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Cynthia Grady

Cynthia Grady Self on the Shelf

Cyn­thia Grady’s selec­tions for Self on the Shelf

In the begin­ning, before I found myself with­in the pages of a book iden­ti­fy­ing with this char­ac­ter or that one, I lis­tened to my grand­moth­er read aloud from My Book House while sur­round­ed by my eight sib­lings. The giant, mul­ti-vol­ume anthol­o­gy con­tains poet­ry from Moth­er Goose to Shake­speare, selec­tions from the Song of Solomon to Christi­na Ros­set­ti to Robert Louis Steven­son, folk and fairy tales from around the world, Aesop’s fables, as well as some not-as-old pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished sto­ries like The Tale of Peter Rab­bit by Beat­rix Pot­ter. In every­thing my grand­moth­er read, what moved me beyond all else was rhythm, the musi­cal­i­ty of lan­guage, and how word-music shaped and inten­si­fied mean­ing.

One sen­tence from The Tale of Peter Rab­bit, a sto­ry that gave me end­less night­mares, rings clear in my audi­to­ry imag­i­na­tion still, even though it has been decades since I’ve read it:

            But round the end of a cucum­ber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGre­gor!

The near dactylic meter of the line sets my feet tap­ping.  It’s a rolling rhythm, an invi­ta­tion to dance. But the con­tent, the words them­selves, had my pulse rac­ing in sheer ter­ror. How can Peter pos­si­bly escape this sur­pris­ing encounter with the giant, rake-wield­ing mur­der­er — the very man who killed his father? The very man Peter’s moth­er had warned him against — when the word-music describ­ing Peter’s predica­ment is so love­ly?

I was inside the lan­guage and lan­guage was inside me.

In a life­time of read­ing, few sen­tences have impressed me more than that one: lyric swing cou­pled with poten­tial death. The story’s ten­sion is con­tained with­in lan­guage itself.

I was not an avid read­er as a child like so many writ­ers, though my old­er sib­lings were. I had them as role mod­els to come back to but, as a child, I was busy play­ing. Or babysit­ting. Or doing my var­i­ous week­ly chores. So when it came time to write and present book reports in school, I made them up. I hadn’t read a thing. My teach­ers had nev­er heard of the books I wrote about and, always, my answer to their ques­tion was, “Oh, it’s a book my grand­moth­er gave me.” I was a liar (a.k.a. sto­ry­teller) from a very ear­ly age.

Lis­ten­ing to Beat­rix Pot­ter began my love affair with musi­cal­i­ty through ani­mal fan­ta­sy, and A.A. Milne con­tin­ued it. (Milne, anoth­er mas­ter of lyri­cal lan­guage). I read and reread the four books in their card­board case dozens, if not hun­dreds, of times. No one char­ac­ter stood out for me, but being part of a fam­i­ly of eleven, plus numer­ous pets, I loved the sheer num­ber of char­ac­ters abid­ing in the Hun­dred-Acre-Wood and its sur­round­ing For­est.

In addi­tion to char­ac­ter-filled ani­mal fan­tasies, I loved fairy tales and, there, I began iden­ti­fy­ing with the wretched, the hum­ble, the poor. In ele­men­tary school, my friends and I com­plained at how utter­ly over­bur­dened we were by our house­hold chores. One day, when we (final­ly!) had a chance to play togeth­er, we start­ed a Cin­derel­la Club. My friend Shan­nan was appoint­ed life-time pres­i­dent, as she had to dust mop her kitchen floor every morn­ing before we walked to school. I had nev­er heard of dust mop­ping. I was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fas­ci­nat­ed and appalled.

Wild SwansAnoth­er fairy tale I found myself in was Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s The Wild Swans (Gold­en Press, 1966). It was not from the col­lec­tion of tales that we had in the book­case; I had my very own copy. And it had a holo­gram on the card­board cov­er, some­thing I’d nev­er seen before. When I tilt­ed it under the light, the pic­ture changed before my eyes. And the illus­tra­tions inside were not line draw­ings or paint­ings in mod­est col­ors, they were full-col­or, vibrant three-dimen­sion­al scenes. The­atre enact­ed on the page. Enthralled, I began read­ing more.

