“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Stephen King
If books are a uniquely portable magic, the same cannot be said for hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of books, but port them we did. The first thing that my husband and I noticed about the house we ended up buying was the library—a room completely lined from top to bottom with built in bookcases. I have lived in many places, and set up makeshift bookshelves from salvaged boards and cinder blocks, and later, the do it yourself–put them together to watch them fall apart IKEA models—but I have never had a library. Say it with an affected British accent if you will—the “lye-brahr-ry”, or feign embarrassment and call it the “TV room”, this library has become the focal point of our home.
I consider myself fortunate—my family has always revered books. I have two volumes from my mother’s childhood, Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back, reprinted in August 1941. You don’t remember Mary Poppins? Let me jog your memory of a far more innocent time: “If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads.” At the end of the second chapter, the children Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been on her day off. She replies, “In Fairyland.” They are baffled when she tells them that she did not see Cinderella or Robinson Crusoe. They proclaim that she could not have been in THEIR Fairyland. Mary Poppins gives a superior sniff and replies, “Don’t you know, that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?”
My own Fairyland was created by Walter Farley, and Marguerite Henry and Albert Payson Terhune. Farley wrote the famous Black Stallion and Island Stallion series of stories about Alec and The Black, an Arabian washed ashore with the young boy who tames him after a shipwreck, and Steve Duncan and Flame, the chestnut stallion he discovers on the mythical Caribbean island of Azul. Henry wrote Misty of Chincoteague, and Stormy, Misty’s Foal, inspiring little girls of my generation to long for their very own ponies. Terhune wrote Lad, a Dog which I read when I was ten. Twelve years later, while in medical school, the first puppy I ever bought on my own was a collie. The dreams and myths inspired by a childhood of reading never really go away.
And so, when my children were young, I bought books upon books, and since I worked during the day, we read them together late into the night, before Harry Potter, which they were old enough to read on their own, and before video games, and computers and Facebook. The kids had their favorites—one was The Ox-Cart Man, describing the rhythmic seasons of life in colonial New England, by Donald Hall who later became poet laureate of the United States. They also loved Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, about a young boy who helps an elderly lady in a nursing home regain her memory by bringing her objects from the past, and of course The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein about selflessness and unconditional love.
When the kids grew up, and graduated to their own taste in reading material, I put away the children’s books—packed them lovingly into boxes and put them out in the shed by the barn. And there they sat, quiet and safe, until the movers from Allied Van Lines retrieved them and brought them here, to the library. As I unpacked all the boxes, the memories of childhood—my mother’s, my own, and my children’s came back full force as I indulged myself by opening and rereading nearly all of them, until I came to my own favorite, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney in 1982, two years before my daughter was born. It’s called Miss Rumphius, about a little girl named Alice who grows up and travels far and wide, but comes home to a city by the sea, where she plants lupines and becomes known as The Lupine Lady. As a little old lady, she tells stories of her adventures to her great niece, also named Alice. Little Alice says, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.” The Lupine Lady says, “That is all very well little Alice, but there is a third thing you must do.” “What is that?” asks little Alice. Her great aunt replies, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” “All right” says little Alice, who then reflects, “But I do not know yet what that can be.”
If books can inspire our children to make the world a more beautiful place, then they are indeed magic. I am so glad I kept all of ours.