When my friend Carmen first told me about Walter Dean Myers’s book The Blues of Flats Brown, I knew that I had to get it for my son. The story is about these two dogs, Flats and Caleb, who are the unfortunate wards of a junkyard proprietor named A.J. Grubbs. Flats and Caleb flee the junkyard after a terrible fight between Caleb and a dog Grubbs has recruited for the task. After he vows to have Flats fight the next day, the two dogs make haste before the fight can take place.
Flats and Caleb survive, with Grubbs hot on their trail, by singing and playing the blues. Eventually, Grubbs grants Flats his freedom when he hears Flats sing a song that reflects his understanding of Grubbs’s character. At that point, Myers writes one of my favorite lines in the story. Everyone thinks that Flats will stay in New York and make lots of money but Myers writes that what “they didn’t know was that Flats was a blues playing kind of dog, not a filthy rich kind of dog.” Flats has “another model by which to live.”
The idea that he’s not eager to dedicate himself to making money reminds me of an essay on representations of the poor where feminist critic bell hooks decides that representations of poor people in American popular culture show them spending all their time longing for money and the material things it can buy (reality t.v. now does the same thing). She contests this vision with memories of her poor and working class family members who valued creativity and integrity over money.
In The Blues of Flats Brown, Flats and Caleb’s friendship and their ability to sing the music they love means more than living in a big city and making lots of money. Myers notes that some people don’t believe it when they hear the story of two dogs playing the blues down on the waterfront in Savannah, Georgia and I’m sure in part, they don’t believe it because they cannot believe that Flats would choose to give up the chance to be rich. For Flats, wealth was an indulgence of a different order. It involved the time to be creative and to enjoy camaraderie through creation. The way I see it, then, Flats didn’t give up being rich. He exchanged one idea of it for another. Thus, Flats was rich.
Recently, Walter Dean Myers was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. I read a wonderful interview conducted with Myers in light of this award and he offered thoughtful words on the role reading plays in contributing to the kind of wealth that Flats enjoys. “It’s the people who read well,” Myers tells the interviewer, “who are going to live a good life.” I especially like the way he qualifies reading. It’s not just reading itself that will lead to a good life, but Myers stresses the importance of reading well. Reading well demands time, attention, discipline, and focus. It requires deliberateness. These are all qualities that the skill itself does not demand but this additional effort makes the experience worthwhile because, as Myers also notes, this sort of reading “will give you clues to how to live your life.”
Myers chose the banner “reading is not optional” to serve his campaign to encourage youth literacy. I have not won a single award for children’s literature so the Library of Congress (loc) won’t be calling me to ask about my banner choice but in the spirit of reading and imagining, if the loc were to call, I would tell them that my banner to encourage reading should say “reading is seductive.” I first thought about the seductiveness of reading after thinking through a passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. Consolata asks Mavis to help her in shelling pecans. As Mavis sets to work, Morrison writes:
Later, watching her suddenly beautiful hands moving at the task, Mavis was reminded of her sixth-grade teacher opening a book: lifting the corner of the binding, stroking the edge to touch the bookmark, caressing the page, letting the tips of her fingers trail down the lines of print. The melty-thigh feeling she got watching her. Now, working pecans, she tried to economize her gestures without sacrificing their grace. (42)
If I were asked, I would play up how enticing reading can be. Of course the challenge would be trying to ensure that my message wouldn’t become vulgar, which seems to be the penchant in American culture. But for those of us who find reading seductive, the challenge of convincing others to be similarly enticed remains constant; so perhaps it would be a worthy campaign banner if the loc ever comes calling.