Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part II)

Karen Joy Fowler

I, too, grew up in a family of readers.  Bookshelves all over the house and still too many books to fit in them.  I always got books for Christmas and both my parents read to me a lot both before I could read myself and also after.  We had family reading nights where we would pass the book from person to person, reading out loud.  Another thing my parents did was to take us to the library every other week.  Every other Friday, the whole family would go, split up at the door and meet back with our books.  I don’t remember the library having a limit as to how many I could check out.  My parents gave me a large basket because I couldn’t carry all the books I wanted and I don’t ever remember not having finished them all by the next trip.  I also loved reading the same books over and over again.

I don’t know if the library had age restrictions for books because I never tested them.  Instead I had to be forcibly dragged from the kids’ shelves when I was eleven or twelve.  I was totally content with books like The Saturdays, Irish Red, Ballet Shoes, Castaways in Lilliput, Follow My Leader, The Pink Hotel, A Dog on Barkham Street, The Secret Garden, Half Magic, The Hobbit, The Green Poodles, Island Boy, The Silver Sword, Ride Like an Indian, A Dog for Davie’s Hill, David and the Phoenix, the Danny Dunn books, and anything else I could find.  I don’t remember ever reading a book I didn’t lilke.  (And I still like most of what I read.)

I have two children of my own and one reads a lot, the other doesn’t.  I didn’t recreate the regularly scheduled library trips for my own children and I regret that.  I remember that the libraries weren’t open at convenient times and there were fewer librarians about, ready to put the best book right into your hands.

Gardner Dozois

Which reminds me, for some reason, of a source of “reading” excitement I’d forgotten.  Sometime back around kindergarten or first grade, back in the early ’50s, I picked up a couple of “stamp books,” and found them quite evocative.  There wasn’t a lot of text, but you were supposed to paste the stamp of an illustrated scene in the appropriate place on the page provided.  There was one on dinosaurs, which I really liked, and another on Knights in Armor.

A little later, LIFE magazine did big illustrated spreads on Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Mammals, which fascinated me, and one on life in Ancient Rome.  I know I’m not the only kid who was influenced by these, as I’ve talked to other writers and artists who were too.

Ah, Irish Red.  I read that too, and Big Red and the other sequels.  They were among the best YA dog books ever written, far better than Albert Payston Terhune’s books about heroic collies.

Karen Joy Fowler

I never read the Terhune books, but apparently they had an enormous impact on Tobias Wolff.  I’ve been to hear him read three times now and he always mentions them fondly.

Gardner Dozois

I read them all too, at the time avidly, but they don’t hold up as well as Irish Red and Big Red in retrospect.  Stickily sentimental, dated in social attitudes, and really kind of racist (all the evil deeds always turned out to have been done by “Jackson Whites,” a shiftless group of thieves and social misfits that I thought Terhune had made up, but which I later found out were real, the descendants of black slaves and runaway Hessian soldiers.  There may still be small enclaves of them in New Jersey to this day.

Cecelia Holland

I remember Terhune very fondly. “A collie down is not a collie beaten.” Maybe why I have a collie now. But you’re right, Gar, the irish setter books were better. Just not as many of them.

What about Nancy Drew? I ate up Nancy Drew.

Gardner Dozois

Never read Nancy Drew, although my wife did.  I went through a period when I read all the “Hardy Boys” books, until the belated realization of just how crappy they were eventually sank in (the bad guys inevitably turned out to be a sinister group of swarthy foreigners who had just moved into an old house on the lake).  Then I fled to the sophistication of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Rick Brandt.

Stacie Hanes

I loved the Hardy Boys. I think I rejected Nancy because she wore dresses and I viewed this with deep suspicion.

As an adult I am perfectly aware that women make fine detectives, but as a child the whole dress issue was a deal-breaker.

Cecelia Holland

Nancy drove a red roadster and had an admiring boyfriend Ned. She was a liberated woman before we even knew the words. I agree about skirts.

Stacie Hanes

I’m far more able to appreciate this as a grown woman.

As a ten-or-so-year-old girl, I identified far more with the boys than with Nancy; now, truth told, it could go either way. And I had some internalized misogyny because the girls with whom I attended school were really cruel–I don’t think I met a kind skirt- or dress-wearing juvenile female person while I attended that school.

I sort of wish someone had said “Oh, for pity’s sake TRY one.”

Theodora Goss

We moved around a lot when I was a child (three countries by the time I was seven), so books became a sort of second home for me.  I’m not sure when I started reading, but it was all in Hungarian and French until I moved to the US when I was seven.  My reading was never restricted, and so I read a great deal of what I now think of as junk food for the brain: romances, principally.  But I read everything.  The Willa Cathers and Barbara Cartlands were shelved next to each other at our local library, so I remember that for weeks I would take home one Willa Cather and two Barbara Cartlands.