The sto­ry of the wild swans is the sto­ry of a girl, a princess, who saves her eleven broth­ers from the evil queen who had turned them into swans, by knit­ting sweaters from sting­ing net­tles. I had five broth­ers, and thought that I, too, could save them all — though from what I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know how to knit, but I did know how to sew, and since I’d already iden­ti­fied with the hard-work­ing Cin­derel­la, sure­ly I could make a coat or some oth­er arti­cle of cloth­ing to save every­one I loved.

Per­haps, because I was so steeped in folk­lore, I went through a rather long spell read­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion— but not ordi­nary his­tor­i­cal fic­tion — it had to be time-slip fan­ta­sy: The Chil­dren of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, Tom’s Mid­night Gar­den by Philip­pa Pearce, and lat­er, dur­ing my near 20-year stint as a librar­i­an, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Nif­f­eneg­ger. I nev­er enjoyed his­to­ry or social stud­ies as a sub­ject in school, but I devoured his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sy and want­ed to be the time trav­el­ers, wher­ev­er they went.

And final­ly, return­ing to musi­cal lan­guage, I have on my shelf an auto­graphed copy of Hon­ey, I Love by Eloise Green­field and Devo­tion by Mary Oliv­er, among sev­er­al oth­ers by Ms. Oliv­er. In my ear­ly twen­ties, I was stu­dent-teach­ing in a fourth-grade class and the poem, “Hon­ey, I Love,” appeared in the read­ing text­book that the school used. My heart stopped when I read it. I imme­di­ate­ly went to the library to see if Ms. Green­field, whom I would meet years lat­er, had writ­ten any whole books of poet­ry. The cadence of Greenfield’s poems had the same pat­terns as my grandmother’s speech. You could sway to the rhythm, the same way you can sway to the sounds of Beat­rix Pot­ter and A. A. Milne. I found my home in poet­ry, and begin every day read­ing poems, always begin­ning and end­ing with one by Mary Oliv­er, a poet whose work I’ve long admired for its lyri­cism, its mys­tery, and its sheer beau­ty.

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Avi

Such is the nar­cis­sism of youth that, sad­ly, one often learns about some impor­tant things about a par­ent only when they have passed on. Such was the case of my moth­er. Even as I began to pub­lish, she nev­er told me that she had want­ed to be a pic­ture book writer. I only learned of that when, after she died, I came upon some man­u­scripts she had writ­ten. My father told me that she had nev­er sub­mit­ted any of her work to a pub­lish­er. Too shy.

Avi's pictures books he read as a childBut that explained (in ret­ro­spect) her great inter­est in pic­ture books, and why, in the nine­teen for­ties (my youth) I had many of the clas­sic books of that time. Thus I have quite vivid mem­o­ries of such books as Burton’s Mike Mul­li­gan and His Steam Shov­el, Seuss’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cub­bins. Oh, yes, Babar. I actu­al­ly still have an ear­ly copy of Giant Otto by William Pené du Bois. I can think of more.

I don’t know if such books influ­enced me in any way, except I know my sib­lings and I were read to every night by my moth­er. No coin­ci­dence: My twin sis­ter is also a writer.

In some fash­ion — I’m not sure how old I was — I dis­cov­ered the ani­mal sto­ries of Thorn­ton W. Burgess. These anthro­po­mor­phic sto­ries were orig­i­nal­ly seri­al­ized in news­pa­pers, and then pub­lished as book in which form I read and col­lect­ed them. (There was a used book store in my neigh­bor­hood and I could buy them for twen­ty-five cents.) I am not sure why as a city boy I loved these tales. Per­haps it was because I was a city boy.  But as the first chap­ter books I read on my own, I know that there are echoes of them in my Pop­py books.

But I have no doubt the Burgess books enabled me to move on to the more sophis­ti­cat­ed Fred­dy the Pig books, which I devoured. I draw a direct line from those titles to The Wind in the Wil­lows, which made a deep impres­sion on me. Now I was read­ing great writ­ing. From time to time, I still re-read that book. It remains utter­ly won­der­ful.

