“Swirling Arabesques” is a personal narrative written by Zoe Kyriakakis, age 10. It’s written in the first person present tense. The entire piece takes place on the narrator’s school bus ride home. The piece starts with vivid descriptions of the noises of the school bus. Then, the writer describes the intense fog that has fallen over Philadelphia. The fog puts the narrator into a reverie, and suddenly we are transported earlier in the day, to the narrator’s class’s field trip to a show at an art museum about Islamic art. At the show, the narrator’s teacher described the spiraling features of the artwork as “swirling arabesques,” a term the narrator finds extremely compelling. The story ends when the narrator’s bus ride is over.
How does this writer paint a picture with words?
One way to paint a picture with words is to craft a scene using compelling details. In “Swirling Arabesques,” Zoe Kyriakakis takes this one step further by pairing vivid sensory details—sights, sounds, and movements—with imagined details. The reader is able to not only see what the narrator saw but also imagine what she imagined. The writer begins the story by plunging us straight into the scene:
The long, yellow school bus is full of noise—laughing, yelling, chatting, gossiping, squealing, groaning, and singing.
The writer doesn’t mince words. There’s no “Once upon a time, I took the bus home from school.” Instead, she cuts right to the chase. The bus is full of noise. And what’s more, there are many different types of noises going on all at once. By listing them, the writer already begins to paint a kind of auditory picture of the scene.
But then, something very strange happens:
Cars swarm the busy intersection and large, green route signs hang overhead proclaiming “Boulevard This” or “Lane That” in shiny, white lettering.
Even if you’ve never been to Philadelphia, I think it is fairly easy to assume that signs probably don’t literally say “Boulevard This” or “Lane That.” But through the writer’s use of quotations, and through descriptive details like “shiny white lettering,” you can almost imagine it. More than just a picture of an intersection, we get the feeling of what the writer is trying to convey—a complex jumble of traffic and instructions on familiar, green signs. The narrator tells us later that she does not even need to read the signs to know what they say:
I’ve been on this homeward-bound school bus route precisely 157 times (and counting) every Friday for the past four-and-a-half-ish years. It’s safe to say that I’m familiar enough with this particular intersection. What I’m really staring at through the window is the fog.
The fact that the signs were covered in fog makes that description even more interesting. Through words, the writer painted a picture of something she had only ever imagined, something that had previously been totally covered up by fog.
Another interesting place where the writer paints a picture with words is in her exploration of the phrase that forms the focus of the last section of the story: “swirling arabesques.”
Though the narrator’s teacher used the phrase to describe artwork, the narrator describes all that she saw when she heard them.
Swirling arabesques. Those words reminded me of dancing ballerinas, twirling with flouncy full skirts. Swirling arabesques. They reminded me of the rising of the sun in the morning, warm on my face the second before I opened my eyes.
Reading that description of the sun, I can almost feel it myself, even though the morning sun was not directly a part of the story. By bringing strong physical descriptions to an abstract concept, the writer helps us see what she envisioned when she heard those words.
Finally, the writer helps us do our own imagining. The more times the phrase “swirling arabesques” is repeated, the easier it is for us as readers to see them all around us too—in the sky in the form of clouds, being exhaled from the backs of trucks, or in a bowl of soup.
- Are there other phrases like “swirling arabesques” in the piece that made you imagine new images?
- Why do you think the writer chose to focus on the fog before talking about the story’s ultimate focus of swirling arabesques?
The long, yellow school bus is full of noise—laughing, yelling, chatting, gossiping, squealing, groaning, and singing (a bunch of third-graders, all of whom are rather loud and out of tune). Kids shout across the narrow aisle, crowding over iPads and other electronics and noisily chattering away. I quietly stare out the window, watching the crowded roads as the bus zooms by. Cars swarm the busy intersection and large, green route signs hang overhead proclaiming “Boulevard This” or “Lane That” in shiny, white lettering. There is noise outside the bus as well as in—honking, beeping, shouting, car engines, and the occasional urgent wail of an ambulance or cheerful chirp of a bird in a nearby tree. Cars zip by at breakneck speed, flashing white lights in front and reddish-yellow in the back. Nobody on the road is dawdling around or wasting time. Everyone on the busy road seems to have a place to be, a person to be, a thing that must be done. In the distance is the skyline of the city of Philadelphia—bright, massive, crowded with skyscrapers and normal-sized houses alike.
