A Child of Books.

The earliest book I remember my mother reading me was Goodnight, Moon. I can still remember the hush of her voice, the exaggeration of the “oo” sound in her enunciation of “balloon.” I also remember the plink-plink-plink from Blueberries for Sal, the measured and rhythmic way she read about the peddlar placing cap after cap on his head in Caps for Sale, and the feeling of pride and belonging she emoted when she’d read, with dramatic legato: “I will be your mother and I will catch you in my arms” at the end of Runaway Bunny. Interesting, isn’t it, how much those early memories of reading were about her: the sound of her voice, the look in her eyes. Her entire being mediated my experience.

When I was six, my mother took me to procure my own junior library card from the public library we frequented on Connecticut Avenue, close to Chevy Chase Circle. We’d visit it weekly in the summer, all of five of us tumbling out of her air-conditioned SUV into the sticky heat of a D.C. summer, a mess of bony elbows and sunburns and flappy sandals slapping against the pavement. The library was a welcome, damp hush after the sweltering — though short — walk from the parking lot, and we’d scatter across the second floor of the library, the children’s floor, in search of new books to rent for the week. I remember the musty smell of the clothbound chapter books my brother rented, and their weight and strain in the canvas bags my mother used to tote our weekly finds back and forth. I can still feel the cool as I stood amidst rows of wire racks, looking down spine after spine, taking my time in choosing. Interesting, too, how many of these grade school memories of books are tactile: smells, sounds, waves of heat and ripples of dampness.

But I remember with peculiar specificity the morning this weekly excursion climaxed in the signing of my name in uneven, inelegant cursive on the back of that little blue library card. I beamed with pride as my sister Elizabeth, two years my junior, looked on in envy. This card marked a powerful metamorphosis in my lifespan as a reader: reading was becoming something personal and private, mediated only by my own desire and curiosity.

After earning that prized blue card, my memories of reading relocate from my mother’s arms to the floral quilt of my childhood bed, where I read Nancy Drew, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, The Boxcar Children, The Baby Sitter’s Club, Harriet the Spy, The Thoroughbred series, a Wrinkle in Time, The American Girl books, The Bobbsey Twins, Heidi, the My Father’s Dragon books. My bed at that time looked out a wide window over the top of our driveway, which ended in a cul de sac in front of a beautiful stone garage sheltered by an enormous cherry blossom tree that, when in bloom in the early summer, transformed the view out my window into an unreal pink-white confection. The cul de sac was trimmed on one side by a thin crescent of grass, then a semi-circle of boxwoods, then a stone retaining wall that overlooked an enormous hill. I loved this ripple of surfaces just outside my window: the pavement, the shock of green grass, the ordered hedge of boxwoods, the sobriety of the stone wall, across which — I knew from hours spent sitting on top of it, my legs dangling down toward the hill — small red aphids criss-crossed in the summer, much to my father’s perennial fury–and then the wild greensward sloping down out of my peripheral vision. I spent a lot of time staring at that pattern while digesting what I’d read, or attempting to mimic the description of a facial expression or posture I’d just encountered in prose–something I still do, much to my own chagrin. (“Her lip curled in anger as she furrowed her brow,” the book will say, and I will find myself arranging my own face in its impression. Do you do the same?)

When I think about reading, I usually think about laying on that bed, caught between turning the pages in transfixion and staring idly, bemusedly at that undulating pattern of the natural and manmade outside my window as I digested what I’d read.

Just a week ago, I caught my three-year-old daughter in that kind of hazy posture of book-borne imagination. She has become increasingly tolerant, over the course of this quarantine, of longer and longer stretches of prose-dense, picture-scarce books. Mr. Magpie has been reading her portions of the Eloise books while ensconced in late-afternoon sprawls on our living room sofa, which, though fancifully-illustrated, are long and rather coyly recherche for a toddler. She has been begging me to read her Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince, too — which I do, dutifully, all the while anticipating her fingers–still deliciously chubby with toddlerhood, may they stay that way for at least a few months longer!–anxiously turning the pages in search of visual stimulation. But on one recent afternoon, as I perched at her bedside reading a segment of The Little Prince, I caught her throwing her feet up against the headboard in lazy focus, listening and imagining.

