Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 31, 2010

Slim Books

When much of life is sitting at home, it can be hard to know what to blog about. Or if you move your laptop to the library or a coffee shop, well, how interesting is that? One thing I love here at LiveJournal is the conversations that sometimes get started in the comments, and how sometimes a question will bring out the seed of a new post. This happened a few days ago when Melodye looked past my cute baby geese, which truly are worth looking at alone, to my words about writing more sparely. She noted that much of what she reads these days is honed done., and asked if I’d also noted any trends toward spareness.

I’m not a great one to field questions about trends since I rarely recognize them till they’re almost over. Of course I’ve noted the pleasure many have found in big books like Harry Potter and Twilight, and delight in the lack of fear of a thick binding. Trilogies and other forms of sequels can add to the bulk and satisfy those who like a fictional world and want to stay there for a while. If there is a leaning toward the lean, I can’t say I see it, expect perhaps in the Pulitzer Prize award for Tinker, a novel I haven’t yet read, but I believe it half the width and length of most books and almost as slim as celery. Poetry has always been around, but maybe there will be more verse novels, like Susan Taylor Brown’s Hugging the Rock or those for teens beautifully written by Lisa Schroeder <lj user=" lisa_schroeder".

This is a long way to walk around the question, which probably just comes back to that most of us like to write in the forms we like to read. As I get older, time feels shorter, so I want writers to get to a point. Spareness seems a particularly good way to approach history, which can otherwise seem overwhelming in its bulk and scope. I prefer the story of one person or family to the story of a nation, and I’m most drawn to moments within that person’s life. I like the way Marilyn Nelson gives us the voices of family, colleagues, and neighbors so we can pull together a picture of a scientist in Carver: A Life in Poems. I especially like seeing George Washington Carver pick up and contemplate a leaf or hear the tick of his pocket watch. The poem titled Egyptian Blue shows not just Carver’s feat of duplicating this color, but how, when offered treasure for the discovery, “He sent it/ for the cost of the two-cent stamp/ it cost him to mail it.”

Another book written with an eye toward those ten and older is Sold by Patricia McCormick. I don’t think I’d have read a big book about the sex trade in Asia, but these series of beautifully crafted vignettes from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl taken from the mountains in Nepal to a brothel use particular images and brief phrases that let me see the horror of her life without feeling mired. Both these books have words that glitter and take us to fleeting moments that feel true.

For elementary school readers, there’s always – and I mean always – Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, which gives us everything we need to know about family love in fifty-seven pages. And for a tender look into a boy and the practice of poetry, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is pretty perfect.

Sometimes you want two lines from Emily Dickinson and sometimes you want something as thick as a Dickens novel. Sometimes you want a single small diamond and sometimes a good puffy jacket. So I don’t know about trends, but I’m certain we’re lucky to have choices. For those writing from life, I recommend Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas, a book which could fit in certain pockets. Actually, almost any writer could use her advice on ways into writing or new ways to see what’s old. Her paragraphs are packed. Her chapters rarely exceed three pages. Her practice reflects her advice. Short truly is sweet. Or stunning. You can see how she dives right in here in an article including great writing exercises in Oprah magazine:

The small is where we start and may be what we should return to. This morning I set my laptop on the porch table. I smell the husband-cut grass and rugosa roses beaten down by rain. The irises look stalwart. Overhead, the sky is a steel gray. At my elbow, the tea is getting cold.

Tomorrow I’ll write about working from details.



  1. Love this – “The small is where we start and may be what we should return to.”
    My middle grade book that I’m writing now will probably be rather short. But like you say – it’s good to have choices, especially when we’re talking books for kids!! The more choices the better, I say!
    Also – Susan Taylor Brown actually wrote HUGGING THE ROCK. I love that book!! Seeing it there, I suddenly have the urge to reread it. 🙂

  2. Lisa! I was just putting this up, and noticed the book image somehow ate the right attribution. Was still frantically messing around when Melodye also alerted me to the problem. Thank you both! (and I wished I’d looked longer at the preview)
    This makes me think that sometimes middle grades are a bit longer than some for teens. I think it’s great you’re writing a shorter one.

  3. A mockingbird is serenading the morning. Cool breezes sweep through my office window. The curtain flutter, as do the papers on my desk. A steaming coffee mug sits next to the keyboard. Jeannine’s blog post is on the computer screen. A candle flickers, and the sweet smell of lavender, combined with vanilla coffee beans, wafts through the air.
    Such a wonderful post with which to start my day–thank you! I can’t wait for tomorrow’s entry! 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I shall definitely pick up Abigail Thomas’s book! As a reader, I gravitate towards spare, knowing full well how challenging it is to write “short.” I’ve always held up books like Sarah, Plain and Tall, or Kira Kira, as ideal models. Of course, more recently, Borrowed Names is definitely something to aspire to :)! Congratulations on your 4th starred review!!

  5. Melodye, I’m happy to start my day with you, with scents of coffee and candles.
    And thank you so much for your kind alert on the mixing of two lovely writers. I had problems with the image of Hugging somehow eating up words, and finally could only resolve it by putting it at the bottom of the post: maybe not such a bad way to end. But mea culpa for not noticing the problems before I posted.

  6. PS Laura Hamor (aka artistq) once gave me the audiotaped version of a book about writing memoir; it’s one that I return to again and again. I love that it encourages you to write the small details–the essence of life stories–and then work your way up to larger themes. It’s called OLD FRIEND FROM FAR AWAY, by the inimitable Natalie Goldberg.

  7. I asked my publisher to send me Abigail Thomas’s memoir book. It’s a gem.

  8. Thanks, Jama. And commenting below, Candace seconds the recommendation for the Abigail Thomas book. You can get a taste at the Oprah magazine link and I expect you’ll be hooked: it’s just out in paperback.

  9. Yes, it’s a gem I want to reread!
    Congrats again on your book sale!!!

  10. I agree — great book by Natalie Goldberg. But I also love your sentence synopsis of it! You certainly have the gift for getting to the essence in a few well chosen words, as you did with your tribute to Zoe. xo

  11. Jeannine, you’re describing my dream for what I want to accomplish with my historical YA. Thanks for validating my wish! 🙂

  12. Love that dream! I’m wishing you luck with it as I follow your progress!

  13. Thank you, Jeannine, for giving a shout-out to Hugging the Rock. I think you should get some commissions from the Abigail Thomas book…I’m going to have to order it now too. 🙂
    BTW, I just read Beth Kephart’s Ghosts in the Garden that you recommended. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it. It’s another small one to savor.

  14. Susan, it’s nice to hear people pick up books based on my suggestions! A friend is now reading Hugging the Rock after, in a Poetry Month post, I linked to your series about your father. I know she will love it. And I’m glad you liked Ghosts in the Garden.
    And just to add to your pile… I’m sure you’ll be inspired by Abigail Thomas on writing memoir, but, while it’s not particularly slim, I also bet you’ll like her memoir Three Dog Night, which led me to that book. She discusses her marriages, her imperfect mothering, her writing struggle, and a tragic accident in the family from which dogs help her heal.

  15. That penultimate paragraph is a poem of its own. Warmest thanks to you for sharing so much wisdom, and so many luminous moments.

  16. Thanks, Amy!

  17. Thanks for linking to my poetry month series, Jeannine. I’ve got Three Dog Life on my shelf. I loved it too. (I seem to pick up most books about dogs…wonder why?)

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