In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d re-post an older piece about how my mum tricked me into becoming a lifelong reader …
Last month I wrote a post about how my father shaped me as a reader — so I thought today it would be appropriate to talk about my mum.1 That’s her in the photo, reading to my cousins … but it’s a pretty accurate picture of my own childhood.
I come from a family of serious readers. When my mother was growing up in the middle of South Dakota farmland, she read every book in her local library. My parents didn’t have much money growing up, but they did have stacks upon stacks of books. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to college that I learned that reading at the dinner table was considered rude. Auxiers were readers — end of story.
Or at least that’s how I remembered it. But recently, I learned something from my mother that made me take a second look at my upbringing … and made me love her all the more:
It happened right before I entered second grade. It was the end of summer, just before class would start, and my parents sat me down to explain that I would not be going back to my elementary school. Instead I would take a year off for something called “home schooling”. At the time, my mother was completing an MA in Gifted Education, and I suspected at once that this whole home schooling thing was something she had made up. Not that I objected. As I recall it, my home school year consisted of playing Construx and memorizing lists of random facts she fed me — art history, prepositions, the presidents, and other things no seven year-old had any business knowing.2 At the end of the year, I went back to regular school. Only I didn’t go into third grade with my former classmates … instead I was put into a second-grade class with kids that were younger. It was only then that I realized the truth:
I had been held back.
I remember being confused at why my parents might have thought me unfit for the rigors of second grade. I mean, it’s second grade. It wasn’t like I couldn’t handle the workload. So why hold me back? Whenever I asked my mother, she would just shrug and say that she had wanted to spend some more time with me.
My second try at second grade was a blast. The big thing I remember was a year-long reading competition. Students were required to fill out little book reports, and the kid with the most book reports at the end of the year got an awesome plastic trophy.3 My parents, who are some of the least competitive people I’ve ever known, were uncharacteristically invested in the event — there were constant trips to the library, and a gentle-but-unmistakable pressure to make sure I handed in those reports. All told, I read 88 books that year. Even better than that trophy (which I totally won), were all the great authors I had discovered! Over those months, I had transitioned from stupid formulaic mysteries to Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, John Fitzgerald, and Lloyd Alexander.
It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I made the connection between these two memories. It came while I was teasing my mother for taking me out of school just so I could learn to say all my prepositions in a single breath (which I can still do). To this she replied: “I couldn’t care less about prepositions … I took you out of school because you didn’t like reading.”
Huh? I loved reading! What was she talking about?!
My mother explained that even though I knew how to read as a kid, my teacher had warned her that I didn’t seem to enjoy it very much. And so she made an executive decision: pull me out of school and FORCE me to love reading. Every single day she would sit down and read a book to me, and then she would make me read a book myself. After that, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted (Construx!).
To this day, I have no memory of this home school reading regiment. But when I think about the year that followed, about all the wonderful books that I devoured, I start to see that it may have worked. Thanks, mum.
My wife’s grandmother, Maxine Burke Markam, passed away this weekend. Today is her funeral. She was smart, beautiful, tough, and the meanest canasta player I have ever seen. Here’s a picture of us cutting a rug at Mary’s and my wedding five years ago:
Death is never a terribly fun thing, but without it, I’m not sure life would seem quite so wonderful. All last week, I couldn’t help but remember two scenes from different plays. The first is Thorton Wilder’s Our Town in which Emily has passed away in childbirth, but has been given one last to look at her old life before disappearing to her grave:
EMILY: It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. [...] I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by Grover’s Corners. … Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
The second is Vladmir’s speech near the end of Waiting for Godot:
VLADMIR: Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.
I would like to think that the gravedigger also enjoys coffee and new-ironed dresses.
