August 08, 2013


How to Read Literature Like a Professor: For Kids. By Thomas C. Foster. Harper. $16.99.

My Weird Writing Tips. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

     Long, long ago, education was supposed to consist of reading, writing and ’rithmetic, which should have been known as “R, W and A” but was in fact called “the three R’s,” presumably to start kids off on the road to misspelling everything. In any case, education has, for better or worse, moved beyond the “three R’s” concept, but there is still something to be said for learning about such topics as reading and writing. Reading is what Thomas C. Foster, who has written How to Read Novels Like a Professor and How to Read Literature Like a Professor for adults, serves up for preteens in How to Read Literature Like a Professor: For Kids. Much easier to read than the books and stories mentioned within it, and much shorter than most of them at 168 pages, Foster’s reading course nevertheless hits a number of the high points of interpretation that young readers will encounter as they read more and more complex books in school and, one hopes, thereafter. Each of the 19 chapters runs just a few pages and gets right to the point. “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires” explains that vampirism is about, among other things, selfishness and exploitation – not just a good scare. “When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare…” points out that Shakespearean quotations take up 47 pages in Bartlett’s, if any preteens know what that is, and the next chapter, “…Or the Bible,” gives 19 examples of the attributes of a Christ figure and then explains why the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one such. Elsewhere, Foster explains why “it’s never just rain” and why “it’s never just heart disease,” showing how these and other conditions stand for characteristics beyond themselves. And in a chapter called “It’s All Political,” he explains the lurking political and social elements within almost all books, even if not all of them, because “writers tend to be men and women who are interested in the world around them.” Eventually, Foster works up to “A Test Case” in the form of Katherine Mansfield’s story, “The Garden Party,” to which he applies the insights and techniques he has been offering throughout the book. Young readers will not necessarily enjoy learning the extent to which books operate on multiple levels – some will wonder why a good story can’t be just a good story – but Foster does an excellent job of showing how intriguing it is that a book (or story or poem) can indeed be a good story plus a good deal more.

     Now, for preteens who would like to write some of those good stories, Dan Gutman offers tips in a writing style (and an illustrative one from Jim Paillot) straight out of My Weird School! In fact, fans of Gutman’s series are the most likely readers of this guide to the basics of clear, comprehensible, accurate writing, and are likely to enjoy the way Gutman’s style here mirrors that of his fiction: “There’s no extra charge for using periods, folks.” “Yes, people may think you’re crazy while you’re reading out loud. But maybe they think that anyway.” The style enlivens what are basically some simple, straightforward rules about how to write right (which, to be accurate, should be “how to write rightly,” if there were an adequate adverb from “right,” or at least “how to write the right way”). The difference between “can” and “may” is here, and the distinction between “its” and “it’s,” and when to use “who” and “whom.” There are also instructions on the elements of a good story: setting, character, research, goal, etc. And there are sprinkled comments from famous writers to enliven the whole presentation, such as this from Kurt Vonnegut: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them.” What keeps this generally admirable book at the (+++) level is that, for all its usefulness, it is not entirely sure whether it is about writing stories or about writing with correct grammar. Furthermore, Gutman himself makes grammatical mistakes: “Well, it looks like [sic] we’ve reached the end of this book.” (It should be “as if,” not “like.”) And he sometimes omits a bit of fairly important information, as when he explains that you lay things down, but you yourself lie down – which is true in the present tense, but which omits the fact that it you lie down today and discuss it tomorrow, you need to say, “I lay down yesterday.” My Weird Writing Tips does not pretend to be comprehensive – hey, it’s only 152 pages long – but it would have been a bit better if Gutman had paid a little more attention to accuracy even if that meant he paid a little less to stylistic brightness.

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