The Secret Language, by Ursula Nordstrom. Another boarding-school book. I was transfixed by boarding school stories as a kid, and--to the bemusement of my parents--was sure that I would love it if only they'd let me go to one. The heroine here, 8-year-old Victoria, is bafflingly (to the child who was me) sad to be sent away to school, but she does make a Best Friend and has some satisfying adventures. When I re-read this book as an adult I was struck by its episodic nature: there's no big page-turning plot, just Victoria's growing understanding of her friend and her surroundings. It's all about the friendship, which really appealed to me.
Encyclopedia Brown series, by Donald Sobol. As a kid, I very much liked stories about girls. But I made an exception for Encyclopedia Brown books because they were so cool! They were sort of like stories, and sort of like puzzles, and sort of like mysteries. I never could figure them out without flipping to the back, but it was fun to try. Plus, Encyclopedia's friend and business partner Sally was pretty impressive.
The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key. Here's the truth: I don't exactly remember what happened in this book, just that I liked it. And that it was mysterious and science-fiction-y. But mainly that I saw it on the Reading Corner spinner for months before I got around to reading it. I took against it for no particular reason and just couldn't bring myself to pick it up, until one day, equally randomly, I had a change of heart and sat down with it and was astonished that it could be so good when I'd avoided it for so long. I still have that feeling about certain books sometimes: I don't want to read them, and don't want to read them, until one day I suddenly do.
Don't get me wrong: I learned a ton in high school, and in college, and I read many many books that enriched my life and that I still love. And of course I've read hundreds of children's and teen books as an adult. But for practical job preparation--who would have known it?--nothing in my formal pre-library-school education beats those two years I spent hunched in the reading corner. I hope, for my profession's sake, that even though open classrooms have largely fallen out of fashion, there are still kids out there reading with such indiscriminate freedom as I had.
Viva free reading time!
March 10, 2009 | 23:55 PM
This post is brought to you by Mitali Perkins's Facebook page, on which she recently asked: "Which college or high school course is most helpful to your vocation today?"
I replied: "High school and college were fine, but the most useful educational hours I put in were in 2nd and 3rd grade when I was in an open classroom and sat in the Reading Corner for hours at a time reading one children's novel after another. I became a bookworm in those two years, and am still recommending some of those books in my job as a librarian today. No joking."
After I wrote this, I thought some more about it and it is really true! Not only did those two years get me totally hooked on the children's books that --it turned out--would become my grownup job, but, even though I didn't know it, I was doing solid professional reading back then. Sure, I read a lot of mediocre fiction, and a lot of books that I don't even remember now, and a lot of books that, even though I loved them, have fallen out of fashion and/or availability in the past couple of decades. But I also read many books in elementary school that you'll still find on library shelves (and in print) and that I can still sincerely recommend to the Youth of Today. Like:
Baby Island, by Carol Ryrie Brink. Brink won the Newbery Medal for Caddie Woodlawn, but this is the one that sticks in my mind. two baby-loving girls are shipwrecked and end up on an island with a bunch of babies! It's the perfect little-girl fantasy: they get to be self-sufficient and survive on their own, with no grownups around, and they get to be nurturing and take care of a bunch of cute babies. I adored it.
The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. The Humanities teacher at my former workplace used to assign this book in conjunction with the 6th grade unit on ancient Egypt, and there is a lot of solid information in here--after all, the main characters so obsessed with the topic that they create a sort of Ancient Egyptian clubhouse in a vacant lot, and re-enact Egyptian rituals as well as they can. But what fascinated me was the touch of magic in the book: though it's not a fantasy, there's a hint of the occult (which turns out to have a mostly--but, tantalizingly, not entirely--logical explanation), and the strong sense that the protagonists half-believe that if they immerse themselves enough in Ancient Egyptiania, they can really get themselves there.Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer. The first time I read this book, it sucked me in so completely that I didn't hear the bell ring to come in from recess (I was in my recess reading place, over by the jungle gym) and was alarmed and disoriented to discover that I was the absolute only person out on the school playground. But not as disoriented as the title character is when she finds that she's time-travelled in the night, so that she wakes up in her bed at her same boarding school but forty years earlier.
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