Sounds and Pictures in Words: Images in Literature for Young Adults
Connie S. Zitlow
The capacity of the human being to evoke images of things or events not present, and even never experienced, or which may never have existed, is undoubtedly an important element in art. It is especially important in speech and verbal text [and] is basic to any kind of verbal communication. (Louise Rosenblatt 1978, 32)
Literature is one of the arts, and reading literature is an artistic, or aesthetic, experience that has something in common with such other aesthetic experiences as listening to music, watching dance, or looking at paintings. (Bruce E. Miller 1980, 3)
Great stories give us metaphors that flash upon the mind the way lightning flashes upon the earth, illumination for an instant an entire landscape that had been hidden. (Paula Fox, quoted in Zitlow, 1997, 413-414)
Students can learn a great deal from experiences with literature that has powerful imagery, works written artfully by an author who is willing to test the boundaries of the genre, works that require the same type of thoughtful contemplation and effort one uses when viewing a piece of visual art. Why then should teachers ignore the imagery in a body of literature that is available to a generation of students who view and listen everyday?
An important way we as people think and learn is by using images, such as visual connections and sound associations. The use of images, or imagery, is a primary underlying structure in language, media, and mind. It is a basic element in communicating and creating, an integral part of thinking, speaking, listening, reading, and writing. "Language and images are inextricably linked -- in how we generate them, how we make meaning from them, how we use them, and how we remember them" (R. Fox x). We think in flashes and bursts of images, in descriptive fragments that are like "Lights in the Windows" (Nye). Images point to the nature of our human condition, to the experiences we remember, visualize, and come to understand as we stabilize them in the acts of reading and writing.
The words we read and the images we see are abstractions of reality, selected and crafted by someone. Imaging, or the act of experiencing mental images, because it is broader than visual imagery, is connected to all the senses. When someone else chooses words carefully and crafts them so that we see a vivid picture in our mind's eye, or we hear a distinct and recognizable sound in our mind's ear, or we smell a certain scent, we are responding to an element of the written work that contributes to its literary merit. Such a work moves beyond being just a form of representation to being an artistic piece. The powerful images -- vivid pictures, clear sounds, poignant smells -- evoked by the words in well-written literature are examples of an artistic dimension that contributes to a piece of literature's endurance over time.
One criterion used to determine if a literary piece is considered to be an artistic work is whether it succeeds in evoking in the mind of the reader vivid, lasting images that contribute to a feeling of possibility, even of believability. Producers of visual media know a single compelling image is hard to erase. The same is true for print media. As Fox points out, there is a very close link between the ability to understand the inferences of pictured subjects and inferences of the written page -- a crucial aspect of both visual and verbal literacy. Understanding the power of imagery is also essential for understanding the aesthetic elements that comprise artistic works.
Imagery --- the Artistic in Literary Works
"The artistic treatment of any form of representation is a way of creating an impact, of making ideas and images clear, of having an effect on those who Ôread' the form" (Eisner 149).
In their many works, Elliot Eisner and Maxine Greene focus on what we mean when we talk about art, the aesthetic dimension of works, and what can happen when we participate with art. The word "art" can be used to indicate things that are produced as a form of representation; it can mean the process of bringing something into existence, and it can mean an artistic product that possesses certain valued features (Eisner 150). Participation with works that, because of their excellent features, are considered to be artistic products, such as novels, poems, films, paintings, and photographs, can make aspects of the world more vivid. We have the opportunity then, according to Greene, to be awakened from our stock responses to a stance of what she calls throughout her work as "wide-awakeness" (Greene). As a result, we see the world and others in new and different ways. Artistically crafted works, because of their capacity to generate in us a sense of empathy, can help us develop an understanding of those we do not know (Eisner, 151).
Eisner believes the arts, including literature, are our most powerful means for making life in its particulars vivid. By directing our attention to individuality, the images we encounter in literature locate us in the particular that is at the same time general or universal. Such an encounter occurs because of the paradox created in these works in which what is universal is revealed as the particular is examined (Eisner 152). A person's experience is brought alive on the page, not explained or analyzed, but rendered, as Peter Elbow states in his discussion about narrative thinking (189). Readers experience meaning through the elements that contribute to the literary qualities of narrative, namely the metaphor, imagery, dialogue, and description in the written work.
