The Lioness in the Tall Grass: Farmer and Poet Laura Brown-Lavoie’s Extraordinary Letter to Children About the Power of Storytelling
In praise of sentences that pull you in with all their teeth.
By Maria Popova
“Literature,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his insightful meditation on storytelling, “was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him… Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”
Not a boy but a girl, not a canine beast but a feline one, and still the tall grass converge to illuminate the shimmering mesmerism of storytelling in one of the most soulful and sinewy contributions to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, deep-sea divers.
Farmer, poet, doula, and performer Laura Brown-Lavoie writes:
Did you ever read a sentence you loved the way you love your favorite animal? My favorite animal is a lioness; how she doesn’t have a mane but she always has some blood around her mouth. And how the lionesses work together like good friends when they want to kill something. I’ve never seen a lioness in person or touched one or slept in the same bushes where a lioness lives, but I’ve known since I was a little kid that I love them the most.
Sometimes when I’m reading a good book and I’m under a blanket and no one’s trying to talk to me, I forget that I’m reading. The tall grass of the story grows up around me, and I’m just another silent creature whose heart beats in that world. If I sit still and keep reading that way, sometimes a sentence stalks by as lovely as a lioness. Blood around its mouth; that fresh, that killer. I read it once, and I know I have to read it again, not look away, watch closely how it moves.
And then I start to notice my eye muscles moving my eyeballs back and forth again, and see the black of the letters on the gray of the page, and I’m just plain reading under a blanket. It’s still fun. But the reason I read is for the lionesses. For the sentences that pull me in with all their teeth.
In a lovely meta-testament to the sentiment of her letter, Brown-Lavoie (to whom I was introduced by the wondrous Sarah Kay, another contributor to A Velocity of Being) also composed one of the most imaginative and delightful author bios in the book:
Laura Brown-Lavoie is writing stories at the library with dirt on her knees. Born, like we all are, of physical labor, of sunlight and rain. Laura’s stories are born in a war-waging country, written by a war-hating woman. Her poems grow like weeds from the cracks in the asphalt of Providence streets and get hung upside down in the kitchen to dry.
Savor more of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, with Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives.
Published July 26, 2019