Harsh Words For Becky -The Toast

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The following story was written by an actual eight year old named Becky, who is now an adult (and whose debut novel comes out next year).

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One day a dog had 7 puppies. Candy, Bubbles, Spot, Flower, Brownie, Bambi, and Tootsiroll. Tootsiroll was the runt. All the puppies had spots. There were 6 nipples on their mother, Apple. One day Flower went up to Bubbles. They talked and had fun. Soon they let all the puppies join them, all except Tootsiroll. Nobody liked his face because he didn’t eat enough because nobody ever let him. Apple noticed this and started waking Tootsiroll up in the night when everyone was speeping. Tootsiroll would suck and suck. Still none of the puppies liked him. They were all as mean as they could get to him. They woke up extra early so Tootsiroll wouldn’t get a nipple to suck because they didn’t know what happenes in the night. They took as much room up on the bed so Tootsiroll would have to sleep on the floor. They took more than one toy each so Tootsiroll couldn’t play with any and they did lots more awful things on purpose. One day they couldn’t find Bambi. They looked everywhere.  Soon Tootsiroll got an idea. He looked under the bed and there he was. He barked.  All the puppies came running. Everyone was proud especially Tootsiroll and they always respected him.


First off, please include your name and an approximate word count on the first page of your manuscript. Also, see the handout you received on the first day of second grade, which describes my preferred formatting guidelines RE: margins and spacing.

Now, let’s begin by talking about your title: Tootsiroll. While I’d love to believe you are aware of the technique known as “sensational spelling,” in which words are deliberately misspelled for effect (see Led Zeppelin, Froot Loops, and Bryan Adams), we both know you’re not. You’re eight. You’re barely aware of the technique known as “wiping yourself after you poop.” But you’ve at least seen a Tootsie Roll, haven’t you? Never forget that good writing starts with good reading.

Your story begins with the introduction of your dramatis personae. But Becky, do you really expect the average reader to be able to keep track of all these characters? Give us time to get to know your puppies as individuals. To that end, I urge you to reconsider your decision to describe all seven puppies as having spots. We need to be able to differentiate between them. Maybe one has spots, one has mange, one is a racist, etc. (Keep in mind, these are just suggestions. The divine spark has to come from you.)

The abrupt sexualization of the story around the fourth sentence (“There were 6 nipples…”) felt forced to me, particularly coming from someone half a decade out from the onset of puberty. Not everyone can be a Nicholson Baker, Becky. At this point, you’re not even a Jenna Jameson. I felt similarly skeptical when the story became an allegorical commentary on anorexia (“…he didn’t eat enough because nobody ever let him.”). Laurie Halse Anderson has really exhausted this subject in fiction, so you shouldn’t broach it unless you have something new to say. As my writing professor at Columbia told me, an issue may be topical, but so is Preparation-H.

Now, a quick word on structure. While I respect the way you’ve attempted to channel the sentence-by-sentence efficiency of Hemingway and the overall flash-fiction concision of Lydia Davis, there is such a thing as too simple. A couple of adjectives or adverbs aren’t going to kill you, Becky. Remember, it’s called “creative writing,” not “instructions for putting together an IKEA-brand kitchen island.”

I do appreciate your decision to feature dogs in the story. The anthropomorphization of animals has a long and impressive pedigree (Ha!—see that’s the kind of wordplay this story could have used a little more of!) in fiction. Consider Orwell, White, and even Kafka. However, the worlds described in these authors’ books are internally coherent, while yours is (and I’m going to be straight with you, Becky, as I know you’d want me to be) a piping hot mess. How about a little bit of context before you launch us into the story? Where are these dogs? Are they in someone’s home? And what’s the deal with this bed? If it’s a human bed, six puppies are simply not going to be able to spread out in such a way as to keep a seventh puppy from also enjoying the bed. If it’s some kind of special dog bed, this only raises more questions. Who built the bed? Some sort of carpenter dog? Have these puppies chosen to forego the proverbial dog pile for some other sleeping arrangement, and if so, why? Does it have anything to do with their distant, loveless mother figure, who functions here as little more than a milk dispenser?

This brings us to your conclusion. Becky, I can’t understand why you would fail to address the fact that Bambi is clearly dead, and that what Tootsiroll has found must be the corpse of Bambi. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he have come out from under the bed when he heard his brothers and sisters calling his name? Tease out the implications here. Which of your characters has both the means and the motive to kill? How about the maladjusted, malnourished loner, starved both metaphorically (for attention/affection) and literally (for milk)? Let us not forget that the first crime mentioned in the Bible (assuming you don’t count sex before marriage or apple theft!) is fratricide. This dark ending would be made even more chilling by the fact that Tootsiroll uses the murder of Bambi as his means of finally securing the respect and love of his other brothers and sisters (see Whipple and Finton’s “Psychological maltreatment by siblings,” Vol. 12, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal).

Final Notes: Becky, there are intimations of a compelling psychological thriller hidden somewhere in this hackneyed family drama. However, a worrying thematic immaturity, to say nothing of a grasp of the subtle poeticisms of the English language I would be generous to call jejune, do nothing to bring them out.

Final Grade: D+

Tommy is a writer and musician whose debut novel, "We All Looked Up," will be published by Simon & Schuster in Spring 2015. He tumbles here and twitters here.

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