I've tried to start blogs before. Video blogs, journals, YouTube channels. Since I was ten years old I've pretty much failed at any kind of daily diary keeping activities. You'd think this would be easy for me. I love to write. I love to read. But for some reason, I've never managed to stick with the discipline of journaling for more than a few months. I'm good at finishing other projects I start, but not this one. Still, past failure shouldn't keep one from trying again and so for me, 2011 will be the year I start a blog and stick to it.
At least that's the plan and you know what Robert Browning says about the best laid plans of mice and men...
I decided I couldn't start another diary/journal/blog/channel just about myself. Maybe my problem isn't so much stick-to-it-tiveness as it is I just didn't know what to say about myself. I have a lot to say though. Especially about books. I love books. I love reading; have loved it since kindergarten when all the letters and sounds made so much sense on paper and inside my mind. I read the word "cat" and I saw in my head my first pet Custard (named after Strawberry Shortcake's faithful pink companion). Words just worked for me. They were easy and fun and I wanted more and more and more.
By third grade, I'd burned through all the curriculum-based easy readers. They were flimsy, printed-paper books barely dirtied by my sweaty little hands before I was handing them back to my frustrated teacher, Ms. S., a huge smile plastered over my face at having completed another "book". One day, Ms. S. handed me a novel. It was Rainbow Garden by Patricia M. St. John. I barely recall anything about this book except the title. I remembered nothing about the plot or characters or setting until, many years later, I found a copy in a library discard pile and picked it up for a quarter. What I do remember is how this book made me feel. The thick weight of the spine in my hand; the size of it! I looked up at Ms. S. in disbelief.
"I can't read this book," I said. "It's too big."
"I think you can read it. Try."
I took it, trotted to my desk, and started reading, confident if my teacher said I could do it, then I could.
I've taught students for almost a decade. I know now what my teacher was trying to do. I was bugging her, skipping up to her desk, beaming with work completed. I've known those bright students pulling ahead of the rest of the group and I've loved teaching them as much as I'm sure Ms. S. loved teaching me. (At least that's what she wrote in my yearbook.) But she was busy. She had papers to grade and folders to assemble. (Those were the days before teacher's assistants.) She could have assigned me a task--sweep the floor, wipe the chalkboard. She could have pulled from the stack of extra worksheets every clever teacher keeps on hand for clever students who finish their assigned work too soon. She could have gotten frustrated with me and told me to sit down, stop bothering her, just be quiet. She didn't.
She handed me a book. One that was a stretch for my reading level. I'm sure she knew it when she put it in my hands. But not too difficult. My teacher handed me a book to challenge me, expand my imagination. Most of the words were familiar, but the context was completely new. There were no helpful illustrations like in our curriculum readers. The text was small and blocked together without breaks between the paragraphs. I could sound out, but not comprehend, all the words or the British variations. Over the next few weeks, I struggled through the book, making enough meaning to understand, to keep my imagination going and my curiosity about what would happen next. I bugged Ms. S. some more until she told me to make a list of words I had questions about. And every day she helped explain the words I didn't know, just to me for a few minutes during lunch. She corrected my pronunciation, explained the tricky misfits to the rules of English grammar we were learning in class. In those little lessons, Ms. S. did more than expand my vocabulary. She gave me the tools--determination, visualization, personal connection--to form a lifelong love of reading, a lifelong love of novels.
I'm rereading Rainbow Garden now. Details filter through in a kind of deja vu soup. It's ground I've walked before, but the terrain is unfamiliar and new, a place I half remember but have mostly forgotten. I understand why Ms. S. put this book in my hands. I grew up in a Christian home and she knew my parents would encourage this kind of didactic storytelling. Now with the eyes of an adult who studies children's literature, I cannot recommend this book. The style, for the modern reader at least, is nothing resembling a child's voice though the story is told in first person. The plot reads like a ripoff of Frances Burnett Hodgeson's The Secret Garden--ill-tempered girl sent to live in the Welsh countryside where she finds escape in a picturesque English garden. The overt Christian themes--a vicar with a devoted wife and six bouncing children who respectfully listen in silence while he reads the evenings Bible devotion--are much too over the top. The characters are one dimensional. Mother is distant, Mr. and Mrs. Owen warm and kind-hearted, the Owen children exuberant yet compliant to their parent's every wish. Elaine, the main character, is the only one who undergoes any kind of character development. Unfortunately, it's of the completely predictable kind. Of course snobbish, selfish Elaine is converted into a patient, loving girl. Of course everything works out for the best at the end of the book. Of course there is a happily ever after ending where all things work together for good. I'm not discrediting the overall themes of virtue over vice at all, but when it's delivered in such a stilted, stylized way, it's difficult to take for long.
Fortunately for me, I was a very different read at age eight, one not nearly so critical. :-) That first novel led to another. And another. Mysteries. Adventures. Fantasies. Romances. Nonfiction. The Bible (the King James Version I might add.) I read anything I could get my hands on, including at one point my mother's old medical textbooks stuffed into the bottom of our living room cabinet. Reading became something like breathing to me. I read when I woke up. I read before turning out my light. And I read under the covers with a flashlight when the book was just too good to put down for the night. I still love to read. As I'm merging my love of reading with a love of writing, I look to the literally hundreds of books on my shelves for inspiration. One day, I want the books I've written to carry as much inspiration for someone as that first novel did for me. I want to read, and write, books to challenge, and change, the way we see the world.