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December 31, 2010

Susan Henderson on the Best Thing About Books

Posted by Anonymous
SusanHenderson.jpgToday, Susan Henderson --- two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, first-time novelist and the prolific author of UP FROM THE BLUE --- ushers in the start of a new year with the story of a childhood obsession that opened up a whole new world.
As a child, I liked everything about books --- from the wordplay of A.A. Milne and Rudyard Kipling, to the paintings of Ezra Jack Keats and Brian Wildsmith. I liked sounding out words I’d never seen before, and I liked being read to, even when I wasn’t quite listening. But one book changed everything for me. The Christmas I was in second grade, my mom gave me LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I didn’t just like this book; I was obsessed with it.
Suddenly I was sneaking it out of my desk during class, desperate to read a few more pages. Never mind its tame, pastel cover, LITTLE HOUSE showed a world full of the danger I both feared and longed for as a child.There were bears and yellowjackets, scorching hot bullets, and there was the wonderfully gruesome process of making headcheese.
And there was Laura, the first tomboy I discovered in literature. Later, I would find Pippi, Ramona and Scout. These were the feisty girls who took dares and told fibs and wouldn’t cry if they scraped their knees…but only Laura played with a balloon made from a pig’s bladder.
Until I read this book, I’d always felt like an outsider, and now suddenly I had company. It was this sense of belonging that spurred me to the library, where I checked out the rest of the books in the series. I then moved on to other authors, thrilled to see a bird’s eye view of the world and to feel the privilege and discomfort of getting inside a heart that was different from my own. The world was infinitely more glorious and wicked than I ever dreamed.
A few years ago, I read the entire Little House series to my two sons. I wanted them to see the world through the eyes of a brave and opinionated little girl who didn’t mind getting dirty and didn’t need to be rescued. Even today, they’ll mention details from the book --- the corncob Laura carried around as her doll, the plague of grasshoppers, the blizzard when Pa disappeared for days and came back missing part of his nose, and the train no one could dig out of the snow.
But this series didn’t send my boys into literary bliss the way it did me. And maybe that’s the best thing about books --- how they are filtered through each reader’s temperament, life experience and dreams so that we are, in essence, not even reading the same stories. What a thrill, then, it was to see my boys discover those first books that truly captured them --- sneaking the light back on after I’d tucked them in and entering the magic.
Tomorrow, the Holiday Author Blogs draw to a close, as Daniel Silva shares a profound story of books, tragedy and one man’s personal triumph.