The first time I fell in love was in First Grade. No, it wasn’t with Mark McKay, the cute little blond-haired blue-eyed boy who sat across from me, though I did seem to get my name written down for talking to him a lot whenever Mrs. McCullough was out of the room. No, I fell in love with Dick …. and Jane …. and Spot. Learning to read was the biggest gift I have ever received. I devoured every episode of that famous trio’s lives and moved on to whatever I could get my hands on. Early favorites were Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
In Second Grade, Mrs. Ellis introduced me to the Pippi Longstockings series by Astrid Lindgren. Pippi was a nine-year-old-girl who lived alone with her monkey, Mr. Nilsson. With no parents to tell her what to do, she was often embroiled in one form of hijinks or another. I was over the moon when I heard that a movie version of the Pippi books was coming to theaters! I’m pretty sure that right after I saw it I said, “That wasn’t as good as the book.” I’ve found that to be true of almost every film I have ever seen that was an adaptation of a book I had already read.
While many of my friends’ heroes during elementary school were Batman or Spiderman or Scooby-Doo, the crime fighting dog, my hero was Miss Gardner. She was the school librarian. I’m pretty sure she loved me, too. My love for the printed page was obvious. I devoured books like a hungry dog eats a steak. Miss Gardner began setting aside new books especially for me. I would have a hard time concentrating in class with those new books sitting in my desk and often got in trouble for reading during class (especially math class). Miss Gardner always asked for my review when I returned the books and suggested more titles based on what I liked. In fourth grade, as soon as I was old enough, she made me an official library assistant. She taught me all about the Dewey Decimal System and put me to work covering the dust jackets of new arrivals with plastic, gluing the manilla pockets in the back of the books, and sliding in a fresh white checkout card. Often my name was the first one on the card. I shelved books, checked out books for other students, and even helped decide which new books to order. I was in book Heaven.
My favorite day of the school year was when the list was passed out that announced the impending arrival of the Bookmobile. I’ve been told that name means different things to different people, but in my world it meant that a large camper-like bus filled to the brim with shiny new books for sale would be parked in the drop-off lane in front of the “new” building at Long Creek Elementary for about a week. Again, I would get in trouble in class because I was too excited to wait until I got home to start narrowing down my choices from the list. Every year my mom would give me a budget and I would spend days putting books on and taking books off of my list, trying to figure out the formula that would get me the most and the best books within my budget. Every one of my six years at the school I added The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris to my list. Every single year, the Bookmobile was sold out of the book. (I’ve told this tale so often that Darryl bought me the book several Christmas’s ago.) Instead, I got every book ever written by Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Blubber, Deenie, It’s Not the End of the World, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself were favorites I’d read from the school library, but loved so much I wanted to own them. The Little House on the Prairie Box set provided hours upon hours of entertainment (and still sits on my bookshelf forty-five years after I got them from the bookmobile). I longed to BE Laura Ingalls Wilder, living in the little house in the big woods …. until my father decided to read Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter aloud to me and my brother and I decided I wanted to live out in the Limberlost, protecting the timber and wildlife from poachers like Freckles did.
My fifth grade English teacher liked to have us read aloud and The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales, both by Richard Chase kindled a love in me of American folk tales. The combination of humor, fantasy, and practical lessons made a big impression on me and I read the books so many times I could almost recite the stories. (I can still be heard saying, “Soap, Soap, Soap!” to myself whenever I am trying to remember my grocery list.)
As soon as I got to junior high, I found out what I had to do to become a library assistant. Librarians, Ms. Jones and Mrs. Jenkins welcomed my experienced help and I was thrilled to find all of the new offerings inside the larger library. It was there I discovered John Steinbeck, first reading Of Mice and Men, then moving on to Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. I was in love again and I went on to read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. In eighth or ninth grade I started collecting copies of every Steinbeck novel I could find. Those books are still on my bookshelves today, as well.
I lost my heart again to S.E. Hinton, devouring The Outsiders, That Was Then This Is Now, Rumblefish and Tex. Her books spoke to me at a time when I was being bullied by a classmate who had turned some of my friends against me. Though the events in my life were not as dramatic as Pony Boy’s, I understood the feelings of division, of being left out, and picked on. The bullying shrunk my world down to the confines of my bedroom at times and I filled the hole in my soul with lots and lots of books.
