Growing Up Book-Nerdy

Some people are born into families that could double as debate teams, folk music groups, or sailboat crews. Not me. I grew up in a family that was—I realize now—essentially a Nerdy Book Club.

In my early years, I lived with my mother, her parents, and her aunt in a Baltimore row house a few blocks from Johns Hopkins University. My mother and her mother—elementary school teachers—lived and breathed the books they loved, and because they ran the house, this attitude prevailed.

The author, age 9?, in her native habitat

In our family, great fictional characters, clever stories, and memorable turns of phrase didn’t just live inside the covers of books that we each read privately, then returned to the shelf or the library. Instead, they were shared things, a form of currency we exchanged at the dining room table, at the kitchen sink, in the garden—wherever.

Not every book we read achieved this status, of course. Our Nerdy Book Club had its favorites.

A.A. Milne. Almost every real-life situation could be related back to Winnie the Pooh. “Oh bother,” my grandmother might say if she couldn’t get a lid off a jar. Sometimes she’d break out in song: “How sweet to be a cloud/ Floating in the blue/ Every little cloud/ Always sings aloud.” For my seventh birthday party, my mother adapted “Eeyore’s Birthday” into a play. I, of course, played Eeyore. We cast my favorite classmate as Pooh, but she took ill and a stand-in had to be found, inducing in me an Eeyore-ish despair that significantly deepened my performance, I’m sure.

Robert McCloskey. The cast-iron pair of miniature mallards (one male, one female) that often joined us at the dining room table weren’t just ducks, they were Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. Much time was spent chatting them up over jam and toast—the elevenses of the Pooh books. When doughnuts were on offer, we’d talk about Homer Price. And when my baby teeth started loosening, we had One Morning in Maine.

Beatrix Potter. Hunca Munca, Benjamin Bunny, Peter Rabbit—we loved the whole furry lot of them. According to family lore, my reader’s training wheels came off during The Tale of Two Bad Mice, when my family realized I hadn’t just memorized the book, I could actually read the words.

 

I had the same last name as a well-known children’s book author—a name that came from my father, who lived elsewhere but sometimes gave me books that no other family member had, books like Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree. He was a reader too.

After high school, I retained membership in the Nerdy Book Club. I got two degrees in English, began working in publishing, and started dating a bookstore clerk who later became a librarian. We even wed in a public library. Now we have books—and the shelves to hold them—in every room of the house except the bathrooms, and that day may soon come.

Our 12-year-old son got his Nerdy Book Club membership card early, of course. I’m not sure he ever had a choice in the matter.

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Elisabeth Dahl’s first book, a middle-grade novel entitled GENIE WISHES, will be published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, in spring 2013. She also writes for adults. She can be found at elisabethdahl.com and on Twitter: @ElisabethDahl.