One of the benefits of working in a second-hand bookshop is that on occasion a dusty old friend appears in the form of a much-loved book from my childhood. Last week it was SAM AND THE FIREFLY by P.D.Eastman. Did I resist the temptation to buy it? Reader, I certainly did not. On re-reading it I realised that one of the reasons I love it so much is because it is a fantastic story about the power of words. For those of you who don’t know it. Sam is an owl who teaches Gus, the firefly, to write letters in the sky with the light from his body. Gus, hyperactive and mischievous, becomes drunk with enthusiasm for words. Basically he just goes nuts for them:
“Why! We made WORDS, BIG WORDS!
Say, I LIKE this game!
I want to do it again this word trick is fun.
Come on. Make MORE words”
After rushing about the sky writing lots of different words, Gus, a classic example of a reckless friend who will get you into trouble, zooms off and starts using words to trick people. He has become drunk on his own power. When he’s warned by Sam he ignores him. His downfall comes when he crosses out the HOT over a hot dog stand and writes COLD instead.
The customers walk away and the hot dog man gets very angry and traps Gus in a jam jar. He puts him in the back of his truck and drives off with him. The truck gets stuck on a railway line and a train is coming. Sam smashes the jar, Gus is released and writes STOP STOP STOP in the air and so averts a terrible accident. Naughty Gus is now the hero.
“Yow Wow, Gus!” called Sam
At last you did a GOOD trick.”
Of course, in a way, every writer is a Gus. At some point she or he, like him, has gone bonkers for the power and beauty of words. If fiction writing is a kind of trick, it’s a very difficult trick to pull off well. Every writer, or this one at any rate, is aware of the invisible contract which connects her to her readers. Good trick or bad trick? Well, readers, reviewers, family and sales figures can offer up very different answers to that question.
It could also be argued that it is useful for every writer to have a Sam. Write with no caution at all or with too much of Graham Greene’s famous ‘chip of ice’ in your heart and people are likely to be upset. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote My Struggle, a series of six books which exposed the private life of friends and family. For them presumably his books were a very bad trick indeed. The series has been translated into 22 languages and has sold 450,000 copies in Norway, a country with a total population of only five million. Knausgaard said of the books:
“This was a way of saying no, I won’t behave, and for the first time in my life I will say exactly what I mean.”
For his devoted readers the books are a marvel; Gus that pesky firefly would surely have approved. The more cautious Sam, on the other hand, would probably be tearing his feathers out.
P.D.Eastman wrote this brilliant book to get children interested in words and writing. It certainly worked for me. I thought this ‘word trick’ was so much fun that approximately thirty years after I read SAM AND THE FIREFLY I was a published writer! Re-reading it now reminds me not to forget my inner Gus, the part of me which wants to play, the part which wants to roll around in words and just have fun. Do you have a much-loved book from childhood ? What is it? What makes you love it?