So I prescribed a book for her. The Rhetoric Companion by ND Wilson and Douglas Wilson. Chapters 22 and 23 of that book, which is the single best how-to-write book I have ever read bar none, are alone worth the price of the book. They describe and quantify a phenomenon I had noticed but never quite understood. The Wilsons call it the rhythm of words, and say:
The meter of your prose is as present as the meter of your poetry. The difference is that the meter of your poetry is identified and set apart, while the meter of your prose meanders and hides (occasionally under bushels). Nevertheless, at least a portion of your ear should be attuned to this aspect of your supposedly mundane talk.This small and usually-utterly-overlooked element of rhythm is the single biggest thing missing from the vast bulk of professional writing today. And ND Wilson is doing his best to bring it back. Flip open the cover of his latest novel (written for kids), leaf past the title page, and the first thing you'll come to isn't a chapter heading. It's an ode.
When the sugarcane's burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.Or, better yet, hear the author reading it himself:
Stare through the smoke and let your eyes burn.
While cane leaves crackle and harvesters whir, while blades shatter armies of sugar-sweet sticks, watch for ghosts in the smoke, for boys made of blur, fast as rabbits and faster.
Shoes are for the slow. Pull 'em off. Tug up your socks. Shift side to side. Chase. But be quick. Very quick. Out here in the flats, when the sugarcane's burning and the rabbits are running, there can only be quick. There's quick, and there's dead.
OK. Now that you know what nigh-perfect prose rhythm sounds like, let me explain why such fireworks are so particularly apt for this little book.
Charlie Reynolds comes to the little town of Taper, Florida for a funeral--his stepfather's old football coach. That's where he meets his step-cousin Cotton Mack. That's where he runs through mud and sugarcane for the first time. That's where he first meets the old man with the rusty sword, and smells the stink of envy at midnight in the churchyard during a grave robbery...
That's where he meets the Gren, made of shadows and decay, muck-covered and stronger than steel. And the Gren want Taper...
(Gren, geddit? Geddit?)
OK, so when ND Wilson sits down to plan his next nail-bitingly thrilling children's fantasy adventure story, I don't know what happens. Most likely he discards a stack of ideas as amazing as this one, and I'd like to go dumpster diving in the recycle bin of his mind, because it must be crazy in there. But here's what I guess happens:
"So I'll write another adventure story for 9-12-year-old boys, because that's what I do best. And because I do it best and why discard a winning formula, I'll give him a close family, loving relationships with his siblings and mum, and a tragic backstory involving a dad who can't be there anymore and a new father-figure who can be. Only this time, maybe the dad is gone because he was abusive, but instead of Charlie refusing to allow his scars to heal and let his stepdad step into the breach, I'll show them all moving on and healing...Yeah! And the zombies and the football go on top of that!
"Now all I need is a plot. BEOWULF'S."
And then, I imagine, he air guitars around his office.
After reading Wilson's other books, I've come to expect this marriage of real, sympathetic characters (because adults have feelings too), close family ties (because you don't need to be an orphan to have adventures), lowbrow awesome (zombies! Dragonvampires! HAMMY IMMORTAL CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH, ARRR!), peculiar American sports (baseball and gridiron, so far), with philosophical musings on death and resurrection and shameless cribbing from great literature like The Odyssey and Beowulf.
Where most children's books seem small, Wilson's seem big. If I were a little more of a snob, I would say that these books are much too good for the piefaces they were written for. Kids don't need to meditate on how a graveyard is like a garden, or feel sympathetic for the bravery of a woman who has left a dangerous and abusive relationship, or be soaked in the rolling cadences of a master prose stylist, or get jokes about the rigours of classical home education.
"Secret is," Cotton said, "I ain't never running from piles of books. I run from the books she be putting in the piles." His eyebrows went up. "You ever hear of the Brontes?"Wilson's are books for a bigger world, a world of more possibilities and adventures than most kids will ever know. A world of danger and big ideas, where excellence is possible even in a nail-biting zombie yarn for kids. That's why they're so important, and that's why your children should read them. Because after a few shots of NDW, they won't just be begging you for the next book, they'll be asking you for Beowulf and Latin lessons.
Charlie shook his head.
"Well, don't," Cotton said. "Ever."
All of Wilson's books have these things in common, but Boys of Blur was special. Wilson does have some maturing to do as a writer, and the exciting thing is that I see that maturing happening right before my eyes. I've really enjoyed his Ashtown Burials series, but there are times when it resembles a hot mess--a sprawling, gigantic story with the enthusiasm and apparent lack of direction of a rubber bouncy-ball. It's brilliant, of course, but times come when you wish the brilliance would go away for a bit and let you breathe. Boys of Blur, as a standalone, proves that NDW can write something light, tight, and self-contained, with a glorious economy of words, characters, and plot. There's more room to breathe in this book, a better opportunity to appreciate the themes, a more ultimately-satisfying story.
Oh, yes, and if you do include Beowulf in your home-ed reading program, add Boys of Blur. It's not just by a Beowulf fanboy, it's from a family where everyone has been thinking over and discussing the deeper meanings of the poem for a good long time. In Boys of Blur, the monsters are zombies and Heorot is a football stadium, but the meaning of it all is the same.
If you've never read ND Wilson before, I highly recommend starting here. So far, it's my favourite of anything he's ever done.
Find Boys of Blur on Amazon or The Book Depository.