I had begun writing down a list of the books I read when I started seventh grade. I remember still the chill down my spine when Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury turned out to be number 666 on my list, but I kept on going. The Hobbitt series by J.R.R. Tolkien was followed by Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. Mrs. Harry, Mrs. Howard, and Mrs. Lindsey didn’t let me slip completely into fantasy, though. They introduced me to Dickens, Twain (still a favorite), and Poe.
The first week of high school, I signed on to be a Media Assistant. The library at North Mecklenburg was easily twice the size of the one at Alexander Junior High and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on all of those books! My tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Bratton won me over right away by introducing me to Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, and the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mrs. Maye’s and Mrs. Cantrell’s English classes in eleventh and twelfth grade were the highlights of my days. No matter what else was happening in my life, I could always get lost in the Classics that they assigned.
No one was surprised when I enrolled in college and immediately declared English as my major. (The plan was to go on to Law School after those four years of immersion in American and British Literature. Sidetracked by a family business, I’ve spent my life after college in the printing industry …. still intimately attached to words on paper.) My college professors spawned a love for Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath. Two in-depth courses on the plays of Shakespeare were highlights of the three and a half years it took me to graduate from UNCC.
I got married in the Spring of my Sophomore year at UNCC. As my mother watched me pack for my honeymoon in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, she asked why I was packing three novels along with the trousseau of silk nightgowns she had handmade for me. “To read, of course,” I answered. The look on her face said she wondered if I knew what a honeymoon was all about. “What?” I asked. “We are going to be there for a whole week. Surely there will be time for me to read.” She looked skeptical, but not really surprised. After all, I was the kid who, by the time I was ten, had read nearly every age appropriate book (and a few others) in the Huntersville library. Given, it was MUCH smaller then than the present library, as the total population of the town of Huntersville was less than 1,500 people in the 1970’s. Every time we had gone to the mall the first store I had wanted to go to was Walden Books. While some kids had been driving their mother crazy begging for whatever sugary cereal was being advertised on television, I had been driving my mom crazy begging for all of the books reviewed each month in Teen or Seventeen magazine. I’m sure she was relieved that my reading habit was now going to be costing someone else all that money.
My new husband was an avid fisherman. It was good that he had a hobby because I was still in college and, like all English majors, I had hours of required reading to do every day. I would often go with him to a local farm pond. While he circled the edge of the pond, casting over and over, I would sit with my back against a big tree and lose myself in Victorian England or along the Mississippi. When he was ready to go, Darryl had to pry my face out of a book.
Darryl’s hobby came in handy when we went on vacation as well. I never left for a trip without at least three books. Many times I would start to feel a sense of panic when I was nearing the end of the third book of the week and knew I did not have another to start. While Darryl was content to fish for hours, I could sit in a chair from dawn to dusk with a book in my lap. Though I was sitting on Myrtle Beach, I was transported to Maine, to Monterrey, to Paris, by books.
I wouldn’t even want to guess what percentage of my life has been spent immersed in a book. It would be really high, I admit. Every room of my house has at least one book in it and most have shelves with hundreds of books I have read or plan to read as soon as I get to them. One of the best inventions of my lifetime, my Kindle, has another couple hundred titles locked up inside it waiting patiently for me. My day is structured around reading. I get up thirty minutes early so that I can read in the bathtub before work. I cook, then Darryl washes the dishes in the evenings so I can read in the bathtub for thirty to forty-five minutes. I go to bed at least thirty minutes early so I can read before going to sleep. Sometimes that thirty minutes turns into hours. I’ve been known to take a day off and read an entire book, like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which I devoured in one eight hour marathon on Martin Luther King Day.
I look forward to retirement mostly because I hope to have more time to read. I pray for my eyesight to remain good enough (with readers) to do so. Darryl wants to travel the country. I can’t read in the car and I have to drive or I get car sick, so I’m hoping he’s interested enough in some of those places to hang around for a few days so that I can find a hammock and work on getting through all those shelves of books one at a time.