Saturday, November 10, 2007

Johnny, Be Good -- Jay

Johnny Tremain.

No, stay…stay. Hear me out. Trust me, that name fills my veins with ice, too. I don’t know if I was forced to read that 1943 Newbery winner in 5th or 6th grade, but it scared me away from any other Newbery medalist till I was in college.

But I’m gonna give it another chance.

I plucked that book from the library shelf earlier this week, fully intending to delve into it that night. But four nights have since gone by and I’m still too nervous to turn past the first page and really commit myself.

On rocky islands gulls woke. Time to be about their business. Silently they floated in on the town, but when their icy eyes sighted the first dead fish, first bits of garbage about the ships and wharves, they began to scream and quarrel.

The cocks in Boston…
Sorry for splicing the introduction right there, but that’s the only way I’d be able to intrigue you into picking up your own copy and joining me on this venture. Misery loves company, you know.

Why have I decided to put myself through this? I don’t know. But I plan to use this experience to study what’s changed in the publishing world since shortly after World War II. Could a book like this ever get published today? At the Writers’ Day we recently attended, there were two separate presentations with editors reading and critiquing anonymous first pages. I can’t imagine where they would’ve started with Mr. Tremain, because we writers are constantly being told to hook readers (and editors) immediately. We need to make them turn that first page. Well, good ol’ Johnny isn’t even mentioned on page one, and neither is any sense of conflict. Basically, Boston is full of sleepy women waking up even sleepier children. Woo-hoo! Let’s get this party started!

Honestly, I’m hoping to fall in love with Johnny T. this time. And I’ll admit, when I first had to read about him, I was reading books like The Secret Life of the Underwear Champ and The Mad Scientist’s Club for pleasure. So a 256-page historical fiction novel, heavy-heavy-oh-so-very-heavy on description and adverbs, and labeled A Novel for Old & Young on its title page, had no chance of pleasing me.

So…here I go. I’m now approaching the end of page one.

And so, in a crooked little house at the head of Hancock’s Wharf on crowded Fish Street, Mrs. Lapham stood at the foot of a ladder leading to the attic where her father-in-law’s apprentices…
I know! The page almost turns itself, doesn’t it?

- Jay


Jen said...

This book has been on my shelf for years, and I've still not read it, I'm rather ashamed to say. The book itself does not invite me to pick it up, but you just did. I think I'll read it with you.

Colorado Writer said...

I used to feel this way about the writings of Ernest Hemingway, specifically A Moveable Feast, but as an English major, I couldn't escape him in college. My oldest was reading The Old Man and the Sea in English this year. Snoozefest.

Each chapter in A Moveable Feast reads like scenes in an old movie. Punctuation is sparse. The sentences are long and hard to read out loud.

I have found that if I slow my eyes down and really absorb each sentence, not just skim, looking for hook/plot/action, but immerse myself in the setting, I can not only get through it, but actually enjoy it.

In this fast-moving society, we humans need our entertainment to be fast-moving as well. The written word is competing with television, iPods, internet, video games, etc. You can get your entertainment quickly from a television. Reading uses your imagination. Perhaps imagination gets stunted by television images?

We've been taught to write tightly, compactly and get to it. Gone are the lazy descriptions of scenery. Gone is the detailed setup. Gone is the subtle irony.

Keep at JT or at least get the Cliff Notes, so you know the gist of the story.

Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Now, there's a good one to sink your teeth into.

Anonymous said...

What a great comment, CW. As a non-writer, but an avid reader, I find myself wondering why everything has to have a "hook" or non-stop action. I, for one, still enjoy a well-told story without all the bells and whistles. And, since I've been working in my son's school library, I've been branching out and reading more children's books. So, I sampled Sarah, Plain and Tall a few weeks ago and even though it doesn't really have any of the characteristics the editors are pitching in your conferences, I really enjoyed it. Don't get me wrong, I like bells and whistles sometimes, too, but one cannot survive on dessert alone (except, maybe Eve - well, that and mochas). Lamy

Disco Mermaids said...

I agree with CW about "we humans needing our entertainment to be fast moving" and Jay knows I could write a whole 'nother post on my feelings for Johnny Tremain!

I won't tell the entire story here, but JT has been a looong running family joke forever. I almost dropped out of the 5th grade because I truly could not get through the required two chapters a night. It was so painful that our entire 5th grade class staged a protest!

Thanks for opening old wounds, Jay.
Good times.


Disco Mermaids said...

I don't think bells and whistles are required. But when you're trying to get children excited about reading historical fiction, and one particular book is proven to turn so many children off to historical fiction, don't use it.

2/3 of the Disco Mermaids can't be all wrong! (And Robin hasn't even read the book.)

There are so many books out there, it just amazes me that J.T. became a staple. It'd be like a math teacher teaching a process which works for some students but turns so many more off to math entirely, when there's a perfectly good second process out there. But since that's how that teacher learned it, that's how you're gonna learn it.

