PARDON MY FRENCHby David Lubar
Okay -- confession time. When your vivacious editor asked me to write an article, I thought she said it was for the ELAN Review. I leaped enthusiastically at the opportunity.
As a monoglot, I only saw one potential problem. "Does it have to be in French?" The only phrase I knew in that language was, "Parles vous Anglais?" which, as far as I could tell when I used it in Paris, means, "Would you please sneer at me?'
"That's entirely up to you," she said, though something in her tone led me to suspect I'd just asked one of life's truly stupid questions. As I discussed professional aspects of the assignment (length, style, topic, and allowable degree of shameless self promotion) my misconception became alarmingly clear. Fortunately, your editor was too gracious to withdraw the invitation. Good thing. When I discovered who reads The ALAN Review, I was thrilled. I couldn't imagine a better adult audience. You're probably the only people on the planet who don't judge a book by the stiffness of its cover. I was also terrified. Writing for a readership of English teachers felt akin to catering a lunch for the chefs on the food channel. (On the other hand, what better place to play around with words like akin?)
So, here I am, writing an article for The ALAN Review. Beyond the obvious inference that I'm not a careful listener, and the suspicion that I might have trouble with tightly-focused essays, you undoubtedly know absolutely nothing about me. So, who am I, and why am I here?
Let's dispense with the who-am-I part immediately. I'm a guy. I write for kids. I love short stories, and I have a fondness for humor and horror. I sold my first kid's story to Highlights for Children in 1978, and my first kid's book in 1996. (Those of you who think the intervening eighteen years is an unusually long and unproductive gap have probably never tried to change a ribbon on a Royal Standard manual typewriter.) As for those crucial biographical questions that every student wants to know: I used to have one cat. Now I have two. I used to have three fish. Now I have none. (Dr. Seuss would have said it better, but he's unavailable.)
Why am I here in the pages of this prestigious review? I seem to have come full circle. Because I'm a writer, I've often been asked to speak in public. (Okay, the "often" part is a lie, but I'm counting the folks at the local pumpkin patch who constantly pester me to read scary stories on their Halloween hay rides.) If I craved the thrill of public appearances, I probably would have become something more gregarious than a writer. A shepherd, perhaps, or a drill sergeant. (Sentence fragment! You caught me.) But I gave speaking a shot. And it worked out okay. Then, shades of classic Hollywood movie plot, I was handed a chance to speak at a big-time conference because of a last-minute cancellation. (Note for future multimedia versions: insert voice of game show announcer here, bellowing, "David Lubar -- you're going to OPREEEEEEEEE LAND!") As I waited for my turn to speak, my mind bounced between those archetypal substitutes who represent the extremes of success and failure -- Rocky Balboa and Charles Darnay. Much to my relief, I managed to give a successful speech (in other words, there were no major injuries). Because of that, I was asked to write an article for The ALAN Review. Talk about circularity. Because I write, I was asked to speak. Having spoken, I was asked to write. Of course, I mostly write fiction, but that should pose no problem here.
Speaking of the ALAN convention -- recent intelligence reports have led us to suspect some attendees have not yet managed to find the exit from the Opryland Hotel. We're soliciting funds to mount a rescue expedition.
So, what shall we discuss? Since I'm often asked how my books should be used in the classroom, I thought it would be helpful to compile a brief collection of suggestions.
- Give each student 144 copies of Kidzilla and an industrial grade staple gun. See who can build the strongest tower. Give runner-up prizes for most creative and most amusing. Give a special prize to the fat kid with the glasses since he'll probably grow up to be me.
- Put a copy of The Witch's Monkey in the class gerbil's tank (sorry -- this activity is not available in California). Set a timer for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, snatch the page the gerbil is chewing. Use any remaining legible sentences as story starters.
- Roll one of my books into a tube. (This is the reason all of my works are published as thin paperbacks.) Put the tube next to your hand and look through it with one eye. But keep the other eye open and use it to look at your palm. You'll see a hole through your hand. Use this phenomena as a springboard for a discussion of magical realism.
I could go on, but I'd bet your mind is reeling with hundreds of your own ideas by now. So let's move along to the next topic. What's a nice boy like me doing writing those nasty, cheap, worthless horrors books? There are a lot of answers to this one. I could point to the giants on whose shoulders I stand -- Stevenson, Poe, Dickens, and dozens of others who visited the world of shadows and fears. (I'd love to include the guy who wrote Titus Andronicus, but I can never remember whether there's an "e" at the end of his name, and I'd hate to display my appalling ignorance to your vivacious editor.) I could list dozens of redeeming social values found in my stories. For example, my monsters may eat an occasional victim, but they always chew with their mouths closed. I could mention that kids like my books, but that would be the sort of shameless self promotion that is not appropriate for scholarly journals. (Though, according to my research, it is mandatory in The ELAN Review.) One could actually produce a fairly deep article on the topic. But that would destroy any hope I have of maintaining my aura of lightness and fluff. I'll just say it's what I do. This is how my mind works.
