Michelle Berry: “Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me”

Even though the books I write are for grown-ups (who “don’t believe in anything,” according to N, and don’t see the magic of illustrations), the books I read with N feed me and my work. Articulating those thoughts on this blog over the last while has got me wondering how other writers feel about children’s literature — what books meant to them as children, how stories stayed with them over the years, or what it’s been like for them as parents reading to their own kids. So now and again, interspersed with my own ramblings, I’ll post the words of other writers sharing their own ideas about the power of children’s literature. First up is the self-proclaimed noisy writer Michelle Berry, who writes:

It was mostly my father who read to me as a child. To me and my brother. We would sit on the couch after dinner, each of us flanking my father, leaning our heads on his shoulders, and he would read. He would shout when the character shouted, he would cry when the character cried, he would supply all necessary sound effects—hiss, boom, eergh!—he would play with the rhythm and beat of the words. Mostly, he would make it fun and fascinating—almost better than watching TV. My mom would be listening from the kitchen, washing dishes or reading the newspaper. We often heard her laugh. I would have the cat on my lap. My brother would bite his fingernails throughout and place the little half-moon nails on his lap in a pile to collect them later and throw them away.

We went through almost all of Dickens, we read The Hobbit and the first book of The Lord of The Rings. We read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and other Mark Twain books. Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland. The key was to find books that would appeal to both of us—my brother is two years older than me. There were books I didn’t understand but loved the sound of, like Paradise Lost. Or plays like Hamlet.

Then one day—I won’t even tell you how old we were—my brother and I looked at each other. We cleared our throats and said, “Dad, we’re getting a little too old to be read to.” Heartbreaking, I think, for my father. And sad for us. But we all knew we’d had a great run. We’d had that time together. We’d learned a lot without even realizing we were learning.

It wasn’t until I started to write seriously that I realized what my father had done. He had given voice to words. He had made me read and write in a way that was completely different from most people I know. I hear the words. I hear the sounds. I hear the rhythm. Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me. And this is why certain books stood out as my favourites:

Dr. Seuss. Anything he wrote. Read them aloud. You’ll see why. “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Plus, Dr. Seuss loved me and he constantly told me so: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Alice in Wonderland. Not only the quirky characters (which, if you know my writing at all, you’ll know I love) and the strange morals and lessons (“Begin at the beginning, and then go on til you come to the end: then stop.” “We call him Tortoise, because he taught us.”), but the beat behind the sentences. As the Duchess says, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

But then there were also the books that stood out because of the art. I would peer over my father’s shoulder and marvel at the beautiful or simple work—Harold and The Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, is a book I remember fondly. Harold can’t sleep and so he draws himself a world with his purple crayon. It’s quite an adventure. Of course, Maurice Sendak’s work both frightened and enchanted me: Where the Wild Things Are. I still have a series of very small brown-covered books by Sendak, Chicken Soup With Rice, and In the Night Kitchen. Always nasty little boys who learned lessons well (or didn’t, and died).

Every Christmas Eve my family would sit down and listen to a record (yes, a record!) of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read by Dylan Thomas in his rolling Welshman’s deep-booming voice: “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.” Of course I’ve burned a CD of it and now make my own children listen to it every Christmas Eve. Every year my youngest understands a little more, and laughs at parts she didn’t “get” last year. It’s wonderful to see.

So, to sum up, I liked the quirky stuff, the beauty of a book, the moral tales (learn your lessons or you’ll undoubtedly die), the sound of the words. I think my writing now reflects all of this. I read my writing out loud, always. It’s the only way I can see it. It’s the only way it comes alive.

Michelle Berry is the author of three short story collections. Her most
recent collection,
I Still Don’t Even Know You won the 2011 Mary
Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher. She has
also published four novels, the most recent of which,
This Book Will
Not Save Your Life, won the 2010 Colophon Prize. She lives in
Peterborough, Ontario.

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7 responses to “Michelle Berry: “Reading (and writing) is a noisy thing for me”

  1. Caroline

    Lovely blog; I hadn’t thought of trying Dickens, Shakespeare or Mark Twain yet, but perhaps it’s not long until my girls will be ready for these. Thanks also for last week’s tip about the Graphics Fairy. What a hit it is with my seven year old!

    • Thanks Caroline. I’m inspired by Michelle’s list too, though right now we have tumbled into the world of Harry Potter. I’ll be posting about that soon. Yes, the Graphics Fairy is great!

      • Michelle Parks

        Caitlin and Dylan were a perfect age for Harry Potter when the first book came out. Since the books usually came out in June or July, we would take them up to the cottage with us and I can remember reading aloud for hours during long summer afternoons and evenings, none of us wanting to stop the wonder and excitement of the story or the warm relaxed feeling of connection as the three of us sat cuddled together. This went on for two or three summers until the spell was broken when one of us, I can’t remember who, couldn’t wait and read the book ahead and our little circle was broken. Reading and long lazy summers, and my girls. My version of heaven.

      • So nice, Michelle. I can just picture you all there, curled up for a good story!

  2. Great post! I loved reading to my kids; now that they are older and like to read avidly on their own, I miss using different voices, raising and lowering the volume, and making them laugh at my interpretations.

    Just this week, I was given an old copy of Cue For Treason, by Geoffrey Trease. I had read it as a young lad and loved how it portrayed the life of William Shakespeare and what it was like to travel with a Renaissance theatre company. I want to read it again; this time, aloud, to my girls.

    • I once had a beau who liked to read aloud to me. I think we are never too old to listen to stories. But I understand the necessary shift into reading solo; it’s a different relationship between reader and story. Thanks for following Ross. Would love to hear how your read-aloud plan goes!

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