At one point this past weekend I found myself in a bookstore looking for something very specific. In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for, however, I did get lost in the children’s section in anticipation of Hawkeye’s upcoming third birthday. I have been struggling at the local library with finding books that I actually want to read to him repeatedly. We seem to have started on a high note with titles like The Gruffalo, Tabby McTat, and Giraffes Can’t Dance, and have had difficulty in keeping up with the level of quality since then. I practically denuded the local library of every single book by the wildly popular duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. We had some success with random books like Daddy Says and a few other early board books. I also snap up nearly every single Mem Fox book I can find, and we had a long spell where most Oliver Jeffers’ books were the hit of the day, even though they were not quite my favourites by the hundredth read. But other than that, my haphazard foray into early children’s literature has been very hit and miss. Possibly because it appears that the best stuff is almost constantly in circulation, leaving behind shelves of countless books full of garish colour and little substance.
However, now that we have reached the stage where a book doesn’t need to be able t o withstand being chewed, thrown, or crumpled on a regular basis, I am finding a bit more latitude. And this weekend I nearly didn’t make it out of the bookstore with our bank account intact. I found many fascinating books I wanted to explore. In a rare show of self restraint, I managed to leave most of them behind. I succumbed to purchasing David Lichfield’s The Bear and the Piano and Pip Jones’ Izzy Gizmo, both of which I’m saving for the upcoming the official grand entrance to his threenage years. I just barely succeeded in not purchasing any sort of great big children’s reference book on dinosaurs, though I can’t promise I won’t go back for one. And I almost picked up this book which tells the story of Albert Einstein and his scientific discoveries. In the end, however, reason prevailed, given that it’s a couple of years beyond his level, but I took a photo of it so that I would remember the name.
I attended a talk last year put on by Hawkeye’s creche on the importance of early childhood reading and the child psychologist who was giving the lecture spoke about her obsession with collecting children’s books. She has hundreds of them, many now possibly out of print. She even read a few to us, to demonstrate how small books can find clever ways to tackle big issues, whether it is dealing with grief, sibling rivalry, friendship, sharing, and more. “All problems” she said, “become easier to address with the inclusion of bears.”
I am endlessly struck by this as I see the difference in quality between the various books available and yet I can’t quite put my finger on the magic ingredient that differentiates the “meh”, or the *shudder* reactions from the “I can stand to read this another fifty or a hundred times without losing my mind”, which is how I rank the success of children’s books these days.
And while I initially found humour in the idea of a grown adult collecting children’s books, I now understand the appeal.
You see, I grew up in a house full of books. I find myself ill at ease in houses that don’t have at least a small crammed bookshelf. Although I appreciate that many these days are reading books via their tablets and kindles, and I’ll admit it has been some time since I’ve purchased a paperback for myself, I cannot get over my love for the physical feel of the pages of a fine book beneath my hands. My mother has spent years accumulating a collection of large books on fine art. While I managed to shed many school books along the way, my own shelves in her house in the US are stacked high with history reference books as well as my favourite novels, classics, and fantasy. Here in Ireland, we are surrounded by a mixture of classic English literature from The Mister’s college degree, historical novels, gaming books, fantasy and science fiction, and reference books on a wide range of topics, from knitting, to American history, to geography. And now, of course, children’s books .
And no matter how much my own reading habits begin to reflect the modern digital age, I fully intend to raise our son in the same environment. Looking forward to being able to read books together is one of the most concrete images I had of parenting when I was trying to figure out if that was a role I could ever see myself filling. I will rejoice (inwardly) if, years down the line, I discover Hawkeye staying up past his bedtime because he’s reading under the covers with a flashlight the way I used to in middle school. Hell, I don’t even remember ever not knowing how to read. My earliest memories are reading Soviet children’s books about the Great Patriotic War (великая oтечественная война, or WWII) and stories about “Grandpa Lenin” (Дедушка Ленин), the great Russian hero of the time. However I quickly made the leap from there to older children’s books on historical fiction and translations of classic English novels. I have a crisp recollection of my illustrated hardcover volume of Gulliver’s Travels, and also reading a translation of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans sometime around age 6 or 7 with my dad. To this day I have not been able to pick up an English version of this novel, as the original English doesn’t call up the same vivid imagery in my mind. And my absolute favourites at the time were two books which are probably responsible for my lifelong love of history, containing stories by Lyubov Voronkova (Любовь Воронкова) called Son of Zeus (Сын Зевса) on the early years of Alexander the Great and his rise to power, Messenian Wars (Мессенская война) on the three wars between Sparta and Messenia, and A Life’s Trail of Fire (Огненный след жизни) on the life of Persian Cyrus the Great. One of the last books I remember reading before we left the Soviet Union was a biography of Heinrich Schliemann, a 19th century archaeologist who spent his career searching for the remains of the city of Troy. My first school research project in English, some years later, built on this obsession with my reading of Finding Nineveh, a biography of Sir Austen Henry Layard and his discovery of the Assyrian city.
