This time of year always has me waxing nostalgic. The crisp, colorful leaves, the aisles of school supplies, the pumpkin everything. While all of those things signal a change of seasons, it’s really something else that tells me there’s been a change: the wind.
Growing up, I spent more time outdoors than in and then, mostly barefoot. Dirt and grass were my anchors, trees my friends, and the wind – my guide. The wind told me everything. When leaves would turn over in the tumult of wind, I knew a storm was coming, and it was time to head home. When the wind turned warm and I no longer had to rely on the rays of a watery spring sun to stay warm, I knew summer was coming.
I let the dogs out one day last week, and I stepped into the yard. There were all the colorful leaves strewn about the green grass in a kaleidoscope of fall. The flowers in the beds had all turned inward, their brilliant emeralds turning to faded sage as they prepared to slumber for the winter. But while I saw all of this, the wind held my attention. I waited for it to blow, to feel it pass over my arms and give me the signal I was waiting for, knew was coming any day as the hours of daylight shrank.
And then there it was –
The wind has turned, and with it, another summer season has passed. My thoughts instantly skipped to school. I was and am a nerd, and school was always a safe haven for me, a place where I excelled and felt comfortable in learning. So with it came memories of all the books that shaped my love of reading. And here they are.
Second grade: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
I remember sprawling on the living room floor, my hands clutched to a copy of Dick Tracy in Hot Water, as I struggled to read every word in it by myself. My dad built the part of the house we lived in, so at the time, the floor was hard concrete and scratchy industrial carpeting as he finished the walls, but as we still had to live in the space, he did what he could to make it livable. I didn’t notice any of this because for the first time, I read an entire story on my own.
It wasn’t much later that my second grade teacher, Mrs. Butts, handed me this book and said, “I’ve never seen anyone love reading so much.” The Boxcar Children was my first chapter book. The Boxcar Children have a dog named Watch. Of course, this was my first chapter book.
But it was really my teacher giving me the book that has left it lingering so prominently in my memory. Someone else noticed how much I loved reading. As the second child to my mother and the last of MANY children to my dad, it was strange to have an adult notice something about me. I was notorious for hiding away to read, had special secret spots in the house where no one could find me, but more often than not, I took my book outside and hid in a tree. So for the first time, a grown up noticed how much I loved reading and gave me a book. A book that would kick off a lifetime of reading.
Fourth Grade: The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene, a Nancy Drew Mystery
Nancy Drew. Of course.
Fourth grade was a big year for me, reading-wise. I’m thirty-five, and I can tell you to this day exactly what my fourth grade classroom looked like, smelled like, and sounded like. If I ever saw my fourth grade teacher again, Mr. Brown, I’d walk right up to him and give him a giant hug. That’s how much he made fourth grade special for me and set my life on the path it is today.
Mr. Brown loved reading too.
I’d heard the rumors. My older brother had had him before me, so I tried to prepare myself for the first day. But even knowing the rumors, I wasn’t ready.
Fourth grade was epic.
Mr. Brown had built a loft in his classroom called the Nifty Nest, and it was used exclusively for reading. At the base of the loft, he built a bookcase filled with books you could borrow for a week. This was in addition to the school’s library. My little fourth grade head nearly couldn’t comprehend.
But that wasn’t the only thing about Mr. Brown’s classroom.
Mr. Brown would read to us EVERY DAY after lunch. EVERY. DAY. He did voices, he did drama, he did everything. Stories literally came alive when Mr. Brown read to us. We’d get to a suspenseful part in the story, Mr. Brown’s voice would drop, we’d lean forward to hear him, and then he would slam his hands down on his desk and shout, “This is getting scary!”
My fourth grade heart exploded in love for storytelling.
Now as an adult, I realize the genius of what Mr. Brown was doing. We’d come back from the free-for-all that was lunch and face three more hours of focused learning. What fourth grader wanted to do that? (Well, besides me.) Mr. Brown used reading to snatch our attention back to the classroom. He performed the stories, entertained us into learning once more.
I was so enthralled by reading because of Mr. Brown’s classroom, I dared to do something I hadn’t done before.
I ventured into the big kid section of the school library, and that is where I found Nancy Drew.
The Hidden Staircase would be the first book I would stay up late reading because it was due back at the library, and I just had to finish it! I would go on to collect early editions of Nancy Drew with my dad’s help, and I have the collection to this day.
Fourth grade and Mr. Brown taught me to be daring in my reading.
Also Fourth Grade: A Winkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
I grew up in the era of antenna television. We had three channels, and sometimes four if the wind blew the right way from Canada. We’d get the Toronto station then, which was great because that was the channel that had Scooby Doo and Care Bears for my 6 AM viewing.