I'm just thinkin' of the children...

- Jay

cynjay said...

Unless its absolutely required for school, I tell my 10 year old that life is too short to read books that you don't like, even if everyone says that it's great.

SAH said...

My son had to read JT, and he hated every minute of it. I actually had posted for advice on the blue board several years ago because it was a horrible experience for him.

Wendie O said...

You-all hated it?
so strange.
I loved Johnny T. Loved, loved, loved it. And this was before the Disney movie came out. hmmm maybe that's the problem. I was reading it in the 1950s and wanting more historical fiction adventures after I finished that one.

It's possible that I read it in Junior High or High school, which is a whole different ball of wax from being required to read a Newbery book in fourth or fifth grade like kids in the 1990s and 2000s have to do.

On the other hand (okay, I'm a Gemini), now that so many elementary school kids are reading the huge Harry Potter books, maybe Johnny T. isn't such a hardship for them any more.


Becky Levine said...

There WAS a movie! I wasn't wrong. I know I had to read the book, too, but I think they showed us the movie in class, and I couldn't get away. Ick. Double-ick.

Sorry, Jay, not joining you in the read. And you can't get me to go back and re-read the Louis Braille biography either, about how he got blinded as a child. Triple-ick.

Disco Mermaids said...

This is making me want to pull out my old copy of RIFLES FOR WATIE!

Not really.


robin said...

I finally made myself read JT when I was a teacher (and was about to inflict this upon my students). Once I got past the beginning, I did okay...but the whole melting hand stuff was so depressing -- I don't know if I could make myself read it again. So kudos to you!!

Alison Ashley Formento said...

My third grader and I read it aloud together and really enjoyed it. I really didn't want to read it, but the cover (probably the newest version of so, so many reprints) grabbed my son's attention.

It's a good read, but you're right—that first page would have been tarred and feathered (how's that for old fashioned?) at the recent mentor day I attended.

Anonymous said...

Gotta count me a "For It!"

I totally LOVED this book when I was in elementary school. I must have read it at least five times. I read it again a few years ago as an adult. I did enjoy it again but was surprised that I would have liked it as a kid. Especially given the density of the language and I didn't remember so much about the social studies stuff. It was all about the ruined hand and the "family/ apprentice" dynamics for me as a kid. Also, I think I really liked how Johnny was flawed and complex, more by his choices and character, than his hand, and yet was still a hero.

SPOILER ALERT: Talent forever denied, augh! What great drama for a kid! And then...they cut the scar tissue!!!

As for whether it's a good read for today's kids...I don't know. There are other historical fiction titles that are non-starters for me...take Island of the Blue Dolphin...please. But The Cay was and is still pretty good.

As a former school teacher, I'm all for grabbing the kids' interests but the real point of using historical fiction is the social studies what other tween/teen novel covers the forces leading to the Revolutionary War, those specific movers and shakers, the famous early events, and the period details (ya know, all the stuff that's on the social studies state testing) while still delivering a strong narrator story...and does it with today's writing style?

Disco Mermaids said...

I hear ya, Anonymous. I did a quick search and couldn't find any one book that matched all of that criteria. (Hint, hint to all you authors searching for a gap to fill!)

That said, I still don't think it needs to be an either/or situation. You can have required reading and teach history, but if you combine them in such a way that it gives so many children a bad taste for both, then it just ain't worth it. Reading and history or both so insanely important, I think everything should be done to encourage those interests (especially at that young of an age) in the highest number of students.

And I think it can still be done without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

- Jay

Sarah Darer Littman said...

I LOVED Johnny Tremain when I was a kid. Maybe it's because I was living in England and having kids sing "Bye Bye Miss American Pie" to me all the time, so any novel where the British got their comeuppance was bound to hit the spot.

Also, I had a crush on Rab.

Rita said...

That book has been sitting in my room for at least, um, fifteen years, say, and I don't know why I've never managed to read it.

And I loved The Secret Life of the Underwear Champ!! That book I've read many times!!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Wow, reading through the first half of the comments, I thought I must be from another planet or something, because JT was the first assigned book that I actually enjoyed in school. I remember actually thinking "this doesn't suck!"

I think the number one problem with assigned reading is that they are assigned to too low of grades, and the kids can't appreciate them. And believe me, I was reading adult books when I was under 10 and all that jazz -- I had complete comprehension of the words. But the ability to appreciate them? For many of them, no. But going back as a reluctant adult and reading some of the books I remembered passionately hating (any Charles Dickens or Around the World in 80 Days), I don't see what it was that I hated so much about them. I mean, I wouldn't pick them up to read them every day, but it wasn't the boring, age-inappropriate slog I was going through before. And a lot of these classics we read in school were intended for adult audiences in their day, not children.

So teachers: quit ruining the classics for kids and assign them to older grades who read faster.