Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Early Loves and our Second Childhood

I mark time by what I was reading. I can't remember a time when I didn't do this, or when the name of a book didn't evoke a strong related image or memory.

My memories are often tied to the characters in the book- some of my best and earliest friends. For example, one of my earliest vivid memories is of reading 'Charlotte's Web' by E.B. White with my mother. I am about 4 years old. This is the first book I will remember both having read TO me and then picking up and reading for myself.

I see the pale blue paint of my bedroom and the pastel colored flowers on the wallpaper. I can see Gareth William's simple, but detailed line drawings which somehow convey so perfectly the messy ribbon in Fran's ponytail, the bristly hairs on a pig's back, the cunning eye of a clever rat. When I look at these pictures now, I marvel at how I can see them in the same way as I did then- with an absolute certainty and clarity that is also part of the that first early memory of reading.There are very good reasons why this is the first book that many people remember reading or having read to them.

Why do some books stay with us long past their first reading? Especially books from childhood- books many people assume we outgrow, and becoming older readers, move on from. My love affair with the written word was the product of my parents who were both voracious readers in their own way and whose literary habits I absorbed through osmosis. Much modern research now tells us that to raise children who read, you must have reading material in the home- books, newspapers, magazines, anything. Anything that the child can see adults reading and pattern themselves after. Of course reading aloud is a key component as well. If anyone doubts that those two things will produce a lifelong reader, I can only hold myself up as an irrefutable example.

In my childhood, I feel that I can safely say that I read literally thousands of books. I read at the dinner table (until reprimanded), in the bathtub (I stopped taking showers when I realized that baths would provide me with an extra half hour of reading time before bed), under the covers with a flashlight, on vacations in the back seat of the car (I taught myself not to get carsick out of sheer willpower and the impending boredom of not being able to read on the highway) and in boring classes at school, hiding the book under the edge of the desk. (I now suspect that many of my teachers knew this, but they also knew I was bored and I wasn't causing any trouble, so they never stopped me). My mother, an avid and encouraging reader, was constantly telling me to "Put down that book and GO OUTSIDE AND DO SOMETHING!"

I taught myself to roller skate in our driveway while reading, tracing careful ellipses around the cement in retaliation. I would skate and read and skate and read and look up, startled, when my father's pickup truck halted, idling in the street, waiting for me to move out of the way so he could pull into the garage. Dinnertime already?!?

It is February 1st, 1976. I have my hair in a bowl haircut as a homage to Dorothy Hammil, although I cannot figure skate. It is my birthday and among other gifts (including a clock with a flowery face that is still emitting a faint orange glow in my old bedroom at my parent's house) is a yellow book.

But this is not just ANY book. It is a small, but heavy hardcover book, its yellow dust jacket embossed with elegant silver type. 'The Fairy Book' by Warwick Gobel. It is rich and shining, with pages of dense black type spelling out fairy tales. Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, some of these I know already. Other richer, stranger fare like Grimm's The Iron Stove and Anderson's Little Mermaid ( the creepy, more bloody original version) will later entrance me for hours.

This is a grown-up book, despite its 'fairy tale' title. It has a ribbon, a yellow ribbon attached right to the book to make your place. Stuck at random within the pages are opulent color illustrations listed in the front as 'coloured plates' with princesses and tailors and monsters and clever stable lads. My mother has written the date on the inside cover, along with a note, as she will do for every book I continue to receive for birthdays and other holidays.

When my mother was a little girl living in Cleveland Ohio, she was given a birthday gift from a neighbor who was an English war bride. 'The Jungle Book' by Rudyard Kipling was in a musty box in the closet when I was a little girl. When I was seven, my own Children's' Illustrated Library copy was my introduction to the world of the Jungle Law, the White Seal and Riki Tiki Tavi.
I remember reading the words out loud to myself in bed, hissing "We be of one blood, ye and I!" in all the animal languages I could think of to make up, just in case. Riki Tiki Tavi was one of my first loves, a perfect mongoose. I remember seeing the Chuck Jones cartoon version of the story and feeling horribly cheated. It was an early lesson that the movie seldom stands up to the book, although it is very superior to a lot of what passes for children's animation.

We worked our way through many children's classics each Christmas and Easter. Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' made me long for a cozy hole and Christmas carolling mice. It's leisurely pacing interspersed with action and animals would be part of my preparation to read the incomparable 'Watership Down' by Richard Adams when I was older. I

read 'Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates' by Mary Mapes Dodge and then had to re-read back through it carefully. It is a story, a history and a travelogue all in one as children's author Bruce Coville points out in the afterward to his new picture-book adaptation, exquisitely illustrated by Laurel Long. But I have always been a re-reader and recognized the virtue of going at something until I wrestled it into comprehension.

