With the start of a new school year, my thoughts turn to the books I knew and loved as a young student. It’s enjoyable to recall not only the books themselves, but the wise people who recommended them to me.
My earliest memories of books outside of home center around the little library in my red brick elementary school. I can “see” our teacher handing each of us a long wooden paddle to take with us to the stacks. Too young to “borrow” the books (or so they thought), I could pull out a book and put the paddle in its place, so I could later return it to the shelf myself. Making a beeline for the picture books, I must have worn the color off the pages of Hans Christian Anderson’s Thumbelina week after week. I was enchanted.
When I was a fourth grader, my favorite aunt sent me The Golden Name Day , a chapter book written by Jennie Lindquist and beautifully illustrated by Garth Williams. I loved the sweet story of a girl finding her place in the world. Years later, during a conversation with one of my best friends, Nancy (who, coincidentally, shares her name with the book’s main character) I learned that this same book was one of her favorites. It was endearing to discover we’d had a shared experience as young girls before we even met. We were kindred spirits before we even met.
Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey was a 6th grade favorite, even thought I was probably “too old” for it. And forget, the Newbery medal on the cover, it was the illustrations that drew me in. Since we’d recently moved to a home with hickory trees in the surrounding woods, the story seemed all the more “real.” I may have even attempted to make a Miss Hickory doll.
In 7th grade, I had the privilege of serving as library aid. I remember our librarian helping me find Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume to take home. I’d never read such a realistic book–Blume wrote about bras and periods!–and it felt like a guilty pleasure to read it over and over again (just like the rest of my friends!) That same year my Language Arts teacher recommended I Was a 98-Pound Duckling by Jean Van Leeuwen. While not as provocative (ha) as Judy Blume’s book, it still spoke to me as a girl in that awkward, geeky tween phase.
In high school, my favorite World Humanities teacher insisted I read William Goldman’sThe Princess Bride . And notice, I used the word insisted, and not recommended or suggested. I think I was supposed to pick up a life lesson or two in those pages. I couldn’t miss the repeated refrain that life isn’t fair (true), but I’m guessing the other lesson was to look out for rodents of unusual size (aka, ROUSs) when I enter a fire swamp. Point taken. And let me just say, if your only connection to the The Princess Bride is through the movie, you my friend, are missing out. I really must insist you read the book. I would tell you the book is so much better than the movie, but then I’d be using a threadbare phrase and we can’t have that.
Let me encourage you to take a few moments to mentally wander back to your school days–what books drew you in, called you back to read them over and over again, changed how you saw the world or made you feel more at home in it? While some of my childhood favorites have stood the test of years, there’s no arguing that many would be as out of place as a geeky tween at a high school dance in most modern elementary libraries. But I’m willing to bet that the themes of those books–forming friendships in unfamiliar places, learning life isn’t fair, finding self-acceptance–are still relevant today. My goal, and I’m guessing yours too, is to create stories that will speak to children long after their school days end. Let’s do that.
And while we’re at it, let’s be thankful for the people–the parents, teachers, aunts, grandparents–who put wonderful books under our noses. I’ve no doubt they are the reason I love children’s books to this day. Give books to children as gifts, as surprises, as rewards . . . as nourishment. Yep, let’s do that, too.
My childhood was surrounded by books and writing. From a very early age I was fascinated by storytelling, by the printed word, by language, by ideas. So I would seek them out. ~ Carlos Ruiz Zafon