Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The right book at the right time....

In an article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review recently, Terry Eicher talks about a  book from his childhood. He writes:
The best part of sixth grade at Grady Elementary School in Houston, in 1960, was after lunch when Mrs. Wise stood at the front of the classroom and opened a red book and read a few pages was a story about yearning, maybe even one that taught yearning. Mrs. Wise always stopped reading at the height of excitement, making a small indentation in the margins with her fingernail to mark the spot. We groaned.
It was a book that touched Eicher so deeply he spent twenty years trying to find it again to read to his own children. It was Giles of the Star. You've probably never heard of it. I hadn't.

But every writer on the planet remembers his or her own Giles of the Star. For some of us, this was the book which compelled us to become children's writers. We remembered the place it held in our hearts and we wanted to be the writer of that book. In our minds there was no title that held greater honor. People accord adult writing a higher status, but we know better. We understand from personal experience the power a children's book has to mark hearts and souls indelibly. We couldn't demean or devalue these books if we tried. We still love reading them.

Eicher started his story by talking about an article on childhood books he'd read.  In this article, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust recalls the joy of discovering a long lost childhood favorite in a used bookstore.


But what really caught my attention was what Faust said about re-reading Huckleberry Finn, a book she hadn't read since high school:
I was astonished to find how much of what I had been teaching and studying about race and slavery in American history was already there in a book published in 1884.
Such is the power of young people's literature and the lifelong impression it leaves behind.

What? You didn't think of Huckleberry Finn as young adult literature? Think again.

Eichner's memories of Giles of the Star made me remember a magical star book from my own childhood. It was given to me by the couple who lived next door. They were childless and had adopted me as their surrogate child. He was an artist and she was a dancer and I was a solitary child with imaginary friends so real family members still remember their names. Dowdy and Gwee-Gwee--he painted a mural of them on his stairwell wall and she gave me enchanted gifts--a chinese rag doll that had a blue shirt with frog buttons, a slender porcelain vase wreathed in paper thin flowers . . . and books, they always gave me books. On my seventh birthday it was a handsome volume published by Hatchard & Co. London, entitled The Daughters of the Stars, a story which transported me to another world, another universe.  It began like this:
Midway, upon the extreme edge of a great continent, there lies a huge forest. In it are more varieties of plants and trees than it is possible to imagine, more strange creatures and beings than the greatest scientist has yet been able to study or explain.....
The illustrations, by Edmund Dulac, were magical to a seven-year old girl-child.

I've always remembered one scene in this book where the mother and daughter find a silver dish of raspberry ice, buried in a cloud. Imagine traveling through a starlit sky bound for adventure, stopping only to nestle into a cloud and eat raspberry ice...

This memory somehow became entangled with memories of my grandmother Meg--we always called her Meg--who used to play a bedtime game with me.

What color is your cloud? Meg would ask.

We always tried to outdo one another in picking unusual colors for the clouds we were going to ride to sleep on. Pigeon Berry. Butterscotch. And one time--I was especially proud of this one--Merthiolate. 

(Yes, I'm dating myself. Merthiolate was a mercury-containing germ-killer that came in a small brown glass bottle with a clear glass applicator attached its lid. Maybe you remember it, too. Applied to a skinned knee it had a wonderful pinkish tinged orange color that seemed nearly neon, the same color you sometimes see on teenaged hair these days...and once in a blue moon, on clouds.)

When my oldest granddaughter began talking, I remembered Meg's game one night as we lay in bed after reading a story. But the game had changed. What flavor is the ice in your cloud? I found myself asking her.

I had strong, creative women in my life, women who raised me to believe I was bound for greatness, women who compelled me to raise the children in my life the same way.

Recently, I read the forward to The Daughters of the Stars for the first time:
Readers of fairy tales and other romantic fiction will have noticed before this that the Mothers of the heroines are seldom featured. One would imagine that the effort of producing a female child destined to adventure was too much for the average Queen or Princess, since, if she has not already expired before the story opens, she usually manages to to pass away before its close.... Thus it will be seen that, from the first page to the last, Astrella is never permitted the slightest excuse for decease...Which is surely not unreasonable, inasmuch as the death-rate of actual Mothers does not appear to be alarming; and we could name more than one beside whom our fictitious lady is but a delicate shadow.   
This book was written in 1939, but I read it in the late fifties and rode it into the sixties. I think it colored how I've raised my children.

Because this is the truth. Children's books have made us who we are. Their words and images and worldviews live within us and continue to inform our responses to life in ways we may only begin to suspect as we grow older.

I think about this as a school board member, the one who always talks about reading. The one who grows increasingly weary of those who think they can turn children into readers and writers with computerized phonics, scripted reading programs and prescriptive reading standards, the kinds of things that tear a book apart into so many unrecognizable bites of stuff.

You can take the bird apart to see what makes it fly, but it will never fly again.

Some children will become readers despite these things. Many more will be driven away from reading altogether. And we will continue to wonder why our educational system falters and our kids don't read.

All it takes to turn a child into a reader, writer and lifelong thinker is the right book at the right time. All it takes is a a teacher who loves to read and models it in her classroom, an adult who gives the gift of a good book, a library with one good librarian....


  1. I love this Debby!! Magical!

  2. Thanks, Annie. Your illustrations have this kind of magic, too.