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Letter to the Editor from Martha Bennett Stiles, May/June 2013

I was struck by Jon Klassen’s comment in discussing his delightful Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Extra Yarn: “In the stories we seem to remember most, we’re given a certain set of ingredients, and then we’re let loose to build on them and let them affect us.”

Oh, yes. I remember finding that one of the most beautiful descriptions I had ever come upon did not exist. I was about to talk to some creative writing students about scene description and decided to introduce them to one of the most vividly lasting examples I’d ever read: the fishing expedition that launches Lawrence Durrell’s Mountolive. So I looked it up…and found that it wasn’t there. Scattered over five pages are half a dozen phrases that had combined with my memories of the marshes of my Tidewater Virginia childhood home to paint for me the loveliest marsh ever to emerge from a night’s mist. Not even sentences: scattered evocative phrases were all Durrell had written. Each reader saw his own marsh; a detailed description in the text would only have gotten fatally in the way.

And, yes, the same principle applies to pictures. My grandfather, John Bennett, wrote and illustrated with silhouettes the 1929 Newbery Honor–winning collection of short stories The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo. Invariably, when a male of any age was asked which was Pigtail’s most beautiful heroine, the honor fell to Francella of “The Merry Pieman and the Don’s Daughter.” Yet she is the only female in the book never shown either full face or 
in profile. Whether she is thin- or full-faced, or whether her nose is aquiline or pug, is left to the viewer, who has simply been told that she is beautiful. The viewer sees the nose, and the fullness of face, that he finds beautiful.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

Thanks for managing to maintain The Horn Book Magazine’s quality in these straitened times.

Martha Bennett Stiles
Lexington, Kentucky

From the May/June 2013 Horn Book Magazine.

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