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?