Blame it on the Books

 

My love affair with literature started early. Both my parents loved reading, so it was natural they would pass their enthusiasm along to me. According to family lore, they read to me from the time they brought me home from the hospital, long before I actually understood what was being said. As a result, I was making up stories before I was two years old and reading long before I started kindergarten.

Hard at work on my first novel.

Hard at work on my first novel.

I was a weird kid. When I was eighteen months old, my grandma informed my mother I’d told one of her friends that her dog looked like a step cat. She thought it was a cute, albeit weird thing for a baby to say. Mom knew exactly why I’d said it. The woman’s Pekinese dog looked like the stepmother’s cat in my Disney Cinderella picture book. I later told this same woman that the tigers were going to get her (because she was wearing purple shoes like a character who got challenged by tigers in another of my picture books).

After I learned to read, nothing held me back. My parents, extremely conservative when it came to the movies and TV shows they allowed me to watch, gave me total freedom when it came to literature, so I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on, whether it was earmarked for children or adults.

Being an immature but precocious reader sometimes got me into trouble, as I often tried the things I read about in my books (because they sounded interesting or I found them funny).

The following is a partial list:

The Swiss Family Robinson. I desperately wanted a tree house like the family in Johann David Wyss’ classic novel, but the trees in our backyard were too spindly to support one. I build a shack behind the barbecue, instead.

Peter Pan. A natural, because my last name was Darling. One day I took a flying leap off my bed, grabbed the door to my bedroom and attempted to use it as a catapult to propel myself into the hallway. I sliced open all ten of my fingers.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I never found a secret passage in the back of my grandma’s wardrobe, but it made a cool, albeit dusty place to hide out.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I thought it would be cool to carry my lunch to school in a lard bucket, but since my mom didn’t use lard, I settled for taking my shoes off and walking through my grandparents’ cow pasture to see what Laura experienced in her barefoot walks across the prairie. Stickers.

Ramona the Pest. Beverly Cleary’s spunky heroine once called someone a “pie face.” I thought that was the funniest insult ever and tried it out on an older kid at school. Unfortunately, I forgot the exact wording and substituted the word “pizza” for “pie.” As in calling an acne-faced pre-teen a pizza face. The result, as they say, was explosive. I was puzzled. Pizza, pie, cake. To my six-year-old mind, what was the difference? Being called an item of food was funny when Ramona did it. Why was this kid so angry?

To Kill a Mocking Bird. My parents didn’t appreciate being called by their first names, even if Scout and Jem called Atticus by his. I also tried the tire rolling thing. Since I was too big to fit inside a tire myself, I rolled my younger brother down the road in one.

Tom Sawyer. Sneaking out at night. I got my best friend to go along with that one. We met under a lit street lamp halfway between our two houses then went back home to bed (there’s not much for ten-year-olds to do at two a.m. in the suburbs).

Pippi Longstocking. I attempted to navigate the various rooms in our house by jumping from one piece of furniture to the next without touching the floor.

The Nancy Drew books. I read the entire series and spent the better part of third grade peeking in windows in an attempt to find mysteries in my neighborhood.

John Steinbeck novels. After reading The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat at the age of twelve, I tried wiping my backside with pages torn from the Sears Roebuck catalog (once) and spent an entire summer drinking juice out of a Mason jar.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I made a homemade reindeer horn out of a paper towel tube, fastened it to my dog’s head and then hitched my dog to a sled like the main character in the Dr. Seuss classic. I had no particular affinity for the Grinch. I just thought the whole dog-as-reindeer idea had a certain panache. The horn wouldn’t stay on, but the dog happily pulled my newspapers on the sled so I could deliver them in the snow.

From Russia With Love, Goldfinger. James Bond’s martinis sounded elegant and oh, so refreshing. Since I wasn’t old enough to go into a bar, I improvised my own out of my parents’ liquor cabinet (having no recipe, I just guessed at the proportions). Blecchh! Which led to:

Gone With the Wind. When Scarlett O’Hara wanted to hide her drinking, she gargled with cologne. I gave it a try and gained a new appreciation for Listerine.

Judy Blume’s adult novels and the erotic writings of Anais Nin. My mother about fainted when she found these under my bed. I was twelve at the time. She calmed down after a very awkward conversation in which I assured her I found the activities in the books hilarious and more than a little gross and had no intention of trying them out for myself (not to mention the fact that boys generally didn’t go out for girls who quoted Roald Dahl and considered the pogo stick an alternate form of transportation).

Several years ago I ran into one of my childhood friends. She said she thought I’d had an amazing imagination as a kid and wondered how I’d thought up some of the things we used to do. She also told me that her mom had considered me somewhat of a bad influence back in the day.

Blame it on the books.

My brother as Gentle Ben. When you can’t have a real bear, you make your own with the help of your uncle’s bearskin rug.

My brother as Gentle Ben. When you can’t have a real bear, you make your own with the help of your uncle’s bearskin rug.

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