Monday, June 4

Summer Reading, Part Four: Shorts

Warm weather, the dog days of summer, time to break out the shorts. Nothing more refreshing and cooler than lounging about, unencumbered, with plenty of free time to lounge and let the mind flicker an wander. The perfect time to snack on short stories and other collected short works.

I am opening this one to the floor because while I feel I could cover this topic myself I've found myself more and more wondering how others would answer the following question:

What collections of short stories, sudden fiction, or essay collections would you recommend to a summer reader as a nice, occasional pick-me-up?

I already feel that regular readers know that were it not for my discovery of Kurt Vonnegut's short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House when I was in my early teens I might not have been the reader I am today. But that wasn't my first brush with the single-author short story collection. No, that honor goes to Ray Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun, a book I remember toting around with me in the fifth or sixth grade. I couldn't tell you where it came from or honestly say I remember the stories it contained (although many of the titles are deeply familiar in some way) and this book is among others on my NTR (Need to Re-read) list.

(Speaking of Mr. Bradbury, apparently we got it all wrong when we've read Fahrenheit 451 as an anti-censorship book; looks like it's an attack on television. Add another book to the NTR pile...)

There are, of course, collections aimed at middle grade and young readers that aren't half a century old that are widely available and enjoyed by kids. Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (and its sequels) is only a quarter century old! Schwartz is a collector of folklore and his tales represent those that are often told aloud and by necessity short enough to be memorized. I would consider these stories essential for campfires and slumber parties -- in fact I remember many of them from campfires when I was young, a testament to their lasting power. The stories themselves don't scare the reader as much as they might a listener as a large number include directions at the end for grabbing someone while screaming the last crucial line.

On the quieter side of things there's Cynthia Rylant's collection Every Living Thing gathers a dozen short stories where an animal plays an integral part in changing a person's life. I have to admit that the stories caught me a little off guard at first because they have an almost "adult" feel to them. "Planting Things" tells of an older retired couple, a man who likes to work the garden for the joy of it while his wife is housebound with illness. A jay makes a nest in one of his flower pots on the porch and while he delights in watching the fledglings grow and leave the nest his wife is content to stay in her bed and hear his second-hand tales. When the birds have flown off he collects the nest with the intention of setting it out the following spring to "grow" another family of birds.

And when I finished I couldn't help wondering "What would a kid make of that story?" Indeed, what do young readers make of stories that don't exists to push a happy ending or solve a particular riddle but instead celebrate small, changing moments in life. It's thoughts like this that lead me down a trail of optimism that the revival of the short story is immanent.

Another fine collection aimed at the middle grade reader is Richard Peck's Past Perfect, Present Tense, a brilliant title for a short story collection if ever there was one. Peck's collection begins with an introduction that briefly explains how short stories work. He then provides an introduction to his first-ever published short story including what his assignment was and how he approached it. Many young writers will appreciate the insight as much as they will the humorous story that came out of his thinking. Like many good teachers, Peck shows and tells giving his voice authority without scaring readers away. Each of the books sections contains an introduction that explains their grouping or origins. I wish there were more books like this.

Or are there?

This is where I wanted to open up the floor for discussion. What I like, what I am attracted to, are stories by a single author because I can see the breadth and variety of the author's thinking. If I like an author's style I'll want to read more, and while I understand the benefit of a story collection by many hands if a particular story doesn't catch me I might not search out that author to see if something else does.

Additionally, I am curious to know if anyone out there can recommend essay collections for children. I have seen in the past chain bookstore attempting to push David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day on their Teen Beach Reads table and scratched my head. In the beginning, Sedaris' essays were funny but they don't leave a lasting impression and I never said to myself "Teens would really love this!" Still, as I said, I am curious to know if anyone has encountered collections of essays that would be enjoyed by younger audiences.

I will add that as far as non-fiction goes I think there could be better coverage of collections on music, politics and general interest. The Best American Magazine Writing, Best American Non-required Reading, and the Da Capo Best Music Writing anthologies, among others, are totally acceptable for teens but what's out there for the younger reader, the pre-teen who might be interested in general non-fiction topics but wants something more substantial than a collection of factoids? Any ideas?

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Our story thus far...
Episode One - Low Humor
Episode Two - Non-fiction?
Episode Three - Trash
Episode Four - Shorts
Stay tuned for the final episode in the series: Part Five - The Index to Periodical Literature
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