It’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Books can change your life? How? For the lonely girl, the one who was timid and afraid of asking the wrong question, books were a best friend. They were teachers and places to travel to. They were friendships found and fought over. They were sources of information.
One of my earliest memories – besides the one of my mom finding me in the huge Manitoba maple in our front yard, and calling me down to go practice “showing” my calf in preparation for the fall fair (that was about age three or four) – is of my mom (always my mom) calling me in from playing in the yard to learn how to read, around age four. I guess she wanted me to get a head start for school. I just remember dragging myself into the house as the late summer sun sank to the horizon, and sitting down to learn the sounds and match them with the letters on the page.
1. Dick and Jane: Zerna Sharp and William S. Gray
Remember them? Yes, this is what drew me inside the house on a summer afternoon at age four. I remember not liking the notion of reading very much at the time, perhaps because my mom was so insistent on teaching me. Or perhaps she knew that once I learned to read, she’d have a lot more free time! The simplistic sentences, the repetitive pages, the cute dog. I’m sure I must have learned the alphabet, but nothing about that sticks in my mind – only Dick and Jane, sitting on Mom’s lap in the farmhouse kitchen, page by page, reading about the rather pedantic antics of the siblings, their sister, Sally, and their dog, Spot. Sally must have been less important; she didn’t get her name in the title of the series. Dick and Jane laid the groundwork for a lifetime of reading. It was exciting to be able to turn page after page, a whole BOOK! Even if there was no plot and only five words on each page.
2. Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
This must have been hot on the heels of Dick and Jane. But unlike Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss had imagination! He made up animals, and they looked really funny, and even though the language and writing was simple, it was a riot! And it taught about differences, and how to count, and taking notice of the world one thing at a time. It was okay to ask questions, and to not have the answers (I wish I’d listened to that advice!), and to have fun with language:
We have a Wump with just one hump.
But we know a man called Mr. Gump.
Mr. Gump has a seven-hump Wump. So...
If you like to go Bump! Bump!
Just jump on the hump of the Wump of Gump.
There are many Dr. Seuss books I still haven’t read, but the ones I knew and love I made sure I read to my own kids: The Lorax, Green Eggs and Ham, Oh Baby the Places You’ll Go, Horton Hears a Who, and so on. Admittedly, the Cat in the Hat still makes me anxious – he is far too much trouble.
3. Anne of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery
Oh! Heart of my dear heart! If truth be told, I likely watched the TV series in the ‘80s, with Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie, before I read the book. But when I read the book, I fell in love with Anne’s idealism, her florid language and her spirit. Anne gave me permission to imagine, to use my imagination. I, too, could spot a kindred spirit within a few moments. I didn’t commune quite as much with nature as she did, nor did I imbibe in any cordial, but I did have dramatic tiffs with friends and at times a very low self-esteem. I identified with Anne Shirley.
The funniest things happened in my late teens, when my auburn hair glowed in the sunshine and I rued the freckles on my face, people – strangers – would call me Anne or say I reminded them of her. That always gave me a thrill. Once, as I approached a bus stop in my first year of university, a complete stranger who sat waiting for the same bus said to me, “You look just like Anne of Green Gables.” Those were the first words out of her mouth. I didn’t want to tell her that Anne wasn’t a real person, and that Megan Follows was just playing a character in a book. Instead, I graciously thanked her and sailed through the rest of the day on that compliment.
4. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
I guess there is something about Annes with an E. I remember how I got this book – Grade 7, Beavercrest elementary school in Markdale, Ont. Our teacher, Mr. Wehrle, had handed out the Scholastic order sheets, which I always took home in the hopes of getting my parents to order books for me. They never did. Except this one time. My mom probably chose the book, which I still have, all these years later.
Anne Frank’s writing inspired me to keep a journal. I did, and still do. I have binders full of journal pages, and books full of writing. I related to the uncertainty of being a pre-teen and a teen, although I never could for any moment imagine the terror of living life on such a knife-edge. Anne Frank inspired me to be a writer. She taught me about finding the good in every situation, and how important it is to document life as it’s lived, whenever it’s lived – not just the events, but the fear, the anger, the angst, the joy, the hope. Especially, yes, when you’re a Jew hiding from the Nazis in World War II. Or living through a pandemic. I’m sure she didn’t know how widespread her private journal would become; I’m sure she was writing for herself in the moment. But it’s that raw honesty, I think, that’s timeless in journals. And why it’s so important that they are preserved in some way.
5. Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
I have read only a few books more than once, and only two more than five times: The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, and Roots by Alex Haley. I read both about seven times (if you’ve seen the thickness of Roots, you’ll know that’s no small feat!). Haley’s storytelling is visceral and revealing. Now, the book’s author is sidelined in the annals of Black American authors, partly because under scrutiny, the research of his family’s history fell apart. I didn’t know about that when I read it (the question about the book’s integrity came much later), but the book drew me into a world about which I had been unaware: slavery and its legacy, generations later. I cheered on Kunta Kinte as he tried to escape his slave masters. I suppose I thought it was all fiction; that Haley had dreamed up the idea of slavery, and that it didn’t really exist. That’s how sheltered I was in rural Ontario. We didn’t have the internet back then to search these things up. And we didn’t learn about slavery in school or talk about it around the dinner table.
Whether Haley’s account is true or accurate doesn’t matter to me. I think the value of this book is that it connects Black people with their history in Africa and in North America; for me as a white person, it reveals that there is evil in our history. I’d never really considered that before, and it certainly wasn’t taught in school. As Jane Elliott, the famous educator about anti-racism, says, “Our schools aren’t for education; they’re for indoctrination. . . to teach the myth about white superiority.” Roots introduced me again to the notion of passing on stories from one generation to the next, in the way that journals can, or family lore does. The preservation of those stories, however painful they may be, is how our families heal and how our society moves forward.