With Apologies to Hornby: May 2019

Books Read
Dear Mr. Henshaw – Beverly Cleary
Ban This Book – Alan Gratz
Soon the Light Will Be Perfect – Dave Patterson
Out of Your Mind – Alan Watts
The Little Book of Restorative Justice – Howard Zehr

Books Bought/Found/Given
Troubleshooting Your Novel – Steven James
Soon the Light Will Be Perfect – Dave Patterson
Borderland Phenomena, Vol. 1 – Louis Proud
The Little Book of Restorative Justice – Howard Zehr

Books, like all works of art, have a way of imprinting on you if they catch you at the right time. 

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica will always be as horrifying to me as it was the day I learned about the history behind it in junior high art class. And the opening strings on Wilco’s Jesus Etc … are as transcendent now as they were when I first heard them in my car on a stretch of Route 15 between Cambridge and Underhill, VT.

Similarly, I found myself as enraptured as a 44-year old man as I was at age 10 when I re-read Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw last month. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on what happened when I re-read that book, but after writing them out just now, I realized they’re a separate thing from what I’m doing here. I’ll post them as a separate piece in a day or two.

I will say that Cleary’s book holds up in ways I didn’t expect, and there was a lot of stuff waiting for me to unpack as an adult reader. The lesson here is that books for kids aren’t just for kids. Grown-ups can get a hell of a lot from them, too.

Another great example of this is Ban This Book by Alan Gratz. I picked this book up at a Scholastic Book Fair a few months ago. Boy did that event take me back. Book fairs are the best. I was amazed to discover that posters of sports cars and kittens are still a thing kids want. I also discovered that it’s cheaper to use a dollar bill for a book mark than it is to buy an actual bookmark.

Anyway, Gratz’s book was shortlisted for this year’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, along with the other book he released recently, Refugee. It was announced this week that the latter book won the award, so good on him for not just winning, but having two books nominated. I haven’t read Refugee yet, but I can say with certainty that if he takes on that subject matter with the same enthusiasm and honesty as he did censorship in Ban This Book, the award is well-deserved.

Gratz takes a nuanced approach to his characters, and he avoids reducing anybody’s motives to black-and-white, reductionist nonsense. While there’s a childlike naiveté to the perspective of the kids in the novel, nothing is oversimplified or candy-coated. What there is in droves is a portrayal of young people motivated to advocate for free speech, and if there was ever a time for that, it’s now.

I don’t doubt that at some point, Ban This Book will be flagged by the Hand Wringing Brigade as a dangerous work and end up on a list of challenged books. It’s also a book everybody should read.

A friend of mine recommended Dave Patterson’s debut novel, Soon the Light Will Be Perfect. Like Ban This Book, the focus of Patterson’s story is kids. Unlike Ban This Book, the kids at the center of Soon the Light Will Be Perfect left behind whatever naive views they had long ago.

In one sense, Patterson’s story is an easy read. It’s hard to stop once you start, and the deep humanity of the characters and their situations is engrossing. But it’s also a tough read. Set in early-1990s, small-town Vermont, I went to school with the kids in this book. Hell, at times I was one of the kids in this book. The world they live in is uncertain, uncomfortable, unforgiving. There are a few times when reality bites them, and it hurts you as the reader.

But it’s worth it. The honesty and incredible portrayal of the quotidian makes it a harrowing journey deserving of your presence.

I also dove into my first collection of Alan Watts’ work in the realm of Zen philosophy. I’ve studied his work before through videos of lectures and reading some of his shorter pieces. This was an altogether different experience, and it added a good dose of healthy perspective to my life at a time when it was much-needed. I don’t have the energy to get into it all right now, but I’ll be continuing to study both Watts and Zen.

In terms of new stuff I got my hands on this month, well, I read two and wrote about one of them already. And The Little Book of Restorative Justice was a wonderful reintroduction to a topic I’ve been involved in through previous work. There’s another book I just got yesterday that ties into this, so I’ll have more thoughts on it all next month. I also bought Steven James’ Troubleshooting Your Novel, as I’m starting to work on revisions to my first manuscript after sharing it with beta readers. I was impressed with a piece James wrote for Writers Digest, so I decided to give his book a shot. Being my first novel, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Ok. That’s it for now. Time for more reading and writing. Let me know what’s on your bookshelf these days. I’d love to hear about it.

One thought on “With Apologies to Hornby: May 2019

  1. Pingback: Why I Write: A Book of Letters – EthanDezotelle.com

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