Thus the pictures and music in literature, with its nuance and figurative language, make possible certain kinds of experiences, because ideas that become fixed in a public form such as in a literary work, have not only been realized by the creator, they have been stabilized, refined, edited, shared, and have the potential to influence others and be enjoyed by them. Many authors use vivid phrases to clarify what literature can do. Tom Romano talks about the power of encountering a piece of literature that has the potential to "turn our head around." As he says,we see and learn and connect through story I love the small successes that come with picking the right word, following a line of language in argument and image, perceiving a new idea, seeing meaning emerge from flash of memory or chaos of data. And I come back to reading literature again and again because it enhances my thinking, lets me think the unthought, and illuminates my intellectual, emotional, and physical experience. (16-17)
Those who purport to bring adolescents and literature together must re-experience the effect that the artistic language in literature can have on their own lives. In his book What a Writer Needs, Ralph Fletcher talks about beautiful language as "truly original language, images that make you sit up straight when you're reading" (139), "images that take our breath away and allow us to see the tired old world with new eyes" (141). Fletcher believes teachers can help writers revitalize the language in their writing by first attuning their ears (and I add, their eyes, in fact all their senses) to magical language wherever they hear it. If we want learners to realize that language can be used in many ways and can accomplish many things, it is important to exemplify such language and to provide opportunities for readers to participate in discussions about the imagery in specifics works of artistically-created prose.
In the Classroom - the What and How of Literature
There are classrooms in which teachers encourage students to talk and write about their feelings prompted by a story and about their ideas concerning the plot, character development, dialogue, setting, and themes of a work. Most students, however, find it difficult to make observations about the craft of an author. Their explorations about how an author created the work to evoke readers' feelings about a character and their thoughts about issues raised by a story are often shallow or missing. Teachers, therefore, who want to validate a piece of literature, such as a classic work that students do not understand or appreciate, often resort to lecturing about the aesthetic qualities of the work.
There are, however, notable teachers who know that readers who initially see, hear, and feel nothing but the pages of a book can learn to see more than words on a page (Miller 15). Milner and Milner agree that it is important for teachers to focus on ways to deepen readers' insights into literature by reflecting on an author's craft. Linda Rief surrounds her students with the works of great writers and asks the students to consider what these writers do and how do they do it. Together they study select passages and collect pieces of language in logs to see how authors see with a painter's eye and hear with the ear of a musician. She invites them to participate in a work by using visual images, voices, and words to show how they see the extraordinary in the ordinary and make sense of their worlds. Rief's book Vision and Voice includes examples of her students' art: their writing, drawing, storytelling, and musical creations. Her work is an example of what Miller emphasizes: "teaching literature ought to grow out of the teacher's and students' reading of it an outgrowth and continuation of their reading, not something apart from it" (Miller xv).
It is important to remember that imagery plays a reciprocal role in the writing process, influencing how writers choose grammatical structures to create images, and images shape the writers' choices of grammatical structures. Harry Noden designs lessons to raise students' level of consciousness about image by asking them to "use notebook paper for canvas and words for paint" (155) and to think about the grammatical choices they make as brushstrokes. He finds that as students begin to see and hear better what words can do, they think and write better.
Imagery in Young Adult Literature
Traditionally English teachers have been committed to teaching literary works in which students are exposed to the beautiful language of "classic" literature. Although there are numerous examples of contemporary literary works with rich figurative language -- works that are accessible to young readers -- many teachers assume the aesthetic dimension of literary works is not available in books classified as young adult (YA) literature. Yet authors of the best YA books use the same literary techniques as the authors of outstanding books for adults. It is critically important for teachers to recognize that many YA novels are well written, carefully crafted, emotionally powerful works of literature. They can be used to teach or reinforce all the aspects of literary analysis, personal response, and introspection that are a part of even the most advance reading and writing curriculum (Rakow 49).
