Recently, I wrote a post on my blog about point of view and I’ve got another in the works. These posts are about the nuts and bolts of point of view – why writers might choose one over another, what strategies we might employ in the process. That sort of thing. Here, amongst my fellow Nerds, I’d like to talk about why point of view matters.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Ezra Jack Keats’s THE SNOWY DAY. I do remember being utterly perplexed by it. Not by the snow – I grew up in Michigan, after all, and knew well the pleasures of a heavy snowfall. And not by the fact that young Peter was African-American, even though kids of color were not that common in the picture books of the day (and even less common in the suburban school I attended). I understood dragging your feet to make tracks and the tragedy of not being old enough to have snowball fights with the big boys. No, it was this line that had me befuddled: “After breakfast he called to his friend from across the hall, and they went outside together into the deep, deep snow.”
His friend from across the hall?
His friend lived in his house? How could that be?
I was a suburban kid, a ranch-style house dweller surrounded by other ranch-style house dwellers in a lower middle class/upper working class neighborhood. It was a while before I understood. Peter lived in an apartment — a concept completely foreign to me at the time.
It was one of my earliest moments of awareness that not everyone had a life like mine and it came in a book that was not designed to teach me that lesson. I learned it because Mr. Keats was faithful to Peter’s point of view. He presented the world as Peter knew it.
When I visit schools, we often talk about point of view. We share the way that paying attention to the small details in a story offers rewards of understanding and connection. We talk about how identifying with characters gives us practice in putting ourselves in the shoes of others and how good books exercise our empathy muscles.
Sometimes, I even get to lead a point-of-view writing exercise. Each of us closely observes an object – usually one of our own shoes — using all five of our senses. We go a step further with one or two of our observations, using metaphor to compare the object to something else, and we talk about how that comparison tells us as much about the perceiver as it does about the thing itself.
And then we turn things around. We take on a new point of view. We pretend to be puppies. Or beetles. Or football players. Or teachers. Or aliens. Or chefs. Or babies. And from that perspective, we observe all over again.
What changes? What stays the same? What metaphors can we come up with that show how differently this new character sees things? Sometimes we use this second list as a basis for a freewrite and the results are often amazing. How we sympathize with a dog who wants nothing more than to feel the sproing of a rubber tread between his teeth. How frustrating to be a kindergartener who wants more than anything to be as big as her older sister – big enough to wear those cool, grown-up looking heels. How terrifying to look up and see the horrible “zig-zag of death”* that is the fate of many a rain-lured sidewalk worm. Same shoe, different ways of understanding.
It’s a fun exercise and most students are able to produce something that excites and satisfies them. I have noticed however, that the workshop is most successful with students who are already a part of a literature-rich environment. It is much harder for those students who aren’t.
As a lover of books and stories, I want kids to read. I want adults to read. I want us all to live in a literature-rich society. I want us to be so practiced at reading that it is easy to pay attention to the small details that let us understand others — whether they live in ways that are similar to us, or wildly different. I want us to model what we read in order to assert our own points of view — our own dreams, desires, conditions, and needs – in ways that are compelling and persuasive.
But mostly, I want us all, kids and adults alike, to exercise our empathy muscles – to stretch our thinking so we can see and feel and understand the ways that we are different. And the ways that we are the same. There are lots of paths to this, but reading — widely and enthusiastically – seems to me to be one of the least expensive and most accessible.
It wasn’t too long after reading The Snowy Day that I saw my first real apartment building. It looked exotic to me and strange. But I knew, because of Peter, that I would have some things in common with the kids who lived inside it. I knew, for one thing, that if any of those kids appeared in the doorway, I would wave them outside. I knew they were as likely as I was to love playing in snow.
*an example from a real student workshop paper. Isn’t it great?
Linda Urban is the author of Hound Dog True, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, and Mouse was Mad as well as the forthcoming The Center of Everything (Spring 2013). You can find her on Twitter as @lindaurbanbooks or on the web at http://www.lindaurbanbooks.com.