Friday, February 01, 2008

Click Lit: The Legend of the Wandering King

I wrote this essay a long time ago for a Scholastic promotional newsletter, and the permalink thus far has been on Arthur's blog, way down at the bottom of the page. But as I link to the essay from my books-I've-edited page on (and I can never mention that URL without wanting to laugh), I'd like to have a more stable location for it, so I am reposting it here. Feel free to ignore it and carry on with your day, though you should read the book -- it's lovely.

July 25, 2005 -- Every reader knows the click. It’s that moment in a book when you give yourself up to it, when you say “yes” and surrender to the world and the characters. It’s when you shut the door, turn off the e-mail, and take the phone off the hook; it’s going through the wardrobe, down the rabbit hole, into the secret garden, on the Hogwarts Express. It is, in short, the moment you fall in love with a book, and of all of reading’s many pleasures, it’s perhaps the most thrilling and addictive.

Every editor knows the click too. For me it happens when I recognize a gesture or a feeling in a book, something real from the range of human experience (often, though not always, my own experience): when I encounter something true. And of all the wonderful things I get to do as an editor, I have to say the click moment is perhaps the most exciting part of my job, because not only do I fall in love with a book, I know I’ll get to share it with other readers as well.

In the spring of 2002, my boss Arthur Levine brought back a brilliant new novel from the Bologna Book Fair, about an Arabian prince who longs to be a poet and an fabulous, deadly, enchanted carpet. Because the book was written in Spanish, Arthur asked Macarena Salas, an editor with Scholastic en Español, to read the book for us. She adored it. He asked Dan Bellm, an award-winning poet and translator, to translate three chapters for us. Dan gladly obliged. And when we received the pages, they included these lines describing the power of poetry:

"Everyone who was present that day could sense that words had a mysterious magical power, that they could reach the heart and make the oldest things new again, over and over, if only one used them with feeling and passion. And once the audience understood this, they never forgot it."

A truth expressed in a way we’d never imagined it before. And just like that: click.

The book was The Legend of the Wandering King by Laura Gallego García, and Arthur A. Levine Books is proud to be publishing the complete novel this coming August. Legend tells the story of Prince Walid of Kinda, a handsome, courteous, charming young man who longs to attend the great poetry competition at Ukaz. But his kingdom boasts one greater poet than he-a poor carpet-weaver named Hammad-and out of jealousy, Walid curses him to create an impossible work of art: a carpet showing the history of the entire human race. Hammad dies weaving it. Men go mad seeing it. And when it is stolen, Walid discovers his life’s quest: to recover the carpet and earn forgiveness for his mistakes.

The book has a marvelous background in historical fact: Walid’s story was inspired by the life of Imru’l Qays, a real prince of Kinda in the late fifth century C.E. Laura mentions Qays in her author's note, and I had a wonderful time fact-checking his biography: Qays was twice kicked out of his father's court for writing erotic poetry; he went on a mad and successful quest for revenge against his father's murderers, a tribe called the Banu Asad; he did indeed win the poetry competition at Ukaz; and legend has it that Emperor Justinian I sent him a poisoned cloak -- which killed him -- for winning the love of the Emperor's daughter. Stories like this, almost better than fiction (poisoned cloaks!!!), are exactly what make me love history (emphasis on the "story"); and I loved The Legend of the Wandering King all the more for introducing me to him.

And I loved the resolution Laura brings to her story as well, where Walid finally sees the pattern of his life unfolding like the pattern in that magical, entrancing carpet. The Legend of the Wandering King is about pride, about fate, about the choices we make that determine the direction of the rest of our lives, and about our ability to reverse those choices by making other ones: about the freedom we have to decide our lives every moment we live them. I moved to New York from the Midwest in 2000 basically on a dare from Dave Eggers: I read a piece in Harper's Magazine where he was asked by a college-age fan how he (I quote) "kept his shit real," and he responded that there was no real shit or unreal shit -- there was only saying "yes" to opportunities whenever they came. I had an opportunity; I made my choice; and it's resulted in my life as it is now, unpredictable and wonderful. And the opportunities continue: I could meet my future husband on the way to lunch; I could break my leg falling down the Scholastic staircase on the way back from lunch; I could get the next Harry Potter in the mail this afternoon. Legend not only reminded me of those first heady weeks in New York in 2000, it reminds me that that time, those chances and possibilities, happen every day of my life.

And, I’m delighted to say, it’s absolutely crammed with click moments. I hope it might click with you too.


  1. Great! Another book to put on my 'to read' list. Thanks Cheryl.


  2. I am now going to HAVE to read this book! It's on my list. Now...only how many hours until the bookstore opens?

  3. I checked out Wandering King aright fter reading that essay a while back, and it's such a lovely, haunting heart broke for both Walid and Hammad.

  4. Laura Gallego is an excellent writer, and I can say you she has more great books waiting for translation. I don't know if you know Spanish, but if you could, take a look to 'El coleccionista de relojes extraordinarios' (the collector of extraordinary clocks), 'Alas de Fuego' (wings of fire) or her last one, 'la emperatriz de los etéreos'.

    'The legend of the wandering king' is a great book, I am with you.

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  6. Thank you for introducing me the wonderful information.And .....Totally boring.!

  7. Thank you for introducing me the wonderful information.And .....Totally boring.!