Book Column: An imaginative meeting of minds

03/14/2011 11:15 AM |

I am part of “Imaginative Worlds,” a new book group at Floyd Memorial Library that consists of children who are 9 to 11 years old and their grown-ups, usually mothers. We meet every two weeks at the library and have a discussion led by librarian Mira Dougherty-Johnson and scholar Timothy Clayton Wood. This is funded in part by a grant from the New York State Council for the Humanities. Last week was the first session and we started with the picture book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak, which I’ve read before and written about before in this column. One of the marks of a really terrific book is that each time you reread it and each time you really listen to someone else talking about the book, you learn new things.

All of us were a little shy with each other at first, but our fearless leaders thought of two great icebreakers to get us more comfortable. First we were paired up with a new person from the opposite age group and we had to tell that person a true story from our childhood in which we did something naughty and were caught and reprimanded or punished. Then we had to listen very hard to our new partner’s true crime and punishment story. Then we went around the table introducing our new partner and telling their story. We were each in turn introduced to the group by our partner telling our story. It was a great way to get to know people very quickly and it was based on our book’s plot that has the hero, Max, acting like “a wild thing” and sent to his room without any supper.

Next, all the grown-ups went to one side of the room while the children went to the other so each group could prepare to act out the story for the other. The children made a boat out of two folding chairs for Max to sail “off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” The grown-ups were not so foolhardy, inventive or small enough, but both groups managed the playacting very well, especially the wild rumpus.

We will be reading some other classics of imaginative children’s literature: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster, as well as newer titles, ‘Tuesday’ by David Wiesner and ‘The Magician’s Elephant’ by Kate Di Camillo. I can’t wait to hear what other people think of them and what new things I will learn by rereading, by listening and by using my imagination.

One of the last books I read was ‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss, who is also getting a lot of attention for her most recent book, ‘The Great House.’ She is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, whose book ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ was one of the library’s book discussion choices of a few years back. The two authors are young, attractive, talented and doing very well economically even in these parlous times, even in the book industry whose death the gloom-and-doomers are bewailing. They just bought a bigger brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to house their growing family and they keep writing terrific books that people want to publish, read and lavish critical praise on.

Some readers in our group found the multiple voices and nonlinear flow of “The History of Love” to be confusing, but others were enchanted and moved by its cleverness and humor, the books within the book and the sheer bravado of the beautiful writing. Nicole Krauss, like her husband, is of the generation whose grandparents were affected by the Holocaust and the Second World War. The books that are being written by this grandchildren generation are different from the books written by the children. The history is farther away, but still not forgotten.

Here is a sample of the voice of one of the protagonists, octogenarian locksmith Leopold Gursky, who long ago had written a book called “The History of Love”:

“Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible …  Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question that he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

The other main character is a 12-year-old girl, Alma, so named by her mother “after every girl in a book my father gave her called “The History of Love.” Which is, of course, the book written decades before by Leopold Gursky. The story ends with these two people meeting each other, but in the middle of the story we are transported back and forth in time, between Europe, South America and New York, and transported by a poetic imagination that is luminous and all-encompassing.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

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