Three black-eyed bears sat there staring at me. I knew what they wanted and I knew what I had to do. I had to teach them and in order to teach them, I had to read to them. I set them in a row on my daybed facing me, then I proceeded to fill in the gaps around with every doll and stuffed animal I could find in my bedroom. The same bedroom my dad always claimed was never clean enough – mainly because I had so many stuffed animals. They each had a name, thankyouverymuch! The names were never just Bear or Teddy. It was always a well thought out name like Amy, Dan, Katie, Katelyn, or Kathy. Why in the world would a bear want to be called Teddy or Fuzzy? I mean, come on, these were real beings who had feelings and those names were only jokes. My students were not jokes, especially the ones I claimed as my own children.
Once everyone was seated and quiet, I took my place in my small, red rocking chair in front, opened a book, and started reading. But it really wasn’t reading back then. Supposedly reading is when you actually read the words on the page that consist of the 26-letter alphabet and morphemes and phonemes and blah blah blah. Well, I was three and only knew that books held amazing stories inside them and when my mom read them to me, the pictures came alive. Now with about thirty-five stuffed students looking at me, I had to be the one to know what the pictures said; they were counting on me. So I told them a story.
Some stuffed animals raised their hand and asked a question and I answered them with confidence. I held the books like my mom did when she read to her classroom of first grade human students. I swung the book around slowly so each stuffed student could see the pictures. I even spoke in different voices because that’s how my mom always read to me. And, you know, those yarn smiles never frowned. I’d follow up the lesson with questions and I’d answer each of them in the voice of the bear or cat or doll that answered. I gave out so many stickers.
Once I learned that those books actually told the same story over and over again, I began to consume every book at the library and at home. I still held class and the bears still smiled when I read them the actual story from the books I’ve “read” so many times before. I’d go to school, hoping it was library day. The best kind of books were Mercer Meyer’s Little Critter, Bernstein Bears, and Robert Munsch’s books such as Love You Forever, Thomas’ Snowsuit, and 50 Below Zero. Robert Munsch takes the cake, that’s for sure. His books were hilarious to me and the illustrations were bright and colorful; it was just what I was looking for. The pages smelled so good too. In library at school, after Mrs. Nissen read a book and taught us about the card catalog, I shot to the paint can to retrieve my bookmark that was a painted paint stirrer and slide into home in front of the Robert Munsch books on the bottom shelf by the west hallway. They were on the same shelf as the big M. It was always a mad dash to get the one I had my eye on.
Mom and I took weekly trips to the library and I’d draw a book from its shelf, open it to a random page, stick my nose deep into its pages, and sniff. “This smells like a good book!” I’d say on cue. It’s sort of weird to smell books, but there are worse things. If it didn’t smell good, I put the book back. Evidently, now the world has candles that smell like books. I feel sorry for the e-readers that don’t smell at all.
I would devour book after book, earn Accelerated Reader points and ribbons at school, and get a free, individual-sized pizza from Pizza Hut because I read so many books. I never wanted the pizza because I hated pizza back then; I gave them to my big brother, Chad. I just wanted the stickers on the pizza button and the excitement of reading ten whole books. The books were enough for me. I was a big fan of workbooks just as much as children’s story books. The workbooks weren’t really for me though; they were for my stuffed animal class. I’d put a pen in their paw, my hand over their paw, and complete the activities for them. I didn’t realize I was learning new concepts, I just figured I was teaching them. Workbooks taught me so much! Who knew I would go on to write workbooks? That’s quite a connection. My six-year-old self knew her passions all along.
Hitting upper elementary I read Junie B. Jones, Shiloh, The Babysitter’s Club, Mary Kate and Ashley’s chapter books from Full House and their crime-solving mystery series, and The Adventures of The Bailey School Kids. Junie B. Jones had me howling with laughter and imagining myself doing those daring, devilish antics. I remember Shiloh making me cry because of the abuse the poor pup went through. I immediately loved the movie and rented it from the library over and over again. I wanted a beagle after that book. I babysat from age eleven. Reading The Babysitter’s Club books just reinforced the love I had for kids. I checked out the TV series and movies from the video rental store every trip I made. I am still interacting with kids by working at the Ames Community Preschool Center locally. Writing for kids just came naturally too. Again, my eleven-year-old self knew her passions.
Anything Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen I was onboard with. They were my idols and best friends growing up. Through magazines, books, movies, and their various clubs, I was their missing triplet. Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots and Zombies Don’t Play Soccer were titles that drew me in to The Adventures of The Bailey School Kids. That series was picked over on the library shelves because it was so popular. The series intrigued kids by their titles alone. The authors and their editors are geniuses.
Middle school started out as routine, but then with a rebellious stage I ventured to a darker place. I was a walking, sarcastic shadow. My literature turned depressing. The books that my hands grasped were filled with teenage issues, struggles, and things my friends and I were curious about. I read about love and love lost. I read about cutting and suicide. I read about drugs and alcohol… rock and roll, too. I was a rebel without a cause – not to sound cliché.