I also grew up in Western New York. We designed our Halloween costumes to be easily worn in conjunction with snow suits. Christmas Eve always entailed a snow storm, which became tricky when I was the church pianist, and my parents had to get me clear across the county for services. We sledded off our roofs by January because the snow-plowed piles off the driveway would get that high.
Senior year of high school, my English teacher would wait by the door, and when I walked in, he’d clap his hands and shout, “Jess made it! Anyone else can make it!” We lived on the exact opposite side of the school district from the school, and when I learned to drive (which happened immediately after turning 16 because again, I was the last kid, and my parents were sick and tired of driving me all over the county for music practices), I learned how to steer out of a skid, go up a snowy hill without losing traction, and my favorite – stopping the car and clearing the snow from the bumper so my headlights would show up through the never ending snow. So yeah, if I made it to school, everyone else could.
This was not a special occurrence. This was lake effect snow, and it happened every day. You learned to deal with it and drive in it or nothing would happen.
But it also meant getting stuck inside a lot, and to avoid going crazy, my dad taught me about stories.
Now at this point, I had already discovered a lot about books, but my dad was like “hold my beer” before he ripped off the cover of everything I ever believed stories to be.
One particularly snowy day in fourth grade, he decided we would read A Wrinkle in Time to each other. Have you ever read a story out loud together with a parent? My dad did voices and encouraged me to do voices. He was dramatic and helped me be dramatic. (Remember how I said I was introverted? My dad did a lot to get me out of my shell even when I refused to budge!) The story became something real when Dad and I read it together. A flat line of text became 3D, malleable, touchable.
This was the first time that I realized stories were changeable.
Eighth Grade: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
My oldest brothers were quite rowdy. (One stuck the other in a dryer and turned it on.) My youngest brother was quite needy. (Sorry, Jake. But the truth train is coming into the station.) By the time my quiet, introverted self came along, I could actually hear my parents exhale an enormous sigh of relief and then promptly ignore me for the next 18 years. I don’t want you crapping on my parents. I have (had) the best parents in the entire world, because they left me to my own devices.
They created a self-sufficient, creative, courageous, independent young woman.
I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but what I’m trying to say is I can take care of myself because my parents let me grow up. This also means I read a lot of inappropriate material at a very young age. I read my first romance novel (the awesome, dramatic flashy cover kind from the 1970s that I found in a box of books my dad got at an auction!) the summer between sixth and seventh grade. I had questions. ALL of the questions, but I wasn’t going to ask my parents!
So in eighth grade, the older sister of my best friend gave me a copy of Ender’s Game.
Let’s stop a moment and look at this. The older sister of my best friend. OLDER. SISTER. You feel cool just by association, right?
I would say Ender’s Game is okay content-wise for an eighth grader, but as an adult, I look back at the book and think, oh, THAT’S what was going on there. But my friend’s older sister was right. I was ready for Ender’s Game, and more, I needed it to shatter my reading world.
After reading Ender’s Game, books exploded for me. Reading was like stepping into the center of a geode and staring up, jaw open, eyes wide, just spinning, the world revolving in twinkling bursts of light and color all around me. Ender’s Game would led to Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. Children of the Mind would become the first book I actually threw across the room. (You’ll notice I said first book. Yeah, there have been many more since.) That’s how visceral the words of Orson Scott Card became to me.
I now have all the books on audio as well as the prequels about the Formic Wars. The audio editions are performed by a cast, so if you don’t have them, go get them!
Ender’s Game taught me about adventure, but more importantly, they taught me about saga. The idea that a story kept going and going as far as the author’s mind wanted to carry it. Stories became epic.
Ninth Grade: Mistress by Amanda Quick
I stole this book off of my mother’s night stand, and she never noticed.
Remember earlier when I said I was ignored? I was once left on the sidewalk in Rochester, NY as my family pulled away in our SUV, me running up the street after them, pounding on the windows to get their attention so they wouldn’t drive off without me.
YES, THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED!
It’s okay. I send the therapy bills to my mother.
So it was not impossible for me to steal a romance novel off my mother’s nightstand when I was fifteen.
What did this book do for me?
Well, I don’t like mixing my book blog with my other personas, but in this case, it will illustrate my point.
I’ve written twenty historical romances and published seventeen of them.
After my first Amanda Quick, I was unstoppable. My poor mother would drive me thirty minutes to the nearest Wal-Mart after working a fourteen hour day to buy me a new romance novel, because I read them so quickly. It was almost a nightly ritual in the summer when I would stay up all night reading, so every night, there was my poor, exhausted mother. Driving me to get another book.
What book did you read during your school years that you still cary with you today?
Let us know in the comments!