As many of you know, a few months back, my wife and I brought home our very first human baby. In advance of the birth, I had made a point of leaving Mary cute little sketches of what our baby might look like — most all of which she deemed “terrifying.” I thought I’d share them with readers …
And now, here’s the real deal! This is Penelope Fern Auxier. Not quite as many fangs as I’d imagined …
Today is my birthday! To celebrate, I’ve got interviews in BookPage magazine, Literary Rambles, and a wonderful Peter Nimble review from librarian blogger Hip Mama Jenn.1 Did YOU forget to get me a gift? No worries! Here are three easy gifts I would LOVE to receive …
GIFT #1: Your presence at my Book Launch Party tomorrow! This Thursday, Abrams is throwing a Peter Nimble party at Books of Wonder in New York. Mary and I will be there with bells on. If you’re in the area please, please, please come! There will be snacks and sparking wine and giveaways and readings and books! Bring friends! Click the flyer for details –>
GIFT #2: Your hilarious thieving confession for the #GreatestThiefWhoEverLived Kindle giveaway. If you want to enter to win a free Kindle with a copy of Peter Nimble loaded onto it, all you have to do is follow these three easy steps:2
1) Follow me on Twitter. (click here)
2) Re-Tweet this contest announcement. (click here)
3) Post a tweet sharing the awesomest thing you’ve ever stolen (or wish you could steal)! You MUST include the following hashtag: #GreatestThiefWhoEverLived
GIFT #3: Your short Amazon review for Peter Nimble! You don’t have to be a fancy critic. You don’t even have to say nice things (… but please do!). Just write a short review for Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes & Noble. I’m giving away free T-Shirts to five randomly-selected reviewers at the end of the month. Every review you submit counts as an entry, so you can improve your odds 1,000,000% by doing all three.3
- Please note that these interviews also are giving away free copies of Peter Nimble, just click here and here to enter! ↩
- It’s seriously worth checking out the previous entries, which are amazing and funny! For full rules and information about the Kindle giveaway, click here. ↩
- My math might be wrong on this. For more information about the T-shirt giveaway, click here! ↩
The above picture is one I drew in church last week. My whole life, I’ve drawn in church. My father was a pastor when I was growing up, and my mum understood that drawing can help right-brained people concentrate.1 And so every Sunday, when my father started his sermon, she would pull a box of art supplies from her purse so the two of us could draw.
Drawing can have a powerful meditative effect. My mother’s work – which she affectionately refers to as her “knittings” — elevates this idea to a new level. Each painting represents hundreds of hours of meticulous, repetitive mark-making to build textures. All of these large-scale paintings began as tiny “knittings” worked out in small notebooks, sometimes in church.
I recently discovered another artist who draws in church. Abrams illustrator John Hendrix has an entire section of his website devoted to drawings he’s done while sitting through sermons. I’ll let him explain:
“Drawing in my sketchbook is the very best part of my work. I love it because it is linear improvisation. Much like jazz, it is unpredictable, exciting and unfiltered. Often with very good and very bad results. I attend church every Sunday, and I draw during the sermon. All of these pages were done in a pew (though I don’t bring my watercolors with me- that waits till I get home). Simultaneous drawing and listening transforms familiar language into something new- a feedback loop of symbols, theology and wonder.”
John’s work puts me to shame. Behold:
I think this sort of meditative drawing extends beyond the pews.2 When I got to college, I started drawing in journals while I listened to lectures. A lot of the pictures were mnemonic devices related to the lecture, others were the germs of what would later become stories. (I still remember the afternoon in graduate school when I found myself sketching a certain blind thief!)
College also happens to be when I started to become a better student — my grades went up, and I started to take a more active role in what I was learning. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I can’t help but wonder whether there are kids out there struggling with school who might be helped by being given a box of art supplies?
This weekend I sat down to write my dedication for Peter Nimble. This is something I have mulled over quite a bit in the last few years. Like naming my (imaginary) boat or drawing my (non-existant) tattoo, wording my first dedication was a flight of fancy. When my editor told to submit something by Monday, I completely clammed up. The fantasy had become a reality, and I was terrified of blowing it. Should I write something intimate and cryptic? Something sweet and funny? Something in keeping with the tone of the book?
Of course, it doesn’t really matter to a reader what I write. Readers are interested in the story, not in a few words opposite the copyright page. But every once in a while, I see a dedication that makes a book come alive — something that makes me long to know the author personally, and slightly jealous of the lucky dedicatee.1 With the spectre of those great dedications in mind, I started browsing my bookshelf, thumbing through examples that really stuck in my memory. Here are a few of my favorites:
A.A. Milne – Winnie-the-Pooh
As I’ve mentioned before, this whole book is adorable from start to finish. The dedication is no exception …
Jerome K. Jerome – The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow: a Book for an Idle Holiday
C.S. Lewis - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
G.K. Chesterton – The Man Who Was Thursday
This is a long poem written for Chesterton’s childhood friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. I think Chesterton is someone best taken in small doses, which would explain why this dedication is better than the book itself!
Adam Gidwitz – A Tale Dark and Grimm
And finally comes this newer edition to the canon of great dedications, which made me laugh out loud in the bookstore:
For those interested in reading more about dedications, there’s an essay collection called Once Again to Zelda that tells the story being fifty famous dedications; the book got mixed reviews, but still might be worth checking out. Also, feel free to put down your own favorite literary dedications in the comments section.
As for what I wrote in Peter Nimble? You’ll have to wait and see.