Avi's chapter books he read as a child

I also read much of what were called boy’s books, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the like.

At some point (I’m not sure when) I dis­cov­ered Robert Louis Stevenson’s Trea­sure Island. When I began to write his­tor­i­cal nov­els, that book is the inspi­ra­tion and mod­el for much of my work.

Then there was the radio. I was an avid lis­ten­er to radio plays, in par­tic­u­lar the kid’s shows, like Jack Arm­strong, and Super­man (how thrilling when Clark Kent’s alto voice changed to Superman’s bass tones), as well as The Lone Ranger.  To get a sense of how much radio influ­enced me, read my Who Was That Masked Man Any­way? It’s an homage to my radio lis­ten­ing days.

radio plays

But as I began (as a high school stu­dent) to think about writ­ing, it was not nov­els that inspired me, but stage plays. I was liv­ing in New York City at a time when the the­atre scene was abun­dant and afford­able. I recall going to as many as two pro­duc­tions a day, a mat­inée and then an evening per­for­mance.  I also would go to a the­atre and wait for the first inter­mis­sion. In those days of per­va­sive cig­a­rette smok­ing, the audi­ence would drift out onto the street to smoke. I would min­gle with them and drift (like the smoke) inside, becom­ing adept at grab­bing an unused seat.

In a diary I kept dur­ing my senior high school year there are long lists of the plays I am read­ing. And some­where in 1955 there is a line in that diary, which reads: “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going into the the­atre.” What I meant was writ­ing for the the­atre.

Did all this the­atre influ­ence my lat­er writ­ing? Dick Jack­son, my most impor­tant edi­tor (him­self a lover of the the­atre), once said to me (of my nov­els) “Avi, you’ve nev­er stopped writ­ing plays.”

Because of the heavy crit­i­cism I received about my writ­ing, in col­lege I avoid­ed (to the best of my abil­i­ty) Eng­lish class­es. Not that I didn’t read. I was a vora­cious read­er, but fol­lowed no pat­tern. I sim­ply read what­ev­er caught and held my atten­tion. Read­ing taught me to write.

By the same token, by not tak­ing writ­ing class­es (or hav­ing a men­tor) I nev­er devel­oped a sin­gu­lar “voice,” or style, which explains, I think why my writ­ing is so var­ied — a reflec­tion of my read­ing.

These days I still read a lot for both research and plea­sure. For the plea­sure read­ing, it’s not crit­i­cal read­ing, but sim­ply to be immersed. It’s still ran­dom.

How does all this add up? When I moved from my Den­ver home to my moun­tain home I had some­thing like five thou­sand books on seri­ous­ly sag­ging (home­made) shelves. For the most part I gave them away to used book stores, with the hope they would have more hands to turn the pages.

I hold many images of read­ing in my head, but one beyond all else. It is a pho­to­graph of a war-torn boy. Para­plegic. Blind. He is bend­ing over a braille book. He is read­ing the text with the tip of his tongue.

On my car is a bumper stick­er I com­posed: Bet­ter read than dead.

Avi's bumper sticker

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Elizabeth Verdick

Elizabeth Verdick Self on the Shelf

When I pic­ture myself as a kid, I think of my bed­room in our split-lev­el West Vir­ginia house, a room I loved but had to leave behind at age eleven when my fam­i­ly moved to Mary­land. For years, that room was my own lit­tle world, my book nook, my place to cud­dle my cat Rag, col­lect chi­na-cat fig­urines, and, yes, read books about cats. Was I feline-obsessed? Yes! But I won’t bore you with the list of cat-ori­ent­ed fic­tion and non­fic­tion I con­sumed as a child. You might be a dog lover after all. My read­ing taste also includ­ed some of the nov­els that plen­ty of girls grow­ing up in the sev­en­ties loved: the Nan­cy Drew mys­ter­ies, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrin­kle in Time, and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Mar­garet. I also adored books about pigs, and for years, I imag­ined that some­day on one of my family’s many vis­its to farms and pet­ting zoos, a real-life pig would final­ly talk to me, con­firm­ing my belief that pigs are not only smart but also mag­i­cal, and good con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists, too. That lit­tle bed­room was a riot of col­or: avo­ca­do-green shag car­pet­ing, a bright patch­work quilt, yel­low fur­ni­ture, stuffed ani­mals in all shades and states of dress (over­alls, tiny skirts, fun­ny hats). It was the place where I could most be myself.

