Using Children’s Books to Engage Young (and Adult) Writers

Goodnightmoon

Tucked away in The Times a few weeks ago was a short essay titled “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.” In the piece, Aimee Bender deconstructs the classic Margaret Wise Brown children’s tale. One night, while cracking open Goodnight Moon for the first time, Bender was struck by just how brilliantly the tale was written. “I was struck and stunned,” she writes, “as I have been before, by a classic sneaking up on me and, in an instant, earning yet again another fan.” For the rest of her essay, Aimee examines the text, describing how it informs her own writing process. As the calendar flips into August, I am inspired to shake off some summer rust and deconstruct one of my favorite children’s books. My attempt won’t be as good as Aimee Bender’s, but I’m willing to try. If nothing else, you’ll see that children’s books can be used in all types of classes as a great model for teaching close reading and the writing process. Here’s my attempt:

I don’t know how I stumbled upon The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I thinkUnknown I ordered it as a present based on an Amazon.com recommendation. However it happened, the book made its way into our home and quickly became a classic. Okay, it’s my classic. Something about the story just spoke to me the first time I read it. Maybe because it’s about books and this rather lonesome figure, Morris Lessmore, who wants to read and write all day. I was enthralled by the text the first time I read it and continue to be every time we pick it up at storytime. Morris Lessmore might not be my childrens’ favorite, however. There is plenty of competition in our house. As long as Waldo keeps getting himself lost in Medieval battle scenes, Brother and Sister Bear remain afraid of the sitter, dentist, and bad dreams, and the hungry caterpillar keeps eating, it’s impossible to name a true #1 in our house. Any book’s reign is short-lived. I’ve even seen a classic tale get bumped after a few days by cheap Spiderman knockoffs or by something called Pinkalicious. Books, while devoured here, can rarely dominate for long. Even so, for me, I’m continually amazed at the brilliance in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. William Joyce’s prose and the brilliantly imaginative graphics by Joe Bluhm create a world where books and their words mean everything.

Morris Lessmore opens with the main character sitting on his porch, surrounded by books, writing in his notebook. He looks content. The book begins: “Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books.” With just ten words in three short sentences, William Joyce tells the reader a great deal about the protagonist. And who couldn’t like Morris? He’s someone who just wants to read and write all day until a storm suddenly rips through the pages, turing Morris’s life upside down. After losing everything, Morris Lessmore begins his journey. “He didn’t know what to do or which way to go,” writes Joyce, “so he began to wander. And wander.”

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http://morrislessmore.com/?p=bookspreads

During his wandering, Morris is met by a woman being flown by a squadron of flying books that show Morris the way to a magical library. It’s here where Morris Lessmore finds meaning. My favorite sentence happens as Morris walks into this athenaeum for the first time. The sentence reads: “It was filled with the fluttering of countless pages, and Morris could hear the faint chatter of a thousand different stories, as if each book was whispering an invitation to adventure.” It’s here, in this sentence, where Joyce captures the beauty and mystery that awaits all readers the moment they step inside a library. I hope readers can attest to the time they picked up a book and, like Morris, became lost in it, “scarcely emerging for days.” It’s during Morris’s time in the library that Joyce takes a bit of risk with his narrative, showing a double page of illustrations depicting Morris Lessmore sliding down a page of text, scattering the letters of his book in a million different directions. Inspired by his books, Morris continues to write about his life late into each night after all the other books have gone to bed. He writes and the time flies by until he becomes “stooped and crinkly.”

http://morrislessmore.com/?p=bookspreads
http://morrislessmore.com/?p=bookspreads

It’s now that Morris decides to leave his world of books and return to his former life. As Morris Lessmore leaves his friends behind at the library, William Joyce indulges his readers with a twist. Morris leaves his own book behind. Like many of us, Morris writes about “his joys and sorrows, all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.” And finally, Morris’s book that he worked on for years starts to fly. Morris has given his story wings and the book takes off. A little girls encounters Morris’s book, opens it, and it’s on the last two pages where Joyce’s story comes full circle: “And so our story ends as it began…with the opening of a book.” I never tire of reading this story as the words, ideas, and images are crafted perfectly–they continually mesmerize me.

http://morrislessmore.com/?p=bookspreads
http://morrislessmore.com/?p=bookspreads

I find, for some reason, that I can relate to Morris Lessmore’s struggle with words. For much of Morris’s life, his words just never took off. I made a decision a few years ago that I was going to stretch myself personally and professionally and start to write. At times, I feel like Morris Lessmore. Words I write fall flat. Ideas in my head never seem to appear as vividly on my computer screen as they do in my imagination. Like Morris, I sit well into the night hoping that I can capture something interesting with words. Throughout this writing adventure, I’ve had a fair share of disappointment with a bit of success. Like Morris, I think I’ll continue for awhile longer. Like Morris, I write about life and what I’ve experienced. Right now, this means teaching and learning. Will my words ever take flight? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful.

The trailer for the Oscar-winning short film based on the book.

Additional Resources:

Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids

New York Public Library’s 100 Great Children’s Books

 

2 thoughts on “Using Children’s Books to Engage Young (and Adult) Writers

  1. Aimee Bender is one of my favorite authors, her fiction is hilarious, and I bet our students would enjoy her. I’m reading her short story collection now.

    I’ve been obsessed with Mr. Morris Lessmore since a production company out of New Orleans made an animated creation of the book, (one that I also gave as a present). Here’s the short film, it doesn’t give what Jonanthan really speaks to in words, but it is very well done cinematically. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VljJIQuPDSE

    Thanks for this post Jonathan!

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