Sunday, 11 May 2014

A Thought on Mother's Day

On this Mother's Day I thought I would devote a reading-y post to my mom.

Mom and I are very different in some ways - she would hate to have to write creatively for a living and organisation is second nature to her - but we share one very important thing. One thing for which I owe her an eternal, capital lettered THANK YOU:

We share a love, nay, a passion for reading and this is truly one of the greatest gifts I've ever received.

I read in the neighbourhood of 40-60 novels, plays and collections of poetry and short stories every year. And that doesn't include the stories that I listen to on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast or the poems from the Poetry Foundation's Poem of the Day podcast or the work that I read in literary magazines, online and from my students and colleagues. That adds up to hundreds of new world, ideas, images, plays on and with language and hours of joy.

Now I spend my days reading and writing and teaching writing. I cannot think of a better job than the one that I have. I am beyond lucky and I think that much of this is due to the passion that my mother instilled in me from the very beginning.

Growing up, I always received books as gifts from my parents. Christmas, birthdays, Easter - my parents gave me the gift of fiction. It was only recently that I realised that not everyone gets a book from the Easter Bunny. When I was eight, the Easter Bunny brought me an illustrated, hard cover abridged version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It was, to say the least, amazing. And so I did what every eight-year-old does when they get an awesome gift: I brought it to school. Now parents often warn kids not to bring things that they really love into school and I'm sure my parents warned me, but I can't remember that part. What I do remember is when Tommy H. (not his real name) stole it. That's right, stole it.

My intro to the great Mark Twain. Imagine this with a bit of bunny fur in the bottom left corner.


He claimed it was his and it was only by pointing out the bunny fur still stuck to the front cover that I was able to prove that it was mine and reclaim my precious gift. I never brought such a valuable item to school again. In hindsight, Tommy H. was a bit of a tale-teller and I was the goodie-two-shoes to beat all goodie-two-shoes so the risk of me losing my book was probably always fairly slim. Also, Mrs. B could have just asked our parents at the end of the day. The points stands, however, that my parents make books into valuable items. My mother showed me their power. How they can transport and transform. And there was no way I was letting Tommy H. take the adventures I was going to have with Tom Sawyer away from me.

Before I started reading novels on my own, my mother read me Tom McCoughren's fox books. I suppose I was about five or six then and I was completely taken by them. The scene of the three legged fox, Hop-a-long, 'taking a bite' out of the moon during an eclipse has stayed with me all these years. It's the type of scene that I want to write. A scene that will stay with a reader for a quarter of a century. A scene that will inspire a five-year-old to think, "I want to do that."

When I was seven, I wrote the story that my dad says proved to him that I would be a writer. "Bubbles" was about a raccoon adopted by a little and taught table manners. We didn't have many foxes in Boston, but we had plenty of raccoons in the backyard. The characters in my novel now are all humans, so, although the inspiration might not be quite as obvious, I know those hours my mother spent reading Run with the Wind and Run Swift Run Free and all the others were not wasted.

My mother told me only this Christmas that she hadn't been a massive fan of the series, but she had seen how much I loved them and so she had kept reading. She stuck it out because she knew the importance of finding the books that you love to encourage a lifelong affair with reading.

She did the same thing for my brother, though, by the time he came along, the amazing Harry Potter series was taking the world by storm. I say "amazing" and I mean it, even though many writers and teachers bemoan the books as "not good enough."

This was the greatest lesson my mother ever taught me about reading. She taught me that you should read what you love and encourage others to read what they love. As my hyperactive brother swung off the bed, ran around the room and did everything except sit nicely and listen to the story, she kept reading. Every night she read. When I wondered why she bothered, she read. And out of the unlikeliest of people she crafted a reader. She encouraged him to read comic books when that's what he wanted to read. She brought him to the library at the barest hint that there was a new series he might read.