Once I learned English, my reading continued unabated. I went from shakily having trouble understanding my teacher reading The Indian in the Cupboard out loud to us in class, to making my way through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by myself to make up for missed summer reading after I changed schools. That was the second complete novel I ever read in English on my own, the title of the first one being lost to memory. Having cemented my presence as an outsider to my primary school classmates, by virtue of my poor English initially, and subsequently by being from the wrong neighbourhood, wearing the wrong clothes, and being too good at school work, I repaid their kindness by having my nose stuck in a book at lunchtime and losing myself constantly in the school library after class ended. By the time I left that school, I had read every single Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys book in its possession, together with most of the historical fiction and fantasy novels. At home I was a nuisance to my mother with my “selective hearing” while reading. For a long time when we lived in a small apartment where I didn’t have my own room, I often locked myself in the bathroom where I would lose track of time reading until my mother wound angrily knock on the door after calling my name constantly and failing to elicit any reply. I was always miles away, in other universes, often hearing her words but not actually registering them until some time later. Even my sex education, although completed in a formal setting later at school, actually began earlier (unbeknownst to my parents) when I accidentally stumbled across Jean Auel’s mammoth-sized Mammoth Hunters novel in a yard sale. Lost in another historical fiction tale, I quickly realised that I had jumped in at the end of a series, and shortly thereafter acquired the rest of her then-published novels, Clan of the Cave Bear, and The Valley of Horses. To a fifth grader, the frequent sex scenes were at first titillating but quickly became repetitive and annoying, whereas I spent several years obsessed with learning about the use of medicinal herbs because of those books. It took another year for the author to produce the next novel, Plains of Passage, a large part of which I read in the summer of 1991 in a high school gymnasium to which we had been evacuated when Hurricane Bob interrupted our Cape Cod vacation. It was another twenty-something years before the author was able to complete her life’s work, with the sixth novel in the series, The Land of Painted Caves, not being published until 2011.
In high school I met a friend, Deniz, who revolutionised my life by introducing me to the fantasy works of Mercedes Lackey, ultimately gifting me her paperback collection which she could not pack up compactly enough to return to where she lived in Saudi Arabia with her expat parents. Deniz, sadly, passed away about ten years later but her mark on my life has not faded. Lackey’s novels were the first ones in my limited world experience which had a gay main character. Although I had been reading books beyond my age level for some time, this was the first author I had encountered who was writing for me as a target audience addressing, skilfully and sensitively, issues of race, homophobia, suicide, rape, sexism, and many more issues. This was well beyond the Judy Bloom level of young adult literature expanding my horizons. While Judy Bloom books focused on the social issues and establishment of identity faced by teenage girls – everything from periods to first kiss to first sex – Mercedes Lackey reached outward to break all the taboo topics that were, once upon a time, inappropriate to a young lady’s ears.
And aside from the impact her books had on my levels of social awareness, they allowed me a whole new level of escapism by submerging me in a world that rivals today’s Hogwarts. In another one of those memorable moments that shine brightly from among the foggy memories of youth, I recall clambering up to my elevated bed in my dorm room one night and opening the first page of Magic’s Promise, where the main character has just returned from a war front, exhausted, dropping his travel packs on the floor of his room and sliding the padded leather case with his beloved lute over the back of a chair, where it “sagged, leaning over sideways like a fat drunken child.” For reasons I cannot explain, I have never been able to forget this particular imagery, although it may possibly be related to my reckless scramble, almost head first, down from the bunk bed to retrieve Magic’s Pawn as soon as I realised, by page 2, that I had accidentally picked up the middle novel in the trilogy instead of the first one. The first novel was finished before the sun came up the next day, to the detriment of whatever class I had the punishment to endure the following morning. However, since most of my high school experience was fueled by cans of Coca Cola, tea made on an illicit electric kettle, and ramen noodles instead of sleep, this was nothing more than an early practice run in how to survive the rest of my four years of boarding school on minimal sleep.
Few novels stand out from my college years, where I was mainly immersed in academic literature from start to finish. However, I did have the honour of learning from two professors who contributed to my literary adventures. One, a geologist, introduced me to the essayist John McPhee, and the other, a beloved, elderly history professor by the name of Andrzej Kaminski, liberally sprinkled his Easter European history classes not only with the usual history texts, but also with novels such as Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić. His goal wasn’t just to teach us history, but to give it context. He breathed life into dry facts with contributions not only from history books but literature, art history, and psychology. Nowhere was this more profound, though, than the day he talked to us about his own experiences of growing up on the Polish side of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. If his lecture had been turned into a novel it could have easily been a companion to Leon Uris’ Mila 18 story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
I am nowhere near the same voracious reader today as I was in the past. These days I if I read a book, it is usually some trashy fiction meant to relieve the brain from stress rather than to educate or widen horizons. My bright spots of reading have shrunk to what I consider most precious – reading the early drafts of my friends’ manuscripts. Intisar Khanani, another classmate from high school, discovered that there were not enough books out there for her girls to read when they got older with good female role models of different races. She is determined to change that one book at a time, starting with her retelling of the Goose Girl fairy tale and continuing with her Sunbolt novels featuring a main character of mixed-race. Another friend is writing about her experience with discovering boxing. And yet another classmate, Kaitlin Solomine, recently published Empire of Glass, a work that is turning out to be a tour de force for a first time author. I have been able to dip my toes into the first couple of chapters but have discovered that the level of attention it requires to be appreciated is more than I am able to give right now with my limited mental energy.
Most of my high brow literature these days comes with a lot of pictures and little text and a small person sitting next to me poking me with his pointy elbows. However, as they all say, “this too shall pass.” Perhaps in a few years when parenting is much more about after school activities, play dates, and homework, and less about sleepless nights and the constant struggle for communication and discipline, I will regain my enthusiasm. Either way, I have my beloved literary friends all around me, waiting to welcome me back to their distant shores with open arms.