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Leaving space between the words

I’ve been rereading the novel that turned me on to writing, in ninth grade. It’s The Human Comedy, a 1943 book about wartime life in a town in California that centers on the adventures of twelve-year-old Homer, a messenger boy for the Postal Telegraph who must deliver to parents the telegrams of death from the War Department, and his four-year-old brother Ulysses, who watches and appreciates everything.

Saroyan wrote in a liberating way that carried original energy. He called it jumping into the river and starting to swim, and he opened me up to what writing could do. And his work was simple, simple, simple: there was space between the words.

I was a gawky unpopular kid who liked to read, and that year I swallowed everything that I could find by Saroyan — especially My Name Is Aram, his 1940 volume of gracefully lucid stories about growing up Armenian in Fresno, his home town that became the model for Ithaca in The Human Comedy. I took in the plain, humane clarity in these stories and thought, “I can do that!” But Saroyan’s simplicity is as deceptive as a great outfielder’s; it looks easy until you try it. Yet the writer left so much in the space between his words, so much to feel and connect with, that I’ve kept on trying to do it ever since.

I read both those books again this week, and Saroyan isn’t always perfect. He couldn’t work with editors, and The Human Comedy loses air in bursts of windy philosophizing that should have been trimmed back — but then consider this. It’s possibly the writer’s greatest sentence, from the opening chapter of The Human Comedy, describing how Ulysses finds an egg:

He looked at it a moment, picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell.

 

The Revealers has been the novel most used by U.S. middle schools. It's easy to see why.

REVEALERS front cover

A middle-school novel that deals realistically with bullying in a multi-character story, The Revealers has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools. Here's an excerpt:

“People have really been doing things to him for years?”
    “Oh yeah. It’s always been open season on Elliot.”
    She shook her head. Her face was flushed. “And those two just ran away?”
    “Yeah. When they lost him and he fell, they got scared.”
    “They could have killed him.”
    “Well ... it wasn’t that far to fall.”
    “But he hit his head.”
    “Yeah.” I couldn’t argue with that. When we pulled Elliot out, his eyes were rolling back and he didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know who he was.

Download The Revealers in schools, a one-page pdf

The Revealers sequel opens up kids' struggles to become themselves in a hyper-linked world.

True Shoes cover 6-18-2013

from True Shoes:

When the doors opened, I’d just come through when someone grabbed my elbow. It was Cam; he spun me around and walked me back out. I said, “What are you doing?” — but he kept me going, gripping my elbow hard, until we were around a corner and no one else could see.    
    Cam had on a brown soldier’s t-shirt and desert-camouflage cargo pants. He yanked out his cell and flipped it open.
    He said, “You see this? I got it a few minutes ago.”
    “What?”
    He held his phone up, showing me the screen. His eyes were on fire.

Download True Shoes in schools, a one-page pdf

Download Novel Connections, a multimedia learning resource on cyberbullying and digital citizenship

"Picture a troubled teen quietly removing this book from the school library shelves, then sitting down ... and devouring it."*

Prince front cover high res

He pitched forward, and yanked me after him so hard I stumbled into a couple of high school guys, who put their hands out. “Whoa — easy, man,” they said, but I was already getting jerked pastthem, like a bad dog on a leash.
    He didn’t say a word, just kept this grip clamped on my arm as he stomped forward and hauled me along. People were jumping out of the way, everyone turning to look: high school kids, little kids staring with wide eyes, kids my age whispering and giggling, grownups drawing back with faces like masks.
    Tara was gone. Everything was gone. I was stumbling, stunned, seeing the faces in flashes and trying to keep my balance after every angry jerk on my arm. I tried to say something, but nothing came out. I couldn’t make words. I didn’t know any words except “Dad ... please,” and those I couldn’t say.

* from Foreword Reviews

Download “This important story invites honest discussion": Educators on The Prince of Denial"

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