One of the first assignments for my kidlit class* is to bring in copies of a favourite picture book and chapter book from childhood. I take designations like “favourite” very seriously (too seriously), so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And my thoughts have wobbled around from actual books to nostalgia to thoughts on the relative validity of ebooks as a mode of enjoyment. So while my hair is drying, let’s chat for a while.
*Let’s just get down to brass tacks: There’s no way I’m writing out “children’s lit” all semester. Kidlit it is.
A favourite chapter book is easy. I’m bringing Michelle Magorian’s Back Home, about a World War II evacuee’s return to England after living nearly half her life in America, in great part because I have my copy here in my apartment. My Aunt Rachel and Uncle Tom gave me my copy when I was in the third grade, and now, nearly twenty years later, my copy is in well-loved tatters. In retrospect, it’s a dark novel for an eight-year-old–subjects covered include infidelity, suicide, natural death, depression, corporal punishment, conformity, the dissolution of a marriage, and the word “ass”–but I utterly adored it. Rusty Dickinson, our artistic, athletic heroine, is a true survivor whose rebellion against an environment hellbent on cutting her down to size has always been incredibly appealing to me. I’ve read it over and over, and every time, I find more to appreciate in it.
A picture book is harder. All the beloved choices of my childhood live six hours away from me, these days. Several of them are out of print; many of them aren’t available through the library system up here. (For whatever reason, the rest of the world doesn’t look upon stories like Florence and Eric Take the Cake and Baby Blue Cat and the Whole Batch of Cookies with the same nostalgic reverence I do. Their loss.) Eventually I decided that, since I can’t have one of my actual books anyway, maybe I should buy a used copy of something I’ve never owned and bring that. And that’s how I decided to go with Trinka Hakes Noble’s Apple Tree Christmas.
It’s another obscure one (though hopefully you’re familiar with Noble’s The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash), and up til this year, I’d never seen a copy in person. You see, when I was a little girl, I had cassette upon cassette of books taped off library recordings, and I’d listen to them over and over. I vividly remember sitting in my childhood bedroom (purple and wood walls, mottled dark pinky-purple carpeting, a bed spread with hearts and Sesame Street characters on the quilt) with my parents and their creakity old turntable; I’m just old enough that some of my tapes came from books on record. Among my collection of books on tape were
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day
- Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Saturday
- The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
- The Chocolate Touch
- The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash
- Jimmy’s Boa Bounces Back
- Apple Tree Christmas
I want to say I had The Tenth Good Thing About Barney as well, because I know that story absurdly well but don’t feel anything at all for the illustrations in the book. And there were surely plenty more titles beyond those. I had music, as well, Marlo Thomas and Judy Garland and the original cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun and children’s songs and stories I can describe to you but not name. A dramatic retelling of Mary Had a Little Lamb about just how they met, for instance. And something about a sad little zebra, the details of which have fled, but the feelings–of loneliness, mostly–of which have lingered into my adulthood.
I suppose if I looked, I could find these cassettes in my mother’s basement, buried away with the detritus of three childhoods and two moves. I could convert them to mp3 and glory in the voices that brought these stories to life for me. Someday, I’d like to. But thus far, I haven’t, and unless I do, I’ll never be able to experience these books in a way that feels like my childhood. The illustrations for Apple Tree Christmas are pretty but foreign to me. Ray Cruz’s Alexander is expressive, but he doesn’t look quite the way I pictured him–and the black serif text doesn’t get across the voice I hear in my head when I think of the words “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair.”
And I’ve been thinking that perhaps that’s why wailing and gnashing of teeth over ebooks seems silly to me. Books weren’t the first medium for story; they’ve never been the only medium; they won’t be the last. No book in the world will tell to you “Little Red Riding Hood” as my mother told it to me, with the wolf locking Grandma in the closet and the hunter chasing the wolf away. (I was baffled and disgusted as a child to find that other children were told pernicious lies about the grandmother being swallowed up by the wolf, and the wolf’s stomach being filled up with stones. What a horrible thing to do to an animal, even if it wasn’t an innocent one!) Even if you found a story with the right text, you’d miss my mother’s voice, and the expressions of her face and hands. Even if you had my cassette tapes and a boombox, you wouldn’t have my little twin bed to lay on, or my glittery white ceiling, which sparkled like stars at night when only my Christmas lights were on, to look at. Stories are experiences, and books are only one way to experience them.
At the same time, I think I can understand the fears and uncertainties hiding behind comments like “I read books, not Nooks” and “But people will miss the feeling of paper!” Change is frightening, and seeing your preferred medium derided as a thing of the past can hurt, especially if you’ve been told similar things about yourself. (Not everyone who’s anti-ereader is old, but I can tell you from field experience that a lot of them are.) But it doesn’t do any good to be a jerk to other people about it.
Anyway, that’s the news here. Getting ready for school, distracting myself from the looming specter of an interview in the short term. I’ll let you know how it goes, internets.