I have a young friend who was a hero in Iraq, not that he’d claim that title, but I saw him that way. He was part of the team that knocked down doors in Fallujah seeking insurgents, not knowing what, or whom he’d find on the other side of the door.
I gained an interesting perspective when I listened to two books by Chris Bohjalian back to back. I’ve been a fan since his 1998 “Midwives,” but for some reason his 2008 “Skeletons at the Feast” (Random House, 10 CDs, 12 hours) kept sliding to the bottom of my pile. Why? I suspected it might be a tough listen given Bohjalian’s emotive writing. Whatever subject he tackles, he develops characters you care about quickly. And when you’ve just begun to know their inner and outer terrains, he places them in difficult situations. The fact that “Skeletons” was about WWII insured intensity.
In my adolescence, I was decidedly unpopular. If I hadn’t known it before, I certainly did when, at age 10, my best friend told me, “You’re the most hated kid in the sixth grade.”
Generally, I am what a friend calls “an audio slut,” but I quit two audios in a row.
I had to ask myself, why did the voices of these two audios not work? Curiously, both were written by celebrities and both narrated their own work.
The first was Michael Moore’s autobiography, “Here Comes Trouble” (Hatchett, unabridged, 10 CDs, 12 hours) and the second is Ron Clark’s “The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck: 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers”, read by the author (Simon and Schuster, unabridged,11 CDs. 12.5 hours).
An author’s choice of specifics is crucial to success. I listen for them in the work of my children’s book students, relentlessly pursue and root out generalities in the memoir I’m writing, and am aware of their power in the children’s books I read and the audios I hear. Specifics anchor and animate and can make even the most tired subject new and fresh again.
“I didn’t care much for history while I was in school,” began Kadir Nelson in a recent interview. This is a curious statement from an illustrator-writer who is known to make history shine and has some pretty shiny awards to note his contributions. In terms of illustration, he’s won two Caldecott Honors. One is for his rendition of Carole Boston Weatherford’s “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom” and the other for Ellen Levine’s “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad.” Nelson has also written and illustrated two longer books: “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” won the 2008 Siebert Medal for nonfiction and in 2011 he won a Coretta Scott King Honor award for “Heart and Soul: The Story America and African Americans.” The latter, told by an unnamed elderly black heroine, blends poignant personal memories and family tales with famous people and known events.
“Gone Girl is the best book I read all summer,” said someone in my children’s book club, “But it’s an adult title.” And then, she shuddered. The following week several people in my exercise class referred to Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” as addictive. I contacted the audio publicist, she gave a third recommendation and sent it immediately.
Last year was our first Christmas without children. I felt caught between two worlds — missing the magic that young children bring and trying to invent a new form of celebration. This first attempt was a bit of a nightmare. It began with a coincidence. Both my husband and I needed December operations; required rest and unexpected expenses gave us both an excuse to stay out of the shopping fray. That was the best part of the holiday.