Every month at the Butler Center, we have an open discussion group in which we consider three books with something in common, called Butler Book Banter. The purpose of this meeting—to discuss books in the context of others—resonates with part of Thom Barthelmess’s mission for the Butler Center: what he calls Dynamic Bibliography.
I personally think Dynamic Bibliography should be added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The concept rests in the idea that while it is important to look at an individual book, the real truth, discovery, beauty, essence, and energy of a work resides in intertextuality. How do books talk to each other? What are common themes, or how do themes resist each other or argue? What is between the lines, between the pages, between the covers of a list of books? How does a book change when you discuss it in context with different books? When we put two, or three, or four books next to each other, they certainly say something different than one that stands alone.
What’s fabulous is that what the books say is all up to the reader.
Today, I am going to attempt this concept of discussion through Dynamic Bibliography with two books, both published within the last two years. They are:
Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur. Published by Wendy Lamb Books, 2011.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. Published by First Second, 2013.
Eight Keys tells the story of middle grader Elise, who is struggling between her childhood self and her impending adolescence. With a best friend who she believes to be childish, a locker partner who smashes her lunch, and two parents who died before she was three, Elise doesn’t have it easy. Then, Elise discovers a key that has her name on it in her uncle’s barn, and she enters a mystery that might finally help her come to terms with her past, her situation, and herself.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a graphic novel that is not just about food, but about finding deliciousness in every aspect of life. In this memoir, Lucy tells her life story through interaction of text and illustration, and she tells it in the context of sautéed garlic mushrooms, sushi, gourmet cheese, and much more. She tells of her life as a child of divorce, her travels abroad, her time in college, and her work life, her artistic core, and her relationships. It is refreshing to read a novel about a young woman who loves food, who enjoys it, and who has a healthy relationship with it.
Now, at first glance, these books don’t really have much to do with each other. One is a middle grade piece of fiction, one a graphic novel memoir. One’s focus is on mystery and school life, one is on food. One is written in linear prose, the other through childhood flashbacks and illustration.
But, let’s take a deeper look…what do both of these books say? What do they say to each other?
1.) Family. Both of these girls’ lives are connected with their families, and both in unconventional ways. Elise is raised by her aunt and uncle, and Lucy spends time going back and forth between her mom’s house in the country and her dad’s city apartment. Yet, both girls cherish their families, get upset with their families, and forgive their families. And they both need their families.
“I walked over to her, climbed into her lap. I’m much too big for that; hadn’t done it in years and years, couldn’t even remember doing it, really. But I sat sideways with my legs on the couch. I put my arms around her neck and rested by head on her shoulder. She slipped her arms around me and held on.”
“After almost eight years of living in Chicago, I realized: I’m homesick…And I missed my mom’s cooking.”
2.) Friends. Elise’s friendship stories play a more significant role in the plot than Lucy’s, but several of Lucy’s vignettes include friendship as a central piece of her own development. Elise’s best friend Franklin is so kind and giving that when Elise ditches his babyish ways, my goes out to him. The antithesis of friendship—bullying—is also present in Eight Keys. Maybe it’s just the bullied kid in me (I have such white skin; kids called me “Albino” and “Alien” because you could see veins in my arms), but I was surprised that bullying wasn’t part of Lucy’s story. What does the absence of bullying say about Lucy’s story? That it didn’t happen, or that it wasn’t significant?
“Once we got on the bus, it was totally like usual—just me and Franklin on our own, in our own seat, having our own conversation. That was how the whole school day always used to go. We didn’t really need to get to know the other kids because we had each other.”
“We ate [sweet corn on a stick] while sitting on the dusty curb, with cold grapefruit soda, making a mess of our clothes and faces.”
3.) Leaving Childhood behind. Adolescence was a hard, sad time for me, which is probably why coming-of-age novels are always my favorite. I see myself in them. Both of these girls struggle with questions—why is middle school so much harder than elementary? Why am I getting bad grades? Why is my dad so dang hard to get along with? Why doesn’t my family understand me? Lucy tells her story as an adult reflecting back on childhood, so her maturity bleeds through, while Elise is right in the middle of her struggle and doesn’t apologize for it. While each of these girls grow in different ways, they both find their way through the muck and become strong along the way.
“No one likes me because I’m friends with that dweebus Franklin. He makes me look like a baby.”
“We fought. The truth is, my dad and I are sometimes too similar—too finicky and stubborn and easily wounded—to get along all the time.”
4.) Self-Discovery: This is the big one. Through overcoming obstacles, reconciling the past, and facing the future with an open heart, both of these girls discover who they are. Lucy uses food as a way to illustrate her self-discovery, and this makes sense because food is all about the senses—feeling, seeing, smelling, sensing, wanting, touching, tasting. Isn’t that what adolescence is about? Dipping our fingers into adulthood, trying certain dishes and finding out that some are delicious and some are disgusting? Elise discovers herself through a gift from her father, and sees that instead of waiting to live her life until after she grows up, realizes that she’s already living it, and has been her whole life.
“It could be whatever I needed it to be, whatever I wanted it to be. And the truth, I suddenly understood, was that so could I.”
“Like me, still a young woman, learning about what moves me, what I want. What I love. And doing these things with excitement, curiosity, and relish.”
These girls are both lovable, both smart, and both grow into themselves in their respective books. I think if they were to magically appear in front of me, they would be friends. They would argue because they are both strong-headed, and they would both be protective of their own hearts.
But I can also see them planting a garden, Elise telling Lucy the way they do it on her farm, and Lucy returning with memories from her mother’s garden in the country.
And they’d share a tomato.