Let’s talk about this: what books would you give a kid who might grow up to be a writer?

Have you ever read Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE? This weekend, as I was about to wrap it as a holiday present for a new young relative of mine — my sister-in-law’s new stepson, to be precise, an avid reader who I hope hasn’t taken to reading my blog just yet — I couldn’t resist dipping into it a little. And mirabile dictu, it is every bit as good as I remembered.

Don’t you just love it when that happens?

In retrospect, I was probably far, far too young when I originally read it — a writer-friend-of-the-family-who-shall-remain-nameless-because-his-heirs-threatened-to-sue-my-publisher-when-I-wrote-about-him sent me the first paperback edition, so I must have been in mid-elementary school when I first cracked the spine, rendering the stuff of both nightmares and pleasure. I remember reading it and reading it for many years before my mother said that my little friends were old enough for me to pass it along to them.

But looking at it again, now — okay, I’ll admit it: rereading it after many years, carefully and without bending pages — I realized that I still remembered entire sentences, even entire paragraphs, of this book by heart. Many’s the time I’ve thought of:

“Oh, strange funny strange,” whispered Tom.

Or, recalled when walking past a graveyard:

The boys ached, listening. The tomb breathed out a sick inhalation of paprika, cinnamon, and powdered camel dung. Somewhere, a mummy dreamed, coughed in its sleep, unraveled a bandage, twitched its dusty tongue and turned over for another thousand-year snooze…

It’s the rhythm that stuck with me, of course, but not only that. Bradbury makes this story sing like the wind and move twice as fast, actually a bit too swiftly for my adult eye today. Look, though, at the marvelous specificity of his imagery: not just fecund ripeness, but breaking out the actual individual spice smells; not just the BOO! of a mummy, but depicting it in action.

This whole book is an exercise in SHOW, DON’T TELL. What a great notion to give it to a kid who might grow up to be a writer, eh?

To be honest, I don’t know if that’s on the horizon for my new young relative: at this point, he’s a science fiction reader, and I’m using THE HALLOWEEN TREE to test the waters for introducing him to fantasy. (If this flies, it’s on to THE FATHER-THING; if it doesn’t, I’ll re-begin more gently with I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.) At this point, I’m thinking in terms of helping develop his taste as a reader along lines toward which he is already drawn.

That’s not a goal at which anyone should be sneezing, of course; while kids sometimes stumble upon good books by accident, the chances of their becoming lifetime readers is much, much higher if some intelligent adult who loves books takes the effort to place some excellent ones in their path. I was very, very lucky in this respect: my mother, bless her heart, was my junior high school librarian, taking the time to read every single book in the place and get rid of the ones that were poorly written. When kind-hearted illiterates donated mediocre books to the school, she would sneak off to Moe’s in Berkeley to sell them in order to purchase the books that were winning awards — and books that should have. So I come by my urge to help shape young readers’ tastes honestly.

Revisiting that book that any normal adult would have waited until I was five years older to give me, though, got me thinking about the author who led me to THE HALLOWEEN TREE: maybe we writers do have an obligation — or at any rate an opportunity — to influence the generations of writers who will come after us, not only with our own work, but by introducing young readers to the books that influenced us, not just as readers, but as fledgling writers.

Frankly, I don’t think that most schools’ syllabi take this contingency into account — nor, I suspect, can they. Honestly, do you remember being assigned to read a book in elementary or middle school that helped shape you as a writer? Or was it the book you sneaked off your parents’ shelves to read under the covers — or the one that some adult who saw the potential in you made sure was in your Christmas stocking?

Perhaps I’m biased; girls who did not get sent to the principal’s office for trying to give a 5th-grade book report on THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP might conceivably harbor different views on the subject. Glancing back over THE HALLOWEEN TREE now, I have to say that I’m genuinely grateful that an adult writer realized that it might mean a great deal to a kid who had been writing and producing puppet plays since kindergarten.

Plays which, as I recall, often dealt with subject matter every bit as dark as THE HALLOWEEN TREE; I remember with great fondness my first non-puppet play, a second-grade extravaganza where the wicked king and queen who were mean to poor people were eaten by crocodiles while the populace sang and danced for joy.

Let’s just say that the principal got to know my parents really, really well and leave it at that, okay?

As we find ourselves in the midst of a gift-giving season, and since the Author! Author! community is made up of masses of intelligent, thoughtful people who write, I want to open these questions up to all of you. Do you remember an adult giving you a book at an early age that influenced you as a writer? Not just a favorite book, but one that was ultimately formative in some way of your craft? Why did THAT book touch your wee writerly soul more than any other?

Or, to turn the question on its head, if you met a youngster who bid fair to become a writer in your book category, what book(s) would you give him or her? Again, not merely books that might engage a young reader, but ones that might inspire him or her to write — and write books along the lines of yours?

I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on this; I’m all ready to take notes and rush off to the nearest bookstore. The floor is yours.

Oh, and lest I forget: thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for helping develop my sense of rhythm on the printed page. I’m truly grateful for that, sir.

Keep up the good work!

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