There are seminal works of YA literature such as Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, a book that continues to have a profound impact on many readers. For example the students in an AP English class taught by Tim McGee saw in Cormier's novel vivid images and heard "in modern language the eternal dilemma of whether one should stand up and live the just life or rule through force and fear" (McGee 58). Because he knows there are works such as those by Cormier that deal with the eternal questions of life using language that is thought-provoking in its imagery, McGee says YA novels have been ignored long enough. His assertion about AP teachers applies to many others: "What we have done in the guise of preserving the best literature has in fact silenced a strong and intellectually stimulating alternative to the common AP English canon" (57).
For several years, I have studied multiple works classified as young adult literature to explore this significant aspect of literary merit, specifically the picture and sounds evoked by the author's crafting of language. I have also looked closely at what authors of these works say about their use of metaphoric language, which is one way to create images in writing. Robert Cormier, for example, declares that he is terrible at landscapes, so he uses similes and metaphors. I have also explored with young readers what pictures and sounds remain after they have finished reading a book. Works such as The Chocolate War touches all the senses: pictures of the shadows of the goal posts that resemble a network of crosses, empty crucifixes, the grotesque faces of the other football players coming at Jerry, Archie's black box; the sounds of Room 19 falling apart, the ringing phone, the voices Jerry hears; the taste of acid dirt, grass, and gravel; and the extended imagery of the war-like game. Readers of Walter Dean Myers Fallen Angels recall the sound of the zipper of the bag used for a soldier's body, and they see the realism of the devastating images of war that are contrasted with the extended movie analogy in the story.
Clearly, there are numerous YA books that are notable examples of fine literature. These works not only invite readers in, but they keep teachers from getting into a rut as a consequence of continuing to teach the same familiar books. Instead, by remaining active in their reading, teachers who know the fine YA literature "will not only possess a gradually expanding set of works and the competency to teach them, but also their mastery of the old works will be deepened and strengthened" (Miller 58). This literature is not a formula-driven fiction that begins and ends only with the problem, but it is enriched by the best elements literature can offer -- "an expansive, fully realized setting; a memorably artful narrative voice; complex and fully realized characters; and unsparing honesty and candor in use of language and treatment of material" (Cart 168).
Look: It's Amazing What Language Can Do
Reading the highly-acclaimed book Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff is like reading a picture. The protagonist LaVaughn even uses nine metaphors in the first 20 pages to describe her neighborhood, her mother, and her job with Jolly. Written as 66 prose poems or poetic prose episodes, this picture of urban poverty with its rich character development, realism, and hope is an excellent example of imagery in prose. I have invited readers back into the book by telling them I'm going to read a picture to them. I ask them to draw (or describe) what they see in one of the two following passages from Make Lemonade.
Then what he does, he puts my purse on his head, / it's his crown
and I quick understand:
He's King of the Bus, / King of the Bus, / King of the Shoe Bus,
we're all his surrounders, his servants, / The driver is driving us
to the shoe store
because we ordered him to, / back there when I said "There's
Jeremy found out, and he's in charge.
I look at Jeremy's king face, / I tell him he can stand up and pull
the string now,
he gives me back his crown to hold while he does his job,
I hoist him to the string, / he makes the bell ring, / we prepare to
and he announces to the driver when we leave, / "Get shoes."
"Yes, sir," says the driver, / and the bus makes the air-hissing
and we're back down on earth / to buy shoes / we can't afford. (78)
In these passages, the contrasts of the images are striking and tell much about the story.
"New seeds for you lemon pot," she tells him.
"These ones are gonna grow," she promises./ like now Jolly
and decides which things will live and which will die.
