A Reader Is Born

Cover, published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

When a book-related list makes the rounds on Facebook, I play along. Maybe it’s 100 books, and everyone chimes in about how many you’ve read, books we can’t believe didn’t “make” this list. Maybe a friend challenges you to list 10 favorite books. I cheat and slip in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede as one book (one book, four books, who’s counting?), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as another book. And when a friend says, “hit me with a book to read, and why.” I offer up one I re-read every few years, like Prince Ombra by Roderick MacLeish.

That list of 100, shared by a writer friend, got me thinking—Did the creator of the list have a purpose, long lost through cutting and pasting and sharing, or were they proud of a reading accomplishment and put it out into the world? This time, it got me thinking about when and how readers are born.

If a list is “classics,” why is the picture book conspicuously absent when picture books are where readers begin? I want to kick a book off the list of 100, but how can I judge a book I haven’t read? Still, I’ll have to add some picture books, sooo…. Maybe it’s a list of 103?

cows typing, duck and rooster watching

Book cover, published by Simon Spotlight

I pencil in Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type and Tuesday and No! David. If you didn’t read those picture books, how would you advance to Shakespeare, CS Lewis, or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner?

Here’s an excerpt from the book to the left: “Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. All day long he hears:
Click, clack, moo.
Click, clack, moo.” Hmm, what messages will those clever cows send?

And in Tuesday, what will you miss as you sleep? Oh, nothing much, unless you count the antics of frogs who fly around on their lily pads!

I look at the list again, and another absence glares. Why doesn’t this list of 100 have more middle grade books, where we’re cementing our love of reading? I want Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, with the Drew children, drawn into evil dating back to King Arthur’s court as they vacation in Cornwall. I’d read those as precious library books. When the broke college years gave way to paid-off-student-loans daylight, I learned the horror of “out of print,” the fate of books as reading tastes changed … until they changed again, and I scored the books one at a time as a publisher re-released them. Joy!

Cover, published by Vintage

But back to those lists … why do only a handful of young adult books make the grade? Isn’t that one of the most formative periods in our lives, our emotions going wonky, our bodies changing, and books giving us a refuge? Why isn’t Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on the list? In Morrison’s book, dark-skinned Pecola Breedlove wants nothing more than to fit in with the blond-haired, blue-eyed kids, but her dark skin and curly hair push her apart. This story makes you look at race from the ugly inside, out, a view I’d never have had on my own, growing up in a predominantly white city.

The more I think about these books missing, the more I understand. Perhaps these lists are a clever way to send us down memory lane, chasing after those books that shaped us alongside the readers who nudged those books into our hands.

I close my eyes, and I’m home again, maybe five.

Animals flee, because the elephant's about to sneeze

Book cover, published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books

Mom may be tired of all my requests, but she’s once more reading a favorite, “Stand Back,” Said the Elephant, “I’m Going to Sneeze!” by Patricia Thomas (Author) & Wallace Tripp (illustrator). Her voice rises and falls with the fear of the animals fleeing an impending sneeze that might blow the stripes off a zebra. I’m safe, sitting on her lap or snuggled under the brown and orange “Cleveland Browns” afghan she crocheted, or maybe that was one from Aunt Tootsie’s.

Friends and family shaped my reading tastes when I wasn’t paying a lick of attention. Because one of my best friends growing up, Monica, read Trixie Belden, a mystery series, I devoured it. That got me hooked on Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, along with Nancy Drew. Mystery, and paranormal mystery, ran rampant across my bookshelves. Then my sister Patti and I loved horses. I think of her any time I look at Misty of Chincoteague, or that collection of Nancy Drew books she gifted me when she moved. Sitting beside them, a few volumes from my mom’s childhood.

A tranquil scene, a house and pine trees, and the water

Book cover, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Cousin Donna guided me straight into the wonder of fantasy. She introduced me to Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and when I was a few years older, she made sure I heard of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, The Hobbit, and Watership Down. Each formed new friendships as I settled beneath our mountain ash tree and lost track of time. How I cried for the Tuck family–living forever brings more curse than joy to that family.

In books I’ve found myself, lost myself, and found my way back; I’ve loved and cried and raged against unfairness. I’ve rooted for rabbits, believed in a hobbit’s courage, trusted Anne McCaffrey’s dragons could save Pern from disaster.

My reading roots run as deep as my mother’s love; as true as my sister, forever looking out for me; as wondrous as the cousin who’s gone on to teach hundreds of kids over the years—but I was one of the first to sit, enchanted, at her feet as she read.

It turns out it’s not about the list of 10 books, 50, 100. It’s about the reader, and where we were born, and who joined us on the journey.

Tell me—what’s your story as a reader? I’d love to hear about it.


Keep Reading:

Picture Books

Middle Grade Books

Young Adult and Up Books

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2 Responses to A Reader Is Born

  1. Anne Marie Lutz says:

    Wonderful books you’ve listed here! The Marguerite Henry books were amazing. “Misty” was great, but I’m remembering “Justin Morgan Had a Horse”, too. And *all* the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. ❤️

    • shariheinrich says:

      Thanks, Anne Marie! It took forever to add all the links. YES, how could I have forgotten Black Stallion? I have every one of them. I think it was The Black Stallion and the Girl where I cried over the ending, though now, I don’t remember if a horse died or what. I re-read that series several times!

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