The books that accumulate on my library shelves are by and large evidence of forward momentum, a general desire to push outward and onward to the next new thing, like an explorer who can’t sit still but must always be trying to reach the next valley or cross the next ocean.
I like to learn new things. If I get interested in something, I go buy a book about it. Usually several books. And I let those books suggest other books, which in turn suggest others, so that before I realize it I am surrounded by stacks of books on completely unexpected topics. Unexpected, but not unwanted. I wander happily in whatever literary valley I find myself, until a stray mention of something else becomes like a small winding path, catching my eye and my attention and leading me upwards and outwards to the next new thing.
I am, I guess, a literary vagabond. It is my favorite way to read.
But there is one part of my library that does not “look forward,” as it were. There is the case in the back bedroom, with the children’s books. As assiduously as I have been filling up my bookshelves with the things that interest me now, I have also, when the impulse strikes, been slowly re-creating the bookshelf I had in my bedroom when I was growing up.
These are my literary “firsts”—first dates, first trips, first tastes—the books that first taught me what fantasy was, what justice was, what bravery, cowardice, and compassion were, what, in short, a good story looked like. And yes, some of the books on that shelf are well known to thousands—the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the horse books of Marguerite Henry, Rudyard Kipling’s exotic Just So Stories, o best beloved, and the crazed and colorful world of Doctor Seuss. But there are also those books that were less common. Perhaps even uncommon, if not outright rare. The books that no one has apparently heard of but me.
And yet it is possible that it was these books, these strange, oddball, all-but-forgotten stories, that are the reason for all the other books now on all my other shelves. They were my first steps in the journey, the reason I even walked out of the door.
There is a difference between this world and the world of Faery, but it is not immediately perceptible. Everything that this here is there, but the things that are there are better than those that are here. All things that are bright are there brighter. There is more gold in the sun and more silver in the moon of that land. There is more scent in the flowers, more savour in the fruit. There is more comeliness in the men and more tenderness in the women. Everything in Faery is better by this one wonderful degree, and it is by this betterness you will know that you are there if you should ever happen to get there. —James Stephens, Irish Fairy Tales
Perhaps if I had not had these books to read, over and over, I would have been a different kind of reader altogether. I think it is thanks to James Stephen’s idea of Faery that I so enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s fantastical Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I think it is because I knew Tove Jansson’s strange and frightening creature called the Groke (a beast so lonely she froze the ground she sat on, so that nothing would grow there again) that I recognized and loved J.K. Rowling’s magnificently terrifying Dementors:
The drums ceased while the Groke came shuffling up the hillside. She went straight to the fire. And without saying a word she sat down on it. There was a sharp hissing sound, and the hilltop was wrapped in mist. When it passed away again, no embers were to be seen—only a big grey Groke blowing snow-fog about her.
Moonintroll had fled down to the shore with many others. He found Too-ticky there also and shouted: “What happens now? Has the Groke made the sun stay away?” “Take it easy,” replied Too-ticky. “She didn’t come to extinguish the fire, you see, she came to warm herself, poor creature. But everything that’s warm goes cold when she sits down on it. Now she’s disappointed once more.”
Moomintroll saw the Groke rise again and sniff at the frosted charcoal. She then went over to his oil-lamp, which was still alight in the snow. He saw it go out. The Groke remained immobile for a moment. The hill was empty, everybody had left. Then she glided down to the ice again and back into the dark, as she had come, alone. —Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter
Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself . . . soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. —Remus Lupin to Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
One side effect of this slow recreation of an earlier literary life is that I’ve discovered some things about my childhood books that would have meant nothing to me then, but give me cause for reflection now: such as the fact that the James Stephens who wrote my favorite collection of Irish Fairy Tales was also a poet and a friend of James Joyce—indeed, he makes a cameo appearance (along with the rest of the known universe) in Ulysses. I realized only recently that one of his poems, The Rivals, had been one of my favorites in the little poetry collection about fairies and nature my mother gave me (she been given it by her father), called Silver Pennies:
I heard a bird at dawn
I didn’t listen to him,
I was singing all the time,
Mom used to sing some of the poems in Silver Pennies to me, so to this day I can’t read Rose Fyleman’s “The Fairies Have Never a Penny to Spend” without hearing her voice. I have no idea if she made up the tune, or had heard it somewhere else. The poet, I have since discovered, was a famous children’s writer and some of her work was set to music by the English composer Liza Lehmann.
