A few years ago, we watched Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 with my brother. After the second movie, Blaine observed: “In the first movie, they said, ‘I don’t know why anyone would ever want a fart gun.’ But in this one, it turned out to be really useful.”
We all laughed, but he was right. In Despicable Me, Dr. Nefario misunderstands Gru’s request for a dart gun and invents a fart gun instead. He tests it on a minion and then tosses it aside saying, “I was wondering… Under what circumstances would we use this?” But in the sequel, the fart gun proves key to defeating El Macho.
That’s an example of a Chekhov’s gun, a memorable but seemingly unimportant detail introduced early in a story whose significance becomes clear later. It gets its name from the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who advised storytellers: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Larrabee is re-reading one of the Harry Potter books now, and they are full of such details–from the Dumbledore card that Harry finds in his very first Chocolate Frog on the Hogwarts Express to Regulus Black’s locket. Particularly on a second reading, he spots these relevant tidbits with a delighted “aha”!
When I pick a book to read aloud with Blaine, I look for one that he’ll like but that he wouldn’t choose for himself.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander seemed perfect. It’s about things that interest him: sports (basketball, not baseball, but still…), seventh graders, brothers, and parents. And the challenging part: the story is told entirely in verse.
Usually, we both like our read-alouds. Not this time, though. I enjoyed it, but Blaine never warmed to the poetry.
I’ll be the first to admit that I prefer novels in prose. This book did not change my mind. But I found the characters compelling: the narrator (Josh Bell), his twin brother (J.B.), his brother’s new girlfriend (Alexis a.k.a Miss Sweet Tea), his mother (Dr. Bell a.k.a. the Assistant Principal), and his father (Chuck “Da Man” Bell). I admire the way Alexander conveys their voices and personalities with an economy of words.
I especially liked the interactions between Josh and his dad. And I liked his dad’s ten rules of basketball–and of life.
At times, the story made me laugh, and the ending made me cry. Blaine’s embarassed reaction: “Mom, it’s just a book. It’s a poem. That’s like crying over Jabberwocky.”
I wish I had video of Larrabee trying the Google Cardboard viewer for the first time. He watched a 360-degree video about five National Parks on the NYT VR app. And he definitely found the experience immersive!
He spun around. He looked up. He looked down. He reached his toe out to touch something that only he could see. “Whoa,” he said several times.
His experience with virtual reality reminded me of the descriptions of early movies in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo remembers how his father described seeing his first movie: “like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.” Later in the story, Hugo finds a book called The Invention of Dreams: The Story of the First Movies Ever Made. He reads:
In 1895, one of the very first films ever shown was called A Train Arrives in the Station, which was nothing more than what the title suggests, a train coming into the station. But when the train came speeding toward the screen, the audience screamed and fainted because they thought they were in danger of being run over. No one had ever seen anything like it before.
Mark’s father has a similar story. As a young man, he worked as a movie theatre usher in Washington state. Back them, talking pictures were still a novelty. One day, the theatre showed a Western. When a gunfight broke out in the movie, two cowboys in the audience pulled their guns from their holsters and returned fire! The screen sported two small holes for months.