Mr. Jeremy takes his new seeds and he gets a chair / and he
climbs up to the pot
and he puts his fist of seeds over the dirt / and a brief light comes
around him from the window / and he looks just like those picture
Where Mom wears an apron, Dad comes home from work,
and everybody has those NO PROBLEM / looks on their faces,
the worst that could happen, / the cat might tip over the water
For just a second, Jeremy looks like that. I'm surprised / and I
take a picture of him in my mind for later. / Then everything
goes back to the way it was,
you can smell Jilly's throwup, / there's sticky stuff on the floor,
the dishes are dirty because they ran out of soap, / flies are buzzing
around Jilly's cup
and I go get Jeremy some water for his lemon tree. (96)
When listeners hear these passages, they are surprised by what they see in their mind's eye. They also realize how one aspect of an image leads to another one, revealing the impact of the story. When students are asked what pictures are left in their minds after reading the book, they talk about vivid imagery: the astronaut left unconnected in space; all the dirt and filth; the small lemon seed and finally the sprouting lemon; the children, Jeremy and Jilly, described as leaking liquids everywhere; Jolly walking in "underdrive;" the conversation stool at LaVaughn's house, and the headless doll "without clothes on, its arm all twisted in a direction no person could ever reach and beside her leg is her head / with happy plastic eyes staring dead at the ceiling" (133). The sounds they hear are also very clearly recalled: the spoon clicking in an empty jar against voices in the background; Jilly crying as Jolly says, "I can't do it alone;" and the climatic scene when Jilly is choking and Jolly says, "Breathe."
There are passages in Make Lemonade that are full of sounds. I invite readers to listen:
She caves in and boohoos hard, / an avalanche of her voice /
coming down her legs into my ears / and now I don't know what
to do. / I was gonna leave, go study my math, study my English
/ not to end up like Jolly, / and here I am on the floor
holding her legs in my arms / and she sounds like a choir crying. (134).
These words, like notes in music, have tempo, sounds, rhythm, and texture. This passage can be used to explore two questions that point to what well-chosen words can do: What do these words sounds like? What sounds do they evoke? In discussing their answers to these questions, readers also discuss other aspects of the book, such as themes of self discovery, family and peer relationships, and issues about the challenges of teen pregnancy and education. Although different readers see and hear different things and sometimes recall varying images evoked by the same words, the craft of the authors is clearly apparent. When discussing the imagery, readers see that there is not one correct interpretation of this outstanding example of literature. In addition, they have an opportunity to analyze not only the literary merit of the book, but also their response when they probe why they choose certain images.
Like Make Lemonade, the images in Trudy Krisher's Spite Fences match the setting and events of the story. We need crayons or colored pencils to draw a picture from this passage, which is an interesting interplay of the images Maggie sees as she watches the horrible scene and of our picture of Maggie courageously "tripping the shutter":
Everything was out of control. The colors melted together like a watercolor gone wild: Missy's purple scarf, Bigger's yellow vest, Virgil's black pants, Cecil's blue neckerchief. I saw that it didn't matter what side you were on. When it came to this, it was wrong
Virgil's fist slammed into George Hardy's face. George Hardy reached to protect his glasses. They had slid to his chin, the glass shattered into a spider's web a river of red blood running from his nose. He held his hands to his side, refusing to fight back. I held the camera to my eye The images before me swam red, filling up the lens. Trip the shutter, Maggie Pugh.. What filled my lens was more than the blood gushing from my sweet friend. It was the red color of the fence, the red color of the earth on which I stood. It was red, the color of my life this summer. Cock, Trip. Red: it was the color of Kinship. (271-272)
There are many colorful scenes in Maggie's story that is set in Georgia in the early days of the civil rights movement. The issues of prejudices, family relationships, social consciousness, deep friendships, and the liberation that comes from art are all made more powerful by recalling the vivid imagery in the story. The fully-realized characters come to life in the words that paint pictures, such as images of the colorful jelly glasses displayed by Maggie's mama to rescue the family "from the ranks of the no-account" (43) and later hurled at Maggie by her mama.
A Photograph Album in Words
Some authors of YA literature seem to literally paint with words. Like Spite Fences, Shizuko's Daughter, written by Kyoko Mori, is full of both literal and figurative photographic images. One student of mine at Ohio Wesleyan University commented that Mori is so talented at creating picturesque scenes that he felt like he was going through an album or a sketchbook as he read her book:
I think that one way this was created was through the simplicity and bare honesty of the writing So much of the story was a series of flashbacks. There was usually closure at the end of each chapter -- a sort of end to each particular event. I felt like this segmented the book so that you could almost take each chapter to look at on its own -- like a sketch or photograph. Together, of course, these fit to complete the story This was a very visual book. At times I felt like I was watching the images rather than just reading about them. (Michael's log)
Clearly as Michael writes about his response to Yuki's story in Shizuko's Daughter, he is aware of the author's craft -- what she does in her writing and how she does it.