None of this mattered to me as a child, of course. More than any other kind of reading you will ever do in your life, the books you read as children you read just because you want to. Children are profoundly oblivious to the many pressures that so influence adult readers. They don’t care about bestseller lists or reviews, or the one-star ratings on the Internet. They don’t give a damn about who the author just married or divorced, and, if they’re lucky, they’ve not even seen the movie before someone put the book in their hands. They don’t care about the author. The important thing about the Pippi Longstocking stories is not that they were written by Astrid Lindgren. It’s that they are about Pippi Longstocking.
So it has only been recently that I discovered that the apparently simple stories that meant so much to me as a child were often written by people with strange and complicated lives: Tove Jansson, whose delightful yet melancholic Moomin stories I have re-read so often I have them memorized, was also (like Theodore Geisel) a war critic and cartoonist with an exceptionally dark sensibility. Or Eva La Gallienne, the woman who penned my favorite little moral tale about the friendship of two bantam hens, was a Broadway actress and producer and a famous lesbian. I’ve looked at Flossie and Bossie with new eyes since discovering that little tidbit. Their hens-view of the world of the barnyard suddenly tinged with the complexities of deep female friendship.
The other thing I have noticed as I haphazardly tracked down copies of these old and mostly forgotten children’s books is what I remembered from these stories. I obviously had a taste for fairy tales and animal stories, like so many little girls. But a casual observer now would notice that I also seemed to be drawn to the dark and the strange and even the violent.
The underlying story behind a picture book called Gabriel Churchkitten, for example, is about a cat, a dog and a mouse that are going hungry because their owner, the parson, puts out their cheese and milk and bones and then eats it all himself when he is sleep walking. (Gabriel, the cat, comes up with a solution to keep them all from starving to death after putting on his “thinking cap” which happened to be a bird nest with a ribbon around it. As a child, I didn’t question this, but as an adult, I can’t help thinking “What the…?”)
If you were to ask me what I remembered about Keo the Otter—a short little picture book about the life of a young otter—as I was searching high and low for a copy, I would have described this scene:
Keo is about to get attacked by an angry beaver. It is because of Keo that I knew how otters like to slide down mud banks to play, and how they caught fish, and ride on their mother’s back when they are babies. But what stuck in my head? Keo about to get shredded by a beaver. In fact, it is because of Keo that I’ve never really warmed up to other fictional beavers—sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Talking Beaver from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe—I can’t forget about those teeth.
And one of my favorite stories by Astrid Lindgren was not Pippi Longstocking, but a story I first read in Cricket Magazine called The Brothers Lionheart, where a young terminally ill boy is waiting to die so he can go to Nangiyala—the wonderful land his older brother has been telling him about. But then there is a fire, and his brother gets to go there first.
The thing I remember most vividly about a book called The Burgess Book of Nature Lore is the viciousness of a snapping turtle.
And even though I read Flossie and Bossie about a hundred times, the scene that always came most readily to mind was when Bossie’s nest is taken over by a crazy hen:
The Lunatic had suddenly become very quiet and hissed at Bossie in a crazy whisper: “I think I’ll just break these eggs—yes—I think I’ll smash them to powder. And then I’ll go ever and smash those the Hands gave me. I’ll smash them all! I’ll smash all the eggs in the Barnyard!” These last dreadful words she screamed at the top of her voice.
Sometimes, the stories were just plain eerie. When I ran across a copy of Miss Hickory in a used bookstore years ago, I was reaching for it before I even thought, my mind instantly taken back to that moment near the end of the story when Miss Hickory—a twig doll with a walnut head—has her head eaten by a hungry squirrel and is left to feel her way along afterwards, her twiggy fingers now the only “conscious” thing about her.
Yeah, I know. Not exactly Sweet Valley Twins.
It’s a little strange, since as a child I did not like to be scared. I was terrified of our basement at night because of the old Victorian boiler that would loom up dimly in the dark. Even after my parents had it replaced with a modern water heater, I still did not like to go down the basement steps into the dark. All of those books made it feel eminently possible those steps might be leading to some completely different, unknown place. So I’m not sure that the strange and scary scenes from all these books that have such an effect on me now were my favorite parts of the books then. But they imprinted on me nevertheless.
It’s easily the smallest bookcase in the house, this single bookshelf in a back bedroom, painted blue, slowly filling up with the oddball books remembered from a childhood spent in indiscriminate reading. But it is also, perhaps, the shelf most likely to make me draw in a breath, stop, shiver, and sigh a soft “oohh” at their well-remembered covers. And it is entirely possible that it is thanks to these books, impregnated with all the magic that an imaginative little girl can bring to bear—which is quite a lot—that all the rest of the rooms in my house are filled with bookshelves, that are filled with books. Somehow, because of these books, every book in my eyes became at least little bit magic.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.