Between my job and my child, I find myself in a lot of situations where I’m forced to make small talk. One of the most frequent questions I get –– and that I am reluctant to answer –– is fairly innocent: So what are you reading these days?
I am reluctant to answer not because I’m not reading anything but because I’m not reading anything age-appropriate. I mean, yes, I actually like some decent-quality adult fiction –– Ellen Gilchrist, Flannery O’Connor, Tom Robbins, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Katherine Dunn, Annie Proulx –– and decent-quality adult nonfiction –– David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Susan Orlean. And of course I read my share of trashy mystery novels –– Sue Grafton, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Sanders and Phyllis Richman are particular favorites.
But what am I reading, honestly, at any given time? What’s on my nightstand or under my pillow or tangled up in my blankets? Well, the same books I’ve been reading since I was about 7: books by Judy Blume, Beverly Clearly, Ann M. Martin, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Paula Danziger, M.E. Kerr, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Louis Sachar, Cynthia Voight, Lois Lowry, Louise Rennison.
When I was 7 and reading these, I was advanced. When I was a preteen, I was right on target. Now? At 30? I’m definitely developmentally delayed.
Some of these books, too young for me or not, are high-quality and very entertaining. I just reread Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and was every bit as captivated by it as I’d been back in third grade. Ditto Witch of Blackbird Pond and Cricket in Times Square. Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons and Cynthia Voight’s Dicey’s Song are still two of the best books I’ve ever read, never mind that I was a good two decades too old to be reading them. Despite the controversy over them (I really just put my fingers in my ears because these books are so beloved to me that I can’t bear to hear it), I think the Little House books teach some incredibly important lessons and are beautifully written. I have mixed feelings on E.B. White –– Elements of Style is, to put it mildly, not my favorite grammar and usage manual, but I absolutely adore his children’s books. And Roald Dahl? I love every single word he’s ever written.
Then there are the books that are just funny: Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series still strikes me as deliciously absurd, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson books have given me more than one uncontrollable fit of the giggles.
Some of the books I read, though, I know are terrible. The Babysitters Club series. Double Trouble Dream Date. Sweet Valley High. Is There Life After Boys? These are horribly guilty pleasures.
I think the best way to explain my relationship with these books is with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice McKinley series. When I was 11, my mom went to the library and took out about 25 books in preparation for the 12-hour car trip I’d have to make to Corning, Ark., with my crazy aunt and uncle for my father’s fourth wedding. One of those books was The Agony of Alice, and Alice was 11, just like me! I devoured it. As soon as I was home, I went back to the library and checked out every Alice book they had. Once I was caught up, the waiting started. There was an Alice book released every year, and she’d always age about four months per book. So when I started reading, Alice and I were both 11. Now I am on pins and needles for the next book to come out this May. Alice will be turning 18. I am 30. That seems to suggest that I should’ve aged out somewhere along the way. But I haven’t. I love this character. I am completely invested in finding out what happens next.
Sometimes I feel intellectually stunted, but it’s not as if I haven’t read the Big Important Books. I have (mostly as required reading, but still). I’ve read Pulitzer Prize winners and American Book Award winners and Shakespeare and a good bit of Russian literature and Beowulf and Charles Dickens and James Joyce. I’ve read The Scarlet Letter and Jude the Obscure, though I did so with a sense of taking medicine –– that is, doing it for my own good rather than for actual enjoyment.
But if left to my own devices, I’d much rather curl up with a book I found in the kids’ section. I was, I have to admit, a little embarrassed on a recent plane trip to be seen reading a well-worn copy of Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas. If you ask me, though, my seatmate should have been every bit as embarrassed by her copy of Cosmopolitan.
What were your favorite books as a kid? Do you still read them? If so, have they held up?