Saturday, September 21, 2013

How to Engage a Reader

I spent Thursday and Friday attending Utah Valley University's Forum on Engaged Reading in Park City.  Two days of talking about books and ideas to get kids reading is my idea of a holiday, and this conference was exactly that.  Keynote speakers included Sarah Pennypacker, Marla Frazee, and Jim Murphy.

One of the things that has been bouncing around in my head since the conference is the idea that what is NOT in a book is just as important as what IS in a book.  I took years of piano lessons, and one of the hard lessons I had to learn was the importance of rests in music.  As a kid, I wanted to rush through the rests (and the half notes and whole notes, for that matter) and get to the important part of the music--the part I actually played.  I learned, of course, that by not playing--by creating space--I was making music. So, I've been thinking about the words a writer doesn't write, and the illustrations the artist doesn't draw in relation to rests in music.  Rests are an essential part of music; they give the audience a little break, provide time to reflect, and build anticipation.  Silence sets a phrase apart, punctuating it and adding emphasis, and it frames the entire composition.  Music requires silence.  The parts that aren't included in books do much the same thing.

At the conference, Marla Frazee talked about an illustration in her book, Boot & Shoe where the picture of the dogs is small in relation to the page.  The white space--the nothingness--that surrounds them creates a feeling of vulnerability.  She also talked about the effectiveness of leaving some moments in the story off the page.  As an example she pointed to one of Lisbeth Zwerger's illustrations for The Gift of the Magi where Jim stops inside the door and Della, who has cut her hair and sold it, goes to him.  The characters are obscured behind the half-closed door, we can't see their faces, only their embrace.  Zwerger leaves the poignancy of the moment in our imaginations, she allows us to create that moment and to see it for ourselves.  Brilliant.

Sara Pennypacker said, "A book is not a monologue, it is a conversation," and to demonstrate her point she read the first page of Clementine.  (If you don't know how that book starts, go read it--as soon as possible--because it is one of the best opening pages in children's literature.)  The entire page exemplifies that author-reader conversation, but let's look at just one sentence:  Clementine tells the reader, "Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal's office, if that's a rule."  Without being explicitly told, we know that Clementine answered the phone in the principal's office, and we understand that she got into some sort of trouble for answering it.  We engage in the story because we are now part of the story.  Pennypacker explained that she leaves things out so the reader has to connect point A and point B and not just get the joke, but make the joke themselves.  And that's how you engage a reader.

Because sometimes what is not said makes the biggest statement.

Also, learning that Jim Murphy hates to write brings me great comfort, but that's a subject for another day.

1 comment:

  1. My journalistic background always makes me love a book that is careful in what is and is not said. We love Clementine's around here - as well as Rebecca Stead - for that exact reason.