Reading to Understand the World

Today, Mr. Schu interviews Anita on his blog. Be sure to check out the interview after you read Anita’s post.

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When I think of books and my childhood reading, two images come immediately to mind. The first a small, few hundred volume library in the Village Elementary School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That was my favorite place; there I had access to new books every day and week. Recently I had dinner with one of my friends from that school, Fred Friedman, a defense lawyer in Duluth, Minnesota, and between the two of us we could reconstruct every section of the library. We knew where the reference books were located — the Landmark History shelf, the new titles, the popular series.

The librarian allowed me to lug home every week a huge World Atlas.  I would painstakingly copy out Portugal or Spain, trying to get the shape and landmarks correct. By the end of 6th grade I had read every book in that library. Growing up in Indiana in the 1950s, I did not have, nor did I know any child who had, a collection of books at home. Hence that small library, and the teachers who sent me there, became my refuge.

The other image comes from summer vacations at the home of my Grandmother and Grandfather McKitrick in Marietta, Ohio. Oh, they were readers, passionate readers. My grandfather would throw a book he disliked across the room and swear. My grandmother had amassed a house full of books – the sagas of Leo Edwards like Poppa Ott and the Galloping Snail, all of the Jean Stratton Porter volumes. I collect first-edition Porters today, just so I can feel close to her. At the beginning of every summer vacation, my grandmother took me to the public library where we checked out as many volumes as possible, piles of titles to read. One summer I read only Greek and Roman Mythology. Another only biography. She understood my love of books – and shared her own with me.

I have always read, in large part, for information about the world. I believe I loved novels like Anne of Green Gables because I learned about Prince Edward Island from it or The Secret Garden, because it taught me about pruning roses. I devoured then and now history, geography, biography; I was one of those readers who wanted to know if something had really happened, if something was true.

I don’t know if this proclivity was nature (genetic inheritance from my engineer father) or nurture, my reaction to my mother’s tendency to exaggerate and invent details. Inevitably, when she got going, I headed to my prize possession, a set of Compton’s Encyclopedia, to look up their rendition of the subject in question. “I will believe this,” I once told her, “if I find it in the Encyclopedia!” A no-nonsense researcher even then.  After a couple of years in the children’s book field, when interviewed about an editorial position in publishing, I stated that I only wanted to edit and publish nonfiction.

Today I write for the child I was, for children like me. I have such sympathy for her – that bookish, exuberant, loving child who was interested in “the facts, mam, only the facts.” Anne Shirley without the red hair. I could find myself so often in books; I could understand all those things no one explained to me. They gave me a road map if I ever wanted to travel to Portugal. They gave me a road map for life.

Creator of the Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac, Anita Silvey has served as Editor of the Horn Book Magazine and Publisher of Children’s Books at Houghton Mifflin. Her new book, The Plant Hunters, is being published on April 10.