My mother made reading an activity for the family. We talk about books, we recommend them. I'd say that we share them...but I don't. I'm obsessive about the condition of my books which my parents and brother say makes it too stressful for them to borrow from me. I gift them instead and try not to look at the broken spines. Regardless, we are a reading family and the joy that we get from books is something that we all owe a great thanks to my mom for.

Thanks, Mom, and happy Mother's Day! I hope you get a quiet moment to do some of your own reading, today.


***


Note to Readers: I am very lucky to be able to say that the taller half's mother is also a great reader and someone who routinely sends wonderful books my way. In fact, there are so many women in my life - my granny with her house stocked with books, my aunts to send me emails when they've read something amazing, the taller half's sisters who go to book clubs and share books freely, my best friend for 25 years who always has a book in her bag, my wonderful writing ladies and more - all of whom have and still contribute to my literary upbringing. In honour of my mother and all the women out there who contribute to the development of children through reading (because they're not always mothers themselves), here's a completely incomprehensive and entirely biased list of children's literature that might help to foster a lifetime of reading.

When in doubt, do like my mom: help kids to find what they love to read, then get them a library card and help them to read as much of it as they can get their hands on. Then help them to find their next love.


Sheep in a Jeep - Written by Nancy E. Shaw and illustrated by Margot Apple. This is a delight for adults and kids. Funny with a delightful use of language. Also, you can memorize this one and bust it out in sticky situations for guaranteed laughs from fans. Those silly sheep.

Dr. Seuss - Genius. Funny, engaging and doesn't make adults want to cry when the kids demand, "Again! Again!"
 Amelia Bedelia - By Herman Parish and Lynne Avril. If it ain't broke and all that. Amelia is a funny, independent female protagonist. Go, Amelia, go!

Stella Batts - by Courtney Sheinmel. A really nice series of easy chapter books about a girl whose parents own a candy store - awesome! Also, as one very smart mom pointed out to me, "The characters are actually nice to each other. No body calls each other 'stupid' or uses language than I then have to tell my daughter not to use." These are also nice stories for adults to read along with kids and they're really well written, to boot!


Tom McCaughren - The fox series was my favourite, but he's still writing and publishing 30 years on, so there's lots to choose from.

Bone - by Jeff Smith. A graphic novel series that's perfect for early teens.

Watchmen - by Alan Moore. Art by Dave Gibbons. For the comic-resistant amongst you, this graphic novel is regularly listed as one of the best books of all time. The pictures aren't there to dumb down the story, they add to it in an interesting blend of visual and literary art. Just try to convince me that's inherently less impressive than a novel. It's a fantastic read and might just be a way into reading for those put off by literary tomes.

Eoin Colfer - The Artemis Fowl series features a fantastic anti-hero and lots of action.

Lemony Snicket - A Series of Unfortunate Events. How do you get some kids to do things? Tell them not to. This book comes with a warning not to read!

Percy Jackson - by Rick Riordan. The main character is dyslexic, but finds out this is actually a strength, not a disability. Fab series for reluctant readers that dignifies learning disabilities and combats the stigma attached to them.

Harry Potter - by J K Rowling. If kids are actually choosing to read 400+ page books instead of watch television, do we really care if Rowling should have been edited more ruthlessly? Read on, I say. Read on!

The Hunger Games - By Suzanne Collins. I know a US highschool that teaches this in parallel to The Lord of the Flies - genius. Not only does it encourage reading contemporary literature but it also teaches that all literature is in response to what has gone before and the importance of reading widely and deeply - something we're still teaching at the university level. Art doesn't happen or exist in a vacuum. Also, Katniss is another pretty awesome female protagonist and Collins has definitively proven that the claim, "Girls will read about boys but boys won't read about girls" is complete and utter hogwash.

And those are just the tip of the iceberg. So if there are kids in your life - whether you're a mom or a dad, an aunt or an uncle, a grandmother of a grandfather or something else entirely - be a reading role model. Give them a passion that will sustain them through their lives and be a gift that they, too, can pass on.

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