Books Chapter & Verse

This Thanksgiving I'm feeling grateful for my very first book

My library grows by the year, but it all started with Gumby.

Danny Heitman

The biggest of harvests can start with the smallest of seeds, as I’ve been reminded this Thanksgiving, a holiday that celebrates the plentitude of the fields, the roofs over our heads, the hundreds of other blessings that can touch any single life.

Readers reap a special kind of harvest: the gleaning of ideas from the dozens of books that line their shelves, waiting for some sympathetic eye to scan what’s inside, prompting an idea to sprout.

My own personal library numbers several hundred books, but it started, as all libraries must, from a single volume. I’m counting that first book as a blessing beyond many others this Thanksgiving, since it nudged me into the life of reading that’s immeasurably enriched who I am, what I think, how I dream.

I was born into a household of books, but as the youngest of six children, I cut my reading teeth on shared volumes from the household shelf or books borrowed from the nearby library.

One day when I was five, however, I accompanied my mother to the grocery store where, in the course of stocking up on milk, bread, and beans, she allowed me to pick out a book of my own from a small sales rack. It was “Gumby and Gumby’s Pal Pokey,” a title from the Tell-A-Tale series that featured small, cheap volumes just the right size for little hands.

About Gumby, you already know. He was the clay animation character, shaped like a stick of gum, who set about solving the world’s problems with his sidekick, a horse named Pokey. My Gumby book, written by Betty Biesterveld and illustrated by George De Santis, was one of many titles in the Tell-A-Tale line that capitalized on children’s TV characters.

The story, about a man who loses his key to the local candy factory and asks Gumby to help find it, doesn’t occupy the pantheon of classic children’s literature. But in an odd way, the middling quality of that first book of my own might have been just what I needed. Even then, I was feeling the first stirrings of desire to become a writer, too – a vocation I’d eventually embrace . If I had come to possess a truly singular book as my first title – say, something from E.B. White or Dr. Seuss – I might have been too intimidated by its stature to think of writing myself. But “Gumby and Gumby’s Pal Pokey” seemed like something a human being at ground level, in the world where I lived, might actually make.

I found a No. 2 pencil and, with the best penmanship I could muster, wrote my name, age, and hometown on the title page, just so everyone would know that this book belonged to me.

I’ve fetched it just now from a bookcase that includes Marcel Proust and John Updike, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck and V.S. Pritchett. My library grows by the year, but it all started with Gumby.

I feel so grateful, on this Thanksgiving as in all others, that such reading treasures are mine.     

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  

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