Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Beauty of a Quiet Book

One of the beauties of a quiet book is that life unfolds more slowly in its pages, unlike the rush of plot-driven adventure novels, which are so popular in the minds of editors and agents these days (and in readers’ minds, too, I suppose) because of that rush.

Quiet stories tend to explore a character’s inner world rather than build a fast-paced action plot that can feel like a rapidly shifting maze or a series of bigger (or smaller) hoops through which a character has to jump.

A quiet book may not have much in the way of a plot, and it may examine characters who don't seem to have many flaws or who lack a significant problem altogether, which means that the story may lack sufficient conflict for some readers to stay interested in what happens next.

And yet ... a quiet book can give readers an opportunity to savor the richness and natural rhythms of life, as well as its mysteries, in much the same way sitting on the edge of a still lake or calm sea can offer moments of true insights into the mysteries of life surrounding us.

These thoughts about quiet books were prompted by Patricia MacLachlan's The Poet’s Dog, which I found the other day while browsing through the shelves of our local library. 

One of the mysteries that MacLachlan, the Newberry Medal winning author of Sarah, Plain and Tall and a host of other books, explores in The Poet’s Dog is a what if question: what if a dog could understand language and speak in order to be understood? (MacLachlan performs this same magic trick in Waiting for the Magic, another middle grade reader with more than one dog that can understand and speak English.)

Maybe this idea—that dogs can speak and understand English—is what makes The Poet’s Dog more than a “quiet” book, I don't know. Maybe it even gives it a step up into fantasy. But however you might want to label it, it’s a book as much about the value of words—and how words have the power to connect us to one another, human to human as well as human to animal—as it is about plot and character.

MacClachlan moves her readers inside the thoughts of each of her characters (even if one of the characters is a dog), and I suspect readers are able to hear these thoughts precisely because of the “quietness” of the story.

And maybe that’s another reason why I love quiet stories. In quiet stories you can hear the inner voices of the characters as clearly as you can hear your own. By opening a window into her characters’ interior worlds, MacLachlan gives readers a chance to savor this inside-out view in ways that are impossible when the story rushes by like an out-of-control roller coaster.

Time seems to slow down in quiet stories, and I treasure the chance to slow down, to take my time reading each word, turning details of the story over on the tip of my tongue without feeling rushed or forced to go faster than the pace that I feel comfortable with.

Yes, I admit there are times when I enjoy fast-paced, action-adventure stories and the roller-coaster feeling of falling and rising and falling again so quickly that the world is a blur of pure fear.

But it’s inevitably the quiet stories that take me deeper into life’s mysteries. Or maybe it’s just that quiet stories give me a chance to simply sit with the mystery of life.

At the heart of The Poet's Dog is the mystery of how human beings and animals recover from loss—a dog’s recovery from grief, a child’s recovery from fear, a mother and father’s recovery of their lost children.

It’s a story about restoring balance to the world, about waiting out a storm—whether that storm forms from the weather or grief or loss—and finding faith that life will regain its balance.

It’s also a story about passing on values of kindness, of courage, of hope and trust.

Editors, agents, and teachers may disagree, but I believe the world needs more “quiet” stories that give young readers space to think and to dream, stories that let us pause and appreciate what’s right in front of us, that help us learn how to live in the moment.