The Magic of That Book by Cynthia Lord
As an author, there are moments I’ll remember forever. One such moment for me happened at a small elementary school in Massachusetts. I was doing a school visit, presenting one of my novels to a fifth-grade class. At the end of the program, I showed a slide with all my book covers.
A boy in the audience gasped. “I loved Hot Rod Hamster!” he called out to me. “It was the first book I ever read to myself!”
It was a moment as close to magic as I’ve ever experienced. To know that my book would always be that book for that child. A part of his history. The book that first made him an independent reader.
For children learning to read, that first book is a key. The child stands at a locked gate, and beyond the gate are a million incredible new worlds. We can show children how to use keys. We can share and make suggestions by handing them keys to try, but ultimately the one that unlocks the gate is not our choice. The key might be a Hot Rod Hamster. Or a pig named Mercy. Or an Elephant and a Piggie. Or even a naughty Fox smoking a cigar!
About five years ago, one of my writer friends told me about her great niece who spends afternoons at her house. The child was struggling with learning to read. Books were a source of tears and frustration, not joy.
As a former first-grade teacher, I know that there are skills to be learned, but there also must be that book. “She needs to find the book that’s worth the work,” I said.
At home, I took a box and filled it with early readers from our house: nonfiction as well as fiction. A few days later, I got an email saying James Marshall’s, Fox on Wheels was a huge hit.
Ah! I thought. We found it. I hadn’t read the Fox series in a long time, but I’d always loved James Marshall’s books and humor. So I ordered all the other Fox books online and shipped them to my friend.
About a week later, I got a thank you email saying the child was delighted with how naughty fox was! Smoking a cigar, spying on a neighbor, not telling the truth, etc.
Oh dear. Well, times and tastes were different when those Fox books were published. I was a little horrified imagining the child telling her teacher I’d sent her funny books about smoking!
But that’s my adult perspective and worry. The child saw the humor, the surprise, and the promise of what books could be. Hilarious, sometimes naughty Fox made her a reader.
As an author, I keep those children in mind. There is both delight and challenge when writing for new readers. Learning to read is hard work, and so I think about each word I choose and the length of sentences and paragraphs. But I also try to honor the deep feelings of the reader. Ultimately, I try to write books that are worth the work.
My new early chapter-book series is called “Book Buddies,” and the first book is Ivy, Lost and Found. Book Buddies are toys that live at a library and can be played with, read to, and even borrowed. In the first story, Ivy was the librarian’s favorite childhood doll. One day, the librarian finds Ivy again and brings her to the library to be a Book Buddy. That’s not Ivy’s idea, though. She wants things to return to the way they used to be. Ivy is borrowed by Fern whose parents are divorced. Fern is spending a few weeks with Dad and his new family. So both Fern and Ivy are navigating changes. In every book in the series, the toy and the child have interweaving stories and each grow with and change the other—the way friends always do.
The idea for this series came from my own early reading experiences. Growing up, I loved books about tiny characters: The Littles, The Borrowers, Wind in the Willows, Stuart Little, etc. I named some of my own toys for those book characters, and I would pretend new stories for them. They went camping on the wooded slope behind our house. They played in puddles. Ratty pulled Lucy Little out of quicksand one day using his long tail. Arietty and Stuart Little wrote the tiniest letters to each other. And Mr. Toad rappelled downstairs to the kitchen for raisins and pretzels anytime there was a party that needed tiny refreshments.
I do think that’s where I started to become an author, imagining new stories for characters I loved. So my dearest hope is that the Book Buddies series will also inspire children to imagine new stories, like my childhood books did for me.
And maybe for some child, one of the books will be that book, the one that opens the gate to new worlds, turning that child into a reader.
That would be magic, indeed.
Cynthia Lord is a former elementary and middle-school teacher and the Newbery-honor winning children’s book author of Rules, Touch Blue, Half a Chance, A Handful of Stars and Because of the Rabbit. She is also the author of the Hot Rod Hamster series, illustrated by Derek Anderson and the Shelter Pet Squad series illustrated by Erin McGuire. In September 2021 she has a new series coming with Candlewick Press called Book Buddies, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin. The first book is Ivy, Lost and Found. The second book in the series, Marco Polo, Brave Explorer, will be published in March 2022. She lives in Brunswick, Maine, with her family, a dog, two guinea pigs, and two rabbits. You can visit her at http://www.cynthialord.com.