Although the intersection is all very interesting, it isn’t what I’m watching. I’ve been on this homeward-bound school bus route precisely 157 times (and counting) every Friday for the past four-and-a-half-ish years. It’s safe to say that I’m familiar enough with this particular intersection. What I’m really staring at through the window is the fog.
A thick white blanket of fog hangs over Philadelphia and seemingly everywhere around it, stretching out as far as the eye can see. There isn’t a trace of blue in the sky, and judging from the gloomy whiteness, it almost seems like there never was. The fog is so moist that the bus’s windows, one for every seat, have misted over. It’s so thick that it hangs in the air damply, temporarily shielding Philadelphia’s citizens and tourists from any view of the outside world. But it doesn’t just hang in the air either. It is the air, and it is the sky, and it is stretched out for miles and miles of white nothingness. A little bit of fog once in a while is natural, but this fog has beaten the standards. Fog like this? In San Francisco, maybe. In Philadelphia? Absolutely not.
The bus jerks to a halt in front of the first stop, scaring the bejeezus out of me. That just goes to show what happens when I get lost in thought. About a third of the bus’s contents file out to greet parents. I remain sitting in my seat, staring outthe window after a quick recollection. My bus stop isn’t yet, though I’m grateful for 45 percent less noise than before. My stop is one of the last, and I probably won’t arrive there for another 40 minutes. I stare out the window again, into the hazy fog, just as the school bus veers off. I see you, the fog seems to say. I gaze back intently.
I undo and redo my knotted, brown ponytail and sigh. I undo it, redo it again, undo it, redo it again. Sometimes I seem to be flowing with nervous energy, and the only thing I can do about it is keep my hands busy. For that reason, I make sure to have a hair tie with me at all times. My eyes wander back to the window and my brain drifts back to my day, reflecting on everything that happened.
Today we had a field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was pretty much our whole school day. We went because of what our class is studying in social studies, which is the Golden Age of Islam. The museum had an interesting display of Islamic art, which included mosaic wall tile patterns and lots of beautiful carpets. The mosaics spoke to me the most, though. They were beautiful glimmering turquoise, full of spiraling shapes and patterns. Now, staring at the bland whiteness stretching through the sky, I was longing for the splash of gorgeous colors and shapes.
After our class got back to school from the museum, our teacher pointed out all the different features that appeared in Islamic art. There were patterns, shapes, and symmetry, blossoming floral designs, tiny figures of people and animals, and once in a while, flowing Arabic calligraphy. One thing my teacher told us about really stood ought to me, though. She used two words to describe the spiraling lines that seemed to weave in and out through everything else, two words that sang to me like graceful angels— swirling arabesques.
Swirling arabesques. Those words reminded me of dancing ballerinas, twirling with flouncy full skirts. Swirling arabesques. They reminded me of the rising of the sun in the morning, warm on my face the second before I opened my eyes. Swirling arabesques. They reminded me of crowds among crowds of exuberant people, cheering and supporting each other and staying strong for something they believed in. Swirling arabesques reminded me of a phoenix emerging anew from the ashes, soon to regrow its vibrant plumage and begin life again.
My writing brain had started to whir the second I had heard those words. They were so beautiful, so meant to be, but I didn’t think I would ever write something that dramatic. Still, they tasted good in my mouth. I could feel them breathing, every bit as alive as I was. I think. If only everyone knew that they were so beautiful and twirling and alive.
I stare once again at the endless white sky and sigh, but a content sigh. Despite the sort of miserable blandness of the white heavens, the sky has almost done me a favor. The sad, dreary fog forced me to think about brighter things, beautiful things. Now I could see the words dancing in my head, alive and waiting for me. Beautiful, bright, and alive.
The bus once again jerks to an abrupt halt, bringing my thoughts back to Earth. It takes me a second to realize that the bus is almost empty.
“Third an’ Pine!” Ms. Anthena, our bus driver, calls.
This is my stop. I can’t believe I’ve zoned out for so long.
I swing my backpack over my shoulder and walk down the aisle with a few other kids, one of whom is my little brother, George. “Thank you,” I say to Ms. Anthena, and she says, “You’re welcome, Zo’,” and zooms off after the automatic folding doors snap shut behind me. I hug my mom hello and begin to walk home in a trance in the misty, enchanted fog, wondering what the next lively, swirling arabesque words will be.
Second place in the Fall 2019 Personal Narrative Contest with the Society of Young Inklings.