Lighting the Candle: Thinking in Pictures

For me, a trip to the grocery store is an adventure. Choosing between red and green peppers involves staving off ravenous zombies who want to snack on my earlobes. Hefting ten pounds of black beans into my cart requires hiding from reptilian-skinned aliens intent on harvesting my toenails. Picking up puff pastry to make pastelitos means battling sentient garbage cans trying to turn me into compost.

Before you think my local grocery store is a different variety, you should know my adventures take place entirely in my mind.

I think in pictures. I exist mostly inside my own head and get frustrated when I have to pull myself out and interact with the real world. All manner of fantastical images constantly march across my brain, not resting until I go to sleep. And sometimes not even then.

This tendency to be distracted by the stories in my mind could have affected my early success as a student. But in fourth grade, a teacher showed me how to channel this relentless creative energy.

She instructed her class of unruly nine-year-olds to close their eyes and listen as she played “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As the song swirled in the room, my brain rammed into overdrive, imagining horse hooves pounding into pillowy snowdrifts. The chase continued through a frozen forest as the music crescendoed, the flurry of violin notes matching the falling snowflakes. When the piece ended, my teacher told us to draw the images that had popped into our minds while the song played.

I bit my lip hard in concentration and practically broke my crayon in half as I focused on transferring the snowy chase scene from my imagination to the blank page. When I finished, I looked at my masterpiece of barren trees, falling snow, and racing horses.

And I was angry.

My crudely drawn figures came nowhere close to matching the images that had played in my brain. A bystander would’ve thought I’d drawn a scene from Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, my wintry composition looking more like a frozen massacre. Frustration grew as I realized I couldn’t make what I saw in my mind exist in the real world.

Sensing my displeasure, my teacher steered me toward another option, another way to bring my imagination to life.

Words.

She encouraged me to tell the story of what I had pictured in my head by writing it out. I began to fill page after page in my notebook. She loaned me a thesaurus so I could find just the right words to describe the horses’ tense muscles, the breath of the riders as it danced in the chilly air, and the creaking of the tree branches reaching over the snowy path. I wore my pencil down and raced to the sharpener, eager to get back to my story as soon as possible.

I haven’t stopped since.

These days, I have to do all my storytelling on a computer. My handwriting is completely illegible, and my hand can’t keep up with what I want to say or with the fantastical images that march across my mind.

I would love to say that a simple activity thirty-two years ago in a classroom in Miami gave me peace, that it let my mind calm down. Instead, the result is quite the opposite. Rather than fight the way my brain is wired, I’ve learned to embrace it. I’ve learned to be surrounded by stories, to dive into the adventure and mayhem around every corner.

Even at the grocery store.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here. Images of a poem and it's author, fourth grader Adrianna, courtesy of Adrianna Cuevas.

Adrianna Cuevas

Adrianna Cuevas won a 2021 Belpré Honor for children's narrative for The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez. Cuba in My Pocket is forthcoming (both Farrar).

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