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December 14, 2009

Betsy Carter: The Book That Came To Stay

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Betsy Carter, author of THE PUZZLE KING, muses on the reciprocal value of literature as she she describes finding a treasured copy of an old classic to present to her spouse on Christmas Day.

I’d heard about the book before I ever met it. It was one of the first stories he’d ever told me about himself: the trip to the Catskills with his sister and brother-in-law. How he’d found the book on a shelf by the fireplace and how, to his 12-year-old mind, the orange leather binding and beautiful hand-colored plates seemed like a treasure. And that was before he’d even read the thing. It was the book that drew him into the world of animals and cemented his belief that they were as complicated and communicative as we are. He must have read this book more than a hundred times, he said, and each time he discovered something new.

I met the book during our first summer together when we went on a misguided trip to Sedona. It was north of 120 degrees on some days --- too hot for even airplanes to land or take off. So our vacation was mostly early mornings and late afternoons, ducking into museums or bookstores wherever we could find them. On one of those forays, I found a well air-conditioned antique store. He opted for a Starbucks instead. I rummaged through the Victorian furniture and porcelain tea sets when my eye was drawn to a stack of moldy books. One of them had a slightly battered orange cover. There was a beautiful painting of Baloo the bear and Mowgli the wolf boy on the cover. The type was an elegant old serif and there were plates of colored pictures throughout. It had to be a copy of the one he’d had as a child. I bought the book, stuffed into my bag and never said anything about it until the following Christmas, when I wrapped it up and wrote a note saying that I had invited some old friends to come and visit. The present brought tears to his eyes and earned me a wad of merits in the sensitive fiance department.

Two months later, when I got a bad case of the flu, I finally got to know the book as he sat by my bedside and read me the stories: putting the pedal to his "s's" when speaking the python Kaa’s throaty words; making his syllables as full and round as trombone notes when he became Baloo the bear, and turning his voice alternately silky and menacing as the mighty black panther Bagheera. And when he was little Mowgli, he was as sweet and awestruck as a 12-year-old boy who discovers that animals can talk.

He still says that copy of THE JUNGLE BOOK was the best Christmas gift I ever gave him, but I say his way of introducing its characters to me was the best present anyone ever gave me.

-- Betsy Carter

This afternoon, Lisa Grunberger's 72-year-old protagonist, Ruthie, discusses sharing a favorite copy of THE JOYS OF YIDDISH with her share with her classmates at yoga class.