In a post a while back, a friend talked about the intensity of a childhood read.
I could relate to that. The post caused me to recollect my first encounter with Enid Blyton, when I was eight or nine.
My sibs and I were horrible brats, a babysitter’s worst nightmare. In a clever strategic move our babysitter once brought Castle of Adventure. That was it for me. I disappeared into my room for the rest of the evening so she only had my sister and brother to contend with.
The world faded away within the first few pages of that book. Library books back then were bound with this mono-colored plastic-filmed cardboard is the only way I can describe it. The paper inside was cheap, and after many kid hands had impatiently handled the pages, the edges would get very soft, delicate as tissue. You’d find the catty-corner fold where someone else had dogeared. The smell of a library book . . . I can catch it in some of my older used books, a compound of aged paper and mustiness and the faintest hint of print that was powerful magic, so full of promise.
Who else loved the smell of libraries?
By the time I reached ten, I had a Reading Posture: crouching on the very end of my bed, my toes hanging over, gripped hard to the mattress, like a vulture perched on a branch. My chin on my knees, my book tucked in against my shins. I suppose my sight was already beginning to blur, without me being aware. But having my legs pressed tight against my middle helped me contain the anxiety churning my stomach that the suspense inspired.
There was no willing suspension of disbelief when I was a kid reader. I was either here or there, in the story. I believed everything the text told me was true, and I had no ability yet to predict patterns. Everything was new. I had no defense against the intensity of emotion, which burned in memory that peculiar sensory awareness that others talk about: smells, the quality of light, what one might have been doing around the time the story was experienced.
As a child reader, I found every tiny detail of equal importance. I got so angry if illustrations did not match the text that I shuddered past Evaline Ness’s graceful impressionistic pictures, and refused to read any book illustrated by folk art-inspired Lois Lenski, whose girls seemed to grow their legs out of their waists, and whose profiles were all exactly alike.
Words were as important as drawings, not how they sounded so much as what they meant: how they contributed to filling in the details of the imagery. I had figured out by the time I was six that I could get about three “What’s this word?”s out of any adult in any reading session, after which they’d chase me away impatiently with “Sound it out.”
Sometimes one could sound out a word, but English can lead one sadly astray, between the French influence that made ghosts of consonants and vowels alike—hors d’oeuvres did not ‘sound out’ to orderv—and the Greek vowel hiccoughs (epitome turned out not to be EEP-eye-toam, but eh-PIT-oh-me).
Toughest of all were definitions. We didn’t have a dictionary at home, though we did have a World Book encyclopedia set. But it was only good for looking up some things. Adults, even when benign, did not prove to be walking dictionaries, as I discovered the weekend I turned seven, when I buried myself in Black Beauty. “What does eep-eye-tome’ mean?” netted the expected puzzled look, and “run along and play.’ I did have a good memory for puzzle words, so eventually some of them popped into meaning if the context matched up: “missled” turned out to be “miss-LED”–oh! led astray!
I fretted over the words that nobody ever seemed to use in spoken language. ‘Humbug’ nagged at me for a very long time, causing me to go over and over that text with forensic intensity in an effort to tease out meaning from context.
Books could be dangerous, they could lure you into believing you would reach the last page smiling, just to annihilate you utterly. Especially animal stories. The time of the book might only be weeks, but seldom did any beloved pet make it to the last page, leaving you weeping for the justice that animals rarely got. “Stop blubbering, it’s only a book.”
I knew kids who gave up reading after Old Yeller, but the siren lure of the library was too strong for me. I learned to be on the watch for certain kinds of story situations, or descriptors. Poignant signaled “Watch out, this one is going to hurt.”