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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Jessi Peterson
Jessi Peterson
4 years ago

My moth­er had a My Book House set and my father had a set of The Chil­dren’s Hour — we called them “the red books” — and we read them both to smithereens. I have since got­ten replace­ment sets at antique stores and sec­ond­hand book shops. They even smell the same!

Reply to  Jessi Peterson
4 years ago

I replaced our set too– I know! I love their aroma. 🙂

4 years ago

A won­der­ful post! I now have more insight into your own love­ly, lyri­cal writ­ing, Cyn­thia. Have always admired your books for their mas­ter­ful use of lan­guage. Hap­py writing!!

Reply to  jenbryantauthor
4 years ago

Thank you, Jen! Hap­py writ­ing to you, too. Be well!