Planting Books, Growing Readers, a guest post by Liesl Shurtliff
In the beginning of writing my first fairytale retelling, Rump, I thought the story would focus solely on Rumpelstiltskin, isolated from any other fairytales. That didn’t last long. Midway through my first draft, I developed the character Red and very quickly realized she must be Little Red Riding Hood. Of course! She has a magic path. Her granny lives in The Woods. Soon I found myself making nods to other fairytales—Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, The Three Spinners—brief mentions, sometimes so obscure they’re hardly noticeable unless you’re paying close attention or really know your fairytales. My good friend and writing pal Kate Hannigan calls them “Easter Eggs.” (I’m sure that’s a thing, I just didn’t know it until she told me.)
These Easter Eggs delighted me. I loved making little discoveries and connections between familiar fairytales, and I suspected they’d delight readers as well. They also inspired all the other books in my (Fairly) True Tales series. Red, Jack, and Grump were all a result of Easter Eggs planted in a story that came before them, and they each have their own Easter Eggs. Goldilocks, The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, Tom Thumb, Thumbelina, The Shoemaker and the Elves… They could all become their own story, or they might simply remain as they are, little delights for the reader to discover and enjoy for a brief moment, and then move on. I’ve planted seeds for more stories than I could ever write, but isn’t that grand? I’ve always preferred to have my creative well overflowing.
I feel similarly about my reading life. If you’re an avid reader, which I suspect you are, I imagine you’re to-be-read pile resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa, with more books than you could possibly read in a lifetime. It’s a constant struggle. How can I read all the books? There are not enough hours in the day. At the same time, I’m so grateful to have this problem, instead of the opposite, to know that there are so many wonderful books in the world worth reading, too many to read in a lifetime. It makes me mourn and rejoice all at once.
But this was not always the case for me. As a child, once I got past the struggle of learning to read, there was the ever-present, frustrating question of what to read. It’s not that I didn’t have access to lots of books, and there were plenty of grown-ups around to help me select them. My dad bought me books for my birthday. Teachers assigned their favorite books in class. I always loved read-aloud time, which is how Matilda by Roald Dahl came to be one of my favorite books. But to be perfectly honest, I was a somewhat stubborn and contrary child. I’d often reject a book that was assigned or suggested reading, even if I might have otherwise enjoyed it. Not only did I hate being told what to do, I also disliked being told what I would like. Sometimes I just wanted to make my own decisions, without input from anyone, but mostly adults.
I remember one particular book I found in my school library in fourth grade. The book was face out, on the very top of one of the shelves. I liked the cover, and the title seemed ominous. Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn. I checked it out. I devoured this book. I remember reluctantly turning it back into the library, then later searching for it again. If it was on the shelf, I usually checked it out. If it wasn’t, I felt like someone had taken my book. I read it over and over. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to get my own copy. Maybe it was a thrill to chase that book down in the library. Would it be there? Would it be just as good the next time? (Update: I now have my own copy.)
I discovered many of my favorite books in this way, without anyone gifting, suggesting, or assigning. The Boxcar Children, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and Sideways Stories from Wayside School, to name a few, were all books I found at the library or at home on the dusty bookshelves in the basement. Someone might have suggested them to me at some point, but in my memory, it felt like I chose them on my own, and that seemed to make all the difference. Reading was a private thing. I wanted to be alone with my books. I didn’t want anyone else to intrude in any way.
As a writer, I’m often thinking about ways to “hook” my reader, to draw them in, keep them turning the page. But perhaps the first hook for young readers isn’t the book itself, but their freedom to choose it. It’s great to book talk and recommend and read aloud and maybe even assign a book to read as a class on occasion. All these things can make a huge impact on our children’s reading lives, but if we want them to develop into life-long, independent readers with impossible book towers of their own, then we must also give them room to practice choosing books on their own and allow them to experience it without intrusion. Sometimes we grown-ups have to get out of the way.
This can be fun for us, though! We get to plant the books, place them with the covers out, sprinkling our fairy-reading dust, then hurry and hide and let the kids go on the hunt. Don’t say a word. The kids need to believe it’s all happening on its own. Just watch as they discover their books. Rejoice silently as they pick one up and start turning pages.
My librarian in fourth grade probably didn’t know the relationship I would develop with Wait Till Helen Comes, but she knew someone would enjoy it. I’m sure that’s why she put in on top of the shelf with the cover facing out. I imagine that as I checked it out again and again she smiled and gave herself a little pat on the back. That book was my reading “Easter egg”, a surprise, even a secret I got to keep for just a little while, until I had to bring it back. Then I’d go on to discover the next egg. It’s wonderful to have too many books to read in a lifetime, but it’s also wonderful to have just a few books, or maybe only one, that you chose yourself and love with your whole heart. I wish that for every child, whatever the book may be, I hope they find it, perhaps with a little behind the scenes help from a book fairy.
Meet Liesl Shurtliff
Liesl Shurtliff is the author of Grump. She grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and just as Snow White had seven dwarves, Liesl had seven siblings to keep her company! Before she became a writer, Liesl graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in music, dance, and theater. Her first three books, Rump, Jack, and Red, are all New York Times bestsellers, and Rump was named to over two dozen state award lists and won an ILA Children’s Book Award. She lives in Chicago with her family, where she continues to spin fairy tales. Visit her at LieslShurtliff.com. Follow her @LieslShurtliff.
About Grump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by Liesl Shurtliff
Ever since he was a dwarfling, Borlen (nicknamed “Grump”) has dreamed of visiting The Surface, so when opportunity knocks, he leaves his cavern home behind.
At first, life aboveground is a dream come true. Queen Elfrieda Veronika Ingrid Lenore (E.V.I.L.) is the best friend Grump always wanted, feeding him all the rubies he can eat and allowing him to rule at her side in exchange for magic and information. But as time goes on, Grump starts to suspect that Queen E.V.I.L. may not be as nice as she seems. . . .
When the queen commands him to carry out a horrible task against her stepdaughter Snow White, Grump is in over his head. He’s bound by magic to help the queen, but also to protect Snow White. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, the queen keeps bugging him for updates through her magic mirror! He’ll have to dig deep to find a way out of this pickle, and that’s enough to make any dwarf Grumpy indeed.
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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