Experts say that around the time of puber­ty, most girls expe­ri­ence a nose­dive in con­fi­dence — a cri­sis that par­ents and edu­ca­tors have for years tried to address. At age eleven, I couldn’t have put into words how or why my once-fiery self was dimin­ish­ing week by week, and for years lat­er. The tran­si­tion from child into teen is intense and often painful, a time when you still believe in talk­ing ani­mals and por­tals to oth­er worlds yet must face the ways in which your body and self-image are chang­ing day by day. I read and reread books that seemed to hold the answers — or a sense of “I see you.” Like me, Mar­garet Mur­ry (in A Wrin­kle in Time) wres­tled with her frizzy hair and teas­ing peers. Like me, anoth­er Mar­garet (this time in a Judy Blume book) was wor­ried about her family’s move, not to men­tion bras, boys, and B.O. And there was Har­ri­et, the young “spy” who exu­ber­ant­ly con­fessed her feel­ings in her note­book: “I FEEL THERE’S A FUNNY LITTLE HOLE IN ME THAT WASN’T THERE BEFORE, LIKE A SPLINTER IN YOUR FINGER, BUT THIS IS SOMEWHERE ABOVE MY STOMACH” (Har­ri­et the Spy, p.132). I knew that emp­ty feel­ing. Read­ing helped fill it.

These pro­tag­o­nists were life­lines when I want­ed to hide or cry, laugh and scream at the same time, or just play pre­tend like a lit­tle kid. When you’re not quite a child any­more but you’re not offi­cial­ly a teen, you still feel that urge to become a char­ac­ter you’re read­ing about: I bought a com­po­si­tion note­book like Harriet’s and spied beneath the neigh­bors’ win­dows; I wore bor­rowed eye­glass­es to cre­ate my Mar­garet Mur­ry per­sona; and I decid­ed to start pray­ing (“Are you there God? It’s me, Eliz­a­beth”). Some­times I’d pre­tend to be Nan­cy Drew, brave and wise beyond her years. Oth­er times I was Fern from Charlotte’s Web, wheel­ing dolls and my oblig­ing cat in a baby car­riage, call­ing him “Wilbur.” That in-between stage is lone­ly and con­fus­ing, watch­ing your peers play Spin the Bot­tle when you’d rather be home play­ing Bar­bie ER (it involved crash­ing her Coun­try Camper). Books don’t judge you — they under­stand. They offer up heroes and add col­or and mag­ic to every­day life.

I often felt dif­fer­ent from peo­ple my age, in that I held on to child­hood for so long. Through­out high school, I returned to pic­ture books and my time­worn Judy Blume nov­els, even though I was also read­ing Stephen King. I’d pull out my Nan­cy Drew books, lin­ing them up to choose the best cov­er or make my room resem­ble a library. When feel­ing espe­cial­ly nos­tal­gic, I’d dig out Fred­dy the Detec­tive, a 1932 nov­el by Wal­ter R. Brooks about an adven­tur­ous, can-do pig, and ask my dad to read aloud. I want­ed to pub­lish sto­ries myself some­day, but when I lat­er sub­mit­ted work to my college’s lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, I was told the pieces skewed “too young” and would only appeal to kids.