I felt myself swell with excitement on her behalf: the long and delicious stretches of afternoons she will spend turning the pages of wonderful books, their images and narratives and characters becoming touchstones she will spring from forever.

To be raised by books!

I almost wish I could go back and re-live that experience.

I can’t wait for her.

What books meant the most to you as a child?!

Post-Scripts.

+I cribbed the title of this post from one of mini’s well-loved bedtime books. Mini has loved this one since she was about two. There is one page with a lot of little tiny images scattered all over it, and she loves to pick out the shapes, even now: “a treasure chest!” “a whale!” “a sailboat!” (More of my favorite bedtime books for children here.)

+More memories about childhood and reading.

+Thoughts on why we read and how to read.

+10 books that will change your life.

+A little late-in-the-game (how are we almost to the end of May?!) I panicked and realized I had very little planned for my son’s first birthday beyond his big present. Of course there’s not much we can do (certainly no socializing), but I decided we’d still decorate and celebrate with a farm theme:

THESE BLOWERS

THIS CANDLE (HOW AMAZING?!)

THESE PARTY HATS

PIG PLATES

FARM ANIMAL CUPCAKE KIT

TRACTORS

+I had to get him this jon jon to complete the look!

+I’ll be wearing these strawberry earrings (also love these) to coordinate with one of my LWDs (probably this one).

+Does mini need this to coordinate?!

+Cute crown for a one-year-old birthday boy.

+Speaking of gingham — how fun are these earrings, this dress, and these baby espadrilles?!

+This embroidered maxi has an Agua Bendita vibe to it (for way less).

+These ginger jar cocktail napkins are perfection!

+I am not usually a platform kind of girl, but these are absolute perfection.

+Amazing, affordable home finds: this $29 rattan tray and this rattan wall mirror.

+This $98 dress is so on-trend. Love.

+A great set of starter books for your child’s library if you are expecting your first!

14 Comments

  1. Love this, Jen! Like perhaps countless other parents Goodnight Moon was the first book I read to my daughter and I too feel like I could drift off to sleep after reading it. Yes, books are priceless… I remember loving Hans Christian Andersen’s books and later Little Women. I used to love the smell of old books. I still do, although now I’m much more likely to read on my kindle for convenience and ease. I’m so happy to see my toddler so interested in books, and my hope is that this is something she will carry with her for life. One powerful experience I had, when I was reading to her, was when she was less than a year old… I pointed to the page and told her “it’s dark outside”, then she immediately looks out the window and it’s broad daylight. She looked back at the page then back out the window. And maybe I’m overreaching but to me this must have been her first experience of the magic of books… that they can teach us to imagine a world different from what we see.

    Love, love, love that Anthro dress that looks like Agua Bendita! I’ve had heart eyes for the blue AB dress you posted some time back but couldn’t bear the price tag. I might just get the Anthro dress! Thank you for this find, and more of these “looks for less”, please!

    1. Hi Mia! Ooh, HCA! I forgot about him. Going to tuck that away for mini’s future library. I love that memory of your daughter reconciling the written word with the reality of the world around her! Wow! Powerful. I also absolutely love when you catch those moments of discovery/reckoning. Had one this morning when I found Hill mirroring my movements while we were reading a touch and feel book. I’d say “feel the bunny” and rub my finger back and forth and he’d do the same. I’m sure he’s done this before but it was a quiet, simple moment when I realized how much he’s absorbing and learning on a daily basis.

