Dummy!

I’ve never read Robert Fulgham’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I imagine that I’d buy into the general gist of it, but as someone who is WAY past kindergarten I would probably also bristle, because there is too much that I have learned only with age. That said, I do think there are lots of things we start doing when we’re in Kindergarten (or before) that get more fun and more interesting as we return to them over the courses of our lives.

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Take the Valentine crayons my 9 year-old daughter put together for her classmates last month. We had made them when she was in nursery school, with me taking the lead, and she had loved it. But this year it was a completely different process: she sorted the crayons by hue, experimented with color palettes, and explored the ways that different makes of crayon layered and separated as they melted. And she managed the oven. Same crayons — different process, different learning.

Another activity that has recurred and evolved in my kids’ lives: making books.

Last week this small box showed up on the landing of our stairs.

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I recognized it as being from a gift that an old friend had given us when my first daughter was born 11 years ago. Inside, I found not a rattle, but a collection of little books: books that my 9-year-old had cut and assembled from the pages of her Big Backyard magazines (now Ranger Rick Jr.).

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Each month’s issue included one, two-sided page entitled “My Little Book”, which a child could use to construct a small book about that month’s chosen subject. The instructions on the back of each book read:

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My daughter regularly labored over these pages when she was 3 or 4, then I read the books to her again and again until she knew them well enough to read to herself. Last week, she had apparently come across them in a drawer and pulled them out to visit with once more. She still makes books: teeny ones for the creatures in her doll house; slightly larger ones for this or that stuffed animal; journals where she draws and writes about things that she sees in nature; and very private diaries.

Last week also happened to be a week when I was dummying two picture book manuscripts, so the appearance of that box on the stairs felt like kismet, and my daughter’s little books reminded me how elemental making little books (in my case, little picture-less picture books) really is. Not just writing them — which is where I put so much energy — but actually making them. Because while I belabor so many different aspects of my writing, the making of a dummy satisfies me in a completely different way: less thinking, more doing and more of a certain quality of reflection.

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My prefered method for constructing dummies involves halving four sheets of 8.5 x 11 inch paper lengthwise, then folding the whole stack in half, then sewing them together at the seam for an even 32 page-sides of 4.25″ x 5.5″ each. I print the manuscripts at 9 pt, with margins that squeeze the lines to 4″ wide, mark up the text lightly in pencil with a first pass at page breaks, then start cutting. At first I dab the ends of the text lightly with glue stick, since things will need to move, and only later — when I feel more resolve — beef up the adhesive. The dummies are small, which I love, in part because I get compulsive in my efforts not to waste stuff, and in part because their size makes me focus on what is essential: the order of things, the rhythm of the text, and the pause and — occasionally, hopefully — the magic of the page turn.

When you lay those text chunks and word clusters onto the page, you create space. Picture book texts, in their economy and at their best, can be a bit like poetry. I once read a description of poetry as being what happens between the words and letters on a page, in the white spaces and gaps — both large and small. With dummying, you are pulling apart your words and sentences and making room for breath, for illustration, and for moments of anticipation and uncertainty and wonder.

Like in kindergarten (at least kindergarten when I was little, anyway), you get busy with your hands and make a mess with glue and scissors. As you figure out how to cut and where to place, dummying forces you to make choices and teaches you about your stories and makes you see things you hadn’t before — things that you definitely would never have learned in kindergarten.

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