When I began first grade (first grade meant first grade–our school system didn’t have kindergarten), I had never read a book, and no one had ever read one to me. My exposure to stories was limited to either television or family mythology. Both of these experiences were incredibly homogenized: I grew up in all-white communities, and network television with its whopping three channels of programming had only white faces-except for the Mod Squad.
With a week of instruction in basal primers, I knew how to read. Quickly, I unzipped the code of our written alphabet, and I was allowed to move through the primer at my own pace. But reading was an exercise–like trying to form letters with a jumbo pencil longer and fatter than my fingers–not an act of joy.
My favorite time of day, though, was when after lunch, our teacher would let us stretch out on the floor while she read from picture books. Most days, I would lie on my back, eyes closed, listening to the words, until the teacher would pause to show us the pictures.
Most of the pictures were fairly unmemorable–or at least, I don’t remember them. But I still remember the day when after a scrumptious lunch of runny macaroni and cheese, boiled cabbage, and beets, I lay drowsy on the floor and heard these words:
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another
his mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.”
One eye popped open. Mischief? Wild Thing? The second eye popped, too. I’ll eat you up? What, I wondered, do the pictures of a wild thing that dares threaten to eat his mama up look like?
I rolled to my side. Propped myself on an elbow. My teacher held up the book, the pictures showing a dark haired boy in a wolf suit. How exotic! (I didn’t know the word exotic then, but it fits my reaction). Not the wolf suit–the black hair. No one I knew had black hair. No one I knew had olive skin. No one I knew got to misbehave and just be sent off with no supper.No one I knew had his own bedroom!
But wait! There was more. Here was a boy whose imagination let him pilot a boat by himself, land in a strange place, and tame wild animals with a trick of staring into their eyes. And the monsters! A horned monster with big ears and bare feet? Bare feet? No one I knew went bare foot. And when he was finished, he told the wild things no, and when he got home, his dinner was still warm.
Max looked so different from anyone I had ever seen, I almost feared him. For a first grader who controlled almost nothing in life, the idea of a child who could take a journey, tame wild animals, have a wild rumpus, and return home safely was magical. Little did I know it then, propped up on a now-numb elbow on a cold concrete floor, but my idea of “story” changed forever. An inciting incident. A journey. Conquest against monsters. Ruling until it becomes unsatisfactory. The return home. A warm welcome. The story comes full circle. The end.
And that was the point that I became reader, instead someone who read. Books became a portal to strange and exotic places, a mirror on faces I could not see in the hallways, a map to lands inhabited with monsters I could never imagine–and I had a very vivid imagination.
Very little has changed for me. When I write a story, I try to recreate the same kind of reading experience for my readers–an unusual hero, an exotic locale, and monsters to be defeated. And if you have a wild rumpus as an important element of your plot, it is must between to show the rumpus than tell it.
When I read, I still yearn for the story that will make my eyes pop open. And although I’ve read many novels thick enough to use as a stepladder, I’m still a sucker for a well-read story. Especially if it has pictures.