I remember the first time I fell in love with a book. I was in the second grade, and Lori Russo and I were in the media center together. She passed me a tape cassette and said, “Listen to this one. It’s good.” It was E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” I thought she was wrong; the title was weird, so how could the story be good? But she was. I put on the headphones and was immediately enthralled by Claudia’s desire to take her younger brother Jamie and run away to New York. The library period ended way before the book did, and I had to put the tape recorder away in a hurry. I immediately forgot the title, and spent many weeks in mourning for it, until it finally occurred to me to describe the plot to the librarian. She pulled the book out for me and I checked it out, delighted.
Even today, having not read the book in over 30 years, I remember the details that captured me: How Claudia had fished a free ride to the city out of her father’s wastebasket. How they hid out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How Claudia instructed Jamie to hide in the bathroom at closing time by keeping the stall unlatched and standing on the toilet seat. How they slept on a giant poster bed in the middle of an exhibit on Elizabethan England, and bathed and fished coins out of a fountain. How Claudia realized the statue was carved by Michelangelo by seeing that the carpet underneath it was “crushed up.”
After I read the library book, I got my mother to buy me my own copy. That’s how I decided which books to buy when I was a child: I’d only buy books I’d previously read and loved. In fact, I wouldn’t think of buying a book if I hadn’t already read it. My books were my best friends, and how could I read a book, love it, and not want to own it? Similarly, why would I invite a book into my room if I didn’t know it?
As a child, I read my favorite books again and again and again. Along with “From the Mixed-Up Files,” those included the Little House books, mysteries about the Three Investigators, “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” “Charlotte’s Web,” The Beezus books (Whenever I hear the National Anthem, I think about The Danzer Lee Light), Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” Encyclopedia Brown, “Caddie Woodlawn,” and the Brain, just for starters. And I didn’t just read them. I carted them to school with me. I slept with them, along with my stuffed animals. I didn’t have security blankets; I had security books.
The characters in those books sometimes seemed more real to me than the kids in my neighborhood; the ones I went to school with. They kept me company; inspired me; entertained me. And they were often the ones I was paying attention to rather than the teacher. I always had a book in my lap or hidden in a textbook. And of course I was one of those kids who stayed up way past her bedtime, unable to put down that book. Just one more chapter. Just one more…
At some point – I think I was in middle school – I began to see the wisdom of buying books I hadn’t already read. And before that I stopped sleeping with books … although a few stuffed animals still made their way into my bed, including a teddy bear I had in college. And then I was required to read “Bleak House.”
As an adult, the closest I’ve gotten to that early love is in series genre fiction. There was a vampire hunter who actually had me buying books I’d checked out of the library – and re-reading them a few times – until the author got lost in a sea of sex and fur. And mysteries with a strong female protagonist are always in my TBR pile.
For both children and adults, the best books are those that introduce strong characters in new worlds. Sometimes that world is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sometimes that world is one where vampires run for elected office.
What are some books you’ve read as an adult that you’ve loved enough to read more than once?