Which leads, of course, to the big question. Where do I get my ideas? The same place you do. Seriously. I'm convinced that everyone has tons of ideas each day. They pop up unbidden in the mind like targets in some sort of cerebral police firing range. They rarely shout for attention. The trick is learning to notice them. I really should be paying attention to you, since you're much more interesting than anything bouncing around within the confines of my skull, but I've gotten into the habit of paying attention to myself. As the ideas flit through my mind, I grab them. It gives me lots of material for stories. It also makes me a terrible companion most of the time. But since I don't notice, there's not really a problem (except when I'm driving).
Honest, a great story idea is dangling within inches of you at this very moment. (By the way, in the next paragraph or two I'm going to attempt to pass along some useful suggestions. This is a reward for those of you who stuck with me this far. It will be our little secret. Next time you see me, wink.) Here are some examples of how I get ideas, and some suggestions for classroom applications.
Pay special attention to puns and other wordplay that flits through your mind. One day, I came across a mention of the La Brea Tar Pits. My mind responded with The La Brea Toy Pits. I made of note of that and later wrote a story based on the concept. (A family on vacation makes a wrong turn and ends up near the toy pits. The son wanders off and nearly gets swallowed by the morass of sticky toys. His father rescues him and the family heads off toward a happy ending. Unfortunately, the parents see another pit, this one filled with tools, appliances, pasta machines, etc. They succumb to the trap.) Other wordplay that evolved into stories: Jeepers, Creepers, Where'd You Get that Beeper? and The Unforgiving Tree. There's plenty more where that came from. My favorite as-yet-unused example: Metro Gnome. I know there's a story behind that title.
Here's an exercise for the classroom. Put up a list of words and phrases on the overhead projector, chalk board, or cave wall. Be wild, random, eclectic and inventive. (My own list for classroom visits includes protein, membrane, collar bone, the New York Yankees, varmint, you deserve a break today, and about fifteen other pieces.) Ask the kids to shout out anything that comes to mind. Give them a few examples first. Odds are they'll start off slowly. Once they get the idea, you might be awash in flashes of brilliance. If they sit there silently, threaten to make them read Madame Bovary.
My all-time favorite way to get ideas is to play "What if...?" There are two ways I've found to use this with young writers. (Style alert -- I used the word "way" in each of the last two sentences. This unintentional repetition grates on the ear and should be changed. But I left my thesaurus in the other room, so we're all just going to have to live with it.) You can give them a "What if" and let them see where it takes them. (Examples that turned into stories for me: What if a kid had a calculator that gave him correct answers before he punched in the question? What if a school had a fair to raise money to promote nonviolence, but all the activities were violent? What if pigeons are actually some form of mechanical waste disposal device used by beings from another dimension?) The great thing here is seeing how twenty kids can take the same question in twenty different directions. You can make up your own or harvest them from stories. (What if a group of boys was stranded on an island without any adults? What if there was a family where everyone lived forever? What if your uncle killed your father and then your fathers ghost came back? Okay -- perhaps that's too heavy an example, but you get the idea.) Then you can let the kids make their own list. I have a huge collection of these. I try to add a couple every day. When I'm stuck for an idea, I'll browse the file.
Yikes -- three paragraphs of potentially useful information. I'm losing my touch. I'd better end on a frivolous note or I'll lose all credibility. But first -- a heartfelt word or two. Thanks for your enthusiasm. Thanks for caring about good stories and fun reading. Thanks for getting the right books to the kids who can enjoy them. That's what really counts. Shucks -- now I'm too misty to end on a frivolous note. Guess I'll just have to say au revoir.
David Lubar was a keynote speaker at the 1998 ALAN Workshop in Nashville, where he had the entire audience gasping for breath through our laughter. I knew, the morning of his talk, that I wanted to ask him to write a piece for The ALAN Review. I have been delighted to have the opportunity to correspond with David and his publicists at TOR, and am sincerely grateful for his contributions, in charming non-fiction and stunning fiction, to this issue of the journal. ---pscCopyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Lubar, David. (1999). "Pardon my French." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 5-6.