What we're reading at Fairbanks Branch

Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

When you work at a library you tend to discuss books you've heard about or recently read. Last week I was behind the circulation desk when a little girl was singing a very interesting rendition of the Alphabet Song. I told the branch librarian that it reminded me of one of the Fudge books by Judy Blume. (Fudge's alphabet consisted of only A B C D E F G R B Y Z.)

The shortened Alphabet Song reminded her of Ella Minnow Pea, which she had read a review about recently. I can't remember what her pitch was exactly - something about a town where certain alphabet letters were outlawed and therefore as the book progresses, fewer letters are used - but it convinced me to request it. My copy arrived in delivery a few days later and I have yet to read it. Yesterday, our children's librarian received a copy in delivery - I guess he was convinced too.

Another staff member read it a while back (she, too, had been sold on our branch librarian's recommendation) and blogged about it.

Here's an excerpt: Okay, I lied. I won't give you just an excerpt because her whole review is awesome and I can't figure out what to cut out without butchering her insightfulness. Enjoy!

"When I first read the description on the jacket of Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn I wasn't sure what "epistolary" meant. The full line is, "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable." Turns out, it's a book written entirely in letter form, much like my other fave, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Ella, who is also a character in the book, is a wonderfully clever metaphor about totalitarianism, societal pressure and ignorance that makes me wonder why it isn't on every high school reading list. Like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (which, thankfully, IS on the local HS reading list), this is the story of fictional townspeople who take mythology so literally that they've lost sight of reality. The island of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, who supposedly invented the 35-letter panagram, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog," worships the phrase so much that it is inscribed in tiles in the town square. When the tiles begin to become unglued (either from old age or divine purpose), so do the town leaders who take it as a heavenly sign that the god-like deceased Nollop does not want the people to use those particular letters anymore. The people can neither speak the letters nor write them upon punishment first by warning, then public humiliation, and finally by banishment from the island...or death. Ah...Big Brother slash 451 slash Orwellian dilemmas! I LOVE 'em! At first, it's fairly easy to give up "q" or "z" but how do you communicate without vowels? As the people become progressively (and literally) tongue-tied, the reader is forced to try to figure out what their haltingly stunted - and censored - mail to each other is trying to say. Eventually, they are all banished including, predictably, even the banishers themselves, and what remains of the town is left to try to rebuild after seeing the error of their misguided ways. This is a quick read with deep implications which reminds me of so many of the great round table discussion stories like "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson, which I read and loved in high school. When I discussed Ella Minnow Pea with my 19-year old son, surprisingly, he had a lot to say about it. Huh? This coming from a boy who NEVER has anything to say about books. So again, I'm wondering, why is this story not required reading for high schoolers? Nothing against classic faves such as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter but (I've said it a hundred times) if you want to hook kids, you have to give them something they can relate to, and kids today have zip in common with whale hunting. If the reader doesn't care about the story there can be no critical thinking. Perhaps it's time to redefine the term "classics" and let's get the kids reading again."