Wednesday, April 9, 2008

To Be Read In Any Order You Want


One of these days I'm going to turn my book Across the Wide Ocean into a web page. It might work better as a web page, after all, and it might be better understood.  If I were the author of a web page called What's Swimming Around Out There and Where It's Going and Why, maybe I wouldn't hear comments like this one: "Absolutely wonderful! It took me a long time to see/read/absorb/plow through it all." And when I said, "I know, I wrote it that way," my web page's viewers would nod sagely, and thank me, instead of doing that nodding-and-smiling thing. 

This book started just the way it says in the book: me in a beach chair, four-year-old asleep in my lap, horizon stretching out five miles, sand at my feet made out of the pretzel crumbs that usually litter my work table until put -- ingeniously! -- to better use as collage stuff.  Emily snoozed, I daydreamed, pretzel crumbs washed out from under my feet, and I thought quite suddenly about the three-dimensionality of the ocean, how many layers deep it was, and how huge, stretching out all the way to Spain. (No, Portugal. No, the Azores. Are you sure it's not England?) By the time the darn book came out, Emily was 18, and here's why: 

It was a difficult concept. 

Really simple, too: the ocean, right? With things swimming in it? And people! People swimming and sailing and boating.  And submarining, like the fish!  How are they all finding their way? With compasses? With the stars? With maps? Or, like baby whales and kindergarteners, by following their mothers? 

Here's the pitch: Across the Wide Ocean follows the routes of six travelers (plus a few extras on the sidelines) as they go about their usual business in the ocean. There's a newly hatched loggerhead sea turtle that's making its way to the sea. There's a blue shark, the fastest shark, which swims thousands of miles from one end of the ocean to the other. There's a North Atlantic right whale mother and calf (formerly the "right" whale to catch, hence its near-extinction), and a sailboat carrying a scientist and his family who are looking for new right whale habitats (the real-life scientist Michael Moore of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), a container ship (whose crew needs to look out for right whales crossing the shipping lanes), and a nuclear submarine that lurks, and gets lost, under the Arctic ice cap.   

Sounds good, right? Sure, but really it's a lot of trouble, what with all that potential for criss-crossing paths and plotlines. Schizophrenia, and lack of direction, and trouble with continuity. I started writing it, and every time I got to an intersection I felt confused. Books are so darned linear! Should I go off and follow the shark that just went by the turtle, or stick with the turtle and come back to the shark? But what about those sailboats that follow the Gulf Stream just like the turtle and shark do? When should they come in?  

Maybe I really should have just gone and put up a website.  It would have been so easy, a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure in nonfiction.  All the travelers would be hyperlinks, so the viewer decides for himself if he wants to veer off from the shark and follow the track of the turtle, jump on board the submarine as it surfaces, and catch up with the shark as the sub drops down.  I mean, really. You're all good readers. Why do I have to choose for you? 

But I was writing a book, so that's what I had to do.  Going quietly cuckoo, I began tearing up the shark part of my story and sprinkling shark through the turtle section. Pieces of turtle moved to the sailboat part, along with a story about kids in a sailboat who were working to tag both blue sharks and loggerhead turtles -- sweet serendipity of science storytelling!   Oh wise Greenwillow editors who took one look at the resulting 64-page collage (all ten pounds of it) and suggested that I try illustrating this book as well as write it! Talk about passing the buck... 

The result, eventually, was a book that doesn't have to be read one page at a time. You can follow the turtle if you insist, stick with the sailboaters, or ride the shark. Wave to the others as you pass and come back to them later, or not.  As for those little pieces of stories alongside, you can read them as they come, or skim over them as you flip through the book, learning, for example, about the songbirds scooped out of the sea and nursed back to health by sailors.  After all, you don't read a website in the order in which it comes, every word, from start to finish.  Like the trail of a shark that dies if it stops swimming, you just keep following along from whatever point you joined in to wherever you jump off.  

So you see how a book is problematic. And yet a wonderful librarian, Caroline Ward of the Ferguson Public, Library in Stamford, Connecticut, reminded me of Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age (1999), by Eliza T. Dresang, who has built quite a following around the idea that children with computers (and find me one without them!) deal with information and stories quite differently from adults who grew up starting at chapter one and finishing where it says "The End," and who might consider reading any other way to be cheating or selling the author short.  

There is no denying that trying to write a book that doesn't really begin or end and can be read in any order is a challenge, but my travelers with their endless looping treks made it feel necessary, and the book does what I hoped it would:  make you wonder "Where are they all now?" 

1 comment:

David Schwartz said...

Wonderful post! I love the concept of this book, which i will have to find and read. Or swim in and out of. I am of the start-to-finish generation and I find something comfortable in doing it that way, and something a bit disconcerting in hopping around. It always seems like I'm cheating myself or betraying the author in some undefined way but you have given me "permission" to do the hopping. I think the DK people figured this out long ago and all of their books take a start-anywhere-end-anywhere approach, chock full of information and visuals but not much in the way of continuity. I don't really enjoy them for that reason but you've got me wondering about why. As you said, it would be fine on a website.