I love finding notes in books. Here’s one I found in “The Great Mantle” while listing it:
Mrs. Renner managed the classroom with authority, humor and a pinch of sarcasm. She was probably the best teacher I ever had; for she introduced us to good books. We read: Where the Red Fern Grows, Number The Stars, The Phantom Tollbooth, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bridge to Terabithia.
I didn’t realize at the time what an impact those books would make on me or how they would help me later in life. When Mrs. Renner read to us, we weren’t listening to improve our language skills, we were encountering life, it’s beauty and it’s pains. These books taught us how to live, how to cope with boredom, loss, how to think.
I don’t remember ever being tested on these readings, they were given without attachment to scores, or outcomes. Mrs. Renner did not come between the student and the book. This made all the difference; these books spoke and she simply let them.
I was not a big reader at the time, but I quickly became entranced by Billy’s love for his two dogs Old Dan and Little Ann, Karana’s shrewdness, her grief at losing her brother, Annemarie’s courage, Milo’s adventures, but Bridge to Terabithia was my favourite.
Initially, I was disappointed that Terabithia was not another Narnia. A new world did not unfold, rather a sad story of friendship. In it I encountered grief in a new way. In Island of the Blue Dolphins the struggles were of a far off land in circumstances beyond my little world but in this one, loss was confronted in everyday life. The book stayed with me as good books do.
Four years later, my younger brother fell from a tree in our backyard woods and died. Those woods were our romping grounds. We were children in those woods, warriors, pioneers, confederate soldiers, doctors, nurses and then we weren’t. Childhood ended with the shock of death, the sharp pain of loss, the dull ache of grief.
As a Catholic, I had hope in eternal life. As a young girl with no actual experience of death until then, books inadvertently became a guide to grief. Thankfully, good ones had been set in my path by a good and loving teacher. And when I had the courage to walk in those woods again, Billy, Karana, Annemarie, Milo, Jess and Leslie all came back to me, their losses, their grief, their grit. I was not alone.
When I was about twelve, my mother checked an interesting book out of the library. She returned it unread but not before I’d opened it and read the magical first paragraphs about a god-like white horse wandering loose through the snowy streets of New York. I did not read the book all the way through until I was a graduate student but in the earliest hours of the morning, through the years, I’d find myself half-dreaming that opening scene. The book was Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.
Long before I returned to Winter’s Tale however, I came across another Mark Helprin book at a house where I was babysitting. During the kid’s naptime, I lost myself in a lyrical, luminous retelling of Swan Lake illustrated by Chris van Allsburg. On a pad of paper in the kitchen, I copied my favorite passage, about places and how vastly they can differ from each other, about “charged landscapes that can put together broken hearts or at least keep them from shattering to pieces.”
The book was a storybook but it was also wisdom literature, not afraid to digress and effloresce, offering proverbs and asides that resonated among my own inner musings, making music there. To escape the cage without breaking it. Watchers of the sky and riders of horses. Love for all is love for none. Those who are pure. Those who suffer. Those who wait. Hippopotamuses and pins. The pictures were both crisp and misty, magnificent and simplified. Their unexpected perspectives set butterflies of delight dancing in my stomach, like pans in an IMAX theatre.
A sad tale’s best for winter. Helprin’s Swan Lake had a regal dignified sadness that I appreciated as I moved out of childhood. The indestructible love that can exist between parents and child against all odds was theme I was later to find repeated in his fiction for grown-ups. But I read Swan Lake at the perfect time for me to read it. It helped me understand the delicacy of escaping the cage that threatens to close around a child without breaking it. And so helped me to make that same so important escape.
I stumbled across this book today at a local thrift store. When I opened it up I knew I had found that perfect gift for my girls. I’ve never seen a book like it with its window illustrations designed to cast shadows on the wall as you read. I quickly bought it along with some glow in the dark flashlights -Yes, glow in the dark flashlights!-The story line itself, although short, is rather sweet and among the light and shade you will find fireflies, a skunk, a night owl, a raccoon, a girl and a cat.