Monday, June 22, 2009

School's Out!

As a kid, I spent many summers in my parents' hometown in Pennsylvania (near where Esther grew up). My grandparents had a pool, and I swam all day long. When I was not swimming, I was reading. I would take a stack of books in my luggage at the beginning of the summer and read them again and again. Like Mary Ann, I read for comfort, and I savored the best-turned phrases just as much as I savored my daily dose of chocolate (which, for those who don't know me, is saying a lot).

I was just telling my husband yesterday that when my grandparents needed a break, sometimes they'd send me to visit my mom's sister. She had three TV channels, no nearby neighborhood kids, no pool, and of course, no books. I remember that, in desperation, I once started reading her twenty-year-old encyclopedias.

So yes, bearing in mind that I am a geek, these are the books and authors (for better or worse) that inspired me to become a writer:

The Bobbsey Twins:
For one brief, not-so-shining moment in time, every girl my age (6, 7, 8) in every state in which I lived (a good number of states -- from Hawaii to Maryland) was reading the re-issued Bobbsey Twins. The Mystery at Cherry Corners was the first non-picture book I was ever given as a gift (by my grandparents the Christmas I was five). My mother read it aloud to me at bedtime. Having been reared by non-readers with nothing in the house to read herself besides Dick and Jane, she clearly enjoyed this ritual at least as much as I did. She voiced each character with gusto, and her level of animation (probably even more than the Bobbsey Twins' adventures) is the thing that made reading feel like an adventure to love.

I later "graduated" to Nancy Drew but found her to be so perfect that I couldn't stand her. (Irony that I later became Carolyn Keene -- but that's a story for another post.) The Hardy Boys were better. I tried some Trixie Belden, some Happy Hollisters. Ah, those were the golden days of the children's mystery series. Oh, and how I loved Encyclopedia Brown.

The Bobbsey Twins books were again reissued (in paperback) when I was a tween, with lots of PC tweaks (much-needed), but zero zip or fun.

I have the entire series of Sweet Tart-purple-spined hardcovers on my shelf upstairs to this day -- and, twenty-six or so moves later, I think that speaks volumes about how much I cherish the memories, if not the volumes themselves.

Beverly Cleary:
The first book a teacher gave me to read on my own was Ramona, the Pest. (A hint, perhaps.)

I adored all the Ramonas I read as a child and all the Henry Huggins books. I also re-read Mitch and Amy and Ellen Tebbits dozens of times. One thing I really appreciated was Cleary's skill at illuminating multiple points of view. In one book, she could convince you that Otis Spofford or Ramona was the most annoying person in the world (from Ellen's or Beezus' point of view). And, though you still totally empathized with Ellen and Beezus, you could read the book in which Otis or Ramona was the star and suddenly understand exactly how and why they were so misunderstood.

For the record, I think the most perfect book I've ever read is Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Madeleine L'Engle:
My class was forced to watch a filmstrip version of A Wrinkle in Time in second grade. Either the filmstrip was very bad (likely) or I was just not ready (equally likely), but I was consequently turned off to this book for years. I finally forced myself to read it one day when I was sick and had nothing else on my shelf. I have never been a fantasy fan, but L'Engle is my big exception.

Some of my favorite lesser-read L'Engles are A House Like a Lotus and The Young Unicorns. Of the Time Trilogy, I liked A Swiftly Tilting Planet the best. I think I trace my eighth-grade interest in ESP (and thus, in its way, Mind Games) to this book.

Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Little Laura grew up to become a famous writer -- spun off into her own TV series, no less. Takeaway lesson? This could be a very cool thing.

I think I'd seen Little House on the Prairie on TV (it was the '70s) before my mom and I started reading the series together. I definitely remember that we started with book #2 because we thought, based on the title of the TV show, that it came first. Farmer Boy aside (I could never get through that one), I read the others over and over and over. On the Banks of Plum Creek was my very favorite.

I dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder four Halloweens in a row. Again, it being the '70s, my dress and sunbonnet were some ghastly mix of orange and chartreuse. Inexplicably, neighbors always thought I was Holly Hobbie. Do you see the resemblance?

Judy Blume:
When I was in second grade and a somewhat precocious reader, my mom followed a librarian's advice (based, I presume, on reading level and not age) and checked out Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? for me to read.

I really enjoyed the book, but my mom was quite shocked when I started asking her questions about periods and bras. We thus had "the talk" a little earlier than she expected.

Ellen Raskin:
The Westing Game is genius. So are Figgs and Phantoms and The Tattooed Potato.

Once I discovered her, I kept waiting for a new book by Ellen Raskin. Alas, it was not to be. :(

So in sixth grade I was forced to become a sucker for a good Miss Marple yarn; but Ellen Raskin is my idol.

Sydney Taylor:
All-of-a-Kind Family! Need I say more?

I also remember my middle school maudlin phase (predating Lurlene McDaniel) in which I read over and over again such books as Alex: The Life of a Child (made more heartbreaking by the fact that Alex would be exactly my age if she were alive today). Mary Ann and I also discovered we were both childhood devotees of the Marie Killilea books about her daughter, Karen. These were classified as "inspirational," and they were. I suppose that was the appeal in reading this genre -- a good tearjerker always leaves you with hope at the end.

In a nutshell, my reading list has shown me that I like either meandering, anecdotal tales (the kind that rarely get published anymore -- at least in the absence of a very voicey voice); or mysteries that are chock-full of plot. Nothing in between, thank you very much.

This summer I plan to reread the Eleanor Estes series -- gems that were out of print for much of my youth. I can't wait to read them to my kids!

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