When I was just a little girl, my mother used to read to me.
This was not unusual – lots of little girls have their parents read to them when they’re about to tuck them in for the night. Stories are so much a foundation on which our childhoods were built, which whole great cities of our adult lives subsequently sprang from.
But I was, perhaps, different in one respect. I don’t remember having picture books – EVER. I started with words, from the get go, and the book that my mother was reading to me – at age three, and I could not yet read myself – was Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi”.
And I loved it. I loved the story, and even at three years old I somehow found something in it – something more, something richer, than “See Spot Run. I loved it so much, in fact, that when Mum finished reading it to me I squirmed and said, “Start it again.”
And she said, “No, I won’t! You’ve already heard it once. We’ll start on something else next time.”
But I *loved* it. I did. And I was not ready to say goodbye.
So I taught myself to read.
It is my first real coherent childhood memory that I can swear to – me somewhere in between three and four years old, walking into the kitchen, clutching “Heidi” to my chest, and asking my mother if she wanted me to read to her. She, not entirely unexpectedly, heard what she thought she heard – me asking HER to read to ME, not the other way around – and there I was,standing there clutching the self-same book she had already heard me importune her about – and she began to tell me again that no, she wouldn’t read to me, not that, not right then, there was dinner, and there would be a new book… and then I opened the book and started to read from it.
She dropped the pot she was holding.
Granted, I had an advantage – my mother tongue is entirely and completely phonetic and I could figure out the written word from the sounds which I had heard when she had read the thing to me – but still, I had gone away and puzzled it all out, all by myself.
And I haven’t stopped reading since.
When I was growing up there was no such thing as a YA market. Kids read kids books and then they read adult books – and in my house whatever was on the shelves was not forbidden to me. I read the collected works of Howard Spring and Pearl Buck – still in translation, because I was still living in the old country – by the time I was ten – and then we moved, and I learned English, and by thirteen I was reading the complete unabridged John Galsworthy in ENGLISH without much trouble.
I read a few “young” books on the way, aside from the immotal “Heidi”. I worked my way through “Little Women”, and “Pippi Longstocking”. I read the diary of Anne Frank, although I don’t know how YA that might be considered these days. I ploughed through the (I might add unadulterated and unsaccharined) fairy tales from the old dark forests and grey shores of Germany and France and the Scandinavian countries (and let me tell you the original “Little Mermaid” is not at all what Disney made of it…) I fell in love with a series of books about a bunch of kids and their “Lone Pine Club”, by a writer called Macolm Saville. I read Jane Yolen, C S LEwis, Tolkien, some early Zelazny, Asimov,Lloyd Alexander, James Cabell, Ursula Le Guin. I fell more and more in love with more complex and more fascinating historical and fantasy stories, which led from “The Hobbit” to “Lord of the RIngs” and the Silmarillion, from Earthsea to “The Left Hand of Darkness”, from the chronicles of Amber to “A Song for Arbonne” and “Tigana”.
I don’t have a favorite “children’s book”. I was never a child, not in that sense. I don’t even have a favorite book, because I have so many favorites, because so many writers have had a hand in molding and shaping my imagination.
I love books – I love ’em all. My house is stuffed with them, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and still I collect more and more of them – they are my nesting material, they are the dreams that I surround myself with to feel safe and warm, they are the meta-truths
I believe in order to understand the reality of the world that truly exists all around me. I’ve always read, and will always read, and half of me is always trying to keep a foothold in reality while the other half is off with the fairies, or somewhere in the frozen North with Jack London, or padding about Narnia in the company of Aslan who is Not A Tame Lion, or… or… or listening to the whisper of Alpine winds outside a cottage in the mountains where a girl called Heidi once slept and where she and I, both, did our growing up and finally learned what love was.