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Archive | Self on the Shelf

Melanie Heuiser Hill

Melanie Heuiser Hill's Self on the Shelf

This stack is large­ly the Self-On-The-Shelf stack of my child­hood. There would be stacks of oth­ers, as well, you under­stand. I was sur­prised how many were miss­ing when I went to pull books for this col­umn, actu­al­ly. Where were all the Judy Blume books? Where was How To Eat Fried Worms? And, I sup­pose if I’m real­ly hon­est, I would need to include a small stack of Guin­ness Book of World Records from the late seventies…I wore the cov­ers off those books. Alas, some of my favorites from child­hood were library books that I checked out again and again but nev­er owned. And I sus­pect the world record books were thrown out by my moth­er who did not share my fas­ci­na­tion. (The lady with the longest fin­ger­nails in the world is the one that sticks forty years on….)

But the books in this stack — these were deeply deeply loved  by me as a child. The Pooh books are the ones I have very clear mem­o­ries of my Mom read­ing to my broth­er and me. I know she read oth­er things to us, but these are the sto­ries and poems I remem­ber. She gave me the leather bound edi­tions when I had lit­tle ones of my own — our orig­i­nal copies, which were paper­backs, are a bit frail look­ing and might not have sur­vived anoth­er generation’s love.

Bev­er­ly Cleary’s Ramona books — and the Hen­ry Hug­gins and Rib­sy books, too— were favorites when I was in sec­ond and third grade and div­ing into inde­pen­dent chap­ter book read­ing. I picked up Ramona The Brave off a RIF table when I was in sec­ond grade. Mrs. Perkins, my teacher, read sev­er­al Cleary books to us and I was, and remain, a huge fan.

Ramona Quimby

Ramona Quim­by, illus­trat­ed by Louis Dar­ling, from the books by Bev­er­ly Cleary

But Charlotte’s Web is the first chap­ter book I clear­ly remem­ber read­ing on my own — same year, same teacher. I fell so com­plete­ly into this sto­ry that I couldn’t bear to go out to recess. I couldn’t even extract myself from the sto­ry to close the book and get my boots and coat on—it felt phys­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble. I remem­ber Mrs. Perkins say­ing that just once I might stay in dur­ing recess to read. I’m sure I didn’t even say thank you, just kept turn­ing the pages, know­ing I had to fin­ish since I’d have to go out the next day.

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweil­er was kept from much of my ele­men­tary school because I so con­sis­tent­ly had it checked out from our school library. I was required to return it for a week every once in awhile “to see if some­one else might want to read it,” but I vol­un­teered to re-shelve it so I could hide it behind oth­er books and be assured it’d be there for me the next week. (This auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal detail found its way into my nov­el Giant Pump­kin Suite—dif­fer­ent book, but one also on this list!) The Mixed-Up Files won the New­bery Award the year before I was born. It is bril­liant, as are all of E.L. Konigsburg’s books, in my opin­ion. The book­ends of the nov­el are impor­tant, but if you’d asked me when I was a kid about Mrs. Basil E. Frankweil­er, I would’ve said her name was sim­ply in the title, for rea­sons I real­ly didn’t under­stand…. For me, the book was entire­ly about sleep­ing at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. I have always had a fas­ci­na­tion with what it would be like to be locked in after hours at a muse­um, or a library, or a gro­cery store — to just have run of the place and have it all to myself. I don’t know if I had the fas­ci­na­tion before read­ing this book or if this book spawned it, but I remem­ber tak­ing notes on Clau­dia Kincaid’s bril­liant plans of hid­ing in the bath­rooms until secu­ri­ty was gone, blend­ing in with school groups dur­ing the day so as not to be noticed, fish­ing the coins out of the foun­tain to spend at the automat, etc. I nev­er owned this book as a child, but I bought it as an adult at the Met the first time I went to New York City. I read it on the plane home…which was the first time I noticed Mrs. Basil E. Frankweil­er!