As a child Mori had a journal with pictures on half the page and words on the rest of it. As she grew older, words replaced pictures -- became pictures. She knew by third grade that words came easier to her than lines and angles (Ehrlich, 146). Readers see eloquence and beauty in daily life because of Mori's carefully chosen words as she writes about Yuki's sense of loss after her mother's suicide. There are many vivid images readers recall after reading the story: the colorful flowers from her mother's garden contrasted with the drabness that characterizes life with her father and stepmother, the beautiful pottery where no two pieces are ever the same versus the stepmother's store-bought dishes, the fire burning up all the boxes of things Yuki's mother saved. When we read Mori's sketchbook of words about Yuki's sketchbook of pictures, we see how with her art, Yuki preserves her mother's memory.
"Yuki closed the sketchbook and held it on her lap. My mother, she thought, wanted to be that blurred heron at the center of my mind, almost swallowed up by the light around it but always there. She would want me to look beyond her unhappiness." (194)
Kyoko Mori's work is a fine examples of how writing is beautiful when it is specific, showing the "significance in the slight" (Milner & Milner 81). Her intensely personal work locates readers in the particular and illustrates how an authors' use of specificity leads others to understand how the particulars of one's experience are at the same time universal. Shizuko's Daughter, like the books Make Lemonade and Spite Fences, gives readers an opportunity to glimpse into another's world and acknowledge realities other than their own.
All the Senses: See, Hear, Smell, Touch
Gary Paulsen is another fine example of an artist who paints with words and who writes poetic, lyrical phrases as he tells his stories. His introduction to The Winter Room is a much-read passage called "Tuning" that shows what words and readers can do together. He describes the smells, sounds, and light of old farms such as the "dusty smell of winter hay dried and stored in the loft the pungent fermented smell of the chopped corn silage," "the grunting-gassy sounds of the work teams snorting and slapping as they hit the harness to jerk the stumps out of the ground," and the "soft gold light -- gold with bits of hay dust floating in it " (1-3). Paulsen reminds us that books need readers to bring sounds, smell, and light to life, and he gives us lyrical prose full of vivid imagery to see, hear, smell, and feel.
Suzanne Fisher Staples' book Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind is another outstanding story told with beautiful language that touches the senses. One of my students wrote that it was hard for her to put into words the many things that kept her tuned into the book. "But one scene in which the words and description in the story came to life was the sand storm. During reading, my body dried up and all I could think about was water." Both the sounds of the words Staples chooses as she tells the story and what we hear as Shabanu describes sounds she hears are noteworthy. We hear when Dadi chants softly in his wood-smoke voice and when Shabanu hears sobbing, "as if from a great distance, and my knees crumple. Dadi catches me in his arms and buries his face against my bloody tunic. He holds me against him, and through a haze of pain, I realize it is Dadi sobbing, not me" (240).
Staples' carefully chosen figurative language shows what the craft of writing can be. In her work there are many examples of the power of metaphor and simile, for example: "I know without a doubt that my heart is crumbling up inside me like a burning piece of paper" (62). Readers probably have not owned a camel, but they feel Shabanu's loss when her Dadi sells her beloved, dancing camel, Guluband, and later when the young camel Mithoo is injured following her as she runs away in an attempt to escape from an arranged marriage. Recurring passages contain the painful imagery: "But at the center of my self is an aching hole. With Guluband, my joy, my freedom, all of who I am has gone. I wonder if I will even take pleasure in anything again" (63). "But the dull ache around the hole where my heart used to be leaves me drained of all energy" (65). "Like Guluband, I have been betrayed and sold. And Mithoo, like me, has lost her greatest gift by wanting to follow his heart" (239).
