One reader's journey
A rambling by Donna Scanlon,
July 1999

I can scarcely remember not being able to read. I do have one memory of looking at the cover of a paperback book. The background was yellowish-orange, and the illustration was a pen and ink drawing of a young man, climbing along some rocks and looking over his shoulder. I recall making up a story about how he was running away from someone who was trying to hurt him. Years later, I found the book: it was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. I couldn't have been more than three or four when I saw that book for the first time. If it seems unbelievable that I could remember that far back, I think that the earliest memories I have are related to reading and, in fact, may well be due to reading.

A bored older sister taught me to read when I was three. She made me learn the alphabet, and from there we moved on to sight words. I would learn a word and look for it in books for the rest of the day. My mother likes to talk about the day my word du jour was "the." I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor while she tried to make supper, pointing out one "the" after another, and each time she bent down and admired it.

I don't recall when it all came together for me, and I became a reader. I remember Golden Books, two in particular. One was called Nurse Nancy and was about a little girl who liked to play nurse, putting Band-Aids on everyone in sight. The book originally came with a set of real Band-Aids, but by the time the book made it to me from two older sisters, the Band-Aids were long gone.

The other was a strange book, the title of which I can't remember, but it too was a Golden Book, I believe. It was about a pig named George who was very pleasant and friendly, but he was greedy, especially where doughnuts were concerned. One day, he comes home and finds the kitchen full of doughnuts which his mother made for a bazaar or something. So he starts to eat them, and eat them, and eat them, until he has eaten them all. I remember an illustration of George cramming the last bite of doughnut into his mouth with his trotter. On the next page, the house explodes with a mushroom-like cloud in the shape of a doughnut over it. (This was the early '60s, when mushroom clouds were on the minds of many.) The final illustration is of George in classic angel garb, except his halo is a doughnut. Obviously, this book made quite an impression on me, and anyone who can identify it will win my eternal gratitude.

I got my first library card at age five, just before starting kindergarten, but when I got to school, I was devastated to learn that I was not allowed to read to my classmates or demonstrate that I could read at all: it would make them feel bad, I was told. Instead, I got to demonstrate lousy fine motor skills at activities such as cutting and pasting and coloring. I made up for it at home, though, often hiding under the dining room table to read instead of going out to play. (When I grew big enough to climb trees, I reveled in the joy of reading in the silver maple in our front yard.)

What did I read? I had a huge book of fairy tales with dark and strange illustrations, all browns and golds which I read over and over. Mr Widdle and the Sea Breeze by Jo Ann Stover. Mr. Pudgins by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen. The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall. Charlotte's Web. Dr. Doolittle. The Cruise of the Aardvark, a poem by Ogden Nash in picture book form with illustrations by Wendy Watson, from which I learned words such as "extensile" and "tubilidentate." Although I read whatever I could, I had a leaning toward fantasy that became a plunge when my oldest sister read The Hobbit aloud to me over the course of a summer.

From there I read the Chronicles of Narnia, the rest of the Oz books, the Chronicles of Prydain. There was Pauline Clarke's Return of the Twelve, The Ghost of Opalina by Peggy Bacon, The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and of course, Mary Norton's The Borrowers. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I read just about every color of the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections, Joseph Jacobs' Celtic and English folk tale collections, and The King of Ireland's Son. Right about then, I began to look for hobbits in the woods, and my career as an eccentric was officially launched.

Joan Aiken's alternate history series: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Blackhearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket. The Lord of the Rings. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence which I read into adulthood. These are the books that shaped my life and opened my senses to the possibilities beyond the limits of my human senses.

It's not surprising that I chose a profession that allows me to hook other people on books. And I have the singular delight of watching my own children follow the path I left. For years, I worried that I'd be one of those librarians whose own children don't like books, but my worries vanished when it was obvious that they both loved to be read to. Last year, on the evening after my birthday, my son read half of Little Bear's Visit to me lucidly and expressively. He had become a reader.

These days, my reading preference is mythic fiction, authors such as Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, Midori Snyder, Alice Hoffman and Lisa Goldstein, among others, many others. I'm also very partial to reading natural history, and because of that, I can probably tell anyone more than they want to know about ants, silverfish (very randy insects, they are), bats and spiders. In a way, I think the two subject areas are related, because reading about animals in their own habitats and societies is like reading about an alien culture. (I don't read dog stories, though, because nine out of ten times, the damn dog dies.)

I don't seem to have as much time to read as I used to, but I still manage to squeeze in quite a bit. I've started changing my habits to accommodate the lack of time; I no longer force myself to finish a book if I don't like it, and I no longer read something just because I think I "should." I've stopped worrying about all the books I'll leave unread at the end of the journey, and I'm concentrating on what is around me. I've learned to look up from the page and to see through the pages and printed words into the possibilities in the world around me and to participate in that world. Certainly, that makes the journey all the richer.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]