I seldom have anything to talk about with an eleven-year-old, especially of the female variety. After I ask something brilliant like “How is school?” and the instant reply is “Okay,” the conversation is over.
When my wife happened to mention Harry Potter, then, I went for it. Hoping to engage a little girl in a lively duel of Potter trivia (and at the same time put a small dent in my old-fart image), I asked if she had read the books.
“No, but I saw the movies,” she said.
End of lively duel with eleven-year-old female. Old-fart image, intact.
With hindsight, I should have known the child does not read. Ever since babyhood, her own personal TV and her own personal collection of four gazillion movies have raised her. They have kept her occupied, you see, which is another way of saying “out of sight, out of mind.” Nowadays, she also has her own personal computer to share the raising-up duties, which I suspect she uses for watching . . . movies.
I feel sorry for her.
When I was a kid my bedroom was the size of a walk-in closet, nicely furnished with a twin bed, a small desk for both schoolwork and assembling model airplanes (hence all of the schoolbook pages glued together and little pieces of paper stuck to my planes), and a chest of drawers for stowing my boyish unmentionables. Now that I think about it, my room was a lot like a monk’s cell—except it didn’t have wet and cold stone walls during the summer. Or a television set. Or monks.
By choice, I spent a lot of time in my room because it was the launching pad for my imagination. Just by opening a book my mind was floating down the Mississippi with Huckleberry Finn and Jim, it was painting a fence for Tom Sawyer, or it was traveling in The Time Machine. For all I cared I could have lived with a flashlight in the closet of my walk-in closet. Fancy surroundings weren’t necessary when I was on an adventure with Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Exploring The Mysterious Island was my favorite.
Simple words on a page took my imagination on incredible journeys that transcended my real life. It was the only time I found peace in a world I never truly felt a part of, a world that was nothing but chaos to me.
The reason imagination is so great is because only humans have it, and it is why stories, either read or heard, are its greatest stimulant. It is an amazing process, the ability to transform simple word-symbols on paper into complex mind-images of character and scene and time. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said he seldom describes facial features because it is up to the reader to imagine what his characters look like.
Not so with movies, the fast food of the mind, because everything is pre-imagined for the viewer in a neat two hour, two-dimensional package. The whole purpose of fiction, and especially children’s and YA fiction, is to stimulate the mind and stir their creative juices. A movie does neither, and to mangle a cliché, a moving picture is definitely not worth a thousand-word book.
So that is why I feel sorry for this little girl. Not only has she missed the mental delight of imagining the invisible railroad Track 9¾ in Harry Potter, she has missed the imagery in Black Beauty, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women . . .
Unless a child is creative in some manner—art, crafts, learning an instrument, or sitting against a tree just dreaming—then imagination is a terrible thing to waste.