Saturday, February 23, 2008

Booktalking the Classics

Where ya been, Bibliovore?

Sick, working, cleaning the Pit of Despair, otherwise known as my apartment, reading . . .

Excuses, excuses.


Actually, this post is something I've been musing over for awhile now. About a week ago, a girl asked me to recommend something good to read. I discovered that she'd never read A Wrinkle in Time (gasp!) and took her over to the shelf. I pulled it down, opened my mouth to start my spiel, and realized I had no quick-and-dirty booktalk for A Wrinkle in Time and could not pull it out of my behind, where such things generally reside.

I mumbled something about Meg's dad and the witches and handed it to the girl, who fortunately knows and trusts me and took it without batting a lash.

For those non-library geeks out there, a booktalk is a short spiel about the book, designed to interest a TV-and-Game-Boy-addled kid, who's staring at you with the gimlet eye of, This better entertain me, 'cuz you know I have other options. In the army of librarians, it's the rifle--not nearly as flashy as the cannon or the bomb, but it targets the individual and (hopefully) gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.

For some reason, I find it terribly difficult to booktalk my favorite books--especially the ones I read as a child. Maybe it's because I'm too close? I want to talk about gawky, ugly Meg, with her braces and her spectacles and her tough shell that hides nougat (and an unfortunate tendency to scream and clutch, but what the hey, the book's nearly fifty years old). But getting to know Meg is not the plot of the book. It's something wonderful that happens during the plot. You have to hook 'em with something, and much as I love Meg, the chance to meet her probably not going to be that something.

I ran into the same problem with the novels of Jane Austen. You want to talk about Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth, swoon, swoon, but you know that the teenager in front of you is not interested in guys who wear cravats, whatever the hell those are. So you talk about the dueling lovers, or how Elizabeth needs to marry rich but won't take just anybody, thanks very much. With the other book, you talk about Anne, who screwed it up nine years ago and is now afraid it's too late to un-screw it.

Some books flat-out don't have a plot, but you love them anyway. How do you sell that?

The trouble is that, "Oh, just read it," only works if the kid does know and trust you, and that doesn't happen very often.

Maybe I am too close to these books. I have to get in my mental time machine, step way back, and look at the book as if this is the first time I have ever touched it, and I'm giving it a chapter to hook me before I go on to something else.

"This is Meg Murray. A year ago, her dad disappeared, and now everybody says he dumped her mom and ran off. She knows that's not true. One night, she meets a really weird old lady named Mrs. Whatsit, who's going to help her find her dad. Trouble is, he's a lot farther away than Kansas."

Well . . . it worked this time.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post! I do think you have something there -- that when we know a book *so well* it is hard to figure out what is relevant to the first time reader. Add to that the flustered on-the-spotness I feel *anytime* I have to talk a book, and it becomes very difficult indeed.

It's funny, when you mentioned A Wrinkle in Time, I thought, "Huh. What *is* that book about?" I've read it a zillion times, but in my brain it's become just this mush of impressions and characters. A testament to the very thing you're talking about!

Sue Jackson said...

Hello -

I just discovered your blog and am really enjoying it. I'm an avid reader, and I review kids' books for Family Fun magazine (plus my own book blog).

I just had to comment on this post because A Wrinkle in Time was my very favorite book when I was a kid. I was so disappointed when I read it aloud to my two boys, and they didn't love it. They both thought it was too scary. Maybe they were too young for it at the time, but I remember reading it in 3rd grade. Our class even did a play version...and I was cast as Meg! A highpoint of my youth.

Your point about "booktalking" also applies to writing reviews. There are times when you love a book so much that you have trouble explaining why it's so great in a few short paragraphs. The appeal of a good book is definitely more than the sum of its plot and characters.

Thanks for writing - I'll check back often!