May 10, 2009

National Children’s Book Week -- May 11-17

I was a lucky kid. My mom loved books almost as much as she loved me. Because I had no brothers or sisters to compete with her time, I was spoiled by hours upon hours of stories. Mom often read from the classics. When I was three, my favorite was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.” I had no idea what the poem meant, but I loved the way the words sounded when my mother read them: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee/ Of the shining Big-Sea-Water/ Stood Nokomis, the old woman/ Pointing with her finger westward/ O'er the water pointing westward/ To the purple clouds of sunset.” My other favorites were Editha’s Burgler by Frances Hodgson Burnett and also a great anthology of children’s stories packed into several musty, old volumes called Journeys Through Bookland. These books that my mother kept from her childhood were treasures. I knew it then as well as I know it today.

By the time I was five, I had a library card. Every week, Mom took me to the library, and we spent an hour or more wandering among the stacks. It was there that she introduced me to books by Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey, and the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans. I was only allowed to check out three books at a time. It was the librarians' rule, not my mother's. I was jealous that Mom went home with more books than I did, and I couldn't wait until I was grown up so I could check all of the books out of the library at once – if I wanted to.

In elementary school, I discovered series books. Oh, how I loved the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Boxcar Mysteries. By third grade, I couldn't get enough of simple chapter books like Pippi Longstocking and Ramona the Pest. Later, I enjoyed the Newbery winners The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and A Wrinkle in Time. I'm sure that after I went to sleep at night, Mom borrowed my books and read a few chapters. She knew way more about what was in those books than any mom was supposed to know.

When I was a teenager, I still liked the classics. My favorites were To Kill a Mockingbird, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Great Expectations. I also read contemporary young adult fiction
like The Pigman and Go Ask Alice. Mom thought that some of the young adult books were okay; others she disapproved of. Society was changing and so was its literature. Mom, not so much.
I went on to the university to study elementary education. There, I read every picture book that I could get my hands on. I shared the best ones with my mother, and she enjoyed them as much as I did. Together, we savored soon-to-be classics by Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, and Jane Yolen. We also fell in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mom never went to college, but she got her degree by proxy. She didn't just read the kids' books, she read all of my textbooks, too.

In my senior year, I decided to change my career path. After receiving my teaching degree, I went for a Master’s in Library Science. My thesis was titled “An Annotated Bibliography and Evaluation of Young Adult Fiction – Social Concerns of the Adolescent.” I read dozens of contemporary young adult novels for research. I enjoyed every minute of it. Mom read them too, and she complained about how much books had changed since she was a girl when authors wrote about “nice things.” (It was the 70’s after all, and Mom was beyond relating to hippies, protest marches, and Three Dog Night.)

My mother's love of books had a powerful influence on my life. If she hadn’t introduced me to “The Song of Hiawatha,” Editha’s Burgler, and Journeys Through Bookland, I doubt that I would be writing today. She lived long enough to see me through a career as an editor at a children’s publishing company, and then, shortly before she died, to read several books with my name on the cover. She was so proud of me, but not as proud as I am of her for introducing me to great literature at such a young age.

Sometimes, I complained when she read my books. Sometimes, I said not-so-nice things to her when she complained about the "not so nice" YA novels. Through the years, Mom and I talked for hours and hours about books. The one thing I never told her was how grateful I was for her love of literature, and how much I loved sharing it with her. This week – Children’s Book Week – seems like the perfect time to say:

"Thanks, Mom."