books, Reading, Women Writers

Books on Books: “Dear Fahrenheit 451” by Annie Spence and “Our Story Begins” edited by Elissa Brent Weissman

As a bibliophile and book blogger, I have a not-surprising weak spot for books about books, especially those that surrender to the madness that is an all-consuming love of reading and surrounding oneself with paper worlds. I have had the good fortune of receiving advance copies of two new releases of this kind recently.

IMG_0820First, let’s take a moment with “Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks” by Annie Spence, which I found to be an epistolary gem. With delicious wit and cunning, Spence has written letters – some love, some hate – to books that have impacted her life. Spence is a public librarian and life-long reader, so the scope of the books to which she is exposed and to which she addresses her missives is expansive and extremely smart. There is something in here for everyone. Whether it is her love letter to Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” to “tell you how much I loved your dark humor, [and] thank you for making a bookish girl with DIY bangs like me the hero of a story”; her rubber-gloved dismissal of a library copy of “The One-Hour Orgasm”; or her rebellious perusal of “The Fancy Bookshelf at a Party I Wasn’t Technically Invited To”, the letters in this book had me snorting with laughter and feeling very smug at the ‘in’ jokes of the bookish.

In her gushing letter to Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides”, Spence goes delightfully gaga and fan girls out, telling the book:

“I love every one of your fucking golden sentences. They are slam-you-shut-and-clutch-you-against-my-chest sublime. … I love that after I read you, every time, my own everyday movements and the quotidian moments of my life feel more beautiful. … It’s more than that, though, I feel like you get me. Like, get me. I don’t feel like you were written for me. I feel like you were written FROM INSIDE OF my psyche.”

That’s pure, unfiltered and poetic love.

Annie Spence isn’t afraid to be dismissive of the pulp that comes across her path, either. In her ‘Dear John’ letter to Nicholas Sparks’ “Dear John”, she slays.

“It sounds kind of obvious to say this because you’re a book, but I want to be moved by your words. In the prologue you say, ‘Our story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end.’ No shit, John. That’s how that works. Give me something that I’ve never heard. Describe something I’m familiar with but never thought of as beautiful before. Or at least throw in some more equestrian scenes.
          Anyway, not to beat an underutilized horse, but I’m donating you to my doctor’s office. I don’t know what I’m going to make up to say to my relative when she asks if I read you. I’m just guessing, given your author, that one character turns out to be an angel? I’m gonna hedge my bets and lead with that at the Christmas party.”

Two thirds of “Dear Fahrenheit 451” is made up of such letters, which are true to the book’s premise and singly and collectively endearing. The final third of the book consists of recommendations and some inventive reading lists. Now, I love a good list, but this section feels like filler. It neither kept my attention nor maintained the witty repartee that made the rest of the book such a success. I wish Spence and her editors had simply been satisfied with leaving well enough alone without tacking on this incongruous, appendix-like section. In spite of that small criticism, however, I thought this book was a brilliant concept that was brilliantly executed. I felt immediately compelled to press my copy into the hands of my local librarians to share my joy.

In a very different concept, Elissa Brent Weissman has brought together a collection of some 25 children’s book authors and illustrators in “Our Story Begins”. Alongside very short memoirs focused on ‘how I realized I needed to make children’s books’ appear childhood writings and illustrations that warm the heart and inspire. This collection not only features creators of children’s books, it is targeted towards children’s literature readers. That is, it is meant for children, for future authors and illustrators. The artists in these pages share their experience and their wisdom, allow for the fact that we all have to start somewhere and for the possibility that not everything we create has to be gold, and remind us that sometimes childhood dreams become dream jobs. They are normalizing the creative process, offering tips and tricks of the trade, and encouraging kids to follow their passion.

Tom Angleberger opens up the door to the editorial process:

“Whether you’re talking or writing, you can’t just blah blah blah all the time. You’ve got to think about who is listening and figure out how to keep them listening and how to make what you’re saying sensible to them.”

Eric Rohmann beautifully incapsulates the creative process:

“I have always made pictures. I drew what was around me, what I liked, and what I cared about. Drawing was how I found my way in the world. That’s because drawing requires looking closely, so closely that you begin to see details you’d never see in a glance. You begin to see variations in color and shadow. You begin to see patterns and connections. But as I drew more and more, I discovered something else. Drawing isn’t just about seeing. It’s about feeling. A picture is not just a description, but a doorway into my thoughts and emotions.” 

This passage, at least in my mind, translates for visual arts AND writing, pinpointing why creating and consuming books can be such an emotional, formative experience. “Our Story Begins” is for the creator in all of us. In picture book form, it is warm and welcoming to children of all ages and gives hope for the untold masterpieces that are yet to come.

“‘Books erase bias, they make the uncommon everyday, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal.'” – Grace Lin

Thank you to Flatiron Books for providing a complimentary advance copy of “Dear Fahrenheit 451” (published in the US on 9/26/17) and to Simon & Schuster: Atheneum Books for Young Readers for “Our Story Begins” (published in the on US 7/4/17).

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