On Trucks and Whales and Didion

     I’ve always maintained that I am not much of a nonfiction reader – there are a few exceptions, namely memoirs or literary nonfiction written by writers – i.e. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’m not much for train-wreck memoirs or celebrity biographies. Oh sorry – one more exception would be Columbine by Dave Cullen, a journalist who researched the tragedy for ten years before writing this brilliant book. Any teacher, parent, or just interested citizen would find this book heartbreaking, eye-opening, and definitely worthwhile. But where was I? Oh right I don’t like nonfiction…ha, ha. I guess when pressed, I do. But really I naturally gravitate towards fiction, towards stories. Towards beginnings, middles, and ends. Towards heroes and villains, towards a theme or a conflict or a plot, or hopefully all three. So now that our toddler (who happens to also be a boy) is exhibiting a strong preference for nonfiction, I am somewhat at a loss.  Seriously – he points and lunges his small body towards Trucks and Philemon Sturges’s I Love Trains (though this one has somewhat of a plot). He still doesn’t have many words but he grunts as hard as he can through his teeth “trck, trck” as he points to Baby Beep! Beep! He seems to prefer the mundane description of these objects to a story. How do I “read” some of these books aloud? Again, my voice sounds so monotonous. It’s hard to decide where to raise or lower your pitch when there is no real drama building. I kind of yearn to create a little drama between the blue and red truck in Trucks, but he’d sense it. Something about the simple descriptions both entertains and relaxes him.
     Since I’m steeped in nonfiction with our toddler, I scanned my daughter’s bookshelf to see what we may have been overlooking and found Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies. Davies seems to be the Didion or Capote of literary nonfiction for children. A quick Google search reveals she’s actually also a British journalist and zoologist. She’s also a beautiful writer. Here’s a line from the beginning of the book: “Look into its eye. It’s as big as a teacup and as dark as the deep sea.” And so the descriptions and habits of these whales are explained throughout the book. The illustrations are also beautiful and do an excellent job of showing the scale (in comparison to humans) of these huge mammals. In the end she shows how in relation to the large sea, even the whales can seem small. Both the language and the poetic placement of the words on the page make this book easier to read than the ones on trucks. Maybe I’m also more interested in this content. But it’s easy and satisfying to sit down and read this book in its entirety. I remember hearing from someone once that Joan Didion intended for her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, to be read in one sitting. I don’t know if this is true or not (how can it be, really)….but if you’ve read this book, you can understand how this could be true. She uses so many poetic devices – strong imagery, repetition, and white spaces, that it would be a highly rewarding experience to read it all at once and be so satisfied, the way we are at the end of most children’s books…

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