But, on my less gothic days, I found myself in love with the fun, adventurous, summer love novels where a boy and girl meet and then (gasp!) fall deeply in love (although they are fifteen), and then at the end of the summer they break up (tear), heading back to different sides of the country. I always fell hard into those books and came up gasping for air, so in lust. I also lusted for that book to happen in my own life. Anything to do with love and spontaneity, I was into. Some of my favorites were Caribbean Cruising by Rachel Hawthorne, Maine Squeeze by Catherine Clark, and Summer in the City by Elizabeth Chandler. Let’s move on from middle school because, really, it’s better for all of us!
I have no idea how I stumbled onto Nicholas Sparks’ books, but it was in high school. I’ve never read his “classic” novels such as Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, or The Notebook, but I have read all the other ones. I liked reading the ones nobody had read and still do. I own his entire collection and am still a hopeless romantic. His books allowed me to escape from the immature teenage love scene and venture to the one he wrote about. I love me a couple who overcomes adversity and falls deeply in love. There’s usually a tragedy, more than likely a killing of one lover, and bam! your happy ending is gone. It’s tragic, but sadly amazing! As a writer, I love those gutsy moves that author’s make when parting true love is going to piss off the readers who want a happy ending. It hardly steers the woman away, instead it leads them to the next heartbreakingly lovely Nicholas Sparks novel. Sparks’ fans are die-hard, all of his books make the New York Times Bestseller List, and half have become movies. Some say his story lines are predictable… I call them consistently genius. My favorite book of his is A Bend in the Road. Haven’t heard of that one, have ya?
The year after I graduated high school, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was trying to be banned from our Lit to Film class’s curriculum and from the school’s library. Although I wasn’t in high school then I still went and voted to keep it in the curriculum because that was one of my favorite books to have read and studied. The teacher handled it well and she always chose books wisely with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and The Great Gatsby. These were books everyone should read, especially high school students. After a couple of parents through their fits, appealed to no end, and dissed the English department, the end vote decided to keep the book in the school and allow it to continue to be taught. That made the book all the more popular. If I were the author, I’d take great pride in having one of my books banned. It just proves that he pushed the envelope and created a great book that made readers blush. I’ve heard editors and publishers say that once a book is banned somewhere and it makes news, it becomes a bestseller all over again. Bring it, I say!
My first four years of college led me to more journalistic and academic reading. Of course, all the textbooks were overwhelming and my eyes couldn’t take too much more text or they might have gone blind. Sometimes I wish I could read with my eyes shut. Someone needs to invent a sleeping reader! We could call it Z-Reader! If I could I’d read all day and all night. College is like that, reading day and night, but not fun reading, academic reading.
I stumbled upon the Twilight saga and read those. No matter how much criticism those books get, it says something about Stephanie Meyer when she can create a character (Bella) and have every teenage girl through adult woman feel as if she is Bella. It’s genius even if the editors forgot to edit it fully. It’s good a story that started a plethora of vampire novels, which branched to werewolves, tigers, and other magical nonhumans falling in love with humans. Anyone who has sold millions of books gets my support. Obviously she did something right.
I fell in love with memoirs during my senior year of my journalism bachelor degree. Not the Bill Clinton memoir or the Obama memoir or anyone famous for that matter. I have a passion for reading that random, maybe one-time author’s life story. I love reading, “… and this is her first book” in the author’s bio section. Just holding that book gives me hope for the growing memoir I’m writing. It also supports that author who wrote his or her butt off to tell their story. My all-time favorite memoir is by Tracy McMillan entitled I Love You And I’m Leaving You Anyway. It made me laugh, cry, and coo. It’s simply an honest-to-God written book about her life with an imprisoned father, boyfriends, and marriages gone wrong, and her love for her son. Its main focus is dealing with her relationships with men. I reread it once a year, at least.
While I lived in New York City, I read a lot of books published by Sterling Publishing because I worked for them. I read Young Adult manuscripts that we were looking to publish and ones we were not looking to publish. I read the Sterling Children’s slush pile each month and passed on manuscripts I thought had potential in today’s market. I would sit for hours inside a Barnes & Noble, immersed in a random book I couldn’t afford to buy. I’d return most days to start where I left off. I took books from the give-away boxes in Sterling’s kitchen and mailed them home for my mom to keep on my bookshelf. By learning and working in the book publishing business, I began to read and look at a book differently. First, I read the title, then I look whom the publisher is. Just by knowing the publisher, you can make out what kind of book this will be and if the company has a good reputation for publishing worthwhile books.
Now that I’m in college again obtaining my English Education teaching degree, I read Young Adult literature because I want to grow my personal library to recommend books to my students some day. I want to be able to be stocked full of story lines and characters that any student can find a book they love upon my shelf. I hope I can inspire students to look past the covers and dive deep into a story that may lead them someplace they had never imagined or teach them something they want to share with the class or the world. Books can inspire and I want my students to feel inspired with a book in their hands.
Books are powerful. Books have changed my life from a preschooler making up story lines to reading manuscripts of the next bestseller in New York. I will always have a publication aspect to my classroom whether it is a lesson about the publishing process, submitting essays or manuscripts for publication, or simply teaching about what makes a book good enough. Books may be changing form into digital e-books, but writers will never stop being born and creativity will never cease as long as there are eyes to read.