What I Like about You: Irene Latham

There’s so much to like about Irene Latham, and not just as a writer.  But since this is supposed to be a series about what writers do particularly well, I won’t tell you how poised, lovely, kind, and smart Irene is as a person.  Instead, I’ll tell you why I’ve dubbed her the Queen of Texture.

In creative writing classes, they teach you to “write what you know.”  Irene doesn’t do that.  Well, not necessarily.  Unless she knows what it’s like to be the partially blind daughter of an Alabama sharecropper in the 1930s or what it’s like to be a boy who lives (yes, literally LIVES) at the zoo.  And yet, Irene makes it work.  I can only imagine the amount of research that must go into her books.  When reading (and teaching–I highly recommend Leaving Gee’s Bend for seventh grade English courses) her first novel, I never once felt that Ludelphia Bennett was anything less than 100% authentic.  Similarly, when I read Don’t Feed the Boy, I felt perfectly safe with Whit, who knows everything about the zoo animals.  Fun fact:  which zoo animal would be most likely to kill you?  Think about it and I’ll tell you the answer at the end of this post.  Also, did you know that boa constrictors don’t crush their prey?  Nope.  They squeeze them enough to cut off their air supply.  It’s Irene’s attention to details like these and how she seamlessly works them into the plot that adds such texture to her stories.  Her novels feel so authentic.

Of course, it’s also fun to read Irene’s prose because in addition to her work as a novelist, she’s an accomplished poet.  Her poet’s ear for language and her skill at description and metaphor come into play every so often, much to a careful reader’s delight.  For instance, in Boy, she describes Stella as looking “like she’d be good in a commercial for whole-grain cereal” and Ferdinand the peacock as “stride[ing] along on sunny days, as if he was the lone sheriff of some dusty goldrush town.”

I’d highly recommend Don’t Feed the Boy for fifth or sixth grade English classes.  There are plenty of parallels between human and animal behavior that would give teachers an opportunity to ease students into critical analysis of literature; plus, it’s a story that teaches kids about friendship and has plenty of age-appropriate peril to keep them interested.  (Neither of Irene’s novels will get you any phone calls from outraged parents–and I know from experience how real of a concern that can be for teachers!)

So that’s what I like about you, Irene Latham.  I’d love to know what other readers have to add to the discussion.

Oh, and the zoo animal most likely to kill you?

It’s the elephant.

3 Responses to “What I Like about You: Irene Latham”

  • Leaving Gee’s Bend is a very good way to introduce students to a great Alabama subject.
    I’d be curious about her opinions on the “grade-level” appropriate word choice, etc. I always had a problem with “kids” books strictly monitoring vocabulary levels and the drive toward more “elementary” sentence structures and the like. seems to run against the writer’s drive and craft?

    • Hi John – thanks for your comment. The only way in which I monitored vocabulary when writing Leaving Gee’s Bend was to determine if a 10 year old in 1932 Gee’s Bend, Alabama, would use that language. You’ll find many novels marketed for children use sophisticated language — as long as it fits the character and the story. One thing I have noticed in recent years is a trend toward shorter, punchier sentences. Yet there are no rules: in my most recent book DON’T FEED THE BOY, which targets ages 8-12, there is a 51 word sentence! So, if you are writing, don’t worry yourself with appropriateness for age level; make it appropriate for your STORY. Good luck, and thanks so much for reading!

  • What I like about you, Ginger Rue, is that you write posts like this — oh, and about about a billion other things! Thank you, friend. Now go write MORE BOOKS!! xo

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