My son is sitting on the couch with me. At least physically he’s with me. But mentally he’s in another world. How do I know? Easy. He doesn’t respond to my questions and he’s only vaguely aware that I stuck a piece of gum to his forehead. In fact, I’m fairly certain I could etch my name in large pink letters across his arm and he wouldn’t notice.
How did he get into this detached and dreamlike state of existence?
He’s reading fiction. And whenever he reads fiction, some type of enchantment captures his imagination, his aspirations, his trepidations… indeed, his very heart. Somehow the magic woven into the wondrous words of a well-written story always melts away this present reality and carries him to another place and time.
If you are a fiction reader, I suspect you, too, have experienced the transforming power of words. Though comprised of plain black ink on thin white paper, words can touch us in places no doctor ever could ever reach, causing us to taste both defeat and triumph, bitterness and love, sorrow and joy, betrayal and friendship with such depth, such poignancy, that we believe…we believe…
…we believe in its authenticity, whether that be a realm with talking lions or mermaids in an underwater kingdom. When that happens, we lose ourselves (and sometimes find ourselves) between the lines. We may discover, ironically, that the fiction that thrills us the most is the very tool that shapes our perceptions and attitudes in the reality we live in. And that is nothing short of magic.
I believe this magic starts with picture books, especially because of the way the illustrations and story work together. Take the classic opening from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for example:
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him, “WILD THING!” and Max said, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
On its own, the text reaches out and lures us in like the siren’s song, but it’s the added image of Max in his wolf suit chasing his dog with a fork in his hand that brings the character to life and helps us fully appreciate Sendak’s masterful storytelling. Before we know it, we’re sailing away with Max, and cavorting with creatures that roar terrible roars, show terrible claws …and have terrible hairdos.
Many books also hold a strong takeaway value. In this case, when the wild-thing escapade ends and Max’s (still warm) dinner is waiting for him, the unspoken message about how children can exert self-control…and how parents still love them even when they don’t…is not lost on the reader, no matter how young (or old).
And to think that all this intuitive learning, all this heart-pounding adventure, all this immeasurable treasure is within our grasp a hundred-fold! All we have to do is pick up a book and our universe will expand with each word we read and each page we turn.