I fell utterly in love with Sara Crewe,the heroine of Francis Hodgeston Burnett's 'A Little Princess'. I wanted to live in a garret and sweep out fireplaces and suffer nobly and befriend a poor scullery maid. I loved the romance and mystery of 'The Secret Garden', but liked Mary less than Sara - Dickon, the wild boy from the moors was my favorite character there.

After Riki Tiki Tavi, horses were my animal passion for many years and I started with Anna Sewel's venerable 'Black Beauty', which today reads like a litany of all the good and bad ways men treat the animals in their care. It gave me my first taste of the idea of animal cruelty- I wasn't a child who was inclined to pull a dog's tail or a cat's whiskers, but after reading Black Beauty I was aware that there were other people who would, as Black Beauty would say "Just for the pure sport of it." I bet no one ever read 'Black Beauty' to Micheal Vick when he was a kid. Later when I drove horse carriages for tours around downtown Chicago, I kept Beauty and Ginger and the rest firmly in mind and made frequent stops at the old horse watering fountain still running at the original Water Tower.

Next were Margarite Henry's books about the ponies of Assategue and Chincotegue Islands off the coast of Virginia - 'Misty of Chincotegue' and 'Stormy, Misty's Foal'. Although I loved her hardy ponies, Ms. Henry really won me over with her wonderful book 'King of the Wind', a fictional history of the Godolphin Arabian, who became the foundation for the bloodlines of almost all Thoroughbred horses today.

During my 'horsey' period, I also devoured Walter Farley's marvelous 'Black Stallion' series. They came out in a particularly attractive set of paperbacks when I was growing up and I had every one of them. 'The Black Stallion and Satan', 'The Black Stallion's Ghost', 'The Black Stallion and Flame'... just the titles stirred me to adventure. (A lot of these got read rollerskating around the driveway on hot summer afternoons.)

I read them one after the other and then went back and read them again. For any other Black Stallion fans out there, Steven Farley, son of original author Walter Farley, maintains a wonderful website at: www.theblackstallion.com with discussion forums, book covers from all over the world and a bibliography of all the original books and all the following books written by Tim Farley. They sponsor the Black Stallion Literacy Project for children as well. Check it out!

My introduction to the 1800s world of Louisa May Alcott was not with 'Little Women' but through a lesser known book called 'Under the Lilacs' about a boy and an amazing trained poodle who run away from the circus and a drunken father and are taken in by a friendly family whose daughters have tea parties on the walk of the Big House under the lilac bushes.

This book is so sweet and sure- but not cloying. I enjoyed every minute of it. In fact, I haven't re-read it for quite a while and just writing about it now, is making me want to go and pick it up again- the weight of the little black book in my hands, with its occasional colored illustrations inserted on thick, glossy paper...

Another much-neglected duo by Alcott are the wonderful books 'Eight Cousins' and 'Rose in Bloom', the story of seven boisterous boy cousins growing up in a shipping family in Boston in the early 1900s and their orphaned girl cousin Rose who comes to live in the big house known as the 'Aunt-hill' for all the sisters who live in the neighborhood. These books deal gently but firmly with such modern-day issues as classism, women's equality, and education and are simply delightful to read even today.

After that I did indeed move on to the irrepressible March sisters. I was always a Jo, although secretly I sometimes wanted to be Amy. Poor dead Beth was just sad, and domestic Meg held no attractions for me when I was young. But I knew the March sisters like I knew my own family and like Louisa May Alcott, being a person who wants to know 'how they all turned out' as she says in her dedication to Jo's Boys, I read all through Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys. Her quote at the end is worth repeating:

'And now, having endeavored to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall forever on the March family.'

It made for an altogether satisfying ending. I have recently wondered if JK Rowling also read these books as a child and adopted this general philosophy when ending the Harry Potter series. I found it to be a satisfying conclusion, although I know many other people did not. But that is another discussion entire unto itself.

I cannot write about books that influenced me in childhood without referring to C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, which are beloved by so many people. We were fitful Protestants in my childhood and I remember very clearly telling my mother that I did not want to go to Sunday School anymore when I was seven or eight. So my 'formal' Christian background was pretty much non-existent. But I knew morality when I saw it and the Narnia books exemplified these virtues for me in a way that Sunday School never did. The simple little moral lessons wrapped into each marvelous adventure made it clear to me what was the right way to behave, without beating me over the head with it.

In fact later in college, I was astounded to have a fellow student tell me that the books were 'idiotic Christian allegory' just C.S. Lewis pandering to his new found Catholicism. I had to go back and re-read them and actually LOOK for the Christian references myself. Since then I have read a great deal of C. S Lewis' other writings and also a couple of biographies. I truly believe he is one of the great theological writers of the past century and honestly, I don't think it matters if you want to read the Narnia books as reaffirmations of Christian faith or just as rousing good adventure stories. The quality of the material and the moral lessons shine though, no matter what spin you want to put on them, in my opinion.

