Mother Goose was probably the first author who really moved me. Her themes of adventure, naughtiness, suffering, and redemption resonate through much of contemporary literature, and I believe her influence is all too unsung. Feels good to be able to give her a plug here.
My mother read me those. I also remember sitting on my father's knee listening to Kipling's 'The Elephant's Child' and my dad's own made-up stories of Sinbad the Sailor, which always seemed to involve a little girl who lost her dolly and cried in a bitter baby voice, then found her dolly in the end with the help of Sinbad. That doll showed up in the little girl's own back alley so often I can't tell you.
When I was in the first grade, my mother, age 40, decided to get a college degree and become a teacher. She enrolled in
English literature and composition, and that was one of the signal events in my
life. Suddenly, at the very time I was learning to read, new and amazing books rushed
into the house. One was a gigantic anthology of children's literature that
pinned my thighs to the couch like a sack of concrete as it took me to
marvelous territories. I shuddered at the Norse myth of the brave Balder and
the horrible Loki, Eastern Michigan
who fashioned his arrow from the Kryptonitic holly, the only plant that failed to take the oath of benignity at Balder's birth. My heart was stirred by the cheerful inventiveness of the Borrowers, and by the delicious vengefulness of Hansel and Gretel.
Man, I thought, if only I had the guts to shove Mrs. [neighbor's name redacted] into her own red-hot oven! I read of the selflessness of the kids who wanted the Wheel on the School so the lucky stork could nest there, and realized with an unpleasant feeling that if I were one of those kids, I probably wouldn't care all that much about the damn wheel, frankly.
The act of reading, much moreso than going to catechism or enduring a scolding, was the thing that first got me to consciously examine my own moral code. I looked within myself and what did I find? Quite a selfish little girl! In the hard years since, I've achieved spotty success at rationalizing and camouflaging—and at times even overcoming!—that self-interest. I keep reading in order to gain greater expertise.
My mother did in fact graduate from college, then taught high school English for ten years. Books flowed through our house. I remember the books I read way too early (Deliverance stands out), and the books I should have read at a youngish age but didn't bother to (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, one). From that, I guess I learned that a sensational story beats a sensitive one almost every time. Think back to Loki.
Life isn't fair, books teach us. But what a gift it is, they also teach us! Thanks, Mom and Dad, for having unprotected sex on New Year's Eve of 19-cough-cough!
Which stories inspired the little you? Which stories do you wish you had read at a younger age?
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[Image note: A rendering of Loki, harvested from Wikipedia Commons.]