I entered my junior year high school English class with no expectations. I had survived two mind numbing years of English, and thought I knew what to expect. Instead, after we were all seated, our new teacher, Mr. Sanders, began pacing the room reading aloud from a novel. He gave us no introduction, not even the title of what he was reading. Were we supposed to take notes? Would there be a test? What was going on? We were polite and respectful, since it was 1963 and that was the norm, but we were puzzled.
We gradually realized that we knew nothing about reading literature, or else we were being reminded of what we used to know before high school had ruined it for us. He had joy in reading, delight in talking about reading, and encouragement for writing about what we were reading. Our first assignment on the novel was to pick one American book of social protest and analyze it in any way we saw fit. How to explain how shockingly radical this task was to those of us used to parroting the teacher’s point of view back?
I chose Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son. The book staggered me, introducing me to parts of life I had never seen. It was, for the times, a completely subversive text and also a perfectly timed reading for me, igniting a deep sense of the need for racial justice which has never left me.
On November 22, 1963, we were in Mr. Sanders’ English class when the P.A. system crackled and our principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Sanders began to cry and left the room. I had never seen a man cry, nor had a teacher ever left the room. He came back in, turned off the overhead lights, and stood looking out the window. We were able to sit and feel the impact of the shooting and the comfort of a teacher who didn’t insist on “business as usual.”
Several hours later, the P.A. crackled again and we knew the President was dead. My teacher at that class went right on talking about the American history lesson. But I wasn’t fooled, I knew we were experiencing real history and that Mr. Sanders had modeled the appropriate response.
All through elementary school, after those disastrous first Dick and Jane episodes, I was able to choose what I read. Sometimes we had to try different categories, such as biography, history, folk tales and fiction, but we were able to choose titles within those categories. We then had to write book reports about each one we read. These were generally delivered in front of the class in such a way as to intrigue the other students without revealing too much of the plot. Most of the reports ended, “if you want to know what happens, you will have to read the book.” It got so we could chant it in unison.
But alas, in high school, I once again was forced to read the same book as everyone else in the class. Fortunately, I still spent my time in the library stacks, slowly reading my way around the alphabet. But the English classes had set curricula for each year: a novel, a Shakespeare play, some poetry, occasional short stories and not much else. As you can imagine, this meant we spent weeks on one book. We were assigned a chapter at a time. A dreadful way to read anything.
Of course, I was incapable of stopping after one chapter and always immediately read the whole book. The classic collision of me and the English teacher came in my senior year when the novel was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. The teacher was agonizingly slowly leading the class in a discussion of the minutia of each chapter. Then she asked me some question. When I answered it, she said “You can’t know that yet!” I tried to stay silent after that, and she stopped asking me questions.
When I had exhausted every realistic fiction book in the children’s department of the library and had read every book from my grandparents and parents, I was ready for more books. I wandered across the hall at the central library and entered the Adult Section! Unfortunately, I was immediately stopped by a librarian who told me I was too young(at 12) to go in the adult section. This struck me as insane, but she did tell me that if my mother would write me a note, I would be allowed to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum of books.In those days, not only were children not allowed in the adult section of the library, but the children’s department had a firm hand rejecting anything they didn’t find suitable. This excluded books like Oz and many other popular series considered low-brow.
So I dutifully got a letter from my mother, handed it over and found that there was more than a room full of adult books. There was THE STACKS. They had thousands of fiction books(the nonfiction stacks were still served by couriers) and I knew I would never be able to read them all. And to add to my pleasures, stacks have a wonderful smell of old books and neglected writers.
Totally overwhelmed with the bounty before me, and being the systematic reader I was, I began with the A’s and for the next six years worked my way around the alphabet finding writers to love and ones to pass by. None of them had covers, since they were all rebound, so there were no cover blurbs. I just dug in. What a bounty.
Here’s to libraries who keep old books “just in case.”
I spent the summer of 1958 on the East Coast, mainly with my grandparents in Western New York. My grandmother’s mother was from England and though my grandmother grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, her literature tastes were British. She introduced me to the stories of E. Nesbit, well worn copies of three of her books are pictured above.
This began my love affair with another genre of fiction–stories of groups of siblings left on their own having grand adventures. It turns out that there was quite an audience for those books and I found many such examples. Orphans, such as A Little Princess or A Secret Garden, were intriguing, but I really craved stories of four children, a mirror of the four in my family.
