Sunday, October 25, 2009

Living Inside the Story

     From the time I taught myself to read, I have been an obsessive reader. My mother used to joke that the first time she saw me without a book was at my wedding. (Little did she know that one of the things that worried me the most that day was knowing that I didn't have a "good book" to take on my honeymoon!)
    As a child, I was an undiscriminating reader. I read in the book aisle at E.J. Korvette's while my parents shopped. I borrowed books from friends, relatives, the neighbors. I read newspapers left in busses and cabs. Cereal boxes. Anything.
     Finding reading material when I was in elementary school was not that easy. Public libraries in the 'burbs were either non-existent or meagerly stocked. I never knew that schools were supposed to have libraries until I moved to Mississippi in the fifth grade. There was the school book club catalog, but once you'd ordered the five or six books you wanted to read, that was it for the year. A book store was an exotic destination, found only "downtown" in large cities.  I spent a good chunk of my day finding books to feed my habit. (Yes, this does sound like something from Intervention.)
     It was during those years, that I found the four books that formed me as a reader, a writer, and as a person. I didn't just read these books. I read them to shreds. I climbed inside them and lived there for weeks at a time. And when I finished the 515th reading of one of these books, I would read it again. And again. They have followed me to college, into marriage and motherhood, and are on my shelf today.
      Three of these titles are Charlotte's Web, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Diary of a Young Girl. The fourth was the first to show me how writing could transcend the printed page and become a part of my life. This was a religious experience for a fourth grader.
     Fourth grade stunk on ice as far as I was concerned.  I had managed to run afoul of my teacher the first week of school, and things grew progressively worse as the year wore on. My saving grace was the classroom copy of Depend on Katie John by Mary Calhoun. As an adult, I can see how the fourth grade me could identify with the tomboyish-always-in-a-jam Katie John.  What made the book memorable was that it made me laugh out loud.
     Unfortunately, this happened during arithmetic.  I was supposed to be listening to my teacher explain the intricacies of long division, not reading a book tucked under my open math text. This didn't happen once; it happened over and over until my teacher confiscated the book, for the rest of the year.
    I felt as if I had lost a friend. Not just a friend, but one who could always cheer me up and make me laugh. If fourth grade had been a long slog so far, without Katie John, it threatened to turn into a death march. Losing the book certainly didn't improve my attitude toward my teacher. My school day was already an eight-hour tightrope walk, trying not to tick off The Teacher. Without Katie John, I found it hard to keep my balance.
     Life took a turn for the better when my father gave me my own hardcover copy of Depend on Katie John for my tenth birthday. I didn't know that regular people could own hardcover books; I thought they were something special only for libraries and schools.
     "Don't take that book to school," my mother warned. She didn't have to worry. No way would I risk my precious book and friend falling into the clutches of The Evil-Math-Loving-Book-Hating Teacher. I really did depend on Katie John. That book was the flotation device that kept my head above water until the end of fourth grade.
    I had always loved books, but the power this book held for me was something magic. How did this Mary Calhoun person put those words together in a way that made me laugh every single time? Even though I had been writing for several years already, I began to wonder could I ever be that kind of writer? One who could make a kid laugh, could create a character more real to me than my best friend?
     I have spent my life so far, trying to live up to the challenge of Mary Calhoun and Katie John.
     And speaking of reading...
What I've Been Reading
Adult memoir: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen; The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker; Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (technically this is fiction, but it reads like a memoir)
Adult non-fiction: The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg
YA fiction: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher; The Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka; The Sniper by James Riordan; Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan, Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan. The Goodbye Season by Marion Hale; Liar by Justine Labalestier, Crossing Stones by Helen Frost; Death on the River by John Wilson; Going Bovine by Libba Bray
Graphic novel:  The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
Middle grade non-fiction:  Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge; Eleanor, Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport
Picture Book: You and Me and Home Sweet Home by George Ella Lyon; Subway Ride by Heather Lynne Miller; Crow Call by Lois Lowry


Janet said...

Wow, you do love to read! I've never heard of the book, Depend on Katie John, it must be a treasure.

Paul Greci said...

For me, a formative book was The Boxcar Children. I remember being so intrigued. The words on the page coming alive in a new way.

I taught language arts in an alternative school for fifteen years before resigning to write full-time. The times I was able to match reluctant readers to books they fell in love with are some of my sweetest memories from teaching. That and turning kids on to writing their own stories.

I hope that the YA fiction I'm writing will speak to reluctant readers as well as others.