Monday, March 24, 2008

Dog sitting and the power of books

Sorry for the late post today, I've had a busy weekend and am currently dog sitting/house sitting while editing Grace's new novel (which is fantastic, by the way--it's slated for next Spring). This morning I woke up to discover that one of the dogs, Maggie, who has recently had surgery on her leg, had somehow gotten the cone off from around her neck and had succeeded in biting the stitches off. About a week ago, she had done the same with her staples with her cone on, so they stitched her up and gave her a bigger cone. Obviously, that didn't work.

We took her to the vet, and it reminded me of how I had wanted to be a veterinarian when I was little. I've shared this story at several writer's conference, but thought I'd might as well share it again here as it relates to children's books.

I loved loved LOVED animals as a kid (still do). We never had pets, though, except for fish and parakeets, because of various family member allergies (I'm allergic to cats myself), but I always adopted the neighborhood dogs and cats as my own. I remember loving one black cat in particular named Midnight, and my piano teacher's Collie named Lady.

I kept with my decision of becoming a veterinarian when I grew up for many many years. And then one day, when I was probably around 10 years old, I read a book. My love of animals had always spilled into which books I read. I read all the dog books (Where the Red Fern Grows, Ribsy), all the horse books (Black Beauty, The Black Stallion), all the rabbit books (Rabbit Hill, Watership Down), etc. etc. I don't remember the title or author of the book in question, but what I do remember was it was about a girl whose father was a veterinarian. She had always wanted to be a veterinarian herself, until one night something happened to her dog, and her father asked her to help him care for her, which involved giving the dog a shot. At that moment, she discovered she didn't have the stomach for doing that, and realized that however much she loved animals, she couldn't be a veterinarian.

At the same time, I thought, I don't think I could give an animal a shot, either. I guess I can't be a veterinarian, either. And from then on, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I no longer answered "A veterinarian," and instead answered, "Well, I used to want to be a veterinarian, but now I'm not sure."

I actually think this is a bit sad, that a book had so much power as to change my mind about what I wanted to become so completely. And I realize now that, as I'm not really that squeamish, I probably could have become a veterinarian if I had wanted to. At the same time, I realize that I probably would have eventually changed my mind anyway, and as I feel I've found my true calling as a children's book editor, perhaps it ended happily regardless. But I also take this as an example of how powerful books can be. One can never predict the message a child will take away from any particular book (Alison Morris has a somewhat related post on this idea here) and it's pointless to try to predict how something is going to be received, or to censor one's self too much, but I think it's a helpful reminder as to how impressionable kids are, how much of what they see, hear, and read is absorbed.

And by the way, Maggie will be fine.


Anyway, I'm off to Bologna, Italy for the Bologna Book Fair this Friday. It's my first Bologna trip, and I'm super excited. If you're going to be there, let me know, let's try to meet up! I'll try to post while there, but it may not be possible, so my apologies in advance.

Happy Spring!


Anonymous said...

Hi Alvina,

I had a conversation about exactly this with a Quaker artist a few weeks ago. She talked about the "sacred space" between what is on the canvas or page and the image or idea that the viewer/reader receives. It seems like books and pictures are a fixed media because it's the same book or artwork for everyone. Except that everyone creates their own meaning from what they see.

I think it's part of what makes art powerful, but it is both humbling and a little scary to know, as an artist, that what you intend may not be what is received.

Have a lovely time in Italy!

Libby Koponen said...

I love this post and I find it inspiring that books can be so important and affect people in such unexpected ways.

A really brilliant physics professor (and my boss for awhile) once told me that he became a scientist because of a biography he read as a kid. And you know my story of the NASA astronomer who became one after reading THE GIANT GOLDEN BOOK OF ASTRONOMY...maybe I will post about that this week.


Nicole Tadgell said...

Funny - I just took my boy dog to the vet's today for a tooth cleaning!

I've always had great appreciation for vets - doing the shots and other yukky stuff... but months ago I gained great respect for them when my husband and I had to have our girl dog put down. Vets have to do heart breaking things like euthanasia. I can't imagine how tough that is.

Me, I've always wanted to be an artist. ;)

Anonymous said...

How funny that you wanted to be a vet too! I decided in the 7th grade that I wanted to be an equine veterinarian, actually. I grew up on a farm, working with all sorts of different animals, giving them all sorts of meds and cleaning their hooves and training them, etc. So I had no illusions about what it would be like to be a vet--except that I didn't want to admit that my very huge allergy to horses would keep me from being able to function on a daily basis.

But then I got to college and majored in animal science, pre-vet, and ended up hating chemistry with a passion. Then it became easier to give it up, because I didn't want to do the classwork that would get me into vet school.

And just like you, that led me on a (very long) path to my true passion, editing children's books. I still know I could have done it, but I wouldn't have enjoyed the coursework nearly as much, and it's just now working as a children's book editor that I've been able to get allergy shots that will help with my allergy to horses. So I'll be content with one day even being able to walk in the barn without coming out completely sick! Besides, I like my life just as it is now.

MotherReader said...

Interesting thoughts on the power of books to convey a life-altering message. When I write my bestseller, I'll make sure to include the phrase "Drive to the right, Pass on the right," and perhaps save the next generation the frustration that is my daily commute.

Laura said...

Great post!

Have fun in Bologna,

I hope you can see my artwork on the flat
screen on the art bulletin board!!