Part of my job as a teacher aide is to listen to students read aloud and to assist them with strategies for decoding and comprehending the text. You would think that being a writer and having a deeper insight into how words work would help me with this job. An experience earlier I had at work earlier this week suggested otherwise.
The student I was working with the time brought to me a well-worn copy of a Goosebumps book. For those of you unfamiliar with Goosebumps, it is a series of horror novels for children written by the prolific and insanely successful author R. L. Stine. How prolific? He’s written hundreds of these things. And how successful? According to Wikipedia, he had sold over 400 million copies of his books as of 2008, and earned US$41 million in 1996 alone (400 million? Is that even a real number?).
As the Goosebumps series was launched in the early 1990’s, I did not have the pleasure of a childhood populated by these
books, but had I been born ten to fifteen years later, I probably would have. Despite never having read a Goosebumps book from start to finish, I greatly admire the author, not just for his phenomenal financial success, but also for introducing children to the horror genre (and thereby creating potential DCP customers, is the most fervent hope…).
But I digress.
So, this twelve year old boy is reading to me from the first chapter of this book. The two main characters, a brother and sister, have been sent to their grandparents’ farm for the holidays, and are going on a tour of the farm. The brother says something like, “Why do we have to go on this tour? We’ve seen the farm hundreds of times.” And the sister says something along the lines of, “Because it’s a tradition. Now shut up and keep walking.”
I turn to the boy. “Do you know why the author wrote that?” He shakes his head ‘no’.
“Because he needs to show the reader the farm through the characters’ eyes, but the reader is going to ask, ‘why are they touring the farm when they’ve already been there heaps of times?’, so the author has to come up with some good excuse for what the characters are doing.”
This student has the most eloquent range of facial expressions, either that or I have developed intermittent powers of clairvoyance, because the look he gives me says, “Don’t tell me shit like that. I don’t want to know how or why the author has constructed it that way. That takes all the fun out of it. I just want to enjoy the story.”
“Never mind,” I say, waving away my faux pas. “Let’s read on.” We near the end of the chapter, and the eccentric farm hand in the story is slowly shucking an ear of corn picked from the farm’s large corn field. The main character sees what lies beneath the husks, and screams in horror. The chapter ends.
I quickly cover the page where the next chapter starts and ask the boy, “What do you think she sees?” At this age, the students are supposed to be able to make intelligent predictions of what will happen next in the story, and inwardly I congratulate myself for finding a teaching opportunity.
“Bugs,” he says, without hesitation.
I nod. “OK, bugs,” I say. “Sounds plausible. Let’s read on and find out.”
Turned out, the ear of corn was crawling with worms – close enough to bugs, and it’s the student’s turn to be smugly self-congratulatory.
“You know,” I muse, “I was imagining something else inside that ear of corn. Something much scarier. Something like…oh, I don’t know, a small severed hand or something.” I hold up my own hand and mime cutting it off at the wrist.
The boy gives another one of his eloquent expressions. This one says, “oh my God, what the hell is wrong with you!?!” and he punctuates it by edging away from me slightly.
I give a self-conscious little laugh and say, “but that wouldn’t make much sense, would it?”
“No,” he says gravely and emphatically. “No, it wouldn’t.”
(Only in Tracieland would it make sense, my dear – only in Tracieland.)