      Yes to looks for less! Will keep them coming!

      xx

  2. Oh I loved this post! Books have been my best friends for my entire memory, and I loved all the books you mentioned. I remember summers, especially, were for getting lost in series. The Baby Sitters Club, Nancy Drew, American Girl, Harriet the Spy, Series of Unfortunate Events, Dear America, Trixie Belden, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter! There’s something quintessential about childhood summers that seems to lend itself to plowing through series- the expanse of time, maybe? I can only think of a few series I’ve loved as an adult (The Neopolitan novels, Rachel Cusk’s triology, Hillary Mantel’s novels). I wonder why we’ve relegated them to childhood? This is how many of us first fell in love with reading!

    Funnily, I’ve been turning back to some of these old series in quarantine and have found it so comforting. I ordered the illustrated version of the first Harry Potter when we were first locked down and have just finished the third. Jim Kay’s illustrations are magnificent! I read the books over and over again as a child, but I feel like I’m rediscovering them through his work. They are sturdy- like an old fairytale book- with glossy paper and illustrations on nearly every page. Indulgent comfort reading!
    xx

    1. Hi Katherine — Such a good point on the series/trilogy comment. Why aren’t there more!? They do have the feel of summer — the time commitment only the sprawl of June-August accommodate perhaps.

      Those illustrated HPs sound lovely!!! I’m intrigued. I’ve actually never read Harry Potter (gasp) and am now eagerly waiting for mini to come of age so we can discover them together.

      xx

  3. My dad read me Eloise to me too! Although he always skipped the fold-out portion where she goes up and down the elevator, pushing all the buttons and running in and out because he didn’t want to give us me ideas! But he loved that book himself, and I can see why, now that I am grown. Although it’s written in a distinctly childish voice, it’s loaded with adult jokes and winking asides that I’m sure amused him greatly. References to “my mother is in Virginia with her lawyer” and things of that nature. Like, what??

  4. Oh, my heart. This post spoke to me on a deep level! I ALWAYS had my nose in a book as a kid. (Still often do now 🙂 ) So many of the books you pointed out were among my favorites, including A Wrinkle in Time (swoon!), The Secret Garden, and Heidi. However, as a young reader, I most remember being tremendously excited to make regular trips to Toys ‘R’ Us, where I would bypass all of the toys and select 3 or 4 Baby-Sitters Club books! I LOVED that series and still derive pleasure from reading my old copies to my stepkids (they love them, too!)

    I also recall, when I was older (maybe 6th/7th grade?), that during trips to the grocery store, I’d beeline to the rack of mass market paperbacks and would start a book while walking through the store, and then cajole my mom into buying it for me at checkout. Haha! That’s how I discovered Bridget Jones’s Diary (!)

    I love that dress from Tuckernuck — I actually ordered the mini version in blue/green floral and am sliiiightly afraid it will be too short, but I have so many midis/maxis that I thought it would be fun to mix it up a bit.

    xx

    1. Ohhh YES, the BSC! Who was your favorite? I knew I was probably a MaryAnne but I loved sophisticated Stacey and stylish Claudia.

      xx

    2. Haha, I was definitely obsessed with Stacey as well — I even changed my handwriting to be more like hers in second grade (!! creepy to the max!). I think I gravitated most towards Stacey because I was desperate to live in NYC and, specifically, in the Dakota like her BFF Laine Cummings. Hahaha. (In reality, I was probably a mix of Mallory & Mary Anne!)

      xx

    3. OMG – you did the heart over the letter “i” and that bouncy cursive?! I totally remember re-creating their signatures on pieces of paper!! I can’t remember Kristy’s writing right now, though — block letters?

      LAINE CUMMINGS

      WHAT

      Haven’t thought about that. Eh well, if we were MaryAnne, at least we had a cute boyfriend 🙂

      xx

  5. I loved to read as a child! The Trixie Belden series, (I would ask for one of the series for my birthday or Christmas) and Misty of Chincoteague we’re favorites. I’m much older than you are so I’m sure you haven’t heard of them

    1. Hi Kim! I loved the Misty of Chincoteague series, especially since I was raised in the mid-Atlantic and able to visit Chincoteague and Assateague islands! I never got to see the running/swimming of the horses, but so lovely.

      Thanks for sharing these!

      xx

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