UPDATE: readers chimed in with their own favorite dedications here.
As some of you know, this week marks Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011. Each day bloggers around the world will write on a specific topic related to literacy. Today’s topic is “The Gift of Reading” — a subject that just happens to coincide with a post I’ve been planning for a while now, ever since I stumbled across this old photograph …
That is my father, John Wheeler Auxier.1 He’s reading Doctor DeSoto to me and my sisters. This was one of hundreds of books he read aloud to us, always using voices, always willing to indulge us with “just one more.”
All through elementary school, my father made regular visits to our classes to read aloud. He did this every week from first to sixth grade. This was not a luxury of time; during many of these years he was working two or three jobs to keep the family afloat — all while trying to complete graduate school. Still, he always made time to read.2
When I think about “the gift of reading,” I picture my father standing before my class, caught up in a terrifying impression of Blind Old Pew or Jadis, the Last Queen of Charn. I remember watching him, proud and hopeful that I might one day be able to orate with such passion. I suspected then what I know now: it is not enough just to buy a kid a book. It is not even enough to let kids see you read. Reading must be relational. The difference between reading a stop sign and reading a book is that the latter is a conversation between the audience and storyteller. Everything else is just words on a page.
Even after I reached “reading fluency,” my father continued to read aloud to me — sharing books that were otherwise just out of reach. I was in fifth grade when he read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Anyone who knows this book knows that it is a story meant to be handed down from father to son. The copy he read to me was a tattered first edition, stamped inside and out with the words “Property of John. W. Auxier” from when he was a boy. Of course, I didn’t understand everything I heard, but I understood enough to be thrilled. When he finished reading it, he gave the book to me, and I have re-read it every October since. Often aloud.
Ray Bradbury soon became my favorite author, and a few years later, my father took me to a writing convention to meet him in person. I only remember two things from that busy day. The first was when my father mentioned — almost in passing — that he thought I should be a writer. The second was something that happened at the end of the day:
Bradbury had finished his keynote address and was now signing books, battling off hundreds of eager fans all clamoring to meet him. My father, who had gone to the washroom, returned from the hall a moment later with a bemused smirk. “I just peed next to Ray Bradbury,” he said.
A million things rushed through my mind — among them the realization that Bradbury was, in fact, bound by the laws of nature. And imagine the luck! Hundreds of people were waiting in line for this man’s signature, and my father got a private audience. “What did you say to him?” I asked, imagining what question I might have chosen.
He shrugged. “I told him ‘Your signing-hand must be pretty sore.‘”
I remember being in total awe: when faced with his childhood hero, my father had remained completely calm — casual even. But looking back on that day, his reaction seems less shocking to me now.
After all, my father had been having conversations with Ray his whole life.
* * *
For those interested in other “Gift of Reading” stories, I highly recommend you check out BookDads, where Chris Singer has brought together dozens of bloggers to tell stories about fatherhood and the Gift of Reading. Then pick up a copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes and read it to someone.
About a week ago, I got an email from my publisher requesting an author headshot. As you might imagine, I immediately began to freak out. I have been dreading the author photo for months now. First off, I’m not even sure whether I approve of the concept. As a reader, I sort of hate knowing the face behind the story. Secondly, cameras and I don’t really get along. The hilariously-deadpan photo from my “About Me” section? That was me trying to look approachable. And now I had to take a photo that would live on the back of Peter Nimble forever! In desperation, I reached to friends via Twitter and Facebook asking for tips and advice. Here’s what I got:
A) “Laura F.” suggested I put my hand under my chin so people know I have a heavy brain.
B) When I asked my agent what to do, he mentioned how much he loved J.R.R. Tolkein’s author photo and wondered whether I could do something like that.
C) “Go Sleeveless!” was the advice from my friend Kyle
D) Matt B. suggested I try and mix in a little Oscar Wilde.
E) John E. recommended I show off some of my other skills by flashing a yo-yo1
F) Several friends warned me against holding any books, so I decided to use them to prop up my elbow in the hopes it might further underline the heaviness of my brain (see “A”)
G) Knowing my love for Shel Silverstein, “Rob O.” wondered whether I should grow a beard like my icon.
H) My wife, not wanting to waste her weekend, recommended I hire Olan Mills to take the photo.
Put them all together and here’s the result:
It might be hard to see behind the glasses, but I also threw in a little “blue steel” to win over moms and lady-librarians. Overall, I’d say it looks pretty damn good … glad to know my friends are looking out for me.2
I should warn readers ahead of time, this could get sappy. Exactly four years ago today, I asked Mary Elizabeth Burke to be my wife. To my utter relief, she said “yes”1. I thought I would honor this date by saying a few words about Mary and women like her: Bluestockings.