Readers' personal responses to the many powerful passages in this well-told story can lead to their understanding of the literary elements: the conflicts and events of the plot, the family relationships, and the developing identity of a young woman who wonders "which I is I" in the midst of the cultural expectations of the nomadic people in contemporary Pakistan.
Like Shabanu, the striking book of historical fiction Out of the Dust is full of vivid imagery that fits the time and place of the story. Set in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma during 1934-35, this stunning literary work immerses reader into the struggles of fourteen-year-old Billie Jo as she must learn to forgive her family, nature, and herself for the dire circumstances of her life. With a strong first-person voice and written as free verse entries, like diary entries in unrhymed verse, the book is full of vivid images of the relentless, killing dust that is a stark contrast to the beauty of Ma's living apple tree. Out of the Dust is full of life, death, desperation, hope, and sounds, especially the music of Billie Jo's piano playing:
When I point my fingers at the keys, / The music
springs straight out of me. / Right hand
playing notes sharp as / tongues, / telling stories while the / smooth
buttery rhythms back me up / on the left.
Folks sway in the / Palace aisles / grinning and stomping and /
out of breath,
and the rest, eyes shining, / fingers snapping, / feet tapping. It's
the best / I've even felt,
playing hot piano, / sizzling with / Mad Dog, / swinging with the
Black Mesa Boys,
or on my own, / crazy, / pestering the keys.
That is / heaven / How supremely / heaven / playing piano / can
January 1934 (14).
This passage is full of imagery -- the sounds, pictures, movement -- evoked by the tempo, rhythm, sounds, and texture of the well-chosen words. Appreciating the art, the aesthetics of this incredible book should certainly be as important as discussions about the historical facts and the rich thematic material in the story.
Analyzing and Understanding Personal Response
Milner & Milner suggest that teachers build on readers' personal responses to discussions that, as members of an interpretive community, will increase their understanding of the literature and can lead to appreciation and analysis of the author's craft. Yet because, "for too long, literature study meant only an analysis of literary terminology and authorial craft," teachers must "move carefully here " to help readers "appreciate literature in deeper, more nuanced, and more enduring ways" (Milner 85).
Stories written by Bruce Brooks are outstanding examples of works that teachers can use to guide young people's more thoughtful consideration of literature that begins in personal response and grows more studied as they come to appreciate what an author's craft can be. Michael Cart says Brooks is a writer whose work "demonstrates integrity and offers wisdom, art, and enjoyment, . . .a novelists of ideas [and] a rare stylist thanks to his uncanny ear for voice and his gift for powerful imagery and unforgettable simile and metaphor" (Cart 253, 257).
In Brooks' first novel The Moves Make the Man, readers hear and feel many sounds that are evoked by the words of the first-person narration of precocious Jerome Foxworthy. His descriptions of the game of basketball are particularly vivid: "from five hundred feet away you can feel it in the bottoms of your feet rumbling through the floors: bammata bammata bammata bam, twenty dudes dribbling those balls on that old gymnasium wood "(12). Jerome also loves his beautiful Momma whose skin is "such a nice coffee color with a little bit of milk, set off and made to glow by the light blue dress" (234). As they work together to prepare a meal for his friend Bix, Jerome and his momma have a "flour fight" and they fill the kitchen with sound:
After we put the bird in to cook, we sang: In the oven, the mighty oven, the chicken bakes tonight to the tune of The Lion Sleeps, my favorite song, all the way through with new words and very funny, Momma surprising me by knowing the whole tune and even when to stick in the Bawoomawetts. (231)
Brooks' work shows how carefully-chosen words can produce effects, because he thinks about what feelings his words will evoke in readers' minds. He feels that students learn to analyze literature as they look at the effects it produces and see what on the page has led to a specific image, idea, or feeling.
