You Are What You Read

How do the books we encounter as kids influence our reading later in life? Jessica Freeman-Slade recently asked this question in the [tk] reviews blog – a source of smart essays on reading by a handful of women who work in publishing. Freeman-Slade traces her own love for Vladimir Nabokov’s word play back to the tongue-twisting poetry of Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll, and connects says she learned to enjoy the introspective plotting of Ian McEwan and John Updike by absorbing the psychological insights of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume.

The post got me thinking about the books I loved as a kid, and the ones we read as a family when our children were little.

I was four or five, the last sibling yet to enter school, when my mother went back to school to become a librarian. Mom’s interest in children’s books happily coincided with mine. I no longer recall many of the specific books we read, but I do remember the stillness that surrounded us as I sat beside her on the sofa, the softness of her arm against my cheek and the rattle of ice cubes in Mom’s Diet Pepsi filling the pauses in her speech.

One book that has stayed with me is Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Mom loved poetry, and had happy memories of summers at camp in the Adirondacks. Time of Wonder is set farther north, on the coast of Maine. But his atmospheric paintings of that rugged landscape doubtless struck a cord with her, and his liquid language stirred us both. I blame Time of Wonder for my propensity to produce dreamy texts in which the language is lovely and the landscape is the protagonist – the type of picture book my agent gently tells me will never fly in today’s market.

As much as I loved being read to and making up stories, I didn’t really become an independent reader until the fourth grade. In 1966, Edgemont School was K-4, and the library comprised one classroom, plus a walk-in closet with the books for the oldest students. The first time the librarian ushered me into that closet, I was thrilled. That’s where I found Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, which taught me, in turn, that I could trust any book with illustrations by Garth Williams. I didn’t know Garth Williams’ name, but his style was instantly identifiable. I’m pretty sure it’s what led me to Charlotte’s Web and A Cricket in Times Square.

Crispian had a little kitchen upstairs in his two-story doghouse where he fixed himself a good dinner three times a day because he liked to eat.

And when I had kids of my own, Garth Williams’ imprimatur led me back to Margaret Wise Brown’s trippy Golden Books, which my husband and I both loved as children. One of our favorites: Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself. Mister Dog (aka Crispin’s Crispian) is a shaggy brown mutt who takes himself for walks and buys himself bones. One day he meets a boy and invites him home, where they settle into a cozy domestic arrangement.

“Crispin’s Crispian was a conservative,” Brown writes. “He liked everything a the right time – dinner at dinner time, lunch at lunchtime, breakfast in time for breakfast, and sunrise at sunrise, and sunset at sunset. And at bedtime – At bedtime, he liked everything in its own place – the cup in the saucer, the chair under the table, the stars in the heavens, the moon in the sky, and himself in his own little bed.” (Shades of Good Night, Moon, which Brown wrote five years earlier).

For all our progressive politics, within the privacy of our home, we were fairly conservative, ourselves. Meals were regularly sit-down affairs at predictable hours, bedtimes happened at set times, and so on. We loved Mr. Dog’s orderly universe, and we also loved how the book turned the predictable paradigm on its head by having the dog take care of the boy.

When it came to reading books to our kids, we were all about challenging the dominant paradigm. We loved Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s hilarious The Stinky Cheese Man, in which the narrator breaks through the fourth wall to challenge the conventions governing of the very book the reader holds in her hands. Ditto Louis the Fish, written by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski. “One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish,” this surreal tale begins, in brilliant deadpan. “Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon.”

Reading aloud didn’t end for our family for the kids could read to themselves. As parents, we enjoyed revisiting books from our own childhoods, like the Little House books, whose how-to details and enthusiastic descriptions of food (especially in Farmer Boy) particularly appealed to Sam. And we were glad for the excuse to discover new children’s books, such as Brian JacquesRed Wall series, Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard books, and anything by Roald Dahl. David, who remembers his father reading the Sunday funnies aloud, loved sharing the comics with our kids. A particular favorite for all of us was Calvin and Hobbes. We loved Watterson’s loopy blend of realism and fantasy, his instantly recognizable characters, the strips’ warped logic and metaphysical puzzles.

It would be silly to suggest that our kids are the way they are because of what they read when they were little. But it’s hard not to see the pleasure Sam takes in creating things with his hands and remember his fascination with the DIY spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And when Sophie discusses philosophy with her father, it’s tempting to think that Bill Watterson deserves at least partial credit. And as they both begin planning their own marriages, I remember all those times we read together as a family, and can’t help but think that the sweetness of those hours worked its way into their blood as surely as the rhythm of my mother’s reading voice worked its way into mine.

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4 Responses to “You Are What You Read”

  1. fswift Says:

    Hi Ruth. I absolutely believe that “the sweetness of those hours worked its way into their blood”. I feel that’s exactly what reading together with your child does – especially when it’s continued even after they are independent readers. Some of my most cherished memories are reading together -first with Aimee and then, Henry. Sounds like we’ve read many of the same books. I know Aimee’s love of her childhood books has given her the passion to write her own. I remember Henry saying, when he was about six, after a scary incident at the sledding hill, “well, as Pa always says, ‘all’s well that ends well’, quoting from one of the Little House books. Precious times!

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks! Love the Henry story, especially.

  3. Aimee Swift Says:

    I am currently reading a fascinating collection of letters by Ursula Nordstrom that I think you would really enjoy. It’s called: Dear Genius, The Letters of Ursula Norstrom. Ursula Norstrom was the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. She “is regarded as the single most creative force for innovation in children’s publishing in the United States during the twentieth centurey.” Her authors included Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, etc. So her letters are written to all of these people, plus the illustrators, Garth Williams, etc. It covers almost all of your favorites! An interesting perspective on how great classics like Charlotte’s Web, for instance, were put together.

  4. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    That collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters sounds great, Aimee! I’m going to put a request for it with my library right now. Thanks!

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