I can’t recall many stories from my youth. Isn’t that terrible? I know I read. A lot. I remember the carpet in the Casper Public Library. I can recall the frustrated anticipation of waiting for the Scholastic book club orders to be distributed. I had a system for questioning librarians and teachers to find out if the dog in the story died before I would risk the first chapter. I even finagled a job in the school library after school. Mrs. Schuster would let me put away books and dust shelves in exchange for book recommendations and the occasional sweet treat. But when I try to remember which books I read, and what actually happened in the stories— apart from a few favorite exceptions I’m usually blank. Middle school and high school are a whole different experience. I don’t know if my brain became more capable of retaining information, but I can recount whole passages from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (Stay gold, Ponyboy!). I can tell you about Holden Caulfield’s malaise and what Elizabeth and Jessica fought over at Sweet Valley High (I know.). But my middle grade years are kind of a blur. That’s where my heart lies as a writer and a reader, so the realization freaked me out. It didn’t make any sense.
Except, when I looked at the big picture, I do remember those books. I may not be able to recount the plot but the books I read in those years left countless tiny marks. Those stories affect my outlook and choices every day in a hundred different ways. I remember what Edward was willing to do for Turkish Delight in Narnia, but it wasn’t readily available in Wyoming. I found Turkish Delight for sale years later on a trip to Canada and whooped in the middle of the shop. I snatched up a bunch and expected bliss. The kind I found was rose flavored, and not worthy of selling out even a single member of my family, but finding it and tasting it still made a perfect afternoon. It created an opportunity, a way to connect with the world, and a dormant curiosity that I would have lacked if I’d never picked up C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The pre-internet Wyoming of the 1980s did not have an abundance of variety. I found it in books. I didn’t remember many details of the stories from Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing (Judy Blume), Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh) and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg) until I reread them as an adult, but I recall that they made kid me long to visit New York City. I still think of each of them whenever I’m there, along with George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square. I’ll always stray from travel plans for a side trip to explore a beloved story’s setting. And throughout my life, putting on a red hoodie makes me feel a little scrappy, like Harriet. I may not remember the details, but I am made out of the story bits.
It’s not just about wanderlust and differences though. What Wyoming lacks in variety it makes up for in snow. I’ve known blizzards similar to those that the Ingalls family endured through the Little House series. Something as basic as a snowstorm gave me a way to understand the pioneer lives of Laura and Mary. I never fought a prairie fire or volleyed an inflated pig bladder with my sister (I don’t think I’d tell you if I had.), but I could empathize with being homebound in a storm. And I don’t always resist the temptation to make maple syrup candy on fresh snow. I can never recall how Templeton helped Wilbur in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, but the memory of Charlotte has led me to peacefully relocate, rather than squish, countless spiders.
I try to pass on my favorites to my kids, so that those beloved books can leave marks on them as well. My son pointed out a basket of white tomatoes at the farmer’s market, and I knew he remembered a certain vampire bunny. He brings up the Boxcar Children when we come across berries in the woods. On a recent weekend in Portland we drove down Klickitat Street to pay homage to Beverly Cleary and the Quimbys, and then passed through Forest Park to soak up the foggy green ambiance that inspired Wildwood (Colin Meloy/Carson Ellis). He’s building his own canon, too. We’re planning a trip to England to visit his grandparents and I’m certain we’ll pass through King’s Cross Station, thanks to J.K. Rowling, before we head north to the relatives. Maybe his love of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series will lead him to Greece someday. He already has a better grasp of mythology than I do. The more books he reads the more possibilities he will have. He might forget most of the stories he’s devouring now, as I did, but I’m sure they’re leaving their marks.
How about you? What books have left their formative mark?
Kim Baker’s debut middle grade novel, Pickle, is available from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She won’t confirm membership in any secret societies. Kim admits that there might have been an incident with some strategic frog placement, but scaring those strangers in the graveyard was accidental…sort of. Moving around a lot as a kid taught her two things: silliness is a great way to make pals, and goofy people make the best friends. She lives in Seattle with her family and still goofs off. A lot. You can see more at www.kimbakerbooks.com and on twitter as @kim_bak.
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