Jerome's story, as he tells about his friend Bix, is filled with sensory details: the feel of number three pencils all sharp and dark green enamel (3), the smell of a well-oiled baseball glove (9), the "flash thrown by Spin Light out in the middle of black above and around" (170), the picture of "those huge catalpa trees wearing long bean earrings" (14), and the sound of Bix' mentally-ill mother whose wild scream, "BIIIIXXXX" echoes in readers' ears (273). A student of mine responded to aspects of Brooks' vivid imagery by writing about the effect of distinct colors and the ideas she had after reading The Moves Make the Man:
Too often in America, we have an image of the perfect family being of an eggshell hue Bruce Brooks makes us look at the reality that some acorn-colored people are better off than pearly tinted ones. We see a young Jerome Foxworthy succeed though he was the only dark child in an all light school Jerome was not phased when the porcelain basketball coach at school would not let him play on the school team. He was not upset when a mean-spirited hamburger vendor kicked him out of his eating establishment because the color of his skin was too much like coffee without any cream.
Other students have found passages in Brooks' Midnight Hour Encores particularly vivid. For example, when Sib Spooner, a sixteen-year-old world class cellist, asks her father Taxi to show her some horses, he takes to the coast. Awakened at dawn, she suddenly notices that:
the pounding of the surf is getting louder from a specific direction, the way a secondary theme sneaks into melody from the violas in an orchestra. And when I look in that direction, off to my left, instead of surf I see a sudden wild spray of beautiful monsters from Mars swirl out from behind a dune, gracefully rolling toward me, not snorting or shivering but just running, running on the flat beach beneath me, splashing in the edges of the tide and emptying those little pools with a single stroke of a hoof. (5-6)
The vivid imagery in Brooks' writing shows what the craft of writing can be. The particular pictures and sounds he evokes fit other parts of the book showing how the style, form, and content of an artistic work are all integral to the work as a whole and not entirely separable from each other.
Reading to Write -- Writing to Read
Students, such as those in Linda Rief's classroom, who study works of the highest quality learn to read like a writer, which in turn helps them write like a reader. Because she knows that what she and her students read together matters, Rief uses writing that is vivid and imaginative, YA literature such as Shabanu, Out of the Dust, and The Giver, works that bring visually rich images to mind. She asks students to write down passages that really make them see, think, and feel something, to sketch what they see, and they to write out what the passages and sketch bring to mind (37). She understands Eisner's statement that "knowing how forms will function within the finished final product is a necessary condition for creating products that themselves possess aesthetic qualities. Such knowing requires an active and intelligent maker" (36), one who has the opportunity to experience and appreciate what is aesthetic, because "what we are able to see or hear is a product of our cultivated abilities (Eisner 34).
For much of the year, students in Rief's class choose the books they read. However, she also knows the value of reading a novel as a whole class to "pull apart layers of meaning"(68) and to learn about multiple or alternate ideas from interactions with other readers. Rief chooses YA literature that is an example of what Eisner, in discussing the work of Barbara Tuchman, explains as the quality that makes literature literary:
it is the use of form, especially in the cadence and tempo of language, that patterns are established among the "parts" of the sentence and between the sentence and the paragraph that create their counterpart in the reader's experience [It is] the generation in the reader's mind's eye of an array of visual images. The writing is vivid because it is designed to elicit images The language is shaped to help us see and feel and hence to know it as participants. Its form and content transport us to another time, another place. The literary in literature resides in the aesthetic capacities of language to influence our experience. (33-34)
One example of such a literary work is Katherine Paterson's Lyddie, a work Rief wanted the students to respond to in more than a personal way. She "wanted them to go several steps farther, analyzing and understanding their responses to the story" (68).
Following Rief's guidelines, students look for specific things to note in their books or in their journals as they read Lyddie, including metaphors and similes that describe situations, places, or people and descriptions that stick, bringing things to mind for them (69). Rief reads with the students and often starts the day with a passage she finds significant in content or style (70). Her choice of Paterson's story about Lyddie, the "little chip of Vermont granite" (51), is most appropriate, because it is full of figurative language, vivid imagery that fits the particular events, characterization, setting, and tone of the work: "Envy crept up like a noxious vine. Lyddie snapped it off, but the roots were deep and beyond her reach"(13). "Lyddie could feel the rage oozing up like sap on a March morning"(20). "She was his real family. More than their mother, really, who had shucked them off like corn husks to follow her craziness"(37).