Later C.S. Lewis wrote his Narnia series, and my grandfather sent them all our way. Here another four children left at their great-uncle’s house(where ever are the parents in all those books I loved?) walk through a wardrobe into another dimension. That idea of another world close by also appeared in my much loved Borrowers books, featuring a family living under the floor.
As you can tell, my middle school years were ones of reading book after book. There was no television at my grandparents. Even when I finally had a television at home, there was very little of interest to me. My passion remained, as it does today, in pages.
After I had exhausted every book I could get my hands on that mentioned a girl named Betsy, I read the whole series of Oz books. The earliest ones I read had belonged to my mother. This one, my favorite, was a Christmas present when I was 9. I usually received a book on Christmas, and it was generally my favorite present.
Ozma was a princess, long before Disney princesses ran rampant over the culture. She was brave and good and kind. Better yet, she was able to recognize creatures that had been turned into stone by the evil witch. She then could touch them and they would spring back to live. This was very encouraging to me and I read those sections over and again.The Oz books were the only pure fantasy I enjoyed. In general, I liked books about real children.
I am writing this series of entries in the hopes that my readers will think back about their own reading lives. I enjoy hearing about what people are currently reading, but I often wonder what they read as children.
Tomorrow we meet resourceful English children.
The books I began with in first and second grade all centered around little girls named Betsy. My nickname is Betsy, and it was a popular name in the late 1940’s. McCall’s magazine had a Betsy McCall paper doll each month. There was a Betsy-Wetsy doll, source of much teasing. But best of all there were two series, one beginning with B is For Betsy written by Carolyn Haywood.
The illustration is from that book and actually looks a great deal like me at age 7, with two long braids, saggy socks, and saddle shoes. I never had a purse, however. Better yet, at that time we had a black cocker spaniel named Cinder. The Betsy books didn’t have any more exciting plots than the Dick and Jane ones, but they had long and interesting sentences. And of course, the central character was named Betsy!
The other series with a central character named Betsy started with Betsy and Tacy, written by Maud Lovelace. The one I loved better was Betsy,Tacy and Tib when one of the girls gets diphtheria and has to be quarantined. While diphtheria had been conquered with a vaccine when I was young, polio, measles, mumps, chicken pox, scarlet fever and rheumatic fever were constant presences in elementary schools. The idea of being quarantined was very familiar, and I liked seeing how friends retained their connection through it.
There was no television in my home at that age, and reading took me outside of my own family and neighborhood and introduced me to wonderful other characters. Rather like keeping a blog!
After suffering through the reading experience at Collins View School, we moved to a new neighborhood with a public school which resembled, because of its small size and homogeneous upper middle class student body, a private school. The kids were still struggling with reading, however, but this school assigned us all to small groups with cute names of birds. This, I suppose, was to protect us from the sting that would have come if they had called them: advanced, regular and slow. However, everyone knew which bird was which!
This might have been an improvement, but the little groups still read out of books found only in schools called “readers.” They should be called “make you never want to readers,” since they were excerpts from longer books and little moralistic stories. So I was able to read faster, but the material was still simplistic. And even in 3rd grade I knew it was almost as stupid as Dick and Jane.
Thank goodness my mother was a total devotee of the public library. She took us to the local bookmobile weekly and we could take as many books as we could carry. (I still check out books the length of my arm.) Sometimes we went DOWNTOWN to the huge library with a whole room just for children’s books. I immediately had the ambition of reading every book there.
What was I reading in those years? I will explore that tomorrow.
I decided to write for a few entries about my reading life, and I found this hilarious photo among my collection. Here we are camping in the Oregon woods, and my parents have put my potty chair on the ground for me to use. I have no idea if they dug a little hole too! I thought that was a pretty creative way to go camping and do potty training at the same time. And they have handed me a book to pass the time.
I learned to read on my own at a very early age. Somehow linking those squiggles to meaning came naturally to me. That same ability exists in some of my family members and is completely absent in others. But it wasn’t anything I had to work at, and I have no idea how it happened.
I faced a real problem when I entered first grade and the teacher was handed the task of teaching 25 kids how to read. We used the Dick and Jane primers, and during reading time that was the only material available to me. Not only are the Dick and Jane books totally stupid, they are very short and I would finish the entire one in a couple of minutes. All around me kids were on page one sounding out J-a-n-e. I hadn’t learned to read using phonics, and the pace made me extremely restless. Finally, out of desperation, Mrs. Brandt let me go in the back of the classroom and listen to records very very quietly.
Here’s kudos to a teacher who recognized a little girl Withering Away With Dick and Jane.