Looking for something good to read

There’s something to be said for the experience of a waiting room with only three magazines.

Becoming an independent reader in a small town meant more than just reading on my own. My public library was tiny, and I learned early on that if I was going to satisfy my bookish habits, I needed to find some other sources. So I was always on the lookout.

The school library–also tiny–was home to some great books that I read repeatedly: In second grade, Whitey and the Wild Horse by Glen Rounds and Peggy Parish’s Key to the Treasure were special pleasures, and I devoured those “Childhood of Famous Americans” books with the orange covers. (I know they’re out of favor these days–considered “too-much-fiction-and-not-enough-fact,” but I learned about all sorts of folks outside the elementary school curriculum from that series.)

On the weekends, my search continued. In addition to the usual Bible tales, the shelf in my Sunday school classroom had an old Grimm’s Fairy Tales with tiny color emblems–not really illustrations but more like mementos of the stories. “Iron Henry” ended with a picture of a bright red heart wrapped in iron bands. The original version of “Snow White” was here too: the one where the wicked queen is forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes. These stories struck me as strange and otherworldly–not unlike some of the Bible stories that way. And while they could be a bit difficult to get through, they were so intriguing that I wouldn’t give up.

Sometimes my neighborhood yielded unexpected treasures. When I found that my next-door neighbor’s grown sons had left behind several shelves of Hardy Boys mysteries, I was set for months.

But without a doubt, the collection that most formed (and fed) my early reading was my parents’ bookshelf. How many times did I find myself going to their books thinking, “Surely there must be something interesting here that I haven’t read!” So I poured over a book of color plates from the Louvre, and I read the captions in National Geographics.

Along with the books for grownups, my mother, who had been an education school instructor, had a full set of Scott, Foresman readers through grade 8—including Dick, Jane and Sally, along with many folktales. I loved the short stories and the brightly colored, expressive pictures, unusual in an age when cost and printing technology meant so many children’s books only had line drawings with one- or two-color wash.

And finally, if the day was long and I had exhausted my own bookshelf, there was my mother’s Arbuthnot Anthology. Her anthologies were the first place I encountered Norse mythology—so much more exciting than the Greeks and Romans! No real pictures and lots of work to read the Arbuthnot, but I knew there would always be something new within that teal cover.

As I think back, I wonder if the limited choices in my early library experiences fueled a habit of curiosity. In the absence of a wide selection, I was forced to keep digging. And left to myself with only a few playmates in the neighborhood, I uncovered some unexpected treasures–like Loki and Iron Henry–that I might never have known if there’d been a Borders next door.

So what did you read?

5 thoughts on “Looking for something good to read

  1. Since I faced the same limits four years earlier than you did, I want to add that all this “digging” and reading you did took place before you were 9 years old!!!

    Those orange biographies had me enthralled, too, as well as Mom’s anthologies. One of my favorite stories was “The Girl With Seven Names.” I can still recite them! Remember “Time for Poetry?” and don’t forget the story books that were given us by children who had outgrown them. The Louvre picture book kept me busy for hours. I also recall a fondness for that science book Christmas present that had the experiments in it. (You were keen to try the coal “snow” one more than once. We had the coal for our old furnace, but Mom didn’t use blueing so that was an extra purchase!)

    It’s also time to say something about the Golden Book series of records that had such an impact on our music education, but that’s another day’s blog, I’m sure!

  2. P.S. I remember reading the back of everything – cereal boxes, cake mixes, detergent bottles – and of course cookbooks, especially the classic red Betty Crocker and the red plaid Better Homes and Gardens. That might explain why you continue to get my hand-me-down clothes….

  3. Another thought provoking post.
    I read a lot of book series “Sideways Stories from Wayside School”, “Animorphs”, “Goosebumps”, “Nancy Drew”. I was in love with the Wayside School books and the illogical absurdness of its characters. A school that was supposed to be one story high with 30 classrooms side by side is accidentally built sideways so that it is 30 stories with one classroom on each floor, what is there not to love?
    One book I stumbled across in my elementary school library was called “Half-Magic” by Edward Eager. A coin that only grants half-wishes caused comedic moments and exploration across space and time, the kind of journeys I wished I could take. In high school during Read Across America I volunteered to go to a class and read a story. So while I was searching for a book in the elementary school library I ran into “Half-Magic” and ended up sitting in the library for an hour, reconnecting with the past.
    So many books I’m starting to think of, I better stop before my comment becomes an essay.

  4. I had “The Three Scallywags” read to us by my dad on Sunday evenings if we were good.I was pre-teen then. Mother didn’t want me to circulate that one thru you girls. Mybe now you can read it.

  5. Who could ever forget ” run Spot run…”
    I enjoyed the search also. Everything was a little less available to us in the 40’s and 50’s so we enjoyed finding buried treasures.
    I think my favorite memory is of my Nancy Drew years.

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