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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 10 months ago

22 January 2002 SIMON SAYS by Elaine Marie Alphin, Harcourt, May 2002


If SIMON SAYS had been a clumsily or a hastily written book, it would still have been well worth reading by high school and college students for the ideas it reveals and questions which it ponders, regarding who we are, how people see us, and how we see people seeing us. The expectation game--how we react to what we think people want, which here is given the name Simon Says--is at the core of this thought-provoking story by Elaine Marie Alphin. But in addition to this book's important and complex theme, it is crafted with the same beauty, lines, luminous colors, and swirling textures with which her main character paints. Indeed, after reading SIMON SAYS, I do not believe that I will be able to look at a piece of art the same way again. Nor will I cease longing to see Charles Weston's sketches and paintings in the flesh.


In a reminiscence from a decade earlier, Charles illustrates how he was an outsider and an artistic genius from the get-go:


"I painted packs of wolves chasing indistinct figures in preschool and kindergarten. The grown-ups said the pictures were very nice, but clearly they didn't like the savage quality of the wolves. The other kids thought the wolves were cool, but they didn't like the fact that my drawings of wolves actually looked like wolves instead of like black stick figures with big teeth--or maybe they didn't like the fact that I couldn't help laughing at their awkward stick figures. Take your pick. So what if they were better at kicking a ball or playing catch than I was? That didn't stop them from laughing at me when the teacher forced me to play their games at recess--or from resenting that I was better with paint. It didn't stop them from calling me names, although the teachers finally stopped them from calling me colored boy (I did seem to end up with almost as much paint on me as on the paper).


"The kids understood instinctively that the wolf pack was the whole bunch of them, mediocrity incarnate, chasing the one who was different. None of us had the words for it then, of course, but I had the imagery, and the talent, to show it. What I wanted was someone to see my paintings and nod and say, 'That's how it is, all right.' But no one did, not even the teachers or parents. Maybe they were scared of admitting they were part of the wolf pack, even to themselves. Maybe they wished they could be different, special--the one who escaped the wolves. But they couldn't be, or they just wouldn't try."


Things haven't changed for Charles. The story opens with sixteen-year-old Charles' first days at a boarding school for the arts, which he has scammed his parents into sending him to in order that he might get to know Graeme, a famous student/writer there whose book has moved Charles. Charles hopes that Graeme will give him the answer, the key, to escaping the game.


The story behind the story is in itself fascinating. Ms. Alphin completed the original manuscript for this book a quarter century ago in college, and actually submitted it to publishers at that time. It is only in the wake of her winning the Edgar award last year for COUNTERFEIT SON that this masterpiece takes its final shape as a published work. While the author is undoubtedly correct in her assertion that SIMON SAYS has gained much from the intervening years of honing her craft, it is also true that this is such a vital story that it seems tragic that through those same intervening years so many young adults could have seen themselves and benefited from reading Charles and Graeme's story had she only found the right editor in her earlier days as a writer.


This is one that'll be reverberating in my head for a long time to come.


Richie Partington

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