My 14 year old daughter just completed The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver as part of her Language Arts curriculum. As homeschoolers who school through a public charter, we get to choose her literature together in collaboration with her accredited teacher. This is particularly lovely because the child devours books like I devour yarn made from Alpaca (which is to say — without abandon). I would never want to interfere with her mad love of books.
Now let me say this about my daughter: there was a time when I wondered if she would ever write well. She didn’t like writing. It made her cry. It made me cry. It’s not pretty when this mamma cries. I’m a blubberer.
I am now convinced that there is always hope for the reluctant writer.
There were long stretches of her education when we went ahead and just focussed on reading. She read what she wanted (usually adventure books — some well written, some poorly written) and then, every once in a while, I’d toss in a suggestion: a little Krik? Krak! by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat here (Loved it!); some Lord of the Flies by William Golding there (Hated it!). I encouraged her to read at least as many books by non-white authors as the white ones and to switch up genres, writing styles, and subject matter.
I’m not going to lie — because we didn’t focus on writing, I worried about this system every single day.
Then right around 11 years of age, she started to write stories voraciously. In the beginning, her quantity outdid her quality and her phonetic spelling of unknown words often translated aloud with the gorgeous Haitian accent that punctuates her inner voice. She also borrowed generously from the plots of books she had read. But she was loving every minute of it.
One thing that stood out from the very beginning of her foray into writing, though, was her poetry. Her first one made me cry — the “holy snickerdoodles, this is beautiful” kind of cry — not the ugly blubber. Some had a rhythm that often reminded me of drumming, something that was a huge part of her life in Haiti and remains a part of our family jams to this day. Other poems asked questions that left me pondering for a good while after reading them. And still others rolled off the tongue like sweet cream.
Now, after a few years of writing simple stories and voluptuous poetry under her belt, and many more years of reading, she continues to write just about daily (her discipline exceeds mine). Her stories, far from simple at this point, are vivid and evocative, no longer gleaned from books she has read and much greater in quality than quantity. Often, she’ll write a line that takes my breath away (“She was shaking so hard that water sloshed out of the bucket. The ground hissed as it took it in. Dominique wished she was the water, disappearing into the earth, free from the dangers of the world.”).
She is now working on essays in school — non-fiction writing and book reviews and the like. This might be her greatest challenge. She is not a fan of reading non-fiction, so writing it is all the more painful.
Thinking outside of the box is one of the hallmarks of our educational journey together, though, so we are always exploring new ways to communicate through writing. We also try and use our strengths to build up our weaknesses. So I should not have been surprised when my daughter handed me her synopsis of The Poisonwood Bible. She loved the book, but was as loathe to write the synopsis as I am to knit with acrylic yarn (the devil’s rope).
Instead of a dry synopsis that pained her to write, she built on her strengths and handed me this:
The Poisonwood Bible
The beginning was all fun
they thought this was a game
“saving” people is what they came to do
When they got there, there were none
Their ways, their practices
new to each one
“Why, this is crazy, they’re going to hell,”
the father yelled
He preached and preached and preached some more
They didn’t listen
They never did
Now the little one dies,
it’s the snake, the venom,
maybe the father
“She wasn’t baptized,” he says
when she dies
“That’s all he cares about,” Leah, the middle one,
In the end, the four leave
leaving the father like a weed in their way
They live their lives, he shortens his
they’re alive, he’s dead
Who was saved in the end?