Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

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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Somehow or other it comes just the same

We’ve already cracked open one of our favourite Christmas stories here at home: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. My daughter’s birthday is in early December, and we’ve taken to finishing the party with a raucous reading of that book — I’m the narrator, and my husband transforms into the Grinch himself, reciting all the Grinch lines and doing the faces too. It’s amazing how he actually does begin to look green. His heart is small and shriveled at the beginning of the story, and he hunches himself around it as he slinks through the living room giving the children evil stares — and then his hand cups his ear by the end of the story, and his ballooning heart thumps under his sweater. This is that key moment I mentioned in my last post, when the Grinch changes course not because he can get something out of it — in fact he loses all the “things” he’s acquired — but simply because he is moved by goodness. He sees it actually isn’t possible to steal Christmas. “Somehow or other, it came just the same.”

Last year, steeped as we were in Christmas stories and movies and shows, my husband and I noticed how prevalent was the theme of “what’s in it for me,” and got into quite a discussion as we discovered just how true it was that the Grinch was a cut above other villains.

Scrooge's third visitor, by John Leech, 1843

There’s the classic one — Dickens’ Scrooge, who is terrorized into kindness and compassion by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and most ominously the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Dickens himself would probably have loved Alastair Sim in this role in the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol. He gets all of the expressions just right, and oozes a bah,  humbug quality. It’s likely that Theodor Seuss Geisel had Scrooge in mind when he developed his Grinch, but the difference between the two curmudgeons lies in what motivates them to change.

Scrooge extraordinaire. It's best not to mention Jim Carrey...

And think of Professor Hinkle in Frosty the Snowman. Frosty was originally a simple little song first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, but by the 60s it had morphed into the film we still see on television at this time of year. The enlarged story included Hinkle, a magician who fails to realize the magical properties of his hat before tossing it aside, and is now determined to retrieve it as he chases Frosty and friends on foot and by train to the North Pole. Of course, the gang eventually ends up encountering Santa himself, who tells Hinkle that if he repents, he’ll get a little something in his stocking Christmas Day.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started out as a story in 1939. Its author, Robert L. May, used The Ugly Duckling tale as inspiration, and you can certainly still see links between the two, even though the 1960s television version took Rudolph in some new directions. The show is still big with kids at Christmas, and we love it too, for a number of reasons — the charming stop-motion animation, the Island of Misfit Toys, gravelly-voiced Yukon Cornelius, and the unexpected detail of an elf who’d rather be a dentist. And yet, once my husband and I got going on our what’s-in-it-for-me-investigation, we realized the theory held true here as well. After all of Rudolph’s adventures, when he finally returns home, he is only really accepted by Santa and the rest because they realize his glowing nose will guide them through the storm. He is useful to them, and so welcome.

The doctor draws the Grinch's puzzler

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