A little over a year ago, I walked into our public library during story reading time. Mothers and fathers were there with their kids, and our head librarian was enacting a grand flight of fancy for the kids, page by page. The children sat entranced, mesmerized, and absorbed in the world unfolding before them.
My stomach tightened, my eyes watered, and waves of unbearable sadness washed over me. I realized something I never saw before that moment: I was never read a story growing up. Though I’ve pursued learning, books, reading, and writing my entire life, I was never read to, never experienced the magic shared between an adult story-teller and my rapt audience.
It took about ten minutes for me to regain my composure, in the bathroom, the searing pain of that revelation crippling me in two.
My mother was very good about making sure I had books, even on her income. I always had plenty, and I read my favorites over and over.
But I was never held at night for storytime, never given that beautiful ritual of a bedtime story, where I ask for my favorite characters to come to life, one more time, in the lap of someone eager to bring a world to me.
In her lore about me, which may be true, may be an embellished fabrication to bolster our impoverished circumstances, the school told my mother not to hold me back a grade. I started kindergarten when I was four, because of my birthday, and the California law. Being born in October, I could start kindergarten at four, but Mom feared I wouldn’t be able to keep up, would always be behind the class. The school told her I’d be bored if she kept me back, and that I was already testing beyond my years, and beyond my peers.
So Mom said. And even if an exaggeration, the story became a powerful tool in my life: I was smart, I had an identity. It was, unfortunately, the only one I had for too long. But here are the seeds. Mom believed that because I read well, I would. I was smart, she wasn’t, therefore, reading was something I would do. More germane, she worked graveyard, was dealing with a dying husband sitting in prison, and barely managing to put food on the table. That didn’t leave her with much to spare, emotionally or physically.
But given the lore, she bought me books, as many as she could afford. And I rarely remember her saying “no,” like she did with so many things. Because she was learning disabled, this particular sacrifice was no sacrifice. Ever. I vaguely remember her finding a children’s book club — much like Columbia House. Join and get a lot of books all at once, free. Buy a few more over time, get discounted prices. She let me pick out the books, and then she ordered them. She had no clue about how to guide me, never had an interest in books or reading. Her story was that she was stupid and couldn’t read, and that was the story she lived with until her death. She never considered guiding my book reading. A book was a book was a book was a book. All the same, just a reminder that she was book stupid.
Reading was what I was good at, and by God she would make sure I had books.
One of my favorites that I got with the introductory stash was “How Joe the Bear And Sam The Mouse Got Together.” It’s a fable about a bear and a mouse who have nothing in common. The adventure leads the reader to discover that no matter how different we are, we can always find something in common with someone else, and build a friendship. For Joe and Sam, it was ice cream.
This book was better than Doctor Seuss, because it had well done illustrations, a strong storyline, and it was essentially a parable about friendship, co-operation, and learning about another person. Doctor Seuss and eggs and ham and Sam I am were musical, but boring.
Joe and Sam were different, they made me feel good, and the story rhymed better than Dr. Seuss. I liked the book so much that I took it to school and asked my teacher if I could read it to the class. This was not typical for first graders in our school. We didn’t have show-and-tell, that I remember, and no one ever got in front of the class to read. Amazingly, Mrs. Kearns let me, which still surprises me, for she was an elderly woman, always kind of grumpy, but perhaps kinder and more insightful than I remember.
She decided on the day and the time, and I trotted in front of the class to read, “How Joe The Bear And Sam The Mouse Got Together” to my classmates. Some clapped. Some laughed. I didn’t care. It was a great book, and I wanted to share.
I read the entire book, by myself, with inflection and confidence and authority to my captive audience.
There I was, a storyteller, with no one ever having read to me.
It makes me sad.
It makes me proud.
In second grade, I accidentally stumbled on “Charlotte’s Web,” a book that forever changed my life. But I didn’t know it was “Charlotte’s Web,” the great children’s classic. It found its way into my hands because the cover illustration piqued my curiosity while I was rummaging the library shelves: the brightly colored line drawings of the fair, and a spine reinforced with fire engine red tape, as it was an old tattered copy.
The first time I read it, I sobbed and sobbed when Charlotte died, my heart burst with delight when Joy, Aranea, and Nellie stayed with Wilbur, and I cried with the last lines, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I felt happy and sad and overwhelmed, all twenty plus times that I read it between second and fourth grades.
But “Charlotte’s Web” was the only classic children’s book I read. Lacking any guidance, my tastes turned to the macabre and strange at too young an age, adult fiction and non-fiction that could have waited years. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with precocious exploration, but there were worlds the eluded me, for which I mourn.
So I’ve taken to reading children’s books. Not exclusively, but I’ve got a list, and I’m making discoveries. Not fairy tales, I actually read tens and tens of the classic fairy tales, as our school had a lushly illustrated collection that I read during classes, when I should have been doing other things. Perhaps this explains the turn toward the macabre: fairy tales are dark creatures. I missed popular and respected children’s books. Paddington Bear, The Wind In The Willows, The Tales of Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh. I saw an article in my Facebook feed this week about adults not reading children’s book, and they are loosing out. But I have started a quest to read the great ones, and the not so well known gems, ones I discover by accident.
My little friends and I go to the library sometimes. They curl their fingers around mine, and I read them as many books as they like. I think of how much my mother lost in never reading to me, what an incalculable deprivation in never opening a book, and feeling the happiness she could have given me, because someone told her she would never read, instead of taking the time to help her learn. I think of how she believed in my reading and intelligence, and how proud and confused and scared she was by my world. I never understood just how frightening the uncertain was for her, as I was hoisted into it too early, and with a precocious if angry confidence to face it all.
Some evenings when I am home alone, I pull out a children’s book. I connect with the imagination and innocence and love and wisdom of its pages, available to us no matter our age. They bring me to simpler places, not because they lack meaning, but because they lack the unnecessary complexity that smart folks love to create. Though I mourn never having these tales as a child, I celebrate these stories and fables now, as one who has known the world without them.
For the gift of never having experienced the great children’s stories, is that I enjoy them as only one who has never had them can. They hold no bad histories, only the heart and mind I bring with me as the sun sets, and the wish to see the world through the eyes of a much beloved child, the child in myself who I’ve come to treasure.