Lady in read
A few Saturdays ago, I recruited Noah to go along with me to a church consignment sale that was happening close to our house. I spent the better part of an hour pawing through worn shoes, old furniture and pilled sweaters while Noah, pockets bulging with his dollar bill-stuffed dinosaur wallet, happily perused the toy section, deciding which cartoon-laden piece of cheap plastic to buy with his allowance. After his careful selection (Buzz Lightyear football, welcome to the family) he came to find me and check out my finds, excited about the (tasteful!) Superman pajamas I had found in his size and tweed mini skirt I had scored in Rosie’s. (Seriously, this kid expresses joy over cute clothes for his sister. I don’t know if it’s because he is happy that I’m happy, or if it’s because he really loves the idea of Rosie looking adorable. Either way, it’s on my Top 3,000 Reasons I Love That Kid list.) I had exhausted the 3T and 6-7 sections of the gym, so Noah and I headed over to checkout, but on the way we passed the book tables.
I started to walk past, but did one of those animated double takes once I looked inside one of the boxes, because whoa: Books! And not just paltry little ripped-page toddler books, but Judy Blume and The Jungle Book and Beverly Cleary and The Phantom Tollbooth and on and on and on. It was like my childhood laid out on a folding table in dusty cardboard, categorized by gently used price. Even books I forgot I owned were there, and picking them up I was transported right back to the patch of sun on the carpet where I used to lie and read for hours back when time yawned on forever in the lazy, careless Saturdays-of-elementary-school-years way.
(Sidenote: Recently I asked Noah what kind of rug he would like for his new room and he had a couple of stipulations. One, that it have a pattern that he could either race or at least steer his cars around and two, that it feel nice. When I asked him to clarify “nice,” he said, “You know, nice. Like when I lay on it, it’s like Saturday.” And I totally got it.)
One such forgotten book was this one:
Man, but this book used to freak me out. (I mean just check out the images from it, for crying out loud. I’m convinced it wouldn’t have been half as scary without that kick-ass illustrator. Nightmare central, dudes.) But like in the good way, where you read it before bedtime and then have to hide the book in your room so you can’t see the cover (or more likely THE COVER CAN’T SEE YOU) while you’re trying to go to sleep and then it takes an extra hour to go to sleep because you can quite convince yourself that the owner of THE TOE is not UNDER YOUR BED in a state of UNHOLY UNREST. (Seriously, who finds a toe in the ground, PULLS IT UP and then EATS IT? Stupid scary story characters, that’s who.)
And then the next afternoon you dig it out again, making fun of yourself in your head for being all fraidy-cat about a stupid book, and you do it all over again.
After Noah and I took our loot home, I thought about what other books I used to lose myself in as a kid, and although the list is quite abbreviated here (I need to raid my parents’ basement to jog the ol’ memory) I thought of a few that I loved and read multiple times over.
I could never explain my obsession with this book, but reading it again now (I actually have my copy with me) I can see that this girl lived a life that fascinated me. She was rich, she lived in New York, she had maids and a cook and parents who were never home, and she wrote obsessively about the people around her. I think in some ways I wanted to be Harriet—come home after school and put on my spy clothes and get down to the important business of observing the weird life of grown ups. Also, Harriet wrote down brutal truths about people that most of us only think in our heads, and although I knew it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, reading a fictional character in a book think and write like that made me feel like I wasn’t the only person who ever felt unkind feelings toward the people around me.
(I don’t want to discuss what Nickelodeon and other TV/movie/video adaptations did to the character of Harriet. Except to say I don’t believe Louise Fitzhugh ever thought even for a second that she looked anything like this, and I am willing to sound old and crotchety about it.)
I loved this book so much that I briefly considered “becoming” a math genius (by studying extra hard? I guess?), just so I could figure out how the heck a tesseract actually worked exactly and become famous. I love this book so much still that I recently liked it on Facebook and get regular updates about random A Wrinkle In Time and Madeline L’Engle trivia. And while I think I would love it even if this were not the case, I also saw it in play form when I was in fourth grade and developed a huge crush on the boy who played Charles so that pretty much sealed the deal on that tale making my top five of all time. My copy, much like this picture, is well-worn and yellow-paged, and I pull it out even now that I know that all hope of math brilliance is lost. And that the boy actor who played Charles is probably an insurance broker with a receding hairline.
I’m kind of bummed that I couldn’t find the cover image for the edition of this book that we had at our house when I was growing up. It’s possible that the reason for that is our edition was so old that no one can find that particular cover art anymore. I come from a long line of readers, so that is a valid assumption. This is exactly the kind of book I might pass over if I were in a bookstore trying to find something that would capture my kids’ attention, mostly because it seems so old school. But the stories are just the kind of thing kids are interested in. With chapters like “How the Camel Got His Hump” and “How the Alphabet Was Made” you were totally transported back to the old kind of story telling that I’m sure was the kind they trotted out around campfires ages ago to entertain themselves. They’re the kind of stories that make you start to wonder if maybe rhinoceroses did get their skin by scratching at itchy cake crumbs. Which of course, only made you want to invent your own stories about the origins of things in the world, which I’m sure was a good portion of Rudyard Kipling’s intent in the first place. Clever man.
My grandmother gave me this book, and it transported me. I’m sure I was in the thick of learning about Anne Frank for the first time and couldn’t quite comprehend the things I was learning about World War II and Hitler and the inconceivable stories from that time in history. The fact that Lois Lowry was able to write about it for children in a child’s voice is amazing, and it made me feel compassion for people I’d never met in a place I’d never been to in a time I did not live in. I’d say that’s a pretty good illustration of the power of a well-written story. I hope to read it with Noah sometime soon.
What about you? What were your favorite books when you were a kid? I am normally an abysmal comment replier, but you best believe I’ll be all up in your comments if you’re talking about kid lit. Even if you don’t comment to tell me, do yourself a favor and do a Google image search for the cover of your book once you think of it. Don’t even try to lie and tell me you don’t feel something when you see it. You know that’s straight up magic, right there. Word.
P.S. Speaking of reading, you should read this over at my work website today. Hands down one of my favorite things I’ve help orchestrate since starting there last October. It’s the story of the birth of my dad in 1954 as told by grandmother. (It has pictures, you guys. Go now.)