I like ice cream just fine, but I like it chiefly, I must confess, as a platform on which to pile what I love beyond all reckoning: toppings. When I prepare a bowl of ice cream for myself, I start with a tiny scoop of vanilla and then load it up with Hershey’s chocolate sauce, multiple maraschino cherries with dribbles of their sweet syrup, perhaps a dab of strawberry jam, a swirl of whipped cream, and sprinkles.
I’ve found that “toppings” are what I love best as a reader, too. Yes, a book has to have some kind of plot, a basic story line to keep us turning the pages to find out what will happen next. But the things I remember most after closing the pages of a wonderful book tend to be those little sparkly details that are there almost for their own sake, just to add vividness and childlike wonder to the writing.
As a child I loved All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor’s affectionate portrait of a large Jewish immigrant family growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the last century. When I re-read it as an adult, I was surprised to find that the book had a plot: a predictable, sentimental story line involving the romantic reunion between Papa’s mysterious employee/protégé Charlie and the girls’ beloved “Library Lady.” The parts I had remembered for decades had nothing to do with the plot, but with the detailed description of the rituals the girls developed for nibbling on the penny candy and crackers bought at the corner store and dusting to find the pennies hidden by Mama. I barely remember the major incidents of any of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Instead what I remember is how Ramona tried to get Miss Binney to think she would do a good job as the kindergarten post-nap wake-up fairy, giving a “delicate snore” so that Miss Binney would see how excellent she was at resting. Toppings!
In my own forthcoming chapter book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, I created a plot involving Annika’s entering a district-wide Sudoku contest. But the fun of the writing for me was in the toppings: a minor subplot involving Annika’s doomed attempts to teach her dog, Prime (short for Prime Number) to count, and recurrent details about Annika’s life with her math-teacher father and tax-accountant mother in their “math house,” where the tablecloth is numeral-patterned and the salt shaker is shaped like a 3 while the pepper shaker is shaped like a 4.
Yay for toppings!