The answers were as varied at the faces looking back at me–Because of Winn Dixie, There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, Junie B. Jones, The Boxcar Children, Walk Two Moons, Goodnight Moon, Captain Underpants, The Jumblies, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course Harry Potter.
(One young woman even showed me her Potterhead tattoo–three stars in the shape of a triangle on her ankle, same as the illustration at the top of each page in the American edition. Talk about being imprinted by a book!)
It was the first day of our special topics course on contemporary kid lit at small liberal arts college in Virginia, and after the endless (but necessary) syllabus review, we had only a few minutes to talk about what really matters–the difference books make in the lives of children, the difference books have made in our own lives.
I grew up in a house packed with books, shelves lined with Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sean O’Casey, and a complete set of the 1898 Nations of the World.
But there were only a half dozen picture books in the house (if that).
I remember Small Rain, a 1943 book of verses by Jessie Orton Jones, being the sort of book an adult might think a child should like, but I never particularly did. It was full of words like “knoweth” and “thou,” and I distinctly recall feeling that I was neither as good-hearted nor as gentle-natured as the be-freckled kids in the illustrations.
Who were these kids? I thought. I’ve never joined a spontaneous, ragtag community band! I’ve never held hands with five of my closest friends and danced around an apple tree!
Then there was Space Witch by Don Freeman, which was half awesome, half terrifying, and a third half uncomfortably weird.
My favorite was probably It Looked Like Spilt Milk, I think because my mom always got excited when we read it together. If she liked it so much, I figured I should, too.
But for many years of my childhood, there was never THAT book — the one I wanted to read forever, the one I couldn’t put down.
And then this happened:
Just imagine! My previous exposure to children’s books had consisted of prayers and pointing at clouds. Ann Bishop, you and Ella Fannie saved my soul!
Here was a book full of goofy elephant pictures, absurd humor, and even a tiny flip-book on the lower corner of each page! I checked it out from the school library EVERY WEEK of my 3rd grade year. Seriously. EVERY WEEK. We were allowed one book, and it was the only one I needed.
Q: Why do baby elephants need stilts?
A: To kiss giraffes.
Q: Why did Ella Fannie sit on a blueberry pie?
A: She couldn’t find a chair.
Q: Why did Ella Fannie say “Baaa, Baaaa”?
A: She was learning a foreign language.
I sometimes think that if someone wants to get to know me, I should just hand them a copy of that book. I’m not saying anything as poetic or profound as “we are the books we love.” But there’s a good chance that if you aren’t willing to laugh at nonsense and you don’t get a tad bit excited by the prospect of a sub-plot (even one carried forth by a flip-book), I’ll likely annoy you in some unspeakable way within the first ten minutes of our association.
Books stay with us, whether we remember them or not. I wrote some poem in college (maybe after?) which included the image of breaking off fingers and eating them as peppermint sticks. I had, as I wrote those lines, the halo-y sense that some repressed memory was emerging–which, in that the memory involved edible fingers, was impossible. Even so, I knew the line was connected somehow to my childhood fears. Perhaps my original fear.
What a strange imagination I have! I thought as I read those lines back. And so I thought for a dozen years.
But it turns out it wasn’t my imagination at all. It was P.L. Travers’!
After my daughter turned six or so, I picked up Mary Poppins–a book I was certain I had never even held in my hands–and began reading it aloud to her. There I found, as you who have read Mary Poppins already know–Mrs. Corry, the scary old candy shop owner who breaks off her fingers and offers them as peppermint treats for children.
Since it seems all but impossible that two people would independently think such an odd thing, I’m relatively certain that someone, somewhere in my toddling stumble toward consciousness, read me Mary Poppins. Or at the very least, a chapter.
I would have sworn to the moon and back that I’d never heard a single word of the book. And yet, there she was within me all those years–Mrs. Corry and her ghastly fingers. Just waiting for her moment to step into the light.