul behind the story, a mysterious creator of the tale that comes alive for us and sticks with us after we have read to the last word. I mentioned that reading the Letters of E. B. White was a wonderful way for me to come to know one of America’s favorite writers better. I thought you might enjoy reading a few things I underlined in regard to his feelings and opinions on writing.

In one response to an inquiry about the help White’s wife gave him in his writing (she was a superb editor at The New Yorker), he had this to say: “My wife is helpful to me in my writing, but she does not write. She is an editor. An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do, but who has escaped the terrible desire to write. I have been writing since 1906, and it is high time I got over it. A writer, however, writes as long as he lives. It is the same as breathing except that it is bad for one’s health. Some of my writings have won prizes, but awards of that sort are not very much fun or satisfaction, and I would rather have a nice drink of ginger ale, usually. Writing does have its rewards, but they do not come in packages…”

This is just a sample of White’s wit, which was revealed in his lifetime of letters and made reading this book so entertaining. Hundreds of fans of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan deluged him with requests for personal information, curious, as we all are, about the man behind our favorite stories. He revealed a few tidbits, again amusing, to such an inquiry in this response to one schoolboy’s need to know for his English assignment.
“The primary characteristic of my writing is something you’ll have to figure out yourself by reading it. I tend to write about myself. I seldom use a word or phrase from any language except English, because I don’t know any other language, and I don’t make any attempt to please the reader. ‘Basic likes and dislikes? Strong feelings for or against things?’ Well, it’s all in the books and if you’ve read them, you must have picked up a few hints. Every writer likes to think that he’s on the side of the angels and that he tilts against injustice, but you have to form your own opinions. I like inboard motors better than outboard motors—you can say that if you like, and I like sail better than power. I dearly love the natural world. You can always find out a few things about writers from biographical notes on book jackets, from prefaces, and from reference books in [the library], but the best way is to read their works. They always give themselves away sooner or later. I cannot out line my life briefly unless you pay me an enormous fee. It would take me months. I was born in 1899, and expect to live forever searching for beauty and raising hell in general…”

To another student who admitted to being a confused senior in high school, he replied:
“Dear Mr. Hudson,

I am a confused writer at 25 W. 43 rd St., and one of the reasons for my confusion is that students want me to explain myself. I can’t explain myself. Everything about me is mysterious to me, and I do not make any very strong effort to solve the puzzle. If you are engaged in writing a theme about my works, I think your best bet is to read them and say what you think about them. The question of style is a vexing one always. No sensible writer sets out deliberately to develop a style, but all writers do have distinguishing qualities and they become very evident when you read the words. Take Hemingway and Willa Cather, two well-known American novelists. The first is extremely self-conscious and puts himself into every sentence and every situation, the second is largely self-effacing and loses herself completely in the lives of her characters. Sorry not to give you more assistance, but you can appreciate my predicament.


E. B. White”

And some further gems:
“My theory of communication is different from yours. I think there is only one frequency and that the whole problem is to establish communication with oneself and That being done, everyone else is tuned in. In other words, if a writer succeeds in communicating with a reader, I think it is simply because he has been trying with some success to get in touch with himself to clarify the reception.”
“I don’t know which makes me more miserable: writing, or being unable to write. Both are bad.”
“I did my dropping out after I graduated. I worked in job after job in New York, unhappy and ineffective, and finally chucked life’s race for awhile, got into a Model T Ford and headed west with another fellow who also felt disconsolate. I stayed out for about a year-and- a-half and have never regretted a minute of it. I’m glad you’re back to college, though, as I strongly believe in the health-giving quality of finishing what one begins. If you have no deep feeling for literature and no burning desire to express yourself in writing, you’re probably in the same boat with about 75% of all the English majors in America, so I wouldn’t let it worry you too much. In my case, I majored in English partly because I didn’t know what else to do, but mostly because I did have a strong tendency to write. I was a writing fool when I was 11 years old and have been tapering off ever since. Because of this desire to write, I was one of the lucky ones. It ought to cheer you up, though, to know that my interest in the world’s great literature was woefully anemic. I got very little out of my courses, didn’t understand half of what I read, skimmed whenever I could, did rather badly, and came away from Cornell without a solid education and have never got round to correcting this deficiency. Primarily my interest was in journalism and most of my life has been spent in that arena, tilting at the dragons and clowning with the clowns. Even at Cornell most of my time was spent getting out the daily newspaper. I know just how you feel, Judy, frustration is youth’s middle name and you mustn’t worry too much about it. Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination. In a way, our lives take form through a simple process of elimination. We discard what we don’t like, walk away from what fails to inspirit us…Your majoring in English was not a mistake even though you do not become a critic or a publisher’s assistant, or a playwright, or a novelist. English and English literature are the rock bottom of our lives no matter what we do—and we should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. To effect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts…”
”I would imagine that any human being is a fit subject for a biography, given a biographer of sufficient power.”
“I write largely for myself and am content to believe that what is good enough for me is good enough for the youngster.”
“You ask me about writing and how to do it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write—no matter where you are or what else you’re doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words…before I had anything published…You ask, ‘who cares?’ everybody cares; “it’s been written before,-- everything has been written before…”

I’m so glad he didn’t let that cynical phrase keep him from doing what he loved, so that the rest of us could grow up with Fern and Charlotte and Wilbur and Louis and Stuart.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, September 5, 2016

The Labor of Reading

Most seven-year-olds would agree that reading is work. Those among them who love reading, having had many pleasurable hours in company with books, nevertheless, tackle the task with gusto. Few pleasures in life come to us without some effort—even experiencing nature takes deliberate preparation, time, and attention to be fully enjoyed. Still, with reading, I note two common attitudes: it is either a necessary task to achieve some educational goal, or, it is considered an optional indulgence of mindless relaxation.

