Bookshots: 'Why I Don't Write Children's Literature' by Gary Soto

Bookshots: 'Why I Don't Write Children's Literature' by Gary Soto

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Title:

Why I Don't Write Children's Literature

Who wrote it:

Gary Soto, a Mexican-American poet and author known for his stirring portrayals of themes universal to mankind from the viewpoint of marginalized groups.

The travesty here is that Soto has not succeeded in showing why he no longer writes children's literature, but has in fact shown why he should.

Plot in a box:

A memoir-in-essays by multi-award-winning poet and former children's author Gary Soto.

Invent a new title for this book:

Why I Wrote Children's Literature (But Don't Anymore)

Read this if you liked:

Any of Soto's previous essay or poetry volumes. If you were a fan solely of the kidlit era, this one's probably not for you.

Meet the book's lead:

The author himself, a poet coming to terms with his aging body and evolving personal and professional life.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Bill Murray, circa Lost in Translation.

Setting: would you want to live there?

The stories are set in California mostly, near Berkeley, and some are in foreign countries along the author's travels. He doesn't focus on the locations as much as the people and his reactions to them, but when setting is a factor, it's a lovely and moving one. And I've always had a soft spot for California.

What was your favorite sentence?

Perhaps [the reviewer] saw the case of a fictitious character speaking her mind as a benign calamity. In any event, he said the description was 'probably an unintended mistake.' Eight years after the book's publication, I will say that it was not a mistake. As an author, I come clean. I made Marisol's mother say those words—she was my character, right? She was speaking her mind. And she could read the newspapers.

—from "Why I Stopped Writing Children's Literature"

The Verdict:

I'm a kidlit writer. I'm also a kidlit editor. I love analyzing all viewpoints of issues close to my heart, so when I saw the title of this book, I jumped at the chance to review it, thinking I'd be in for a series of devil's advocate essays against writing for the youth of America. What I got was...not that. At least, not on the surface. On the surface, Gary Soto's latest essay collection reads like the memoir of an aging writer whose sense of humor has stayed intact despite the ever-volleying changes around him. He pokes delightful—and delightfully believable—fun at himself throughout, cracking enough effectively self-deprecating jokes to make even his most beloved readers question his ludicrous mountain of achievements, which include being a finalist for the king of all writing prizes: the Pulitzer. There are moments of honesty so raw they bear rereading, but there are also times he veers off track so randomly that I found myself skimming the page.

And yet, beneath it all shimmers a certain undercurrent of magic, one I couldn't quite put my finger on. Some of the stories, particularly the shorter ones like "Haggling Over Watermelons" and "Mexican Migrant," read almost like poetry and, although pondering seemingly simple, everyday events, seem to carry the most weight. Others, like "Why I Stopped Writing Children's Literature" and "Committee Meetings" and "A Dog Story Featuring Geese," stab direct and deep, illuminating the darker moments of an otherwise bright life. 

But never is there more magic than in the essays featuring the author somehow engaged with young people. Watching them, working alongside them, running awkward Q & A sessions, or letting them mistake him for another famous Gary, to name a few. His description of a little girl named Gina made me want her to be the sole character in the story. And he speaks so lovingly of the foreign exchange students in another story, students who "have been wired upstairs for other kinds of work" but who joyously garden alongside him. Even in the semi-titular essay defending his decision to stop writing children's literature, he brings the very character that killed kidlit for him to life, depicting her as a college-aged girl with such grace and tenderness that I totally want to read a sequel about her now. The travesty here is that Soto has not succeeded in showing why he no longer writes children's literature, but has in fact shown why he should.

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Tiffany Turpin Johnson

Review by Tiffany Turpin Johnson

Tiffany is a young adult novelist represented by Annie Bomke Literary Agency, and operates TJ Writeography, a freelance editing and writing service. Tiffany lives in Atlanta with her husband, dog, and two (sometimes three) kids. When she's not glued to her Apple family or chasing things around the house, she likes to read, crochet, play piano, ingest vast quantities of Cadbury eggs, and marathon Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns. Find her at www.fictiffous.com and on Twitter at @Fictiffous.

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