I tell my students often enough to read the fore-matter in their textbooks. “That’s where the good stuff is,” I argue. “That’s where the author shares his or her vision for writing.”
Now, I suspect that students rarely heed my advice. And I suspect this not just because they often fail to grasp the heart of their authors–which is true–but because, as a student, I rarely did this. And I probably frequently missed the author’s real task. I skipped over the preface with its roadmap to the text ahead and moved into the book, anxious to finish as quickly as I could. I simply didn’t believe my profs when they told me the fore-matter had all the good stuff.
As a maturing reader, I’ve begun to read the fore-matter seriously. Consequently, I’ve begun to discover wonderful things hidden there.
As an aspiring writer, it was Lewis’s dedication to his Goddaughter Lucy Barfield that first caught my eye years ago.
“My dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it.”
your affectionate Godfather,
Anyone who has tried to write a story for someone they love, as I have for my niece, will know that girls certainly do grow quicker than books. But there is a hidden truth in this little dedication: there may be a stage where children pull away from fairytale or fantasy or “children’s literature,” but good readers will return again. We grow up, and we may yet again be old enough to read fancifully. As Lewis says in his essay, “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children,”
“I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.”
It is, I believe, the foundational rule of writing for children–or writing anything, perhaps.
Another author that captured me when I was young shares her vision for writing in the fore-matter. I’ve transcribed the following from the audio of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–a book that rocked my world as a child who, like the main character, frequently baffled teachers at my inability to “get” school. Of course, I discovered later that it was at least as much that the school didn’t get me–a truth we see lived out in chapters of A Wrinkle in Time. It is only in this little note to her listeners that L’Engle tells us why this is.
Hello, this is Madeleine L’Engle. I’m going to be reading A Wrinkle in Time to you. It’s a book that almost never got published. I’d already had half a dozen books published but this was a very different one and nobody knew quite what it was or who it was for. And the general feeling was that it was much too hard for children. Well, my kids were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it, and at night I’d read them what I’d written during the day they said, “Oh, mother! Go back to the typewriter!” So I knew kids could understand it.
The problem is, it’s not that it’s too difficult for kids but that it’s too difficult for grown ups. Too many grown ups tend to put themselves into little rooms with windows that don’t open and doors that are locked. And they want to close themselves off from any new ideas. And you’re ready and open for new ideas, and new things, and new places, and new excitements. So I hope you’ll enjoy this book. I had a wonderful time writing it.
Isn’t that the truth, that it is us adults who struggle, often enough, to see time wrinkle and planets tilt? And because we do, we don’t often feel the cool breeze at the back of the wardrobe.
One of these traits I think we need to re-learn is to read the fore-matter of books, like when our parents read us our picture books from cover to cover. After all, who knows what we might find there?
I really enjoyed L’Engle’s introduction, some books are just much harder on adults than on children. I know that to be the case with one of my favourite children’s books, “Brothers Lionheart” by Astrid Lindgren. It deals with death in a way that’s not too dark for most children but for an adult who reads between the lines it is a much darker, but still brilliant, story.
I am reminded of Dorothy Sayers’ 22 November 1940 reply to the Assistant Director’s doubts about the diction of some of her radio play script, “Kings in Judaea” (the first part of The Man Born to be King) for the BBC Children’s Hour: “I don’t think you need trouble yourselves too much about certain passages being ‘over the heads of the audience’. They will be over the heads of the adults and the adults will write and complain. Pay no attention. You are supposed to be playing to children – the only audience, perhaps, in the country whose minds are still open and sensitive to the spell of poetic speech.” (The whole letter is worth reading (in volume I of her Letters) – as is James Brabazon’s critical (in a couple senses) discussion in his 1981 biography.)
I think the question of authorial fore- and after-matter can be tricky: sometimes it can be spoilery – sometimes it warns us to read no further if we want to avoid spoilers (but not always); sometimes, it seems better to read an afterword before starting the body of the book, sometimes, to treat the foreword as an afterword; a lot may depend on whether one has the time to try the whole main text ‘cold’, and return to it – whether skimmingly or more thoroughly – after reading all the authorial material ‘in the second place’. (I do wish I’d had somebody’s preface before first seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, though!)
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I’ve learnt the exact same thing about reading fore-matter! When I was younger, I used to avoid it because I thought it was the boring bit but now, I’ve realised that that section along with the acknowledgements page is pretty magical indeed.
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I was once (40 years ago now) responsible for the training of self-supporting clergy in the Anglican diocese of Zululand, and about 4/5 of the students were Zulu-speakers for whom English was a second language, so we had reading training as well. A friend came and demonstrated something: read an article and have a comprehension test. Read the heading and first paragraph of each section and have a comprehension test on the whole. Read just the readings, and have a comprehension test. Read the author and title and have a comprehension test on the whole thing. The moral of the story, he told them, is that if you just open your textbook and read the table of contents, you’ve increased your chances of passing the exam by half.
That really is a profound tool for learning (for me, in any case).
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