Sunday, February 16, 2014

Escaping into the Ordinary World

I was kind of a weird kid, a messed up little gawky ball of anxieties and phobias. Afraid of the dark. Afraid to sleep alone. Afraid of a fire consuming my house and we'd all be stuck inside and burned in our beds because we didn't make a detailed fire escape plan (I must say here that the film my elementary school showed us every year to teach fire safety haunted my sleep--when I did sleep--for most of my childhood.)

I had issues, is what I am saying.

But if you had asked me back then if I was happy, I suspect that I would've said yes. I didn't have an escape plan for a middle of the night house fire, but I did have an escape plan from my confusing and often overwhelming life: books.

From the moment I knew how to read, I did. My family didn't own many books, but every week my mother took me and my little brothers for what seemed like a crazy long walk to the local library where we were allowed to check out as many books as we could carry home.

Some of those books have stuck with me: A Wrinkle in Time. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp. These are clearly escapist books--time travel, fantasy, horror. They are what you'd expect a kid to want to read, stories of fantastic worlds that are easy and thrilling to fall into.

But the majority of the books I read and reread were stories of ordinary people with ordinary lives. Quiet books, I guess you'd call them.

The Trixie Belden Series. All of a Kind Family. Betsy-Tacy. Everything by Ellen Conford, Paula Danziger, Marilyn Sachs, and Judy Blume. The Noonday Friends by Mary Stolz. The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom.

Nothing much happens in these books. Sure, there might be a mystery, say, in a Trixie Belden book, but it's never anything too over-the-top scary. What I liked was the sweet, normal family. The mom in the kitchen canning her tomatoes and gently nudging Trixie to do the dusting. The father kicking back after work to read his newspaper. The brothers teasing Trixie, but always in an affectionate way.

All of a Kind Family features a Jewish family living in a tenement in turn of the century New York City. You'd expect poverty and struggles but the conflicts are kind of mild. One of the girls forgets to return her library book on time. The older sister makes up a game for the younger ones to help them get their chores done faster.

The Betsy-Tacy books follow two girls, and later a third, Tib, through their school years in Minnesota. The girls have picnics. They take long walks up the hill. They have sing-alongs around the piano. The father, for some reason, likes to make onion sandwiches.

A few years ago the book The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall came out. It won some awards and I picked it up to read aloud to my own little girl. It's a lovely, quiet book. Sisters live with their dad on a lake and become friends with the boy next door.

I loved it in a way that surprised me. And I was shocked that my daughter didn't enjoy it at all. She was bored.

Nothing happens, she told me.

Later, after she was tucked in bed and fast asleep, I couldn't stop thinking about what she'd said, and weirdly, I almost started crying.

It was a mix of things. Memories of my messed up little girlhood and what books like that had meant to me--what a life line those books were, how they had saved me in a very real sense.

And the immense relief and gratitude that my own little girl was experiencing such a quiet and ordinary life that she would yearn for more exciting and thrilling worlds to disappear into--but the safe kind that can only happen in books.






13 comments:

  1. What a lovely post. Here's to the beauty of the quiet and the ordinary...

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  2. I had lots of similar fears as a kid, but I worried about burglars breaking in as opposed to fires. I also loved many authors you mention, as well as the All-of-a-Kind Family books.

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  3. I wish we'd known each other back then, because you and I were reading almost exactly the same books!

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    1. I could write a whole post just about Ellen Conford. Did you ever read Dear Lovey Hart, I am Desperate? Or Hail Hail Camp Timberwood. LOVED those books.

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    2. Read them? I still have copies of both!

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  4. Margie, your comment makes me realize that I am glad I didn't go to a school that showed movies on how to fight off burglars. At least that's one fear I didn't have!

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  5. We grew up reading a lot of the same books and authors, Jody, and now you've made me want to check out The Penderwicks. I see Jennifer Hubbard had similar tastes! It's like we were all meant to blog together here at YAOTL. It's nice to feel a connection to so many posts that I read here.

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  6. I'm right with you, gals! And I loved the Penderwicks--as did my daughter. She went through a long phase of what she called "back then" books--Caddie Woodlawn is another one on that list. I loved reading these books to her!

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  7. Oooh, Trixie Belden -- I wonder what happened to my copies? I remember planning an entire trip to NYC based on one of those books.

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  8. I'm with you all, too. I LOVED the All of a Kind Family books. I read them over and over and over. To me, lots of things happened. Ordinary things that were still problems but dealt with in a sisterly, creative way. The penny game to encourage dusting carefully. That library book. Buying penny candy and sharing it in bed in the dark. Their affection for the librarian. The birth of their little brother. I loved the normal of it all. I still do.

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