For example, in 'The Last Battle', when Aslan the Lion is explaining to the Calormene soldier that:

'Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name , then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, child?'

and after puzzling it out for a minute, I did understand. That it matters far more what we do than who we say we do it for. It may sound strange, but my personal moral code, today as an adult, is shaped more by Narnia than by any religious service I have ever attended or instruction I have received or class that I have taken. C.S. Lewis gets to the heart of the matter of how we ought to treat each other so simply and beautifully, that it really cannot be improved upon.

When I left the world of animal characters and began to read more history, the librarian at the public library gave me 'The Witch of Blackbird Pond', by Elizabeth George Speare, which proved its Newberry Award winning power by opening my eyes to seeing an issue from both sides.
The main character, Katherine Tyler is coming from Barbados, where she has lived on a plantation and her grandfather had owned slaves. Owning slaves was very bad, I knew. But her Puritan relatives, although they are NOT slave owners and think a lot about the Bible and being good, are not really any better than anyone else and persecute a kindly and wise old woman as a witch.

Good people sometimes misjudge things. People brought up with a wrong, like slavery, can overcome that, and learn to change. A little hard work never hurt anyone, but it doesn't make you better than other people. Be kind to those less fortunate than you. Freedom is valuable. All these things absorbed from one little book- a book which doesn't seem like a lesson, and which I can still enjoy reading today. This was the first book I remember reading where I noticed that it was a Newberry winner.

That little silver Newberry disc on the front became a talisman for me, and afterwards, I would seek it out and knew that finding it on the cover indicated a better than average chance of a good read.

When you are a reading sort of child and limited to 3 or 5 books per library trip on your own proud, grubby library card and your mom can only manage to get to the library once a week most weeks, you have to be careful with your options. Later on my mom would check out additional books on her card for me, and as I grew older and known at the library deck as an enthusiastic and proficient reader, kindly librarians would often wave a few extra books through, their noblesse oblige confirmed upon me with a smile or a gimlet eye of warning as I loaded up my stack of slippery plasticine dust jackets and carried them to the back seat of the car.

I always liked historical adventures and fantasy- I still do. My criteria for how well written a children's book is are few:

1)If I read it as a child, can I still remember the story and characters.
2)If it is an older book, does it still seem fresh and exciting, even if the time period or style of writing 'dates' it somewhat?
3)Can I pick it up as an adult and still have an enjoyable read? Different from the way a child might experience it, but still full of pleasure or interest?

A good example of these criteria that I recall vividly and specifically reading are Madeline L'Engle's extraordinary trilogy, 'A Wrinkle in Time', 'The Wind in the Door' and 'A Swiftly Tilting Planet'

All three of these books are so well written, their ideas conveyed so clearly and eloquently that there is very little to match them, then or now. To marry ideas of physics and science with fantasy and the everyday problems of an unhappy girl at school whose father has disappeared from the household and a poor boy who is intelligent but doesn't have any shoes that fit him is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Murray family is endearing to us at the start with their creaky old house, basic kindness and distracted, but understanding mother who cooks stew over Bunsen burners in her lab. But as we grow to know them through the books, we empathize with they and the other characters more and more; they are the microcosm through which the larger issues of our species and even the entire universe are revealed to us.

L'Engle is as deft and comfortable with explaining physics or mitochondria or time travel as she is with speculative science fiction or snakes and kittens or staid and un-imaginative school principals. Her great gift is to be able to present all these things to us equally, none more important than the other and convince us to take them as a whole. There are few writers who can do this so effectively, so it is important to remember not just that these are 'famous' or award-winning books, but WHY, because that why has not changed even if the world has.

I have many 'favorite' books, both as an adult and a child. Some from my childhood stand out as near-perfect examples though. I have gone back to these books again and again. I have recommended and sold them to so many children and parents at the Magic Tree over the years that it is now something of a store joke that they must be in stock when I walk in, just so I can sell them to people. Fortunately, I've also convinced colleagues to read them over the years if they hadn't already and they are in agreement. One of the best parts about finding a near-perfect book is to share it!

'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' by Joan Aiken is my first choice . Written in a sort of Gothic/adventure style, this rollicking story about two girls in the 1800s who must escape and evil governess and flee the great house of Willoughby Chase by skating on the frozen river features non-stop adventure and two clever heroines; brave Bonnie and sweet Sylvia. They are helped by a gooseboy who disguises them to go to London where they fall into the clutches of an evil workhouse mistress and ... you get the idea. The book has a charm that few adventure stories can manage while still keeping the level of suspense at a fevered pitch. I've read it so many times and still enjoy it each and every time.

