On painting landscapes in your head

I read John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony on a plane ride the other week. Firstly I’d to mention the fact that at 119 pages, it is the perfect sized book to read on an hour-long plane flight – I finished with about ten minutes to spare before the plane touched down.

the red ponySecondly, I had a complete mental blank as to what other books John Steinbeck had written, despite the shelf that he took up at the bookshop I’d previously worked at, and for some reason picked the author as writing about Australia. It seemed to fit – his descriptions of the dusty red plains, the harsh, dry weather, the hot beating sun. I was picturing a farm in outback Australia. It wasn’t until there was a mention of  Thanksgiving that the images in my head were jolted and I went ‘wait a minute…’ and everything clicked into place. For, of course, it is not set in Australia, but in California in the 1930s. I seem to have problems with setting – I had a hard time placing Picnic at Hanging Rock in Australia due to the Englishness of the characters, and then I had trouble putting The Red Pony in California. Maybe my brain jumps at too many tiny details, and doesn’t read the overall image presented in a book? I look at the dirt, or the sun, and jump to conclusions, rather than looking at the overall landscape.

In the Kid’s Own Publishing workshops I have just been working on, we had a travelling author with us for the first week, HJ Harper. She was great at talking to the kids about key three things that make up a book – character, setting, and ‘a story spark’. Thinking back on some of the books the kids made, setting was very important to them. Their book might have been set in a magic forest, or a haunted house, or a castle, or the world of Mine Craft. Setting is so key in story, yet I think I tend to ignore its significance. In the next few books I read, I’m going to think about how the author creates the setting, and try not to jump to conclusions as to where the story is set. I must be missing so many special details that the author is drawing for me by filling in their picture with my own images.

Have you read a book where something about the setting surprised you after you had read a dozen pages or so? Do you fill in the blanks about the setting of a book, or do you let the author’s descriptions paint the pictures in your head?




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