What I didn’t know then was that there was a whole world of peo­ple who loved work that cen­tered on chil­dren and teens. When I moved to St. Paul after col­lege, I got a job as a book­seller at the Red Bal­loon Book­shop, where walk­ing in the front door felt like com­ing home. Walls of kids’ books! Rows of stuffed-ani­mal lit­er­ary char­ac­ters! A vis­it from the Madeleine L’Engle! There, I didn’t have to be more “adult” than I want­ed to be. Maybe those past days of por­ing over book cov­ers in my bed­room had done more than sim­ply sat­is­fy my curios­i­ty or cre­ate a sense of calm. I’d been devel­op­ing a respect for sto­ry­tellers and illus­tra­tors — per­haps even gain­ing that first lit­tle bit of what Ira Glass of This Amer­i­can Life describes as “taste,” or your impulse to do cre­ative work. I even­tu­al­ly found a job in book pub­lish­ing, where I learned to edit man­u­scripts and help design book inte­ri­ors. I took a class at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta taught by Karen Nel­son Hoyle, who had stu­dents read The River­side Anthol­o­gy of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture, which exam­ines the impor­tance of folk­tales, poet­ry, pic­ture books, and nov­els writ­ten for young peo­ple. I was still a begin­ner, and as Glass explains (wish­ing some­one had told him when he was a begin­ner): “All of us who do cre­ative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first cou­ple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s try­ing to be good, it has poten­tial, but it’s not … A lot of peo­ple nev­er get past this phase, they quit.” I often gave up, shred­ding my own sto­ries before any­one could see them. But dur­ing that time, I helped oth­er writ­ers find their voic­es and bring their books into the world, a role I cher­ished.    

Some­thing changed, deep­ened, when I had kids of my own. That call to children’s lit­er­a­ture grew even stronger. I took writ­ing class­es at the Loft Lit­er­ary Cen­ter in Min­neapo­lis, and I even­tu­al­ly got an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren and teens from Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Paul. Along the way, I learned from authors whose books elicit­ed the feel­ings of yearn­ing I’d had at age eleven — Min­neso­ta writ­ers like Anne Ursu and Kate DiCamil­lo. I stud­ied new and clas­sic pic­ture books, and I longed to write in that short (yet decep­tive­ly com­plex) form. I hoped to some­day feel as con­fi­dent as Har­ri­et M. Welsch, intre­pid girl spy and jour­nal-keep­er, who used writ­ing to under­stand the world and her­self. That was pie-in-the-sky think­ing. Today, any time I start a new man­u­script, my con­fi­dence plum­mets and I feel like a begin­ner again. But guess what? Most writ­ers do! Ira Glass says, “It’s nor­mal to take awhile. You’ve just got­ta fight your way through.”

 When you read a word-per­fect pic­ture book or a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten nov­el, it’s easy to think the book popped into the world like “Presto!” because you feel the mag­ic as you turn the pages. But writ­ers, illus­tra­tors, and edi­tors know how much behind-the-scenes work it takes to cre­ate that illu­sion. If you’re curi­ous about “book-mag­ic,” you might want to read Ways of Telling: Con­ver­sa­tions on the Art of the Pic­ture Book by Leonard S. Mar­cus, and one of Marcus’s oth­er works, Dear Genius: The Let­ters of Ursu­la Nord­strom, who was the direc­tor of Harper’s Depart­ment of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973 (and edi­tor of clas­sics such as Charlotte’s Web, Good­night Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are). It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to learn about Nordstrom’s cor­re­spon­dence with E. B. White and illus­tra­tor Garth Williams, who worked togeth­er on Charlotte’s Web. (Should Williams draw Charlotte’s eight eyes? Should her mouth be vis­i­ble?) In Ways of Telling, author/illustrator Eric Car­le reveals that he had cre­at­ed a man­u­script called “A Week with Willi Worm!” that, after advice from his edi­tor, trans­formed into The Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar. Books, like but­ter­flies, emerge only after a messy process of meta­mor­pho­sis. And that’s fit­ting because, after all, we’re talk­ing about works for chil­dren, who in the words of E. B. White, “… are the most atten­tive, curi­ous, eager, obser­vant, sen­si­tive, quick, and gen­er­al­ly con­ge­nial read­ers on earth.” It’s an hon­or to write for them.    

I’m far from eleven, but I’m still obsessed with cats (dogs too). I’m still wait­ing for the day a pig might talk to me. And books are still my best friends. Some things nev­er change.

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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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