ONE BOOK, TWO IMAGINATIONS by Geoff Rodkey
A have a theory about books: the reason we get so emotionally attached to our favorite stories and characters is because as readers, we’ve had a hand in creating them.
If you think about it, your experience with a book isn’t really about the words on the page. Those are just a vehicle—the blueprint you use to create the mental images that unfold in your imagination as you read. These mental images are the true experience of the story, and they’re unique for every reader. The Ramona Quimby and the Klickitat Street in your head probably look different from the ones in my head, and I doubt either version looks just like the ones that were in Beverly Cleary’s head.
Even speaking as an author who’s also a control freak, this seems like a feature, not a bug. Books are ultimately the product not of one imagination, but two. The author creates the blueprint, but it’s the reader who brings that blueprint to life in a unique, often deeply personal way.
Here’s why I’m bringing this up: I wrote a book that shifts the usual boundary between these two imaginations in a way that I think can be really cool for both middle grade readers and the adults who discuss books with them.
We’re Not From Here is about a family of humans who immigrate to an alien world after Earth is destroyed in a nuclear war, only to discover that the aliens who invited them have changed their minds about opening their society to a species that just incinerated its home planet.
As is probably obvious, the story echoes real-world debates about refugees and immigration—although in my experience, this is much less obvious to kids, who tend to interpret it not as a metaphor for current events, but just a cool story about getting stuck on a planet with a bunch of super-intelligent giant insects who don’t like you.
The “you” in this case is Lan, the story’s narrator and main character. While the Lan in my head has a very specific gender, ethnicity, and body type, those physical characteristics don’t actually matter much in the context of a story about a kid who has to attend an alien middle school as the only human in a classroom full of giant mosquitoes, little green werewolves, and six-foot-tall marshmallows with arms.
Since Lan’s gender and physical appearance aren’t relevant to the story, I don’t describe them in the book. As a result, everyone who reads it has the freedom to imagine whatever version of Lan works best for them.
Full disclosure: I borrowed this device from an adult sci-fi author, John Scalzi. His 2014 novel Lock In employed the same conceit, and I got three-fourths of the way through it before I realized my default assumption—that the main character was a white guy—wasn’t necessarily true, and that someone else could read the same story, see the main character as, say, an African-American woman, and be every bit as correct in their interpretation as I was in mine.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this realization had a profound effect on me. That moment of “hey, wait a minute, why did I assume this character’s a guy?” cracked something open in my perception, and it led me to question just how many other default assumptions I’d been making about the world that might be true for me, but not for someone with a different gender, ethnicity, age, economic status, nationality, or life experience than mine.
What lens am I using to view the world, and how are other people’s lenses different from mine? Once I started asking myself that, it was like taking an empathy vitamin. To this day, it still influences everything from how I interpret news articles to the way I treat family members, friends, and even strangers in the grocery store.
If just one kid has a similarly eye-opening experience after reading We’re Not From Here, I’ll be thrilled…although I suspect they’re unlikely to come to such a realization without a little prompting. Because the lack of character description is subtextual, most kids (and even many adult readers) won’t notice it’s missing. They’ll just conjure their own particular Lan and enjoy the story without ever wondering if another reader’s Lan might look very different.
In fact, when early reactions to the book trickled in, I started to worry the device was TOO subtextual, because nobody seemed to notice it. But then I got an email from a salesperson at an indie bookstore who’d read an ARC and looked up my contact info online to write me this:
“Thank you for not giving Lan a gender. There aren’t quite words to express what that means to nonbinary folks like myself.”
This isn’t the first reader email I’ve ever gotten, but it’s the first one that ever made me cry. As it turns out, the best thing about giving readers’ imaginations a little extra space is that they can use that space in ways I wasn’t nearly creative enough to anticipate.
I hope you get a chance to read the book! If you do, drop a line and let me know what the Lan in your head looks like.
Geoff Rodkey is the author of the Tapper Twins comedy series; the Chronicles of Egg adventure trilogy; and The Story Pirates Present: Stuck in the Stone Age, a comic novel bundled with a how-to guide for kids who want to create stories of their own. He’s also the Emmy-nominated screenwriter of such films as Daddy Day Care and RV. Twitter:@GeoffRodkey geoffrodkey.com