Starting down the book path

LAURA INGALLS WILDER started it. She, and my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Kolminisky, to be exact. One day, Mrs. K. decided that I had a reading problem, improbable as that may sound to anybody who has known me since then. In particular, she had the impression I daydreamed too much and read too little, although I wasn't paying enough attention to verify this fact. On that day, she pushed her bobby pins into the hairnet that kept her chignon in place. Then, in a severe tone, she told me to stay after class.

``I've noticed you're not interested in your schoolwork,'' she said. ``You don't read as well as your teacher said you could last June. And whenever I look at you, you're staring out the window.''

I shivered in my saddle shoes. I'd never been in trouble with a teacher before. Staying after school was a major catastrophe. Daydreaming was the most important part of my day. I felt an urge to do it then.

``I know you're a smart girl,'' she went on. ``Why, you could even be the smartest in class - if you paid attention. Tell me, do you read at home?''

I nodded.

``What do you read?''

I mentioned the comics in the newspaper, Life magazine, and the ``P'' encyclopedia. Mrs. K. raised an eyebrow.

``P, for paintings,'' I explained. ``There's a section of famous paintings, in color.'' I pictured myself sailing at sunset, as if in one of Turner's impressionistic masterpieces.

I also mentioned I read library books my parents got for me. They chose primers like the ones in school. I turned up my nose on recalling this plebeian fare and sighed as my gaze shifted inadvertently toward the window.

The snap of her compact as she opened it brought my attention back to Mrs. K. She smiled a knowing smile, as she watched a scene that seemed to be taking place just beyond her mirror. Then, with a conclusive, triumphant look, she painted on a big red lipstick smile that got even bigger when she smiled at me.

``From now on,'' the big red lips announced, ``you will go to the library yourself. You will choose your books yourself. You will sign them out yourself. And you will return them yourself.''

She became stern again. ``Let your parents know.''

``Yes, Mrs. K.'' I did not relish informing my parents Mrs. K. was changing our household rules.

``But most important,'' she repeated, ``you will choose your books yourself.'' She snapped her compact shut with a confident click. ``Don't be late for the bus now.'' She tapped my shoulder as if knighting me, and I escaped, to daydream on the ride home.

My mother greeted me at our front door. ``I've got news,'' she said in a neutral tone as she shifted my baby sister in her arms. ``From now on, you're picking out your own books. You can't expect somebody else to know what you'd like. Not a girl as big and smart as you.''

Instantly, the weight of a few dozen primers lifted and vanished on paper wings. I didn't ask what else Mrs. K. might have said; I only knew that she had spoken with my mother.

Which brings me to Laura Ingalls Wilder. The first book I chose was ``The Golden Years,'' the last in her series of Little House books. I picked it on the strength of its cover. It showed my favorite subject - a bride and groom exchanging a ring. The illustrations had a tender, dreamy quality. The story told of a grown-up heroine, Laura the schoolteacher, in the days before her wedding on the prairie in the 1800s. I loved it. My only disappointment came when I finished it. That's when I realized I'd read the last book first.

Still, I wanted to read the others, to see Laura grow up as fast as I could turn the pages. I vowed I'd only read them in order, so after that I checked first. But the books had many fans. Inevitably, my next one would be gone. My heart sank as I realized what I was about to do: read another Little House book, out of order. On and on I read as Laura first got married and then lost her baby teeth, as she moved into houses she had already moved out of, and met, for the first time, people who had already left town.

I'll come back and read them in order, I vowed, a promise that too many other books got in the way of keeping.

Meanwhile, I picked out horse stories, dog stories, and a spider story, ``Charlotte's Web,'' the first story I ever cried over.

I also read the Landmark Series, a collection of biographies that featured the subject's signature on the cover's bottom corner, where it sat not only like an endorsement from some long-gone Famous Person, but also like an invitation. Each signature seemed to say, ``Anyone can do something special. Something original. You can, too,'' for each looked as fresh and different as my own. I concluded that once I found that something, doing it would be as satisfying as signing my name to a daydream.

Somewhere along the way, paying attention in class got easier. At least, I think it did: I don't remember getting scolded about daydreaming after a while. I was probably too busy reading stories, or writing my own.

Today, I still choose books for their lavishly illustrated covers. I'm a sucker for quirky titles, for the implied recommendation of worn-out bindings, for the weighty importance of some of them and for the brand-new crackle and smell of others. I read with the same urgent persistence I once reserved for daydreaming. I turned into a certified bookworm, loving the smell of paper and ink and the telling of stories, all because somebody who was paying attention told me to pick them out myself.

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