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Monday, March 21, 2011

Making the Familiar New

I’m not sure where I read this (I’m guessing it was during those blogging experiences where you click a link that leads to another blog, where you click a link to another blog, where you … well, you get the idea.) but MT Anderson once said that the purpose of literature is to help the reader see the familiar in a different way.

I love this.

When I read that quote (or, um, paraphrase), I first thought about setting. I’ve lived in big cities and small towns. But I see each differently after reading a book. The setting’s inspired by the author’s life experiences and worldview. It differs based on the protagonist’s outlook on life, her personality, circumstances, worries, and fears. The same small town can be nostalgic or creepy or confining depending on the book.

As a teen, my family went to Paris. I loved the city, the feeling I got just being around the history and beauty. But when I read Anna and the French Kiss, I saw the city differently. It was romantic now. (FYI: there’s no romance in Paris when you’re with your family.) I saw in a way I never thought of it before. That’s the power of a good book.

This doesn’t just apply to setting, though. It applies to events and emotions and pretty much every part of a book.

In YA in particular, it’s easy to experience first love in so many different ways: wonder, apprehension, regret, guilt, and so on. Sure, we’ve all been there before. But the novel adds to our experience, expands it.

A book takes school—boring to teens—and adds a hot guy, vampires, aliens or a secret society. It takes a small town and makes it mysterious and creepy. It takes something as commonplace as a high school crush and lets us experience it this time as a teen boy or as a nerd.

I think it’s also important to remember that just because something’s boring and familiar to you doesn’t mean it’s boring to everyone else. I live in Northern Virginia and think it’s so uncool. (I mean, seriously, it takes about an hour to go two miles down the road. Grocery shopping’s a major time suck.) But someone from rural Tennessee might think living so close to Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial is exciting. (It’s not.)

Your pig-riding monkey might seem so normal. But, trust me, it’s not. And about 6,189,830 people would love to see it. So slap a tape up on YouTube then write it into a story.


How do you see books as changing our views of the familiar? How do you apply this to your writing?

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