At the beginning of the story, Lyddie stares down a bear that breaks into the Vermont farm cabin where she and her poor, frightened mama, brother, and sisters live. The image of a bear becomes a symbol that represents all the obstacles Lyddie must conquer. In an effort to earn enough money to save the family's farm, Lyddie goes to work in the textile factories in Lowell, Massachusetts. The din of the looms seems like a beastly racket to her. She becomes "perfectly tuned to the roaring, clattering beasts in her care. Think of them as bears she'd tell herself. Great, clumsy bears. You can face down bears" (97). Lyddie learns that the bear she had thought for many years was outside herself was instead "in her own narrow spirit. She would stare down all the bears!" (181). Lyddie is full of vivid pictures of poverty and working conditions, and it raises many issues about literacy, slavery, and family relationships, and personal challenges. Most of all it is a well-told story based on Paterson's careful historical research.
Extending our Notions of Literacy
The careful guidance students in Linda Rief's language arts class received while reading and writing Lyddie, led to their research about the textile mills during the Industrial Revolution. Rief then worked with the music teacher to guide students as they created an original musical based on Paterson's historical fiction. Rief knows that for many students, "school is as jarring as those mills"(78). She feels teachers must help students "find meaningful, purposeful, enriching ways of learning" by offering them opportunities for responding to story. "Some write, some sing, some listen; they all read. And pushing their thinking beyond personal immediate responses, helps them understand not only themselves, but others" (78). These students are invited, encouraged, and taught to see and hear what the words they read and write can produce, and they in turn represent what they learn in many different artistic formats. Because she knows that many students think in visual images, not in words, she helps them use words, voices, and pictures to make sense of their worlds, to extend the literacy spectrum. They clearly participate in the literary works they read and the art they produce.
It is important to note that Linda Rief does not have students create a musical every year, nor is it necessary for teachers to plan elaborate units based on every novel they use in the classroom. However, it is important to realize what can be done with powerful works of YA literature, works with substantive ideas and imaginative, perceptive, beautifully-crafted writing.
Because the aesthetic is inherent in our need to make sense of experience, as Eisner reminds us, young people need opportunities to read and write about YA literature with vivid imagery. They need the chance to study how writers create their works. Ralph Fletcher reminds us that writers love words, and words are writers' tools. Some writers begin with emotion. Others, such as Sue Ellen Bridgers begin with an image of a very specific character or scene, as if the person were sitting in the backseat of her car. For her "that first image is always spontaneous, an act of discovery that occurs at a moment of heightened sensitivity" (4). She then writes in a form that seems to best capture the emotions she feels, that expresses most clearly the character she must unveil to others (5).
Whether writers begin with images or emotion, they "must use words to communicate the story/image/emotion Writers love their language" (Fletcher 32). And choosing fine literature with language that evokes vivid imagery, such as the many fine works of YA literature, reflects an understanding that people at different points in their lives are more fitted for some art experiences than for others. Our goal must be to help young people know individual works aesthetically. Understanding and appreciating the aesthetic as a way of knowing is essential for all of our students who, when they have opportunities to participate in a work, learn to discriminate between aesthetic experiences that are rich and those that are not. The approaches we select in order to reach this goal are conditioned by the students, and the work, and ourselves (Miller 60). As we choose works of YA literature to use with our students, we can evaluate them by asking questions used to assess the value of reading any piece of literature: "do they offer wisdom -- or knowledge, at least, which is the beginning of wisdom; are they artfully written; are they successful in aesthetic terms; and are they entertaining?" (Cart 251). It is not the classification of a literary work that should be our concern, but whether it has the capacity to work its way into our thinking. Our view of what young adult literature is and how it creates its impact is expanded when we explore the vivid imagery in these works and the varied responses of many readers who have the opportunity to become more visually and verbally literature and acquire aesthetic ways of knowing.
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AuthorDr. Connie S. Zitlow is an associate professor at Ohio Wesleyan University where she teaches courses in young adult literature and content area reading and also directs the secondary teacher education program. She is currently enjoying her additional role as President of ALAN.
Reference Citation: Zitlow, Connie S. (2000) "Sounds and Pictures in Words: Images in Literature for Young Adults." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 2, 20-26.