Today I’m kicking off a new feature called My First Favorite Book. My First Favorite Book will spotlight writers discussing the first book that made them fall in love with reading or made them realize a career in writing was in their future. Many thanks to Bradley Spinelli, author of Killing Williamsburg, for being the first to share his first favorite book!
Remembering The Giant Jam Sandwich
By Bradley Spinelli
Memory is a sieve, memory is a sluice, memory is a sump. And if—in this exact moment—I could remember the exact shades of meaning between those closely-related words, I would just pick one. But memory is unreliable, disastrously subjective, and tainted with emotions. Early childhood memories are even worse, forever clouded by the recounting of other people—do I really remember that, or have I just been hearing the story my entire life?—and distorted by a mind not yet fully formed. I love stories about people who regain their sight after being blind since childhood and have to learn a “visual vocabulary.” (Like this story or the Pang Brothers’ film The Eye.)
Seeing is not just seeing, but understanding what it is you’re looking at.
So, out of the thousands of books I’ve read, plus magazines and periodicals and blogs reaching back four decades, what is the first book that ignited my love for reading? Cut to a montage of zooming planets, worlds of words, zipping backward in time from a profile of Theaster Gates (read last night) popping from a mile-high stack of New Yorkers, a whir of the hundreds of passing drafts of my own novels, now blushing through decades of adult fiction, the repeated reads prominent—Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and Catch 22—now dipping through a cloudy nebula of plays and theatrical texts from the college years, zooming by high school’s yawning black hole of mandatory sentencing to 19th Century bores, plunging through the SciFi/Fantasy solar system of adolescence, and down into a dizzying whirlpool galaxy of shorter books, Lizard Music, Encyclopedia Brown, barely-remembered books with pictures, books made of thick cardboard, easy for little fingers. Whoops, too far. Pan out a bit. That one. The one with the wasps.
The Giant Jam Sandwich. Story and pictures by John Vernon Lord, verses by Janet Burroway.
I remembered this book recently after the birth of my Godson, when I was asked to contribute something personal to his library. The book came out in 1972, so it was brand new when I got my dirty paws on it. I’m sure it was first read to me by my mother, but I clearly remember reading it on my own. It was one of my earliest experiences of reading and re-reading, experiencing a story over and over again to further delve the nuances, in the way that I continue to re-watch favorite films today.
If you don’t know the story, it’s simple: the town of Itching Down is beset upon by four million wasps. The townspeople gather together and make a giant jam sandwich to trap the wasps—and splatter them all between two enormous pieces of bread, trapped in sticky strawberry jam. Told through rhyming verses and ridiculous drawings.
This is pure eyecandy for a kid. As Kirkus said, “Children should have fun spotting the cockeyed absurdities purveyed here in pictures and verse.” And I did. The verses themselves have silliness built in, with characters like Mayor Muddlenut and Bap the Baker. The town is called Itching Down. But the pictures are over the top—lurid, baroque illustrations bordering on the obscene. Every look seems to unearth new possibilities. The best parts are making the dough, baking the bread in a giant oven, slicing the bread, and spreading butter and jam, all of which build up to the inevitable splat. I must have looked at these pages a million times. When they’re making the dough, there’s a guy way in the back who can only be seen because of his hands, raised with a club to “thump it” as entreated by the baker. I always thought he was lost back there, caught in the dough, and could almost feel his doughy confines. Of course, looking at it now, I see he was just following directions.
A lot of things make more sense looking back, or seem to, because your adult mind has been trained to believe it makes sense. I know now that John Vernon Lord has taught illustration for over 40 years, and that even after Goodnight Moon and mommy knows what else, his work is still in print. I also know that Janet Burroway is primarily a novelist, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and runner up for the National Book Award. She’s probably more widely read because of her textbook, “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” which is now in its 7th edition and is widely used in university writing programs. So these two are no slouches, even if they were slumming it in children’s books back in ‘72.
(Tangent: I’m also more widely read via textbook than fiction. I was quoted in Lawrence Stern’s Stage Management, beginning with the 7th edition, discussing my experience of stage managing a circus. Full disclosure: Stern’s was my stage management textbook in college, a class I almost failed.)
Looking back, this book is a spot-on example of how to tell a great story. First, the setup: a simple conflict. And notice they get right to it on the first page. No time for dilly-dallying! Like Syd Field said, you gotta grab ‘em in the first few minutes. It’s a quick story, so they use stock characters—the baker, the farmer, the mayor. You know who these people are. Suspense, wasps cause trouble; rising action, building and baiting the trap; and a climax you’ll never forget—splat! The second piece of bread, dropped from helicopters, traps all the wasps. Except for three, who run away, allowing for a sequel.
What got me as a child were the infinite possibilities of the story—spun not just by the verses but by the images as well. Early on, there’s an image of a guy bent over in his stocking feet, holding his shoes, beating a wasp with spatula. It’s fantastic and could be unwound into an entire story of its own. Why are his shoes off? Why a spatula?
I began to see how words can illustrate themselves, since the pictures were inseparable from the story. Even the added elements became a story in my mind—like the guy on the tractor. He’s there on the bread, riding his tractor, spreading butter, wearing his hat, and there he is again later, with helicopter blades rigged to his tractor along with helium balloons, helping the helicopters with the second slice. Who is this guy? He’s amazing. So much cooler than the guys flying the helicopters, who don’t even get hats.
I spent a lot of time staring at the cover, rolling hills and an arched stone bridge, lines curved like the mind itself. These paths could take you anywhere.
I loved the making of the bread but was troubled by it. Why did they have to bake such a giant loaf of bread when they only needed two slices? Even as I questioned it, I loved seeing the people on the scaffolding, slicing the bread with a lumberjack saw. And why did they butter the bread? Wouldn’t the jam be enough? And if you’re going to butter it, shouldn’t it be toasted first?
It would seem that even at a young age, I was already cursed with a mind that refuses to accept art—or the world—as given. First sign that you might have to create some stuff of your own.
I never got over the fantastic. I’ve written straight plays and naturalistic novels, and my reading and viewing habits lean towards the prosaic, but I loved the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books and don’t mind the magic in Gabriel García Márquez. And thirty years after The Giant Jam Sandwich came out, I wrote a book about a “bug” that comes into town and turns everything higgledy-piggledy.
But I‘m sure that’s just a fantastic coincidence.