Monday, November 13, 2006

Children's Book Week: Reading Is

I've known my wife since I was 16. We've dated (on and off) since 17. We've been married for 15+ years. We share a brain. This is a good thing. There are so many times that we don't have to finish a sentence, a thought, an idea, a joke. It makes things not just easier, but more fun. That's because, even after all this time, we really like each other.

Lots of short-hand gets developed during a relationship like ours. One of the most succinct ways, for example, that she once conveyed an entire world of disdain, dislike and general, "Who gives a dang?" about somewhat she'd met at work was carried in the simple phrase:

"He doesn't read."

I can't imagine a world without a stack of books waiting in the wings. I can't imagine not always having at least two (usually four or nine) books "going" at the same time. I can't imagine not talking about books with friends. I can't imagine not thinking of books as friends.

Now I have a son. We read to him. To be fair, Chris does 90% of the reading to him. I jump in and do it when she can't, or when I feel like it. It has more to do with circadian rhythms and work schedules than desire. But he's got about 10,000 books, and is learning to read (he's in first grade), and loves to be read to and to make up his own stories (he's working on a sequel story to Star Wars Episode VI).

So... it's Children's Book Week.  Aside from the love and respect of my parents, nothing other than reading has had a greater impact on my life. So I'm joining a bunch of bloggers (some here) where I work, and we're celebrating by blogging about the books that most influenced us as kids. Pass it on and blog about y'all's most cherished reading memories (all book links here go to Respect!). In no particular order, here's some of my faves.

Andrew Henry's Meadow, by Doris Burn

 I'm not sure what it was about this book that made me love it so much, but I did. And now Dan, my son, does, too. It's his most requested bedtime book when I'm reading to him. It's about a boy, Andrew Henry, who loves to build things. Wild, contraption-y things. Things that annoy his family. So he leaves, and builds special houses for himself and all his friends in his meadow. A little village of specialty houses that are customized for the pursuits of his bird-loving, music-playing, frog-jumping, etc. buddies. A wonderful story about creativity and inventiveness.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis

I know it's a big deal now, because of the movies. But when I was in the 4th grade... not so much. I mean, it's always been a classic, but I didn't hear about it until our pastor, Rev. Guinn, gave my folks the first two books in the Narnia series for me to read. At the time, for whatever reason, I was only reading biographies for kids. I hadn't read much fiction at all, besides whatever had been assigned. After reading Narnia, however... boom. I was hooked on fantasy, and then sci-fi, for life. Not that I stopped reading other stuff, but entire "alternative worlds" opened up to me because of the Narnia books.

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein

This book is on the list because it is the first book I remember actively disliking; I may even have hated this book. I'm not sure I hate it today, but I still certainly dislike it. Quite a bit. OK, I hate it. Don't get me wrong; I love Uncle Shelby. Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros, and (amazingly funny), Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book. But I read "The Giving Tree," and was deeply disappointed. Why? Because the tree kept giving everything to the boy, but it didn't make the boy happy. So, obviously, giving everything directly to the boy wasn't what the boy really needed. The tree was (although I didn't have the words for this concept at 9 or 10 when I first read it) an "enabler." And everyone who read the book seemed to think of it as a simple, wonderful story about a tree that gave, selflessly, out of love for the child. It made me mad and it made me tell people what *I* thought was the point of the book, which was that simply doing what you think is the right thing for someone, even if it seems selfless, may not be the right thing for them. I mean, come on! The kid was a miserable brat. This is the first book I ever deconstructed. Very important for me.

Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling

These were the stories that proved poetry to me. Yes, there are poems at the end of the tales... but within the stories themselves, there is musical language and rhythm and an attention to the flow of language that convinced me that, yes... we must be most careful with our syllables as well as our words. With the round lobes of our tones and the slick, slither of our consonants. For what is more beautiful in a children's book than:

Still ran Kangaroo--Old Man Kangaroo. He ran through the ti-trees; he ran through the mulga; he ran through the long grass; he ran through the short grass; he ran through the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer; he ran till his hind legs ached. He had to!

Still ran Dingo--Yellow-Dog Dingo--hungrier and hungrier, grinning like a horse-collar, never getting nearer, never getting farther; and they came to the Wollgong River. Now, there wasn't any bridge, and there wasn't any ferry-boat, and Kangaroo didn't know how to get over; so he stood on his legs and hopped. He had to!

He hopped through the Flinders; he hopped through the Cinders; he hopped through the deserts in the middle of Australia. He hopped like a Kangaroo.

Story plus the liquidity of language. Lovely.

The Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, by himself

I'm not sure what age group "Children's Book Week" ends at, but they include some Harry Potter junk, so I'll imagine that it goes up through fifth or sixth grade at least. I was 11 or 12 when I first read "The Cask of Amontillado," "Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Pit and the Pendulum," and, like the Narnia books... they changed how and what I read and, therefore, probably, my life. I would later read and enjoy other great horror authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker... but Poe was the one that made me understand the joy of the scare. The first time through "The Masque of the Red Death..." Oooh! That was a good, creepy night under the covers with a flashlight.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

Really, this entry should be titled, "Everything by Ray Bradbury." Bradbury was the first author I devoured. Those of you who read understand this term. When we find a writer whose work hits us like a hypo of heroin, we do not taste, we do not nibble... we devour. I read everything by Bradbury in the Pollard Junior High library in a row. Then on to the Needham Public Library. Then to the book store. After Bradbury, many other authors would fall into this category of, "Read one, then all." But Ray was my first author addiction.

Ed Emberly's Drawing Book: Make a World

I was in first or second grade when this came out and someone in my life got it for me. My best friend, Kenny, and I sat in the driveway one day, spiral notebooks, markers and this book spread out, and, indeed, made a world. Before the concept of cut-and-paste meant Ctrl+V and Ctrl+P, we took the simple, geometric instructions from Ed Emberly's patterns and copied them over and over in order to create a world beyond anything we thought we had inside us. I am not, nor will I ever be, a true "artist" in the sense of the word most people have. But I am not a horrible designer. The ability to take pieces/parts and lay them out alongside each other in a way that is meaningful and (sometimes) attractive doesn't always elude me. Ed introduced me to that.

Robin Hood, ???

I don't remember which edition, version or author my grandpa read to us from, summer nights in Alexander, NY. I just remember that we had to be read Robin Hood stories, because Grandpa was a fletcher, bowyer and archer (among about a million other talents). The fact that Robin and Grandpa shared these (to me) arcane abilities, made the stories so much more... visceral. The Robin Hood stories were exciting and funny and got us (me and my bro, John) all worked up at bedtime. In order to get us to go to sleep, then, Grandpa would read to us from the encyclopedia. The same reference every time. An entry about monarch butterflies. You want to put two young kids to sleep quickly? Read the same encyclopedia entry to them a couple dozen times. Nicely done, Grandpa. Good, rousing tales for fun and adventure... then off to sleep in about 9.8 seconds.

That's it for now. If I can jog my memory, I'll add more.

And this is a blog-wave, too, btw... if you love books and support reading, please pass this on! Include a link to the Children's Book Week, and links to the books you love (we'd prefer you use, of course, but can't complain if you have another, preferred site).

No other single habit will more greatly impact a kid's life than that of sustained, wide reading. You just can't enlarge they little brain better in any other way.

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