It started with the Baby Feet nursery book. Copyrighted in 1928, it had stories like the politically incorrect ‘Little Black Sambo,’ and the tale of the Teeny Tiny Woman. My siblings and I never grew tired of them, and even now, are constantly looking for an edition in better shape than the one we still own. (Full disclosure: I drew on the pages and cut them up with scissors when I was four. Or maybe six. I was very young for my age.)
Books can be friends, and not just the characters in the story. It’s the way it feels in your hands. The cover design. It looks back at you and says, yes. We are going to be besties. When at age nine my teacher said no more picture books, I was horrified. My obsession with Dr. Seuss was genuine: Bartholomew Cubbins and the Five Hundred Hats. Oobleck. Yurtle the Turtle, the King’s Stilts. I loved them all. But I took a breath and stepped into the world of Hugh Lofting, who I called Hudge until a teacher corrected me.
The Dr. Doolittle series was my first foray into chapter books. It was so influential, we ended up naming our new red haired puppy, Chee Chee, which means ginger in monkey language. From there I became Pollyanna, Trixie Belden and every adventurous character by Enid Blyton. Then there were the classics like Little Women, Heidi, and Robin Hood, an abridged series that my uncle gave us every year for Christmas.
I could never figure out what really happened to Beth in Little Women. The last sentence in the saddest chapter says: “…a face so full of painless peace that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.” Was she dead or not? I wasn’t a ‘read between the lines’ kind of girl. But eventually I figured it out. She was dead. But with God. So she wasn’t really dead. Or something like that.
As a teenager, Harlequin Romances were my entrée into the world of working women, travel and romance. The protagonists were all virgins. Many had cool jobs like ballerina, opera singer, or first violin in a London orchestra. But they all got married and lived happily ever after, though I was never sure if they got to keep their jobs.The books cost a dollar, and we traded them around like comics.
After the Harlequins came the aptly named bodice rippers. To be honest, it was hard for me to understand how such aggressive seductions could be romantic. The word no really meant, ‘only if you force me.’ And then there was the age difference. If he was thirty-two, she’d be sixteen. I only read a few before I was done. I got halfway through ‘Sweet Savage Love,’ (a lot like the title) and said, nope.
In high school, my favorite novel was Rumer Godden’s ‘An Episode of Sparrows.’ My least favorite was ‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton. I just didn’t get it. We also read ‘Of Human Bondage’, ‘Tess of the Durberville’s and ‘Huck Finn.’ The last was the only book that wasn’t unrelentingly sad. I always had trouble understanding the theme of a book and still do, which is troublesome, given that I’m a writer. On another note, in my first year at university I discovered the Lord of the Rings series and almost failed midterms by trying to get through the whole thing in five days. Never do that.
I was a more discerning reader by this point. Barbara Taylor Bradford was hugely popular back then. I read a few of her books, then picked one up where the protagonist had twin one year old’s, was the CEO of a large corporation and a master gardener. I had no kids yet, and no green thumb to speak of, but somehow I knew this character was extremely far fetched. Like an early Clive Cussler book where a scuba diver lands on a beach and ravishes a girl who is sunbathing. ‘Thanks,’ she says afterward. ‘I needed that.’ I clapped the book shut and shook my head. These authors are hugely successful and have made millions of dollars, so I’ll doubt they’ll be hurt by my words. They can laugh all the way to the bank while reading this blog.
But here’s the truth about reading. Immersing oneself in a novel makes life better. Empathy, curiosity, hope and persistence are traits we can absorb from characters we love. Like when Dumbledore from Harry Potter says, ‘It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.’ The child in all of us understands that no matter how old we are, we’re on a journey, and we have some input into where we go and how we get there. We learn from our heroes that being brave and forging ahead really does help. Unless you’re reading Thomas Hardy. Then, abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Just kidding. (Sort of)