I was the youngest of five kids. And there was quite an age spread among the children in our family: 18 years between me and my eldest brother. Add to this the fact that my father was an older dad (he was nearly 50 when I was born, and 14 years older than my mother) and you can imagine the multigenerational quality of just my immediate family. Our experiences and perspectives could be quite different. But one thread was common from oldest to youngest: reading.
By the time I came along, the books had begun to pile up. But this was a good thing; a great thing. I had my own ready-made library at home, and, unlike what kids can face in some (less-enlightened) libraries and classrooms, there was no expectation as to what I could read, what I couldn’t read, what I should read, or what I shouldn’t read. Everything was available, and I could take it or leave it, depending on my mood or interest level that day, or month, or year.
I started out reading a lot of Dr. Seuss (hand-me-downs from my Dad’s doctor’s office), liberally intermixed with Peanuts comic strip collections (started by my eldest brother, Keith, and dating back to the first books Schulz released in the 1950s). I read The Flying Hockey Stick and Giants Come in Different Sizes (from my brother Jon’s shelves). I obsessively read and re-read books about the Gemini and Mercury missions (books that belonged to my brother Ian; he was born before there was an Apollo program). Later I would methodically go through every series in my sister Jenni’s fantasy collection—including The Chronicles of Narnia, the Earthsea books, the Xanth series, and the Dragonriders of Pern books. It was quite a feast that had been set before me.
But maybe more important than what I read was how I read. In our house, there was never any pressure to have to read anything at any particular time. With our hand-me-down library, I never needed to get permission—even from a librarian or a parent—to read anything. (I probably should have gotten permission before I went into my siblings’ rooms and took their books, but too bad! That’s what happens when you have brothers and sisters. Ha!) So when I was 8 years old and wanted to read nothing but B.C. and Wizard of Id comic strip collections for a week straight, no one said, “no.” When I was in my teens and still went back to pore over Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, no one said that the book was beneath my reading level. When I tried to read the Tom Swift books and lost interest and put them back on the shelf, no one said that I really needed to finish that book before I started another one. There was a real freedom in being surrounded by such a random collection of books, and having access to them—all of them—at any time.
The books on my family’s bookshelves had been acquired by different people at different times in their lives. It was a treat to be able to access them when I was ready to, when I was at the same point in my life—or, when I was older and at a point to glean something new from a book that was, by then, “too young” for me. Because the thing is, you never know when you’re going to be ready for a particular book. There are still days when I want to go back and examine Dr. Seuss’s work. And I’m still not sure I’m all that interested in Tom Swift. But having a hand-me-down library can yield some surprises far down the line. On my desk, I have a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which I just finally got around to reading about five years ago. The inscription on the endpapers reads, “To Wendell / March – 1922 / Best Wishes / Emmie.” … which means that this particular hand-me-down book was a gift from my Grandmother to my Grandfather some 90 years ago.
Talk about starting a family tradition!
Matthew Holm is the co-creator of the award-winning Babymouse series of graphic novels from Random House Children’s Books. His latest books are A Very Babymouse Christmas and Squish: The Power of the Parasite. Prior to working in children’s publishing, Matt spent eight years writing about kitchens (among other topics) for Country Living Magazine. He currently lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife and dog.