- ABOUT US
Megan Rossman, Associate Editor
Photo by JOHN JERNIGAN
By Megan Rossman
July 12, 2012
When I was young, my mom read to me every night before I went to bed. Dr. Seuss, Curious George, the incompetent Amelia Bedelia—these characters often shared my final hours of the day, while Clifford the Big Red Dog made cameos in my nightmares.
Around that time, I already had aspirations of writing, but my illiteracy was a stumbling block. Undeterred, I narrated my stories to my mom, which she wrote down and I illustrated. My first book, What Do Pegasuses Do? surveyed various types of pegasi and their roles in the natural world. The sun pegasus, for example, polished the sun so that it shone more brightly.
Eventually, perhaps bored by the picture book genre, my mom worked in some young adult novels, introducing me to a family of orphaned children that lived like hobos in an abandoned boxcar. By this time I could read, so I’d go through stacks of these books along with the Ramona and Beezus novels.
When not reading or listening, I made up my own stories. Sitting on my bed, clutching a Barbie—I could not focus properly without a Barbie in one hand—I would tell myself epic tales, speaking softly so no one could hear, sometimes for hours at a time. If anyone wandered into my toy-filled abode, I’d halt my monologue. Barbie would cease to be my storytelling scepter and resume her role as a doll. As soon as my visitor departed, the saga would continue.
I wasn’t a sedentary shut-in. I spent a lot of time playing with other kids, riding my Huffy White Heat, building forts, and doing other healthy kid things. Reading, however, was my favorite stationary activity—although television was a close contender. Reading cultivated my imagination. It taught me how to invent. It gave me power. It gave me focus. Once you learn how to read, you can learn to do just about anything.
I don’t know how much children read books these days. I do know that we live in a world in which so-called conveniences and technology increasingly overwhelm and distract us, children included. I like to believe that aside from media and computer games, the young ones have an appetite for the full and non-texted word. I’m not anti-smartphone or iPad, but books offer a quiet that no app or interactive media can. Most of what we hear and see on a daily basis is blaring and indistinct, an ambient hiss in our brains. When I pick up a book, it’s like a shortcut through all the noise. A meditation. And I’m so glad that my parents taught me to enjoy it.
Here are some of my favorite books as a kid. They’re fairly old, but good books don’t have a shelf life, which is more than you can say for a lot of things. It’s been a long time since I read most of these, so my descriptions may not be 100 percent accurate. If you can’t find these books in your library, you can buy them on Amazon.com.
The Boxcar Children series (1924) by Gertrude Chandler Warner: These are the hobo kids I mentioned earlier. Looking at Amazon, it appears that there may be as many as thirty of the books. I can only recommend the first few. I don’t remember much about the stories themselves, but I do remember I was so inspired by the lifestyle that I set up a cardboard box in my backyard to hang out in.
Davy’s Dream (1990) by Paul Owen Lewis: A kid dreams about orcas and then builds a boat to sail among them. He paints the bottom to resemble an orca, and when his boat starts to sink, the orcas help carry it along. The illustrations are beautiful.
The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon (1987) by Nancy Willard: In this story, the moon is jealous of a woman on Earth wearing a pretty nightgown. The moon leaves the sky to try on several nightgowns at a boutique before finding one that suits her. This book’s out of print, but you can buy used copies on Amazon for pennies.
The Greedy Zebra (1984) by Mwenye Hadithi and Adrienne Kennaway: The illustrations in this book are awesome. At one time, according to this story, animals didn’t have any color. Then, all sorts of flashy garb—feathers, fur, and horns—shows up in a cave one day. The zebra is too busy eating all the time to make it to the cave, until he sees how much better the other animals look. When he finally makes it down there, only black cloth is left. He’s gotten so fat, it splits all over when he puts it on. And there you have the origin of the zebra’s stripes.
Knots on Counting Rope (1987) by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault: In this, once again, beautifully illustrated book, a Navajo grandfather and his blind grandson sit around a fire while the older man tells the story of the day the boy was born. Although the grandson has never been able to see, he’s learned to ride and race horses. These authors have several other books worth checking out, too, like The Ghost-Eye Tree and Barn Dance!
Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp (1976) by Mercer Mayer: This is about a little girl whose mom keeps sending her across a swamp to bring food to her grandma. Along the way, she has to outwit a swamp haunt, a witch, and a swamp devil who want to eat her and steal her soul. The story reminds me a little bit of Little Red Riding Hood, except it appears to be set in a Louisiana swamp and Liza Lou pals around with an opossum.