My mother was a single mom, so she would drop me off at the mall and I would hang out with my friends.  We would always go to the bookstore and spend time in front of the fantasy and science fiction shelves.  We read a lot of Anne McCaffrey and wanted to be dragonriders, but I also remember reading Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin back then.  I read adult books early: I remember tackling The Lord of the Rings in elementary school, although I didn’t get a lot out of it and preferred The Hobbit.  But I basically read anything with magic in it: E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, The Borrowers (which at least seemed magical).  I was so angry at The Witch of Blackbird Pond for not being about an actual witch!

My mother was raised under the communist system, so she never gets rid of a book: they’re almost sacred.  Her house is filled with books that no one will ever read again.  At the same time, she doesn’t “get” fantasy at all.  Her idea of a great writer is J.D. Salinger because he writes about the plight of the people.  She once told me that she thought my writing was getting better (this was several years ago) — not the fantasy stuff, she specified, but the real stuff on my blog.

My daughter is seven, and is currently on the fifth volume of Harry Potter.  She started with the Magic Treehouse books.  I think she’s going to go on to the modern Nancy Drews.  I’ve noticed the same thing with her teachers that some other people mentioned: her first grade teacher actually sent home a note asking me to not teach her cursive, because that would not be taught until third grade.  I sent back a note mentioning that I had learned cursive in first grade in Europe, and asking for any articles supporting the teacher’s position (which I didn’t get).  Her second grade teacher has told the students that Harry Potter is too advanced for them and is on a fifth-grade reading level.  The books she gets to read from school are consistently years behind her actual reading skills.  So at the moment I’m not a great fan of elementary school teaching.

But I am glad that she’s a voracious reader.  I should mention too that I grew up without a television, which may be part of the reason I read so much — I remember trying to read at meals (which wasn’t allowed), and taking a flashlight to bed so I could read under the covers.  Nowadays, I let my daughter read through meals and at bedtime.  And she watches videos, but not television.  Once, she watched a show with me and didn’t understand why we couldn’t pause it.  I think that’s probably a good thing . . .

Mark Kelly

My parents did not read, but were conscientious about providing a reading environment — since I can remember, we owned a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, a full set of Harvard Classics, something called IFIC The Book of Knowledge, and another set targeted for even younger folks called — I’m sure this isn’t accurate — THINGS TO DO AND THINGS TO MAKE (since I’ve tried numerous time via Google and ABEBooks searches to find these, and have failed).

My parents watched TV. I discovered books through the school library and public library; at first, junior mystery stories (including a series by Elizabeth Enright), later a series of YA adventure novels by Enid Blyton –The Castle of Adventure, et al – that I still treasure. Next step was paperback book sales by vendors brought in to my junior high schools in California and then Illinois, coinciding with TV shows exposed to me at first by neighbor kids – Lost in Space, then Star Trek. The school book sales provided James Blish’s Star Trek adaptations, and Murray Leinster’s Time Tunnel spinoffs. And Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage, which I read years before I saw the movie;  and Clarke’s 2001, which I did see soon after, just a year or two after LIS and Trek debuted – a pretty steep upward curve. All these early reads are ironic, considering that I mostly disdain film/tv ties now; but within two or three years of those, I’d discovered Bradbury and Heinlein and was reading Silverberg and Ballard. Time moves so much more quickly when you’re younger.

I’m grateful to my late parents for the environment they provided – though they weren’t always entirely encouraging. (I took Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky [a Bantam Pathfinder edition] on a fishing trip my father took me on, thinking I could read it on the boat while waiting for the fish to bite… my father tossed it back into the tent. And later, I got skeptical queries about why I had to buy so many books (paperbacks by Bradbury and Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein) rather than borrow them from the library. Encouraging, perhaps, but clearly not completely understanding.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I think those [the YA adventure novels] were the only Blytons I ever really cared about. I had a full set of the Famous Five, by which time I had begun to notice a certain … shall we say ‘similarity’ … in the plots of individual novels in the series, and found them very dissatisfying

There was something different about the ‘Adventure’ series that at this distance I can’t quite pin down, but I thought they were much better reads than either the Famous Five or the Secret Seven (too many of them, and I never really liked them).

One thought on “Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part II)

  • November 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    A couple of comments mentioned certain, er, salacious books, passed around for the “hot parts.” I didn’t read any of them at the time—I read some later, in full adulthood—but several of the SF books I read at entry-level, particularly Heinlein from “Stranger in a Strange Land” through “Time Enough for Love,” and some others, were just drenched in sex.

    But I didn’t notice! It all went right over my ten- to twelve-year-old head. Later, some time after puberty hit, when I reread some of them, I saw it—but, by then, reading those books for the sex scene was out of the question. (I pursued that interest elsewhere.)


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