The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Writing is Power

April 16, 2008
Washington, DC

"Writing is power." If I were a school teacher for a day, that's the first thing I'd tell my students. "Don't be afraid of a blank page of paper," I'd declare. "With paper and a pen, you can create an entire universe. You might even change our world." But would students believe me?

I got the chance to find out last week in Waukee, Iowa, when talking with middle and high school students. Seventh graders studying poetry at Waukee's Middle School laughed at me when I claimed to be able to "control the space/time continuum." That is, until I wrote two sentences on the board.

Dan went to bed at nine o'clock.

The next morning, he ate oatmeal for breakfast.

It's a simplistic example but, between those two sentences we jump forward in time at least nine hours.

"Authors," I told the students, "make time-travelers of us all." Great writing can take us from the sublime garden of Mary Oliver's poem, "Peonies," to Ray Bradbury's futuristic world of Fahrenheit 451, to Edith Wharton's old New York in The Age of Innocence. What do these works of art have in common? They each began with a blank sheet of paper.

Cynthia Ozick transports us ahead three decades between the opening short story of The Shawl, which takes place during the Holocaust , and the book's second section, set in the 1970s. As readers we accept this without reservation. The author has grasped us with her capable hand. We follow her without hesitation.

Waukee High School English teacher Ann Hanigan's honors tenth graders stunned me with their insightful comments about the similarity between Rosa Lublin's personality before the horrors of the Holocaust changed her life forever and that of her niece, Stella, thirty years later -- after the pair had settled in the United States. They saw how each woman cared for the other, finding strength when the other was weak. In their eyes, The Shawl is as much a love story between these two women as it is "Holocaust fiction."

I wish Cynthia Ozick could have been a fly on the wall of that classroom! The night before, she had graciously appeared at the Waukee Public Library via an internet conference, answering questions for more than an hour and a half. Charming and witty, Ozick immediately put everyone in the room at ease despite the book's somber subject matter. The Big Read participants adored her.

The Waukee community benefited from the hard work of four fabulous women. Assistant Library Director Devon Murphy-Peterson and Rebecca Johnson, the President of the Waukee Library Board of Trustees, applied for The Big Read grant and plotted every aspect of programming. They recruited Ann Hanigan, the phenomenal high school English teacher, to encourage local middle and high school students to get involved. Jane Olson of the Waukee Area Arts Council added a wealth of knowledge about how to get local residents to attend events. "People come out to support their kids," she told me. "Getting young people involved is so important."

Perhaps nothing illustrates Waukee's commitment to reaching young people better than The Big Read's final event, a party at the library celebrating six weeks of reading and discussing The Shawl. Middle and high school students read their winning essays about the importance of literature in their lives. The Attic Door Theatre Company, a troop of teenage girls, performed a choral stage adaptation of the novel. Waukee High School culinary students baked truly tasty treats. Julie Kaufman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines surprised everyone by presenting the Waukee High School with funding for two teachers to travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

During all of these festivities the music of Eastern Europe was performed with zest by a local klezmer band, the Java Jews. Small children (and some not-so-small adults) were dancing the polka between the stacks. By the end of the evening, I was so moved that I could barely speak. Literature came alive that night -- changing, transporting, and empowering us all.