Bluestockings are ladies of a literary or intellectual bent. In the mid 18th century, writers like Elizabeth Montagu and Hannah Moore formed “Bluestocking Societies.” These were groups of women dedicated to social reform and the world of ideas. As you can imagine, this was none too popular among men; the Bluestockings were largely ridiculed by the cultural elite2. When I look at the world today, I wonder whether things have really changed.
Yesterday was St. Valentine’s Day — a day when lots of women get to feel special and loved. But just as many women don’t feel special and loved. I only have anecdotal evidence, but I suspect a number of the women on the losing side of Valentine’s Day are modern-day Bluestockings.
Frankly, that sucks.
For whatever reason, smart women have it rough. This is especially true in adolescence. I grew up with an incredibly bookish sister, the sort of reader who got so absorbed in stories that she would shout at the characters … sometimes in public. I recall her favorite books being ones that had profound love stories: Anne of Green Gables, Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice… Perhaps it goes without saying that her high school was sorely lacking in Fitzwilliam Darcys, and she was forced to spend Valentine’s days alone3.
I have heard a lot of criticism leveled at the male love interests from Victorian novels. More than a few of my teacher friends have told me that when teaching Pride & Prejudice, the male students in their class revolt — complaining that they can never compare to someone like Darcy, or Mr. Rochester, or Gilbert Blythe. Even more they resent these (female) authors for daring to suggest that such characters are what men should be. Call it the Lloyd Dobler effect.
For what it’s worth, I think these boys (yes, boys) are dead wrong. Literary male characters might be ideals, but they are ideals worth aspiring to. And any woman who accepts less than a Darcy is settling.
So on this day-after-Valentine’s-Day, let me raise a glass to my sister, to my wife, to every Bluestocking — past and present. Thank you for demanding more of us men, and forgiving us when we fail. I leave you with some final words from Charles Warnke’s lyric essay “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl4:
The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. You, the girl who reads, make me want to be everything that I am not. But I am weak and I will fail you … You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied.
- 1. This is not hyperbole; over the course of our relationship, I had only once brought up marriage … and by “brought up” I mean muttered something about how fun it would be to one day merge book collections. ↩
- 2. with a few notable exceptions ↩
- 3. It is worth mentioning that this sister flourished in college, became a lawyer, and is now happily dating a wonderful guy. ↩
- 4. If you like this essay, you might also want to check out Rosemary Urquico’s “Date a Girl who Reads” ↩
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big fan of Lego1. Even as a child, I was not shy about my dislike for those rigid little bricks. My problem was that Lego was too detail-oriented. The work was painstaking and the rewards small: put together a bunch of rectangles to get … a bigger rectangle. Sure, some people can do incredible things, but who has that kind of time when they’re eight years old?
The building toy that won my heart (and allowance) was called Construx:
Totally awesome, right? Construx are similar to tinkertoys in the sense that consist mainly of beams and joints2. This type of system forces kids to think in structural terms. With Construx there is no such thing as a “final product” — even the models in that commercial looked unfinished. But what a child loses in polish, he or she gains in versatility and speed. It is essentially a concept driven building toy.
I do not actually think one toy is superior to the other. That depends on the kid. But I do think the differences between Lego and Construx perfectly reflect the two major styles of writing MFAs.
Graduate writing programs tend to fall into one of two categories: “Creative Wrtiting” (fiction and poetry) and “Dramatic Writing” (movies and plays). From what I have read and experienced myself, it seems that with each of these categories comes a different pedagogical approach. Creative Writing seems to put a heavy focus on fine-tuning the details of a product — word choice, flow, tone, etc… Conversely, Dramatic Writing tends to emphasize the big picture issues — plot, pacing, character.
As with Lego vs. Construx, it all depends on the needs of the student. Some writers need help with fine-tuning, others need help with structure. Actually, writers need both — but hopefully they can figure out whatever they didn’t learn at grad school on their own.
I recently read a fascinating article by Cathy Day who has been teaching fiction-writing for years3. She identifies a problem with traditional Creative Writing MFA programs: semester logistics makes novel-length assignments impossible, and so instructors instead focus on short stories — a medium that most students (not to mention the reading public) don’t even care about. This model is justified by the “learn to walk before you run” argument. Day, however, observes that such programs don’t help people run, they just teach people to walk really well.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with short stories (or walking!). But Day worries that all this focus on fine-tuning leads to graduates who are not prepared for the structural challenges unique to long-form projects. It sounds to me like she is wishing her students could play with fewer Legos and more Construx.