Most of the art we create tends to be reflective of the art we consume. I know this to be true of myself. I am currently reading The Things of the Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts by self-described “Christian Hedonist”, Joe Rigney. My thoughts have been impacted by this reading material. As per usual, I’ve also been consuming various media on current events. Due to those influences, I write pieces like the one, from a couple of weeks ago, about relying on God when you’re down. In defense of my own lack of complete originality, Rigney himself starts out his book with an acknowledgment those who have influenced his thinking and writing (Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, John Piper and Doug Wilson).
Recently, my son was reading books by an author named Tom Angleberger. Angleberger writes a series of novels for younger readers about kids in school who create origami Star Wars characters. When my son gets into a book, or a series of books, he is inspired to do some of his own writing. Invariably, the writing (at least the theme and some of the style) is heavily influenced by the book he has been reading. This pattern has played itself out through such series as Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, 39 Clues and the Underland Chronicles.
My son’s experience with the series of books by Angleberger started out very similarly. He read voraciously. He consumed a book, then eagerly awaited a trip to the library for the next one. Of course, with his brain brimming with new ideas and a new universe to explore, he wanted to write. One night, after his normal reading time, he asked and was given permission to spend some time writing in his notebook. The next night followed the familiar pattern. Within a couple of nights, he had a small body of work, that he was eager for me to read. I read the few pages he had written, which were divided into short chapters with names like The Return of Force Ghost Yoda and Orgigami Jin and the Destruction of Jabba the Puppet. There was only one problem with the story. It was terrible. Now, my son is in third-grade, so I’m not expecting great prose, but he is very verbal and does write well for his age (we have standardized test results to prove this). This writing, though, wasn’t him. It basically consisted of a bunch of school kids making origami puppets and calling each other stupid. Now, ordinarily, my son doesn’t call anyone stupid. There it was, though. The insults were a central piece in the narrative conflict of his story. That’s being charitable. There wasn’t much of a narrative and the conflict was mostly disassociated nastiness.
My son always insists on feedback when my wife and I read his writing. Let me clarify that statement a bit. He looks for positive feedback on the things he has written. A question quickly presented itself: What is a parent to do when their expectations don’t match up with their child’s efforts and results? We took the route of honesty and let him know that we didn’t think much of his work. He got upset, cried and became very deflated. He fired back with parent-withering phrases like, “you think I’m a terrible writer!” We had to strongly differentiate between our bright little boy and his most recent work of fiction.
“It’s just not you, buddy,” I told him. “It sounds like someone else’s writing.”
The subject quickly turned to the books that were obviously influencing my son’s newest creative endeavor. My wife and I had not read any of the series, but were now highly suspicious of the contents. We told him we weren’t so sure he should continue reading the books by Angleberger. For his part, my son was very defensive about his new favorite author, insisting that, “he is a great writer and the books are really funny.” Given my experience, I’m not sure about the first statement, but can attest to overhearing frequent laughter during reading time. We decided not to enforce a strict ban on Angleberger’s books, but instead to give guidance that he soon move onto something else. The night came to a close with tears and many reassurances that we thought he was an excellent writer and could do better.
Creativity in Surprising Places
My son did not abandon the books immediately, but instead, channeled his creative energy into other pursuits related to what he was reading. We soon learned there were surprising and positive ways that the Angleberger series could propel his imagination. He worked feverishly on making more and more orgigami puppets, modeled after the ones in the book. We made a trip to the crafts store for different colors of paper and printed templates off of the internet. The Fortune Wookie pictured below is a decorated version of the fortune tellers kids used to (and probably still do) make in grade school. This one has an obvious deficiency, though. Upon opening the flaps, you learn that he only makes his predictions in different growls, like “AAAAGGGGHHHRRRRR” and “WAAARRGGGH.”. I was told that he needs Han Foldo to translate. Clever.
The writing also began anew, but this time on the computer. There was an insistance on plowing through the hundreds of fonts on the machine to find just the right one. We glossed over “American Typewriter,” which he deemed to be not quite right, to reach “Lucida Sans Typewriter.” I wondered about his newfound interest in typography. He explained that everyone in the books he was reading used a different font for their writing. He was inspired to do the same, using unique fonts, appropriate for each character in his story. I have to admit, I was pretty floored. My son has had, shall we say, unusual, interests since he was very small. When he was six, he knew all of the US Presidents, when they took office and when they left, and most of their dates of birth and death, as well. For a while, he lived and breathed US History. That was after his comparative religion phase. So, I shouldn’t be surprised by the things he gravitates toward. Who ever heard of a young kid who cared anything about fonts, though? I didn’t even know what fonts were, at his age. I’m pretty sure legendary American printer Ben Franklin didn’t, either. If these books can make a typography nerd out of a grade schooler, they certainly can’t be all bad.
Predictably, within a couple of weeks, the little bibliophile and aspiring novelist did move on from Angleberger’s books. My hunch is he would have done that whether or not we made the suggestion. The more impish among you will be happy to know he’s not completely reformed, though. Some of his new writing is, by his own rating system, labeled “R”, for “violence, inappropriate scenes, and deep voices.”