When we were all eight, the girls in my grade decided we had secret worlds. One world belonged to me and my best friend Chloe, and the other world belonged to every other eight-year old girl; and the clash between imaginary worlds turned into an all-out Vivian Girls war.
To get to our worlds, we’d have to turn a dozen cartwheels and repeat incantations in Pig Latin. Then we’d be in this magical otherness where we couldn’t hear anything our teachers said, where the trees in High Park were giant redwoods, where branches were horses, and where our Technicolor little girl dream logic ruled.
We eventually forgot about our worlds, even after all the fighting over whose was best. There might have been music. There might have been boys.
It wasn’t until I read Museum of the Weird that I went back to that place. I bought the book at AWP, when my interest in craft talk and not acting like most humans had run out. I cracked it while waiting for the world’s slowest subway train, somewhere between the conference and the Smithsonian. From the first story, the book did twelve cartwheels and recited an incantation in Pig Latin, and the growing crowd of disgruntled commuters ceased to be; and there was only Amelia Gray’s super shiny imagination, the cute and dark and horrible inhabitants of it. Here are the first few lines of some of my favorite stories in the book:
“One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight. It was troubling to realize because I had felt no pain as I slept, did not remember the birth, and in fact had not even known I was pregnant.”
“’I think I’d call us strange bedfellows,’ the armadillo said. The penguin barely heard her.”
“The thing is that everyone is jealous and I hate to say it but everyone is jealous because I am finally creating a SNAKE FARM which has been my lifelong dream, and I spent a very long time in the world saving up for this dream to become a reality as they say on the television . . .”
The 24 stories in this book are short and truthy; they tickle you and steal your wallet while you’re laughing. In her retelling of (follow up to?) Aesop’s “Tortoise and the Hare,” she pulls what feels like an even more valuable lesson than Aesop’s out of the old story when the tortoise reveals to the hare, who is on his deathbed, that there was never a race in the first place.
There’s also the overwhelming sense that Gray just plain has fun writing. I hate to say that this is refreshing, because it shouldn’t be. But too often writing – the business of it, and the practice of it – seems to take itself so seriously, and project the idea that we must not only be writers but also be very smart or very successful or very well-educated or very good bloggers, very very very; we must prove ourselves all the time. The kid in me tugs at my shirt and says, This is scary. Can we go home? And, a lot of the time, I tell the kid in me to shut up when she should be the one calling the shots. In Museum of the Weird, the kid is calling the shots. What a relief. The book is great.
I don’t know Amelia Gray, but would love to tour her brain sometime. She reveals writing for what it is: play. Museum of the Weird reminded me why I write and read: to get back to that place where play-logic is law, where no one can judge you but yourself, where your best friend is waiting, with her branch and her crown, to wage war on a tribe of feral children.