Har­ri­et The Spy was a favorite of mine around the same time as The Mixed-Up Files, and between the two of them, I fell in love with New York City decades before I ever set foot in the city. I loved Har­ri­et because she was not nice — her blunt voice was often the tween voice in my head — and because she kept a note­book. I used to ask for note­books and pens/pencils for Christ­mas and birth­days. I loved that Har­ri­et did her spy­ing and wrote down what she noticed in ALL CAPS. Some­times I do that in my note­book, in homage. When Ole Gol­ly gave Har­ri­et advice, I con­sid­ered it advice to me, as well. This book, maybe more than any oth­er, gave me a yearn­ing to be a writer.

And the best for last…. The Anne of Green Gables series. I received the first nov­el in this series for my tenth birth­day. Over the next few years I received the next in the series each birth­day and Christ­mas. I love this series so much it makes my heart ache. And, as I wrote here, I per­pet­u­al­ly read them as an adult. I always have one going. It’s not great for my writ­ing. L.M. Mont­gomery wrote in a dif­fer­ent time, and style has changed con­sid­er­ably. I always have to cut my drafts by half — and I still use more words than many writ­ing today. But for char­ac­ter study and emo­tion­al arc, I think I can still learn from Mont­gomery. In any event, there’s not a bet­ter way to end the day than read­ing a chap­ter of Anne, as far as I’m con­cerned. I com­mend the prac­tice of “per­pet­u­al read­ing” to you — what­ev­er series makes your heart glad.       

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Aimée Bissonette

Aimee Bissonette's Self on the Shelf

Aimée Bis­sonet­te’s selec­tions for Self on the Shelf

A few days ago, I scanned my many book­shelves in antic­i­pa­tion of writ­ing this piece. My charge was to assem­ble a small stack of books that had sig­nif­i­cance to me.  Per­haps, I thought, I’ll write about my love for mys­ter­ies. After all, I spent count­less hours as a young girl devour­ing the Hardy Boys and Nan­cy Drew mys­ter­ies before mov­ing on to Agatha Christie, Tony Hiller­man, and Sara Paret­sky. Or maybe, I thought, I could write about my love for mem­oir. To me, well-craft­ed mem­oir is a gift.  It pro­vides an insider’s view — the weight of a per­son­al sto­ry that expands my knowl­edge and under­stand­ing of events and expe­ri­ences that are for­eign to me. 

Both mys­tery and mem­oir would have been fun to write about and each would have giv­en some insight into how books have shaped my life. I know, though, if I’m going to be hon­est, with me it all comes down to poet­ry.

I have loved poet­ry from the begin­ning and I have writ­ten poet­ry across the years: in ele­men­tary school where hol­i­days were always a favorite top­ic; as a teenag­er and in col­lege where the pre­dom­i­nant theme was rela­tion­ships; and as an adult with a strong bent toward nature writ­ing.  And because poet­ry was always a big part of my life, I shared it with my daugh­ters, cul­ti­vat­ing a love of poet­ry in them that lasts to this day. 

Which books mat­tered most? There are so many — it’s hard to say. Here’s a small sam­pling, though, that made a dif­fer­ence for me.

As you see in the pho­to, my first book – the book at the top of the stack – has no cov­er and no spine. It did once, of course, but I have no mem­o­ry of that. I am sure it suf­fered wear and tear in my hands and the hands of my six sib­lings. It also endured many cross coun­try moves.

Why is this book spe­cial? This book was my mom’s when she was a lit­tle girl. It’s a 1938 edi­tion of 200 Best Poems for Boys and Girls com­piled by Mar­jorie Bar­rows for the Whit­man Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny. When this book was final­ly passed down to me, I didn’t give it up. 

As a girl, I read and reread the poems in this book. I mem­o­rized and recit­ed them. The book is full of well-known and less­er known children’s poems about frogs and trees and pirates and gob­lins. It made my imag­i­na­tion soar.  It also intro­duced me to the wry, clever poems of Ogden Nash whose “The Tale of Cus­tard the Drag­on” is still a favorite. It starts like this:

Belin­da lived in a lit­tle white house,
With a lit­tle black kit­ten and a lit­tle gray mouse,
And a lit­tle yel­low dog and a lit­tle red wag­on,
And a realio, trulio, lit­tle pet drag­on.

Now the name of the lit­tle black kit­ten was Ink,
And the lit­tle gray mouse, she called her Blink,
And the lit­tle yel­low dog was sharp as Mus­tard,
But the drag­on was a cow­ard, and she called him Cus­tard. 

