Well, folks, this is a day about writing. I have a lot of writing to do, you see, but sometimes I get bogged down or stalled or stuck or– you all know the perils out there in the writing universe, right? Well, so does Little Red Writing, by Joan Holub, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
This is one of those moments when I want to get up on a soapbox and proclaim a few things to the world, so excuse me a moment while I preach to the choir, here. You see, if you’re at this website, reading my words, I expect that you’re one of those who, like me, sees value in children’s books beyond throwing them at kids. You, like me, believe that they have inherent value which transcends the ages printed on the website or the spine of the book. You believe that the same lessons which are being taught to children are important for adults– whether those be lessons about being inclusive or about how writing works. Everyone needs to learn to be a compassionate human being, we hope, and everyone should learn how a sentence works.
This is a book for children, yes– Chronicle Books recommends it for children aged 6-9, and they’d know better than I would. (Actually, that sounds really about right to me: for when children are just learning to write.) What surprised me was how great it was for me to read a simple book with basic writing lessons when I was briefly overwhelmed by my dissertation last week. “Ah, yes,” I was reminded, “sometimes you do just need to think about getting those words on the page in the right order. That’s how it goes.”
But how does Little Red Writing work, how does it go? There’s a little red pencil, appropriately named Little Red, who goes to pencil school. One day her teacher tells the class that they’re going to write stories. The rules of the story path are printed on the board:
- Idea, characters, setting
- Even bigger trouble
- Fix the trouble
Sound familiar? Well, yes. This is Basic How To Write Stuff. Even when you’re writing an essay you probably introduce the setting, introduce the problem, and resolve the problem as best you can. Little Red, of course, is meeting it for the first time, though, and she guides you along, she and her basket of 15 words to use in case she runs into trouble– and off she goes onto a journey around the school to find her story. She does run into trouble, pretty quickly: she cartwheels into a “deep, dark, descriptive forest” and is “bogged down, hindered, lost!” Her word basket hands her scissors to cut through the excess description and allow her to stick to her story path. And so she goes, adventure by adventure, to the crux of the story:
She hears a growling noise, right at the middle of the story, and starts tossing nouns out of her basket to get her to the next page… when she sees a long tail, and starts to follow it along its winding path, all the way to the principal’s office. Who should it be, but the Wolf 3000 pencil sharpener who has tried to grind Principal Granny to smithereens? When Mr. Woodcutter, the janitor, faints, it’s up to Little Red to save the day… and don’t forget, that means: save Principal Granny, defeat the Wolf 3000, and finish her story.
Fortunately her word basket yields one last noun: a stick of dynamite. Little Red lobs it at the pencil sharpener, saves Principal Granny, and returns to class to read out her story, having learned a thing or two about writing and sticking to the story path along the way.
And what have we learned with her? Well, we learn some technical rules:
- Don’t get bogged down by description
- Don’t write run-on sentences
- Use adverbs advisedly
- Stick to your story path
But we also learn some other lessons along the way. We learn to have fun. Little Red chases her story down, rather than waiting for it to come to her. You can’t expect your writing to turn up on the page for you, page numbers and title page and all. You have to go forth and do. And you can either do it grumpily or with a smile on your face– that’s up to you. Little Red chooses to do so bravely and with gusto.
She also leads by example. The parallels to Little Red Riding Hood are fun, but they’re also useful. Little Red Riding Hood is a very tightly constructed story, and one with a very clear “story path” (which is very conveniently located on a path in the story, so nice metaphor there). Using this parallel story gives a nice clear example– for example, I can see a teacher using this in class: if you can dissect the story path of Little Red Riding Hood with your students and show how Little Red in the story does the same thing, well, you’ve already learned a lot! Good job, class!
But I made the argument that the teacher, too, might gain something. Or the parent. Or any adult reader. And I stick by that statement. You learn, I think, to be sympathetic to Little Red. The difficulties and simplicities of writing aren’t likely to change. They were the same for the original authors of the various Little Red Riding Hoods out there as they were for Joan Holub writing Little Red Writing. They’re the same lessons I’m learning again as I write. They’re the same lessons you learn again as you write. We’re all in this together, with Little Red.
But the same joys of creation are there, and we have the same tools in our writing baskets: scissors for cutting our way through description, glue for sticking in necessary words (but not too many!), adverbs as needed (in moderation!). We’ve all been there before and will be again. And sometimes you just need a simple book to remind you of that: Strunk and White will always be there, true, but here’s a nice book to read with your kid, the two of you learning together.