Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Memory of Mrs. Howell

When I think back on my early education, there are two teachers who stand out as favorites -- Mrs. Kendall in fourth grade, and Mrs. Howell in sixth grade. Mrs. Kendall was just a wonder of "active learning" before anyone was calling it that. We wrote our own books, and made a bulletin board display of a town (I got to make the supermarket), and another display of the Sahara (camels that time). Mrs. Howell, though, may have been the more influential of the two because she introduced me to so many books that I still consider favorites.

Every day after lunch, we had a rest time and Mrs. Howell would read aloud. (Obviously, that was in the days before every moment had to be filled with instruction geared toward a test.) She turned off the classroom lights so the only light came from the windows -- which made it easier to step into the world of imagination. She took us back to the Boston Tea Party with Johnny Tremain, to the mysterious Pink Motel, to the brink of danger with Five Boys in a Cave, and to post-WWII Germany and The Ark. It was the best part of the day.

This summer, I decided to revisit some of those classics from sixth grade. I had to do some hunting, since most of these books are out of print. But I managed to find copies of The Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert and Five Boys in a Cave by Richard Church. I read Church's book first, remembering the thrill of adventure as Mrs. Howell read about the boys finding their way along a river down in the cave.

I have to admit it -- it just wasn't quite as thrilling as I remembered. And The Ark, too, seemed stiffer than I remembered it being when Mrs. Howell read it. Don't get me wrong; I'm glad I went back to re-read the books, and I'm encouraging my kids to read them as well. But it really made me think -- was it Mrs. Howell's reading that made me remember the book, more than the book itself? Was it that she added excitement and character to the book with her voice, as much as the writer did with words?

When the kids were little, I read aloud to them every night. (Some of my daughter's memories will include having to poke Mama in the ribs to make me wake up and read the right words, ha ha!) As they've gotten older, though, I've quit doing that. My husband still reads to them occasionally, but not nearly as much as he used to. Both kids are old enough now that they are strong readers on their own, so I guess we think they don't "need" us to read to them anymore. Remembering Mrs. Howell has made me rethink that attitude. Sure, they don't need me to read the "big words" for them now. But maybe they are missing out since I don't share my love and enthusiasm for the books that meant -- still mean -- something to me.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Scattered Thoughts after a Day of "Junking"

This post isn't going to be about something I read, but about a book I didn't read, but instead put back on the shelf.

Over the past week and a half, I've had the opportunity to visit some flea markets, a hobby I occasionally get to indulge in. Invariably, I find myself drawn to the booths with used books. To tell the truth, I'm scanning the titles hoping beyond hope to find a copy of Judith of France -- it could happen! Although I never find Judith, there's usually something else that I find that I'll bring home, some classic of children's literature, or something that I remember from my childhood, or something I haven't read by an author whose other works I like.

Today, I found Man of the Family by Ralph Moody. It is the sequel to Little Britches, which is one of the absolute best books I've ever read. It was hardcover, obviously old, but still in good condition (not like the mildew-speckled copy of Carol Ryrie Brink's The Pink Motel I bought once!). I checked the slip of paper stuck in the book for the price - $1.50, great - and stuck it under my arm to purchase as I went about scanning for the elusive Judith.

When my kids were finally ready to check out, I handed the book to the woman behind the counter, who said, "Oh, this is one of those old books someone wanted to really take care of -- see, they didn't put a sticker on it, they put the price on this piece of paper. Fifteen dollars."

After cursing myself for leaving my glasses in the car (I guess I'm going to have to start remembering them every time), I said, "If it's fifteen dollars, I don't want it. I'll take it and put it back." Which I did, mourning the fact that I wouldn't get to read the book, after all, or share it with my kids.

I thought about that experience as we were driving home. I think the woman and I were looking at the book from completely different perspectives. To me, the book was a story waiting to be told again. I was looking forward to giving Ralph Moody the chance to spring to life again and act out his drama (ala the post about The Great Good Thing). For the woman at the flea market, the book was a valuable antique object - published in 1950, she told me. I don't think she was at all concerned with what was inside the book. The sad thing is, no one is going to read that book. Unfortunately, I am such a cheapskate I'm not going to pay $15 for an "old book." And unfortunately, someone who would buy the book as an "antique object" published in 1950 probably wouldn't think of reading it - it would become part of a collection or to add a touch of quaint charm to decor.

I was afraid that my tightwad ways were going to deprive me of the chance to read this book, since you can't find it in the libraries (around here, anyway), and I was sure it's out of print. But there it was in a quick search of "the favorite online bookstore," not only clean and new with a lovely, artful cover, but $5 cheaper and eligible for Free Super Saver Shipping!

So it seems Ralph Moody will get his chance to tell his story, after all - at least it's still available. But that's something I found myself thinking as I scanned through the hundreds of books I saw over those couple of days of "junking." How many of the people who wrote these books had such great hopes for them, only to have the books wind up crammed into a box with a dozen others, offered for 25 cents each?