This Labor Day, I subject you again to the list of the books I finished in the previous month and acknowledge that to pursue knowledge, I read; to enjoy life in another’s world, I read; and, truthfully, in the pressures of work and family and deadlines and projects, to fit reading into my daily routine does take work. The energy and effort required to make time to read is supremely rewarding in every aspect—obtaining knowledge, pleasure, and zest for life.

1. The Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron.

I have never read anything by this author, but as he is a favorite of some of my favorite authors, I picked this one up and was transported to the other side of the globe as he traveled from China to Europe via the ancient silk trade route. Thubron is an author worth reading as his use of language is skillful in depicting scenes with vividness, describing personalities and incidents with humor and poignancy, and, in this book at least, he seamlessly weaves dozens of cultural histories with modern life as smoothly as the silk spinners produced their wares. His adventures in the 1990’s along this road were no less full of unexpected dangers, difficulties and delights as any of the thousands of others who wound their way over that road throughout the previous thousands of years. I’m not sure he found the spiritual answers he was seeking, but perhaps that lack of definitive result was an answer in itself.

2. The Wonderful Winter by Marchette Chute.

What boy hasn’t been provoked, or at least tempted, to run away with his dog when the injustices of the adults in his life oppressed him? But, few could have the fortune to wind up on the stage of Mr. William Shakespeare himself. This is a fun adventure to bring the person and times of William Shakespeare to life for children of grades 1-8 by one of the great children’s authors.

3. Letters of E. B. White.

I am now firmly convinced of a few things since reading this book: that E. B. White is one of the funniest people I’ve ever had the privilege of reading, that the art of letter writing being virtually extinct is a tremendous loss to the human race, and that, such a letter trail from the life of any person, if preserved, is the most revealing and insightful means of getting to know that person. It took me months to read this collection of correspondence, but the author of beloved Charlotte’s Web is now among my most well-known acquaintances. I not only howled with laughter over his witty interactions with family and colleagues—for days afterwards—but, gleaned wisdom for dealing with life and people that is immeasurable.

4. The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter.

I know, she’s a little over-the-top in romantic language and portrayal of life, but I cannot deny that under all the turn-of-the-twentieth century idealism, lies profound truths that give plenty of food for thinking in the twenty-first. This is a story of unbelievable dreams, hardships, and the assurance that long work and toil to make those dreams come true is what life is all about. In this scientific and clinical world, the story of this simple herb-harvester and his passion to heal the body and the spirit of his fellow man is refreshing and inspiring.

5. Ember Falls by S. D. Smith.

All I can say is, “Wow!” I read the first in this series and was pleasantly surprised. This one is, it seems to me, for older children, partly because Heather and Picket are older and wiser themselves. My 8-year-old grandson is enjoying it. I was caught up in the tension and intrigue and was left breath holding to see what happens next. There must be another in the series to satisfy the appetite for resolve in the coming book. The author is definitely hitting his stride, communicating action and emotion with strengthening development of the characters as the story deepens and intensifies. Who do we trust, how do we endure, why do we hope are some of the thought-provoking questions communicated this tension-packed tale.

6. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather.

This was my book club’s choice for this summer. The story was compelling enough for all to finish the tale. It is the story of an unusual, gifted child, born into an upstanding and typical western pastor’s family. It is primarily the story of an unusual girl, her friends, her ambitions, and where those people and motivations took her.

7. Walden, or, Life in the Woods and the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.

I have had his book on my list for years and finally opened it and began. It was eye opening. Naturally, with years of reading Wendell Berry and Charlotte Mason, I was fascinated by his experience with nature and community. I was also surprised to discover the economic and political conclusions these experiences led him to. This book was interesting on many levels, not the least of which is the fact that I have heard it quoted and referenced for my entire life and it was best read firsthand. It would be an excellent high school essays choice and the launching for many family discussions. I am still trying to decide whether he was courageous or egotistical, Christian or pagan, a true naturalist or just a rebel.

8. The Cross by Sigrid Undset.

I have spent this year reading this trilogy and reached the end on the evening of the last day of August. I agree with George Grant, who first brought Undset to my attention, that she is an outstanding novelist. Her portrayal of medieval life in Scandanavia was fascinating, her depiction of the motivations and subsequent actions of characters penetrating, and I found myself entering into the life of Christians hundreds of years ago and thousands of miles away in a way I cannot imagine any other author could have managed. This series is not just informative about the life and times of Norwegian citizens of the fourteenth century, their particular perils and propensities, but was powerful in showing the struggles of human relationships and grappling with faith that parallels ours as we seek our own way in God’s will in the twenty-first century.

For the joy of Reading,