NEW YORK, N.Y. - It was in a sixth-grade English class that I first encountered the work of Ray Bradbury, in a short story called "The Sound of Summer Running." It wasn't the science fiction Bradbury became famous for; the story took place in the real world, and was told through the eyes of a boy longing for new sneakers.
But the way Bradbury captured the angst and dreams of an ordinary kid was captivating to me as a young reader, opening up a whole new and thrilling world of literature.
Until then, I'd mostly read formulaic, plot-driven stories for kids, so forgettable that not one of them sticks in my mind. But from the opening paragraph of "The Sound of Summer Running," I was hooked.
A boy named Douglas sees sneakers in a store window but can't turn away fast enough: "His ankles were seized, his feet suspended, then rushed. The earth spun." It wasn't about aliens or time travel, but about Bradbury's way of using words on a page to turn human emotion almost into three-dimensional figures.
Stuck in his old, dead sneakers, Douglas imagines shoes with "marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles," with the "hard sinews of buck deer." That night he dreams of rabbits running. And the next day, he suggests to a shoe store owner that the owner try on a pair of shoes. Transported by that experience, the old man gives a new pair to Douglas and says the boy can work the cost off through chores.
Douglas puts the sneakers on, his feet "deep in the rivers, in the fields of wheat, in the wind that already was rushing him out of the town."
"Antelopes? Gazelles?" the old man asks.
Douglas nods and vanishes.
No, it wasn't science fiction. But Bradbury didn't need to conjure up the rain on Venus or an exploding space ship to pull readers in. The essence of his books or at least what intrigued me as an adolescent and kept me going back to them throughout my life was Bradbury's ability to put in words what it feels like to be human — whether stranded on a planet light years from earth or standing in a shoe store, staring at the sneakers of your dreams.