Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
With Kid Gloves
By Roxanne Fequiere
A funny thing happened over the summer. While I was writing about books written in or set in the 1980s, I discovered that Roald Dahl’s Matilda was released in 1988. A couple months later, still tickled by this fact during my month tackling books focused in or around school, I decided to write about my experience rereading Matilda—both as an adult, and as seen through the eyes of my babysitting charge, to whom I’d been reading it out loud. As swept up as I was in this revisitation of one of my favorite books from childhood, I completely forgot that this one-book-a-week project wasn’t supposed to include any books written by men. I literally didn’t pick up on the anomaly until a few days ago.
When I think about my earliest reading experiences, the authors responsible for creating them tend to skew male. Later, there was Nancy Drew, written by a slew of women under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, Ann M. Martin’s BSC, Connie Porter’s Addy books, Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh, and Judy Blume, but at first there was Arnold Lobel and Ezra Jack Keats, William Steig, Dr. Seuss, Bernard Waber, and Maurice Sendak. When I decided to do a month of revisiting early childhood books, I found that most of the titles I wanted to crack open were written by men.
To be clear, it’s not something I’m particularly torn up about—just a pattern I don’t think I would have picked up on without this project encouraging me to reexamine my past and current relationship with narrative. As in so many other areas of the literary world, are there overlooked stories that weren’t assigned by my teachers; weren’t carried by my local library; weren’t recommended by reading lists that could have shaped my young brain in different ways? Almost certainly, although I’m quite pleased with elementary lessons I did glean from the books I loved as a child—perhaps with the exception of The Giving Tree.
I renewed my appreciation for early reader’s material as a high school-aged library employee, recently transferred from adult fiction to the children’s room upstairs. Unlike the meticulous re-shelving I’d been used to downstairs, keeping the children’s room clean was a more lax affair. If a patron came in looking for a particular picture book, for instance, all we could do was point them in the direction of the author’s last name and hope for the best. The way the kids came in and flung those books around, there was honestly no telling where a particular title might be lurking.
Since the actual work of tidying up didn’t require much more than periodically doing a sweep to remove books from the floor, I found myself with time to flip through those picture books and chapter books and board books; titles I remembered and ones I’d never heard of before. I realized just how compelling a story could be, even with just a handful of pages, spare text, and charming illustrations. Of course, on some level, I’d already known this as a little girl. As a teenager, and now, as an adult, I’m appreciative of these narrative feats in a different way. I’m no longer the intended audience, but I still marvel at the way a well-placed turn of phrase can spark an emotion; the way a well-told story sticks with you, whether it’s an intergenerational immigrant novel of epic proportions or an “I Can Read” book about a frog and toad who are friends.
I’m looking forward to digging up titles I didn’t know about as a child, as well as newer tales that I’d have no reason to pick up if I weren’t embarking on this project. All these years later, I’m still fascinated by the heft of what can lie within the slim volumes that parents acquire to share with their children. The duty of writing for Impressionable young minds is no small one—even the silliest tales can impart universal truths, and it must be done with a light hand. In a world that feels as if it’s forever plunging to fractious new depths and darker horizons, there’s no way to return to the feeling of safety we once felt as children. Every now and then, though, it’s nice to transport one’s self to the safe, if fictional, worlds that gentle wordsmiths create just for their benefit.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.