When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several visits to our class to teach us "life skills." They addressed topics like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly derided. That's boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn't even a real flavor.
The next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you got frosting? Trade with me.
No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That's what you get for ordering stupid-old chocolate. We have frosting, and you don't.
The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened. The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best choice after all, or so the complainers said.
That's when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted.
Blah, blah, blah.
At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It's not always easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.
As adults, too often, we're not a whole lot more mature than that group of fourth graders -- criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices. I've most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick to condemn others' reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That's so boring. Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time reading about something that could never really happen?
Why can't we just say, Hey! You're reading a book. Cool. How is it?
With the explosion of e-books and print-on-demand publishing technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a delicious, satisfying surprise in the end. And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.
Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially wise to heed this advice.
For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds, introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes, about not-so-good writing, but that's also a beneficial thing). A voracious reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.
For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women's fiction. Yet, I've received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male readers who were moved by the book's multiple perspectives on slavery and freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.
It's just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place that serve only cupcakes. You know the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.
Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don't judge others for their choices. And don't be afraid to sample something different once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It's all good.
p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and cupcakes) with us kids.
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