In kindergarten I had to go to “speech class” to learn how to speak. My vocabulary had tested out below my age level and I had a slight stutter. These may have been the result of extreme shyness or of overexposure to TV and underexposure to books and conversation.
In first grade I learned how to read. Reading was the beginning. That is, for me, it was the beginning of everything – curiosity, imagination, discovery, engagement with the wider world. The more I read, the more self-confident I became. Moreover, reading wasn’t just entertaining during the actual act of reading, it was an inexhaustible source of entertainment that could be drawn upon at any time for a story line and a cast of characters to propel and populate the imaginary play script that I could run in my head to ward off boredom when the world around did not offer enough amusement, excitement, or interest. TV shows were good for a few plots and characters, but they didn’t seem to have the flexibility or versatility of the plots and characters encountered in books.
While first grade was mostly phonics, mechanics, and Fun with Dick and Jane, in second grade we dove into stories in a big way. Story time, when our teachers would read to us, was magical. But there was also a sense of power and opportunity in the knowledge that we could also dip into the rich world of books on our own.
By third grade, we could send in book orders; I am guessing that even so many years ago it must have been Scholastic Book Club. Though the books were inexpensive, I knew I still had to limit myself, because our family was not “made of money.” Still, I remember one fabulous order that netted me a large stack of books for $3.50; perhaps some of those were “bonus” books.
Most of my favorite books fell into three categories: adventure, science fiction, and stories about families. An early favorite that I remember making a huge impression on me was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, read by a teacher in summer school gifted class. It was the first book I remember that presented tragedy without happy endings. People died, animals died, life was often cruel. And yet the story was extremely compelling – survival in a lone struggle against tremendous odds. In one of our favorite play scenarios, my playmates and I pretended to be the wild dogs.
The idea of being resourceful with limited means was a recurring motif in our play. Swiss Family Robinson truly delivered the goods on this score. Being stranded on an island, fighting the occasional band of marauding pirates, creating a comfortable and interesting home and life with only the materials at hand, and taming wild animals who would work and play with us: this was the stuff dreams (or at least those of an 8- or 9-year-old) were made of.
By sixth grade, I remember scouring the school library for interesting books to read. We had some sort of program or contest for piling up credits for each book we read; we had to write a brief report on each book with the title, author, and a summary. I discovered science fiction and fantasy and was particularly fond of Zenna Henderson’s stories about the People. Another book from the sixth grade that made a big impression on me told of the life of a family who I believe were immigrants, or at least the parents were, from Sweden (or possibly Norway). I cannot remember the title of the book or the name of the author and would appreciate any help from anyone who may have read this book and remembers more than I do. As far as I can remember, it starts out describing how the parents met and got married. The father had been unlucky in love in his youth and was a confirmed bachelor in his 40s when he met the mother, who was much younger and had come to work for him either as a housekeeper or secretary. I think they had eight children. The second of these, a daughter nicknamed Button, who was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, was the most memorable; she was probably the author’s alter ego. This story grabbed me a little bit like Island of the Blue Dolphins had; the writing and viewpoint were somewhat more “grown-up” than what I was used to reading, and the inclusion of small and large tragedies made it a more faithful mirror of real life.
In addition to good writing and strong characters and plot, I thought that there must be something in common among the books that I read in childhood that stand out in my memory. However, the “added ingredient" seems to have been divided into two categories. For stories that tended more toward science fiction/fantasy (sometimes referred to as “speculative fiction”), the extra element seems to be the “compelling idea” that sparks the imagination. For stories that were closer to the other end of the spectrum, that is, nonfiction/based on real life, the extra component seems to be the element of shocked fascination accompanying a deeper awareness of the tragic side of life, which is one of the milestones of growing up.
My husband and I have read many books to our daughters; this was done on a regular basis up to the age of 11 or 12 and thereafter for every new Harry Potter book. (Not trusting one another to keep mum about new plot twists, we made the rule that the first reading of each new book had to be done together as a family. To preempt any overly eager family friends who are fast readers from spilling the beans to us, we would engage in a virtual marathon from morning to bedtime, stopping for meals, and shutting out most of the outside world for a few days.)
Some of the books we have read together with our children are classics and/or old favorites, and some are more recent books that we discovered together with out children. The process of discovery and rediscovery with them has been one of the most enjoyable parts of being a parent. In a few more years, when both of my daughters are well out of childhood, I’ll have to ask them which books they remember best.