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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Growing A Reader with Jennifer Mason-Black, author of Devil and the Bluebird

In These Pages
by Jennifer Mason-Black

In the beginning there was a book. 

At least that is the story told in the mythology of my life. There was the life before reading began, and the life once the words made sense, and a dividing line called The Little Red Hen between the two. In my memory, there was no learning of letters, no shaping of sounds. Just the day when I sat with my mother and made the leap between non-reader and reader, thanks to the adventures of a determined hen.

To be honest, I remember almost nothing of The Little Red Hen. Memory rarely travels in straight lines; it folds and pleats time into the shapes it prefers. One moment I was reading words like hen and seed, the next I was sitting at a Christmas party, reading a collection of Hans Christian Andersen aloud to a Samoyed and a string of endlessly patient adults who understood the words beneath the ones I was reading: I am a reader. This is who I am. 

So, I loved books, and I loved animals, and I loved the woods. I loved James Herriot’s books, in particular the first one—All Creatures Great And Small—because the later ones included things like meeting and marrying his wife, and leaving his practice for the war…things that distracted from the veterinary work. I had a veterinary manual for farmers as well, and I read both repeatedly. I had become a very fast reader, but the truth was that I gulped books too quickly to capture everything in them. Any book worth its salt required a standard of three reads: once to capture the plot, once to allow the details to sink in, and once more, slower and deeper, to feel the rhythm of the language.

Eventually that third read would turn into the one I did with pen in hand, underlining lines and passages that spoke to me, often in a complicated dog-whistle way that I couldn’t explain to anyone else. The Herriot books came before that period, though, and have survived unscathed, aside from smudges and dog-ears and the ravages of time on old paperbacks. I diligently practiced everything I learned from them on my collection of stuffed animals. I even had the luck of having an overnight bag in the shape of a horse, which I would unzip and stuff with a smaller horse—known as Foal—rezip almost all the way, and then recreate the birth complications I read about, painstakingly working Foal through the small outlet.

I was homeschooled until I was twelve. The thing about being homeschooled in Massachusetts in the Seventies is that it meant you were automatically an outsider. There were no co-ops of the sort my kids have now. You never saw magazine covers about families homeschooling their way into Harvard. Instead, you hid and cried every time a police car drove through your apartment complex because the older kids would follow you and tell you that your parents were going to prison because you weren’t in school. 

It was a secretive sort of life, the kind that craved fantasy. Along with a steady diet of horse books, I branched out into fantasy of every sort. I loved Tolkien; one need only look at the state of my old copies to recognize the depth of my devotion. I had a complicated relationship with C.S. Lewis. As a child fairly uneducated in religion, I didn’t pick up on the Christianity for many years, but from the start I hated The Last Battle. I loved the first few, however, and The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader in particular. Why? I think the draw of Narnia itself was that it could be found. I could be alone and lonely and know that if I walked into the right closet at the right moment, looked into the right picture, I could pass through into another place.

As for why the Dawn Treader over The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, or Prince Caspian, I can’t say for certain. I loved Reepicheep (I have an embarrassingly long history of falling for rodents in books). I loved Eustace shedding his dragon skin, again and again, deeper and deeper, until he found himself within it. I loved journeys. And, perhaps most important, I loved water and traveling on it. I would fish with my father regularly during the summer, and we would sometimes rent a boat and be out for twelve hours, and even though I’d never been on a sailing ship of any sort, I could hear the water rushing past the Dawn Treader, and feel my feet steady on her deck, and imagine falling asleep to the motion of the waves.

When I was twelve, I started school. When I was fourteen, a cousin I loved very much was killed in a car accident. When you are a young reader in pain, books become more than stories. They can be the pump that forces your blood to circulate, the skin that protects you from the world. They can be the voice saying the things you don’t know how to say, or that whispers the words you need to hear into your ear. 

The Little Prince became my refuge. In its shelter, I heard that it was okay to be a person who saw elephants and boa constrictors where others saw hats, that I was not alone in loving someone deeply and grieving their loss. Because when we cry with a book, we readers, we are not alone. When we feel those things that the words invite us to feel, we feel them within the embrace of the pages. When I read The Little Prince now, when I turn the pages falling from the spine, rest my finger on passages underlined by my shaking teenage hand, I am walking with an old friend. Ah, the book says. I remember then, too. Those times were so hard, but we are both still here.

Because, in the end, the pleats and folds of my memory are as full of difficult foalings in the Yorkshire Dales and voyages to where the salt water turns sweet and waiting to hear that a friend lost to the stars has returned as they are my own journeys, my own losses. We readers are built of so many things.


About the Author

Jennifer is a lifelong fan of most anything with words. She’s checked for portals in every closet she’s ever encountered, and has never sat beneath the stars without watching for UFOs. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD is her first novel. She lives in Massachusetts.

About Devil and the Bluebird
“Devil-at-the-crossroads” folklore finds its way to YA via this moody, magical tale

Blue Riley has wrestled with her own demons ever since the loss of her mother to cancer. But when she encounters a beautiful devil at her town crossroads, it’s her runaway sister’s soul she fights to save. The devil steals Blue’s voice—inherited from her musically gifted mother—in exchange for a single shot at finding Cass.

Armed with her mother’s guitar, a knapsack of cherished mementos, and a pair of magical boots, Blue journeys west in search of her sister. When the devil changes the terms of their deal, Blue must reevaluate her understanding of good and evil and open herself to finding family in unexpected places.

In Devil and the Bluebird, Jennifer Mason-Black delivers a heart-wrenching depiction of loss and hope.

 Learn more about the Growing A Reader series here


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