The littlest one on the left—that's my mother as a toddler with her two older sisters. For the past 80-plus years, reading has been how my mother defined herself. Now 82, she spends most of her time back in her youth, remembering growing up with a mother who loved books in a household stuffed with them.
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When I remind her of what I do, she says, "Oh, my mother would have loved hearing about your job. She just loved getting books for us." The classics, of course: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin's (which my aunt always insisted was vastly superior to A Little Princess). Series books, too: the Twin books for my mother and her sisters; more masculine books, like Baseball Joe, for my uncles. My mother was the youngest of seven children, so she had the benefit of 14 years’ accumulation of children's books by the time she came along, as my grandmother never threw anything out.
Not surprisingly, then, my mother did her best to replicate for my brothers and me with her mother did for her. I do not remember ever wondering what I would read next.
She read me picture books: Corduroy, The Poky Little Puppy and a strange little confection called The Ill-Tempered Tiger, among others. (One picture book I had to discover as an adult was Karla Kuskin's The Animals and the Ark, which my brother so loved that my mother couldn't bear reading it again. Ever. She dealt him a weird revenge by giving his son the 2002 edition illustrated by Michael Grejniec and was terribly disappointed that it didn’t become a nightly read-aloud for months.)
She gave me classics old and new for independent readers: every single Oz book written by L. Frank Baum, Swallows and Amazons and Winnie-the-Pooh, as well as Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Julie of the Wolves (these were new to her anyway).
She brought home books that didn't become classics but that I read and loved anyway: Flossie and Bossie by Eva Le Gallienne and illustrated by Garth Williams, about a couple of barnyard bantams sorting out their differences; Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paeff Mirsky, about a Zulu girl who wants to do the exciting things boys do; Marassa and Midnight by Morna Stuart, about enslaved boys, twins, involved in the French and Haitian revolutions.
She occasionally remembered that she was both a child of the Depression and a New England Yankee. When she exceeded her sense of what was appropriate to spend on children's books, she took me to the library, where I found plenty more: A Bear Called Paddington (which I lost, much to my chagrin—my one-and-only lost library book), Harriet the Spy, Dragonsong…
But with one notable exception, she placed absolutely no limits on my reading. (When I was 10, an ill-advised perusal of ’Salem's Lot gave me nightmares for an entire summer, leading to a ban on horror novels—which she inadvertently broke herself when she brought home The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which skeeved me out even more.) From classics to comic books, serious books to funny books, boys’ books to girls’ books, kids’ books to adult books—it was all fair game.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor at Kirkus.