Growing Up On Books

I will never love a book as much as I love Little Women.  I read it when I was ten or eleven, an impressionable age.  I longed to become Jo the writer and marry the warm-hearted Professor Baer, and I pretty much did.  I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries, thrilled to have a clever, spunky role model.  I adored To Kill A Mockingbird.  No amount of re-reading diminishes its impact.

Gone with the Wind was one of my favorite novels.  Today, it seems dated and not at all politically correct, glorifying, as it does, the Southern plantation system, but none of this occurred to me as a child in North Carolina.  What I remember most distinctly was that delicious feeling of being totally immersed in the book’s aura, and holing up in my room for days on end (the book clocks in at over 700 pages), and not wanting the experience to end.

My mother read to us all the time when we were children.  The books she loved—Peter RabbitWinnie-the-Pooh, andCharlotte’s Web, (she could not make it through the ending without choking up)—are still my favorites.  Our house was filled with books.  Reading was something we did naturally, and all the time.  It didn’t seem that remarkable or important.  It’s only as an adult, looking back, that I realize how reading helped shape the person I became.

Travel and foreign cultures have been an important part of my life, in part because of The Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia of People and Places.  After graduating from college and spending two years in Korea teaching English to Koreans and editing a hotel magazine, I took an overland trip from Nepal to England in a converted army truck with roll-up canvas sides.  We camped in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iran.  When I returned home and looked up the Book of Knowledge entry on Afghanistan, I was horrified to read their description of the national Afghani dress as a dirty pair of loose fitting pants and a headdress.  (Really? Reading this as a child, would I have identified the racist nature of that dirty pair of pants?)

I was introduced to the world’s great works of art through a Book-of- the-Month club series that featured color reproductions in a pocket in the back of the slim volumes.  When I encountered these works in the major museums of the world, they were like old friends.

I read somewhere that a major indicator of a child’s success was not the income level of the parents, but the number of books in the home. How will this play out in the age of Kindles, I-Pads and Nooks?

But the experience of reading, of getting lost in another world, of learning to see things from inside the skin of someone different from you—has always been, and will continue to be an act of the imagination, and it doesn’t matter if the words are between hard covers or lit up on a screen.

BARBARA WRIGHT grew up in North Carolina, and has lived all over the world, from France, to Korea, to El Salvador.  She has worked as a fact-checker for Esquire and as a screenwriter. This is her first novel for children.