Op-Ed: Childhood, made perfect on the page
Reading is such an improbable idea -- a miracle, really. Yet simple squiggles on a page, arranged just so, can convey ideas that change the way we think or introduce to us characters we love for a lifetime. In celebration of reading -- and of this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books -- we asked four readers (who also happen to be writers) to celebrate books that mattered in their lives.
My grandfather’s house on the New Jersey shore was a huge 1880s double-parlor Victorian with 11 bedrooms, a wraparound porch and a big green couch in the living room next to the piano. I spent most of my time the summer I turned 8 on that couch.
My grandmother would be upstairs in her air-conditioned room, practicing Mendelssohn on the violin. I could hear it. The men would be at work. My brothers would be out playing or swimming at the beach club, where my mother would sit with her friends around a big white metal table under a beach umbrella, smoking and gossiping.
The reason I loved the couch was that there were two stocked bookcases in the same room, barrister bookcases that my grandfather had bought, along with the books in them, when he got the house in the 1940s. Most of the books were from the 1920s. Here I would sit in my shorts and red PF Flyers and read “My Book House,” a series of illustrated children’s books. They were good books filled with children’s poems and short fairy tales, and I loved them. For a time that summer, I thought these were the best books ever written.
That was, until I found “No School Tomorrow,” by Margaret Ashmun.
“No School Tomorrow” was the first “chapter book” I’d ever read. It takes place in a town called Bellville, and its 9-year-old heroine, Louise Martin, was, like me, on summer vacation. Louise goes outside to play. She has a picnic with her friend Anna Fowler. She pats her cat, Flora. She makes her bed and straightens her room. She goes into town with her parents to buy wallpaper. She and Anna build a working stove. They go frogging. They make pancakes. Louise watches her mother do the ironing. Louise eats oatmeal and oranges.
Setting it down like that makes the book sound dull, but it was far from dull. Every moment of it shone out for me with the reality of true experience. I lived inside this book and read it over and over. I could escape from Mendelssohn and the beach club into its pages, yet the book was also about my summer, and my friend Nancy across the street, and my parents and my house. Louise in 1925 (in my childishness, I thought her name was pronounced Loo-whee-sie) was me in 1962. Following her, I entered the book in the same way the children in “Mary Poppins” entered the sidewalk paintings. I spent my summer in that book, really in it, rather than in my house on that green couch. Reading has never again been so real for me.
About 10 years ago, after a long search, I found a copy of the book on the Internet. In rereading it as an adult, I realized that this plain book, with its modicum of story and its radiant language, was what set me on the path to becoming a writer.
It wasn’t just that it helped me understand what a powerful spell a book can cast on the imagination; it was also that its sentences were perfect. Here’s one: “So they went back to the lower ground and took off their shoes and stockings on the thick green grass.” You can’t make a better sentence than that in English, to my mind.
The copy I now own previously belonged to the WPA District No. 4 Pack Horse Library, a New Deal project that sent brigades of young women carrying library books out on foot or by mule to the mountain villages of eastern Kentucky. The names of some of the borrowers of “No School Tomorrow” are on a card that’s still in the little manila slip on the back inside cover: Edna Back, Irene Cornett, Bittie Frank Caton, Mildred Bellamy, Mary Nunn, Billy Jane Little, Ruth Glover, Thelma Noble, Betty Gabbard. Hail to you, girls! I like to think of Edna and Mary and Thelma and Bittie and the rest, somewhere in a miners’ camp in the dark 1930s, reading about Loo-whee-sie in the sunshine and on the grass, Loo-whee-sie and her stove, her pancakes, her frogs.
Amy Wilentz’s most recent book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti,” won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
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