It never fails that when the end of the semester rolls around, or I find myself super busy and stretched in all directions, that I find one more way to spend the time I should be spending on things like grading papers, housework or other productive tasks. What do I always end up doing? Where can you find me? With my nose in a book, of course! And lately I’ve found my way back to the mother-load, children’s books.
I think there are a few reasons I’ve found my way back to these childhood favorites. First, when I’m stressed out I have a hard time falling asleep. Usually when I have this problem I pop in my all-time favorite movies, the ones I’ve seen so many times that I can close my eyes and still follow the plot. But, often when I do start a movie I feel like it’s probably NOT helping Brian fall asleep. It might sound obvious to pick up a book and read, but sometimes books make me think MORE. I’ve usually got a stack of scholarly books on fairy tales sitting on my nightstand that I’ve been meaning to read. But these books get me thinking about teaching and then I find myself planning or revising my syllabus in my head, and that is a big can of worms to open at midnight when you’re just trying to get some shut eye. The same thing happens when I try to read very challenging fiction, the kind where themes are flying all over and the author is trying to elegantly do what all great literature does, make a subtle commentary on the human condition. These kinds of books burn the midnight oil. So, while I was visiting my mother and found myself without a book to read, I lackadaisically chose a book, “Meet Samantha” of the American Girl series. I finished it that night then picked up another the next night. I brought the books home and finished the series.Picking up a book I know I’d already read, re-visiting characters I’d already met… it wasn’t boring, it was comforting. When times were getting hard I opened up my Samantha books and thought “oh yeah, I remember this.” When so much about life was coming up unexpectedly it was nice to know that every night I could pick up something that would be… predictable. Samantha would always get in a little trouble, then come out eating ice cream and adoring her new doll.
I mentioned fairy tales. The classes I teach at Butler are (mainly) centered around fairy tales. After filling in for a professor who was teaching a course on fairy tales I found myself more and more engrossed. There’s nothing like teaching a class on a subject you are NOT an expert on to quickly motivate you to learn more. And of course, although fairy tales were not originally intended for children, studying fairy tales inevitably leads you into the world of children’s literature. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, these are some of the more modern fairy tales. Right now I’ve got The Secret Garden and the two Alice books on hold at my local library. There is something about children’s books, the fantasy and magic, that sticks with us even just as memory all the way into adulthood.
It was that sense of remembered magic that I wanted to test out when I decided to re-read Tuck Everlasting. I remembered one scene in the book where Jesse comes down from sleeping in the attic to visit Winnie on the couch. I remembered blue moonlight and a sense of young romance. Part of my motivation for re-reading the book was to see if this scene was really as magical and fantastically romantic as I remembered it. It wasn’t. It never is, is it? Luckily that didn’t kill the memory… when I think of Tuck Everlasting I’ll still always think of that scene, not as how it is written, but as I remember it.
Since picking up “Meet Samantha” I’ve read the other 5 books in her series, Tuck Everlasting, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Giver, Little House in the Big Woods, and most recently Something Wicked This Way Comes. I particularly enjoyed re-reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. I always refer to this as one of my favorite books, but then I realized I’ve only read it once and could remember very little about what actually happened in the book. Well, in my quest to demystify the plot in my memory, I had an even better re-encounter. When I read the book for the first time I was in the 8th grade. It might have been the do-or-die battle between highly contrasted good and evil that I liked so much, or the very confused character of Jim Nightshade that made the book one of my favorites. Or maybe it was just the inventive detail of a carousel that could ride you into old age or back to your youth. Whatever it was that originally put this book on my list of favorites, I’m sure it wasn’t the thing that made that spot permanent this time around. I’m sure when I was an 8th grader I hardly appreciated the style of Ray Bradbury, but this time around I was delighting in it. I remember some of Bradbury’s other books, Farenheit 451 and the like, as stimulating, but minimal in style. I could be remembering wrong, but in Something Wicked it’s hard not to read Bradbury’s own sense of delight in writing the story. If you’re not one for heavy imagery this book is not for you. In this book Bradbury chooses words almost as if each one had deep sentimental meaning. He lays it on thick and pretty. I loved every minute of it.
The other thing that’s led me to these books again is quite honestly a bit of baby fever. When I think about having kids one of the things I look forward to the most is stocking up their library and reading with them. I debate with myself over and over again if I’ll read them the classic fairy tales or not (most of them are terribly sexist), I keep adding books I don’t want to forget to buy them to my Amazon wishlist. When I found myself trying to read a story to Truman and Finnegan Brian told me I had a problem. So, until these babies-in-waiting arrive I’ll just have to placate myself by reading these books again.