The 10 for 10 picture book gathering yesterday made me start thinking about my reading and where it's taken me through the years. It would be fun to have students reflect on their history and what kind of reader they think they are today.
I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. ~Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, 7 August 1991
My life with books began very early, in a grandparents’ home, where I lived until I was five years old. My father was killed in World War II in the Pacific, a young pilot, shot down somewhere near Leyte Island in the Philippines. The plane was never found. And so my mother and I lived with her parents until I was five, when she re-married. I give this information because both my mother’s and my father’s parents were avid readers, and being with them so often in my early childhood set my path toward the crazed reader I am today.
I was the only grandchild on both sides of the family until I went to school. Everyone wanted to read to me! My mother was an artist, and wrote and illustrated stories for me. One grandfather loved Shakespeare. No matter that I was young, he still read the poems, the plays, even a biography of Shakespeare to me. A grandmother was a pianist, and taught me the language of songs. I learned the music of the classics, but also hymns, the words of Stephen Foster, the carols of Christmas. When I visited my father’s parents for weeks in the summer, the first thing we did was visit the library, to gather a pile of books for me. I saw them all reading, in the afternoon, during the hot parts of the day, during a ‘siesta-time’ of sorts; and also during the evening, after listening to an occasional radio show. Remember this was before television! How could I not be a reader!
Until I was in junior high, we lived in a little town, without a library. I mostly had to depend upon books we owned, magazines subscribed to, and the very small collection of books at my little school. There was one gift that came every couple of weeks, called the bookmobile! I can still imagine my clomp, clomp, clomping up the metal stairs of that big van, greeting the librarian who traveled with it, and racing to the children’s section. I was allowed five books, only five, so I learned to pick the biggest books I could find, and, as I grew older, sometimes was able to persuade my mother to check out some of the adult books I thought would be good. In those days, I couldn’t check out just any book; I was restricted to the children’s shelves. Still, it was a wonderful day when the bookmobile rolled into town and as soon as it left, I began to count the days until the next time. Here were the books called the Betsy-Tacy books, the Lad, a dog, books, and Nancy Drew. Others sneaked in, too, like biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Helen Keller, and Rembrandt. I read as many kinds as I could find-and sifted the words into some kind of recipe just for me.
The inscription over the entrance to the library at Thebes, one of the oldest libraries in the world is that libraries are ‘medicine for the soul’. When I was twelve, my family moved to the city, where there was a real, wonderfully big, library. I spent many hours there, discovering authors like Louisa Alcott, Jane Austen, Ayn Rand, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway. I had moved into the adult world of literature. Teachers at school introduced other names. I read, and read, then read some more.
What do books do for me? The words of a wonderful writer can turn me into a woman who is struggling with her place in the world in the seventeenth century, a teacher on an island in New Zealand, or a mother who is trying to save her children from the Nazis. I celebrate those words – teaching me to be the best person I can be in our world. In other ways, the author’s words also turn me into people I cannot be: a black woman struggling as a maid in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1950’s, a teenager who is facing troubles with friends, a person with a debilitating disease. They give me other points of views, other ways to think of living. I say to them: Turn me into something else, writers of the world. I want to know about those other people, how they live, work, play, and love. I want to know how they become who they are, how they survive. Give me your words.
At this beginning of the school year, I often turn to the topic of reading and how I get so excited to think of the worlds I can introduce to students. I hope I can find wonderful books for them that will add to the experience of their individual reading lives.