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Novelists love Etch A Sketch, too!

Posted by Delia Cabe  March 24, 2012 11:12 AM

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With Etch A Sketch becoming political fodder this week, I wondered whether authors included the beloved toy--as metaphor or toy--in their novels. Sure enough, they have.

Here are 12 novels, among many, in which the Etch A Sketch makes a cameo appearance (be sure to check out the classic Etch A Sketch commercial at the end):

1. She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb

“It's a long story. You don't look like the kind of person who would get it, anyway.” I began twisting the Etch-a-Sketch knobs during the drive back to Gracewood, even before I'd gotten the thing out of its cardboard packaging.

2. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
If the Etch A Sketch and the Spirograph had really worked they would probably be machines, not toys, they would be part of the way the adult universe they operated, and be mounted on the instrument panel of cars or worn on the belts of policemen.

3. Dave Barry's Greatest Hits (OK, so this anthology falls in the nonfiction category, but one should never miss an opportunity to quote him.)

I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT TECHNOLOGY OF late, because, as you are no doubt aware (like fudge, you are), we recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Etch-a- Sketch. I think we can all agree that, except for long-lasting nasal spray, this is the greatest technological achievement of all time. Think for a moment of the countless happy childhood hours you spent with this device: Drawing perfect horizontals, perfect verticals; drawing really spastic diagonals; trying to scrape the silver powder from the window so you could look inside and try to figure out how it really works (Mystery rays from space, is what scientists now believe); and just generally enjoying the sheer childhood pleasure of snatching it away from your sister and shaking it upside down after she had spent 40 minutes making an elaborate picture of a bird.

4. Sins of the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno

Sarah picked up the Digi-Sketch off the shelf. A gift from her mother. Supposed to encourage artistic expression in babies, but Michael had ignored it after five minutes and never played with it again. It was a small holographic unit . . . Eagleton had three of them in his shop, plus a few antique Etch A Sketches.

5. House Rules by Jodi Picoult

It gets a little easier to breathe again, and when I close my eyes I don't see Jess's face on the backs of my lids, grainy like a drawing on an Etch A Sketch. It's like some kind of cryptogram, and A really means Q and Z really means S and so on, so the twist of her mouth and the funny note that jumped in her voice are what she really wanted to say, instead of the words she used.

6. Burn: An Anna Pigeon Novel by Nevada Barr

The crown of thorns was tight across his brow, and his eyes were wild, whites showing around the irises, pupils dilated and bottomless. Above his lip a pencil- thin mustache contorted into Etch A Sketch angles, and the thumb-sized tuft of beard beneath his lower lip that jutted out like the spine of a horned lizard.

7. Wild Fire by Nelson DeMille

I took my coffee back to my desk, turned on my computer, and read through some internal memo. We are now a mostly paperless organization, and I actually miss initialing memos. I had an urge to initial my computer screen with a grease pencil, but I settled for the electronic equivalent. If I ran this organization, all memos would be on an Etch A Sketch.

8. Twenties Girls by Sophie Kinsella

It's as if our whole relationship is an Etch A Sketch and he's deliberately shaking it clean and drawing a new picture, and forgetting all about the old, much better, and more interesting picture which used to be there.

9. Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

First, Angel Delaporte says, it's impossible she could draw so well. Now it's some evil spirit just using her as a human Etch A Sketch. She's only good enough to be some demonic drafting tool.

10. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

"And News 13 will continue to keep you updated as the story unfolds." She glanced down at a blank piece of paper on her desk. She looked up again. . . (Staring at the blank papers in front of her seemed to be the switch that prompted this mechanical expression-wipe, similar to shaking an Etch A Sketch.)

11. The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
I think sometimes of the Etch A Sketch Milo had as a child. When he was nine or ten years old, he took it apart to see how it worked. I was surprised by what he discovered; it turned out I had the whole thing backward in my mind. I had imagined that by turning the dials to move the stylus, the user was drawing metallic dust to the other side of the glass. In fact it's the opposite: the inside surface is coated with aluminum powder from the moment you shake it, and when you turn the knobs, you draw the particles away. The lines you draw represent an absence of the dust, not its presence. It's possible, with enough time and care, to draw a design dense enough to clear the screen completely. Scribble over a big enough area and you can see right through the glass to the machine's dark innards.

12. Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow
Within a week, I had received a response, with a return address at the Northumberland Manor Assisted-Care Facility in West Hartford, written in a craggy hand that brought to mind that enduring children's toy, the Etch A Sketch.

In case you're wondering, it's Etch A Sketch, no hyphens.

* * *
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About the author

Delia Cabe's work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Self, Prevention, Scientific American Presents, and other publications. In between posts, you can read Cabe's tweets at!/DeliaCabe, More »

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