Tale of Custard the Dragon

As you might imag­ine, a rol­lick­ing sto­ry unfolds in this poem reveal­ing that all isn’t as it seems and Cus­tard plays a sur­pris­ing role! I love to share this poem with kids when I do school vis­its. It sparks laugh­ter and con­ver­sa­tion. Look it up, you’ll love it, too.

The next book in the stack was anoth­er child­hood favorite, A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. I long ago lost my own copy of this book (remem­ber the mul­ti­ple cross coun­try moves?). The one in the pho­to is the copy I bought for my daugh­ters when they were lit­tle.  I have mem­o­ries of sneak­ing away to a qui­et place with this and oth­er books — not an easy task in a house with sev­en kids.  Lucky for me, one of the last hous­es we lived in was a refur­bished board­ing house. It had a big walk in linen clos­et that I treat­ed as my per­son­al read­ing room. I’d gath­er my books, pull the string on the light fix­ture, shut the door against the noise, and lie among the blan­kets and pil­lows, relat­ing might­i­ly to Milne’s “Soli­tude”:

I have a house where I go
When there’s too many peo­ple,
I have a house where I go
Where no one can be;
I have a house where I go,
Where nobody ever says “No”;
Where no one says any­thing — so
There is no one but me.

The next two books in the pho­to are from a wide shelf of poet­ry books my hus­band and I shared with our daugh­ters as they grew up. The Ran­dom House Book of Poet­ry for Chil­dren includes poems by so many won­der­ful children’s poets. Its pages are dog-eared and smudged. We read it over and over. It makes me think of blan­kets and paja­mas and cud­dling on the couch. Good mem­o­ries.

Our daugh­ters also loved every one of Shel Silverstein’s books. This copy of Where the Side­walk Ends (which long ago lost its dust jack­et) shows how well loved his books are. We still rem­i­nisce about our favorites. Does any­one remem­ber “Warn­ing” fea­tur­ing a Sharp Toothed Snail? My girls still laugh about that one. One of my favorites is “Hug O’ War”:

I will not play at tug o’war.
I’d rather play at hug o’war.
Where every­one hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where every­one gig­gles
And rolls on the rug.
Where every­one kiss­es,
And every­one grins,
And every­one cud­dles,
And every­one wins. 

Not a bad sen­ti­ment for today’s times, huh!

The remain­ing books in the stack are impor­tant for many rea­sons. Among oth­er things, they rep­re­sent my love for read­ing and writ­ing nature poems. Morn­ing Earth is by John Cad­dy, a won­der­ful poet and nat­u­ral­ist who taught the first poet­ry class I dared take at The Loft. For years, John emailed a poem a day to teach­ers and class­rooms all over the world. In doing so, he made poet­ry — and nature — more acces­si­ble to kids. Here is one of his poems, titled “Novem­ber 26”:

In a snowy field
three jun­cos feed.
Their weight curves down
the stalks of weeds
as they pluck the fuel
the fire needs.

The next books in the stack, Poets of Boca Grande and Amethyst and Agate, con­tain poems from two of my favorite nat­ur­al places: Florida’s gulf coast and Lake Supe­ri­or.  I often buy poet­ry books when I trav­el.

The final books, The Cuckoo’s Haiku (a gift from a writer friend) and Song of the Water Boat­man, are books I use with stu­dents when I am vis­it­ing schools. Read­ing and writ­ing short poems is a great warm up exer­cise for young writ­ers. I also use these books as men­tor texts for my own writ­ing. If one day I could write one poem as love­ly as any of Joyce Sidman’s, I’d be thrilled.

So, that’s my stack. A small sam­pling, but I am sure you get the idea.  I love poet­ry – its spare lines and lush descrip­tion; its humor; the emo­tion it evokes. And I know read­ing and study­ing poet­ry help me write pic­ture books.  The notion that every word counts is true to both, as is the impor­tance of line breaks and page turns.  

I still love a good mys­tery. And if you know me, you’ve like­ly heard me rec­om­mend a mem­oir or two, but at the heart of all my read­ing, writ­ing, and inspi­ra­tion is poet­ry. I feel blessed to have it in my life.        

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