'The Genie Of Sutton Place' by George Seldon. This author is better known for his sweet book, 'The Cricket in Times Square', but although that book is very endearing, I love 'The Genie of Sutton Place' more. Set in 1950s Manhattan, this book captures the time period perfectly without being dated or quaint. After his father dies, Timothy goes to live with his fussy aunt in her posh Sutton Place apartment. But his Aunt Lucy is allergic to Tim's dog, who falls in love with her. In order to keep his dog, Tim releases an ancient genie from a carpet and ... wacky highjinks ensue! This book is a funny, funny story with appealing characters and humor that keeps readers entertained, whether they are dog or cat people or believe in genies or not.

'The Westing Game' by Ellen Raskin won the Newberry Award in 1979 and is now taught in many classrooms. I was given it by my mother to read for a vacation trip the year it came out. It's a captivating mystery with a fun cast of characters which I am sure have inspired a lot of people to go on to become hard-core mystery fans as adults. The apartment building overlooking the mysterious old Westing House, a fortune that only one family will inherit, a cranky old delivery boy, a little girl who kicks people... each element comes together into a flawless ending that just cannot be improved upon. This book set the tone for many other great authors to follow, but it remains the gold standard for children's mystery.

One of the great joys of having a child has been introducing him to books. Fortunately for both of us, he took to this instinctively and has become a avid reader all on his own. Working at the Magic Tree has helped with my sense of proportion- when to suggest something, when to step back and not force a book on him, when to read aloud and when not to.

This spring we were lucky enough to accompany my mother on a trip to Wales to visit our cousins there from my mother's side of the family. I was able to realize a nearly life-long dream by driving up the coast to Aberdovey, the site of much of the action in Susan Cooper's timeless classic 'The Dark Is Rising' cycle.

'The Dark is Rising', 'Greenwitch', 'The Grey King' and 'Silver On The Tree' are touchstones of children's fantasy, seamlessly melding ancient mythologies of England, Cornwall and Wales with Arthurian legend and compelling characters and magical situations both beautiful and eerie. My son and I started reading these books aloud together before our trip. The lovely patterning of Cooper's writing made it a pleasure to read, even if my Cornish and Welsh accents were a little fuzzy.

We were working on 'The Grey King' which is set on the coast and craggy sheep farmland of western Wales when we left for our trip, a battered old paperback stuck into William's messenger bag. One day we drove up the coast, stopping at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on the way. (If you are ever in Wales, and are a bibliophile, don't miss it! Go on Monday when they have tours into the private parts of the library)

When we reached Aberdovey, it was chilly and grey. It wasn't quite raining, but the wind was blowing sand up from the beach and we were glad of our windbreakers and hats. The rows of painted houses along the quay and the nearly deserted beach evoked such a strong response in me- seeing what I had read so many times before. Although the previous warm weekend had brought in some early spring tourists, they were gone now and William and I trudged down the stony beach, our cheeks red and windblown, pausing to pick up pebbles and shells and pointing at things back in the village that looked like places we had read about in the book. It was a long drive home, but we all agreed that my pilgramage had been worth it; the trip would never have been complete if we had come so close and not gone there.

We finished 'The Grey King' while staying in Cwmplis Farm outside of St. Clears and when we ventured into the larger town of Camarthen for market day, we were determained to find a bookstore so we could move on to 'Silver on the Tree'.

We found a Waterstone's on one of Camarthen's many squares and I spent a happy 20 minutes talking with the staff about children's literature in both the UK and the States (yes, all the young adults there are reading Twilight too). William found a spy novel, a book of Welsh folktales - and with an excited cry, he hefted a dense blue tome, with a design of a quartered cross etched in silver on its cover. It was all 4 books, bound into one volume.

"I want this one," my son said authoritatively. "It can be my souvineer. You only have those paperbacks that don't match and this one can be just mine." The gene for book possessiveness must run strong in my family.

It was also true that my old paperbacks were losing bits off of their covers and I always loved getting hardcover books for special occasions and who knew when we would be back to Wales... We bought the book. Of course.
Actually, we bought all the books and my mom bought a few more light novels to read on the train and later in London I bought the brand new hardcover of A.S. Byatt's new novel for its lovely British cover ("Don't tell grandma I bought another hardcover book!" I told William. "She thinks we have too much to carry already!") True, but the memories of what we have read and where we read them!!!

I will never forget snuggling up to my son in his twin bed under the high oak rafters of the old stone barn guesthouse on Cwmplis Farm and reading 'Silver on the Tree', the Welsh night quiet as a soft rain pattered on the roof and the woods outside of our window. These literary memories stay with me always and I hope -and believe- they will stay with my son as well. One of the greatest gifts we can do is to pass them on.

Please - let me know what books YOU remember reading most as a child. What books have you bought your own children because of that, or recognized on a bookstore shelf with a smile? Please share- I wonder how much we'll have in common and what new things we might find!

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful way to chronicle your literacy life!