A Reading Life: A Travel Map To Acceptance by Margo Sorenson
“Tomorrow, we’re wearing just our slips to school. If you want to be in our secret club, you have to come to school wearing only your slip, no dress,” my new fifth-grade classmate said, her eyes shifting back to the other girls standing behind her.
I mean, really! Who would believe this, even for a moment? But, I was naïve, gullible, and in a totally foreign environment. Luckily, after some disastrous interactions earlier in the week, my first-ever full-time week in an American elementary school, I was already on alert. Some basic instinct kicked in, and it slowly dawned on me that they might be bullying me, so, even though I longed desperately to be in their secret club, I did wear a dress over my slip the next day. Just imagine!
Update: I had been dropped down unceremoniously by my sweet, but equally-clueless, parents into a brand-new culture, nominally my “passport country,” with very little armor, but at least a dress to wear over my slip. This being decades ago (yes, I am that old — and yes, it still does seem like yesterday!), none of the kids in my school spoke more than one language, nor had any of them lived anywhere but in the U.S. for their entire lives. Because I pretty much looked like everyone else, (except for the very wrong European clothes, shoes, and haircut), I was expected to act like everyone else, which was so not happening. I had never dialed a phone, had never owned a TV, had no idea what a 45 rpm record was, was used to being driven around in a car with little American flags flying on the hood, and politely greeted every single person I saw, kid or adult, with a “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon.” Instant social death ensued! Being the quintessential “Third Culture Kid” (you can google this), I was totally different from everyone I knew – and did they ever know it. Not only was I in shock, but, honestly, they probably were, too.
Reading saved me. At first, it was my familiar European history books (you can whisper, “Nerd!” here). All my life, I’d seen castles and palazzos on a daily basis, so it was reassuring to read about the people who had lived in them, had fought their battles, and had come out unscathed on the other side. H.E. Marshall’s OUR ISLAND STORY still delights me today with the vivid stories from the history of the British Empire.
EL CID CAMPEADOR by Ramon Menendez Pidal was another favorite, and the story of the young cid and his adventures inspired me to tackle great obstacles. MARY POPPINS and MARY POPPINS IN THE PARK by P.L. Travers, recommended by our UK counterpart diplomatic families, soothed me with familiar settings of nannies and kids involved in their own worlds and entertained me with fantastical, whimsical humor and “Spit-spot, off to bed you go.”
MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE by T.H. White transported me to the dilapidated palace of Malplaquet in England, with intrepid ten-year-old Maria trying to save her Lilliputians, a book I reviewed on June 14th’s Nerdy Book Club.
THE MYSTERY OF MONT SAINT-MICHEL by Michel Rouze enthralled me with its danger, mystery, and the resourcefulness of the young main characters, trapped by the tides in the ancient, magnificent abbey off the French coast.
Little by little, my reading life travel map was leading me through history and into the present day, although I admit it was still too heavily-vested in my European background.
As I began to settle tentatively into my new American existence, my reading journey expanded into books by American authors. My grandmother introduced me to the LITTLE COLONEL series by Annie Fellows Johnston, and the very Southern, and thus alien (!), setting enlarged my horizons once again, and I rejoiced with the Little Colonel at each step forward on her “Road of the Loving Heart.”
LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott was another eye-opener for this newbie to American culture, and Jo endeared herself to me with her spirit, as I soaked up the American cultural references to daily living in the past. HITTY, HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, by Rachel Field, gave me a deeper historical understanding of my “new” country, and I read it over and over again.
Helen Wells’s CHERRY AMES, NURSE series engaged me with the main character’s all-American resilience, the girl who let nothing stand in her way.
Finally, Carolyn Keene’s NANCY DREW series and Nancy’s take-charge, no-nonsense attitude thrilled me, and I thought there could be no better goal than to solve mysteries no one else could. (If any of my editors are reading this, I hope they feel free to smile, since, as they well know, how to make revisions in my manuscripts has always been a big mystery for me to solve!)
Keeping my nose in a book helped bridge the chasm between my old life and my new existence, and reading about young, strong main characters enabled me to put those bullies in perspective. I am deeply grateful to those authors who spoke so clearly to my heart from the printed page, assuring me that, yes, I could make it in this new world.
The reading life and its travel map for my journey saved me, and as you might guess, reading continues to be a major part of my life to this day, as it most likely is for you who are reading these Nerdy Book Club posts. Just in case you’re wondering, although my family and friends assure me I am still naïve and gullible, I have yet to wear only a slip anywhere!
With her latest middle grade/tween novel TIME OF HONOR (MuseItUp Publishing) featuring a prep school debater catapulted into the middle ages to prevent a murder, Margo Sorenson continues to draw on her life’s experiences to write her twenty-eight books for young readers. A Minnesota Book Award Finalist in YA Fiction and Milken National Educator Award recipient, Margo can be found at www.margosorenson.com and on Twitter as @ipapaverison.
Such a great example of how we can learn about cultures and how to navigate through them with books.
Gigi, thank you so much for reading this post and for your very kind comments. Aloha!
Books have carried me through the learning from them, too. I am glad you didn’t wear that slip only! Good for you! It is lovely to hear about some of the older books that still might speak to some students. Thanks.
Linda, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments, and I hope you can use some of those books with students. Aloha!
As a teacher at an international school with Third Culture Kids myself (now 19 and 21), I so feel your long ago pain- books can definitely be a bridge! Thanks!
These days a slip might pass for a party dress, but, oh, what a disaster that would have been “back in the day!”
You make me smile, Ann — how true! Thanks for reading the post. Aloha!
Erika, what fun to run into someone else who knows about TCKs and all the attendant feelings! Thank you for your lovely post!
I used reading in a similar manner, different fact scenario of course. I was able to draw strength and knowledge from books to help me bridge through times in my life. At one of those times, I actually followed the map laid out in the book and followed much of the same journey geographically (present time of course 🙂
Debra, that reading journey sounds wonderful! Reading does save us, doesn’t it? Aloha!
I love hearing a bit more about you, Margo! 🙂 Books are such good friends, especially to children. I completely understand you saying that they saved you. Love the titles you showcase and the slip story! (I must say, several of my students would do well to realize that what they’re wearing could easily pass for a slip some days ;).
Thanks, Meradeth! I just read today that Lady Antonia Fraser named OUR ISLAND STORY as the first and most influential book she’d read (though she read it at age four; I was seven!); obviously, that is one of only the few things we have in common — I wish there were more (multiple, well-respected books!)! Thanks for reading and stopping by!