I have a very vivid childhood memory of sitting next to my mother on our orange plaid couch, leaning contentedly against her shoulder with my eyes closed while she wove the words of a book around my head. It was My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, and as she read it aloud, I could picture every dusty ray of sunlight sifting down through the dark green trees of the Catskill Mountains, feel the icy cold stream water shocking my bare skin, and nestle into the warmth of a perfect tiny home carved out of a giant redwood tree. For years after we finished that book, I entertained a secret fantasy of running away and living off the land in a hidden, far off place.
Fortunately for all concerned, I never ran any farther than the creek that gurgled along in the woods behind my house, but that was far enough for my imagination. Together with my brother and sister, I lived out that fantasy across many lazy summer days—building rafts (most of which promptly sank to the bottom of the wading hole); digging forts between the tree roots, roofing them with sticks, leaves and copious amounts of red Georgia mud; and foraging for edible plants along the forest floor (without poisoning ourselves in the process, a minor miracle.)
The book and its magic stayed with me, and I know a part of that magic was the time that my mother and I spent together as we read it. That time, carved at great cost out of a schedule full of hard work and obligations, was an amazing gift to me and to my siblings. It told us, as nothing else could, that we were loved, and that in our house, reading was important. It’s a gift that I want to give to my kids, as well.
Right now, Katie and I are reading through the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As we turn page after page, we travel back in time together to Wisconsin in the 1800s. I am a returning visitor to the Big Woods, but I keep my eyes on Katie as she turns round and round, examining the pieces of a long-gone and simpler life like a foreigner in a strange land, where people grow their own vegetables, slaughter their own livestock, and trade at the general store for what they can’t make themselves. Tonight we learned about sugar snow, and how Laura’s grandpa would collect the sap from maple trees and boil it down into maple syrup before pouring it into saucers to make thick, crumbling cakes of maple sugar. As soon as we placed our bookmark at the end of the chapter and carefully closed the book, Katie was on fire to try out the process for herself. It took me a while to convince her that I didn’t know where we could lay our hands on any maple tree sap, but inwardly, I smiled. The magic is working on her, too.
Katie is a strong reader in her own right, and though she enjoys our time snuggled up together on the couch with a good book, I know that one day she’ll grow tired of me reading aloud to her, impatient to know the end of the story faster than I can stutter through it, or just too busy with her own activities to steal away a quiet hour or two with her mom. When that happens, this particular chapter of our relationship will end, giving way naturally to whatever comes next.
In the meantime, though, I’ve started a list. There are so many books I want to share, bejeweled fantasies and riveting adventures just begging to be read aloud to a child beginning to see the world for all its amazing possibilities and its stories unnumbered. We’ll simply start at the beginning, and keep going for as long as it lasts.
As Kathleen Kelly, Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail, says so insightfully, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
I think that’s absolutely true.
How about you? What book made its mark upon you in your childhood?