A Return to Book Love by Dow Phumiruk
I arrived in the United States from Thailand at a very young age, accompanied by my dad and brother. My mom waited for us at the terminal. We had been apart for six months, but my tiny toddler mind knew her immediately. The four of us became a family again.
I didn’t speak for a month, Mom told me. When I started up again, it was in English. I had been spending a lot of time watching American television, apparently.
English was our second language. My parents read Thai publications – newspapers, magazines, and books from the downtown Thai Grocery that sold them. The news would be a week or more old, but this was treasure for them. My mom especially loved stories from a magazine called Sakul Thai, in which each weekly edition included a new chapter. As we grew older, Danny and I found we couldn’t easily get our mom’s attention if she was absorbed in her reading.
My brother became a reader, too. His love for books has been unwavering since childhood. I took a different path.
I distinctly recall the pride of reading a whole story on my own in second grade – a very basic Dick and Jane primer. I started reading longer books. How did I find the right books to read? The librarian at Jane Stenson Elementary School led the way. Though I don’t remember her name (shyness kept me from making much conversation), I remember the keen skill with which she chose just the right book for me. Amazing! My immigrant parents couldn’t find these perfect-for-me books. They had not read a single one. My young friends and I didn’t talk about books. Instead, we covered inconsequential kid subjects (like chocolate flavored bubble gum, French braids, and how brothers are so annoying) and traded stickers over recess. But after library time, I somehow came home with stories I loved, thanks to our librarian.
Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia was another favorite. I adored the humor! I never heard English word play and idioms in my home. I read Mandy by Julie Andrews twice. I found Mary Blair’s Cinderella on my own and had a deep longing for the glitter and sparkle of magic. Eventually, we’d frequent the Skokie Public Library near home. I had learned to choose books on my own! Craft books were fun, from macrame to dollmaking. I loved witch-titled books, from Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Witches of Worm in third grade to The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare in sixth. I dressed up as a witch for Halloween three years in a row. I recollect staring intently at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, trying to will myself into a witch. That wish did not come true.
Instead, I found art. From a blank piece of paper, a character appeared! This seemed enough like magic to me. I copied cartoons from the Sunday paper and anime from Japanese comic books.
In fourth grade, when our whole class created books, I found joy. We wrote our own stories, illustrated them, and sewed our pages together by hand. We made covers! We chose sheets of wallpaper samples from a stack, glued them over cardboard with rubber cement, and then glued these to our single sewn signatures with end papers. Since my story was about a girl and her Pink and Yellow Sunhat, I chose… Blue and Silver wallpaper (clearly, I needed an art director then, too). The flower pattern embellished with fuzz and foil textures, in all its seventies glamour, stole my heart. I won a prize for my “published” book, alongside elementary students from all over Chicagoland. Joy and accolades: you’d think this experience would have led to an obvious direction for my future. Yet it never occurred to me to consider writing or illustrating as a career.
I saw my parents work hard for us to grow solid, stable roots in America. They both worked nights, shifts staggered so we weren’t alone for too long overnight. It was a four-hour gap after my mom left to her nursing job and before my dad came home from his route restocking vending machines. In our home, no value was put on any but the most reliable jobs. Reading for pleasure became rare, swapped for studying serious school textbooks and required reading. I might devour a Stephen King novel from my brother’s collection on an overseas flight, but I wasn’t a real reader anymore. It made sense to become a doctor, since I admired my mom’s work in healthcare. I felt content. I had no clue that something was missing.
Two decades passed before I, as a mom of toddlers, rediscovered a love of books. I spent countless hours reading picture books with my tiny children cuddling close on and around me. I’ve encouraged my children to read widely. Now they sometimes recommend books to me! I managed to reconnect with my fourth-grade self, settling into a career creating children’s books. I will never lose this joy again.
I have new favorite books every year: A Place to Hang the Moon (Kate Albus), An Arrow to the Moon (Emily X.R. Pan), The Last Mapmaker (Christina Soontornvat), and more. I’m playing catch up with Newbery and other award-winning books I missed while on my original career path. I am grateful that while I was away, creators, publishers, teachers, and librarians persevered, kindly welcoming and thoughtfully nurturing more readers all this time. Your impact is profound, even if some of us don’t come around for a while. Stories have completed me in a way I never imagined. They’ve strengthened the roots my family grew in America. Books have become a healthy home for my soul.
Dow Phumiruk writes and illustrates children’s books. She is the illustrator of A Life of Service, by Newbery Honor winner Christina Soontornvat. She is one of the illustrators of Yes We Will, by NYT bestselling author Kelly Yang. She is also the illustrator of Counting on Katherine, by Helaine Becker. Mela and the Elephant and Hugsby, both written by Dow, are Colorado Book Award finalists. Dow is a retired pediatrician who teaches medical students part time. For more about her, visit https://artbydow.myportfolio.com/