SAVED BY SUMMER READING by Alan Silberberg

I fell in love with summer reading by accident or maybe I should say by survival.

 

Books had always been a huge part of my childhood. My parents loved books and encouraged reading by example and habit. Our weekly trips to the tiny library that was tucked in a corner of the basement of the Tatnuck Public School were magical missions to find armloads of new stories to be devoured under the covers of a childhood as picture-perfect as the books I hoarded.

 

My parents created a reward system where my two sisters and I each had a drawing of a tree taped to the wall and every book we read became a leaf on our tree. Ten leaves would merit a trip to the bookstore to buy a new book. Not a library book. A book to OWN!  I was the youngest and my leaves came slower than my sisters’ and I had to beg and pout to be able to include comic books (“Archie & Jughead” were Shakespearian to me then).  Eventually I filled my tree too and made the transition from casual reader to a voracious escape artist, slipping into books like Homer Price, Half Magic and the world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

 

But like the worst of Grimm’s stories, my own childhood shattered when my mother died suddenly. A brain tumor was discovered in April and by June she was gone. This is the trauma that defined me for so long. How could it not? My book, MILO: STICKY NOTES & BRAIN FREEZE came out of this hurt place where the pain and sadness was trapped inside me like a fog.

 

That first summer was terrible. Or maybe it wasn’t. Who really knows? I was nine years old and pretty much in shock. I don’t remember much from those first few months without her. But towards the end of that foggy summer my dad announced that he’d switched my sisters and I to a new school so that we would all have the same schedules. He handed me a sheet of paper. “What’s this?” I asked, scanning titles of books I’d heard of but never read. “Sorry, pal,” he said. “Your new school has a summer reading list.”

 

My first reaction was outrage. Sure, I liked reading but not as homework over the summer! School was now just three weeks away and I had four books to read, a Mount Everest of pages to a nine year old. But we went to the bookstore together and my dad bought me copies of the four books. I can’t recall all of the titles but remember Ivanhoe, Call of the Wild and Treasure Island were on the list. With no other choice I slid onto the blue couch in the living room and started reading.

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The magic was almost immediate. My reality slipped from my mind as images of knights and the Klondike gold rush and pirates took hold and carried me far away from the pain that was hiding inside me. I became Jack Hawkins, a stow-away on an unknown adventure surrounded by strangers, who were both kind and terrible. I was Buck, the lone dog learning to adapt and survive his new harsh reality. I remember getting completely lost in these grand stories where I didn’t have to be me anymore and I let go of the sadness, even if it was just for a few hundred pages at a time.

 

Because of that reading list I devoured whole books in one or two sittings and felt the comfort that fiction could have over the reality that was never far away. I gained confidence in the words and loved the escape more than anything else. But another thing happened because of that book list, which I can only describe now as a sense-memory: I associate a good summer read with comfort and security and a sense that everything is going to be okay.

 

When summer comes I still look forward to finding one or two special books that will whisk me away from my concerns, insecurities and deadlines. And as I sway on the hammock, Zeus in my lap and my iced espresso within reach, I am forever reminded how important books are to me and how they once saved a nine-year old boy from his sadness by whisking him to an exotic island filled with buried treasure.

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Alan Silberberg is an author/cartoonist whose new book, THE AWESOME ALMOST 100% TRUE ADVENTURES OF MATT & CRAZ was published in April. He lives in Montreal and is looking forward to slipping into a great summer book and dozing in his hammock – unless his editor is reading this, in which case, he is looking forward to finishing his next book.  His twitter is @alansilberberg and website is http://www.silberbooks.com

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