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December 1, 2009

Vanessa Davis Griggs: The Gift of a Book

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Vanessa Davis Griggs --- author of eight novels, including GOODNESS AND MERCY --- can still remember the very first books she'd owned as a child. While they weren't spectacular pieces of literature, she explains below just how much they meant to her then, and what they still represent for her today.

My love for words began long before the gift I received for Christmas in that one-room-three-grades schoolhouse in Village Springs, Alabama from my first grade teacher, Ms. Knowles. My mother, Mrs. Josephine Davis (something I learned growing up --- to put a “handle” on grown folks’ names), knew the importance of education. She made sure I --- along with my sister and brother at the time (my mother later had two more children: a girl, ten years my junior and a boy, twenty-eight years my junior) --- had a head start in learning, even when there was no school-sanctioned head start or kindergarten to attend.

My mother bought us a system of books that came with records (45s and 78-LPs, now considered antiques…replaced by the technology of CDs, iPods, and MP3s). I specifically remember a red and white book with words and pictures: A for apple, B for bee, and so on. I loved that book! The 45-record was of a woman who not only taught me my vowels, but how to remember them. A, E, I, O, U. “Lady, I owe you some sugar.” My mother also purchased us a set of encyclopedias. Never mind that we, nor our community, had running water or the possibility for indoor plumbing until after I was ten years old. But what our parents were able to do for us, even at great sacrifices, they did.

Those encyclopedias (with the extra books thrown in the sale containing stories and rhymes such as “never having seen a purple cow and never hoping to see one”), would --- as the salesman said to my mother --- “bring the world to our fingertips.” This was pre-Google and, for our community, pre-having a library one could go to. In my mother’s eyes, we would have no excuse for not learning and, definitely, for not knowing. None.

So when I walked inside of that small, one-room building where the first through the third grade sat and learned reading, writing, and arithmetic (excited that one day I’d get to go over to the other one-room building next to ours housing the fourth through the sixth grade), I already loved school, learning, and all that I could get from and out of it.

Then came the gift that was to validate how I myself would someday wrestle with carefully arranged letters of the alphabet to use in the service of exciting others the way I’d been excited. For Christmas, Ms. Knowles presented me with two separately wrapped items. I wasn’t expecting anything, and, in truth, I can’t say if anyone else received what I did. I tore the wrapping off one: it was a small black book written at the third or fourth-grade level. When I tore the wrapping off the second gift, I held a book about Francis Scott Key and his creation of the national anthem: "The Star-Spangled Banner." My first books! Mine to keep. Mine alone. I didn’t have to share them with anyone else. I didn’t have to give them back. I could read them again and again and whenever I wanted.

I quickly devoured the Francis Scott Key book --- an exciting and easy read for me. But the black book contained a word that dared to challenge me to move past it. A word that attempted to stop me cold in my reading tracks. I then recalled words I’d heard many times before. “Sound the word out.” So I began. A…t…t…a…ck. At…tac…k. Then I heard, “Put them together.” At-ta-ck. “Faster.” At-tack. Attack. Success! I did it. I figured it out all by myself! Talk about being excited; I was so excited and yes, hungry for more.

The joy I received from the gift of my first books all those years ago still lives in my heart at age fifty. And it gives me no greater joy than to know that what I do in my life is possibly having that same effect on many who read the works of my hands today. Books: absolutely a gift that can keep on giving.

-- Vanessa Davis Griggs

Join us again later today, as Christina Baker Kline shares a poignant family tradition from her childhood.