Jeannine Atkins: Craft, Creakiness, and Wonder
The children’s literature class I teach, much like every other in an English Department, is ridden with reminders of how easy it is to find flaws in a book. We first take then tear things apart, trying to figure out how they work. But at some point in class somebody often protests. “But I love this book!” Yes, many of us do.
Of course then we go back to carping, but the writer in me remembers about gorgeous carpets made with intentional flaws, reminders of beautifully imperfect human hands. Is there any work of art that’s without problems? Not the Narnia books, or the text of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, we said, even as we marveled. Not Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, not by a long shot. The Secret Garden sags in the middle, and what’s with all the switching around of point of view?
Many of us hold flawed books dear. So what do we call this in a classroom? Maybe what it’s called outside. Wonder. There are moments when we stop talking and adore a page. In literature as in life, sometimes what seems random, messy, vague, or even wrong is more inviting than a smooth surface or clear message. In The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature, Lissa Paul writes about Charlotte’s plan to save a life with writing, and notes that with so much at stake, Charlotte choose “Some Pig” as her first words: “colloquial, rural, grammatically dubious and puzzling. But those who could endanger Wilbur ponder the words more than they might if Charlotte had written the clichéd commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ into her web.” We all like to be given small choices, and sometimes we find them within prose that’s ambiguous, rough, or imperfect by some standards.
A book is a collaboration between the writer and reader, and some mistakes conjure their own magic. A student just told me about writing a paper while silently begging the author for her forgiveness. Yes, we can pick apart the prose, then go back and cherish some words the way we’d accept any gift: perhaps not looking too closely, but instead treasuring the exchange.