Green Eggs and Ham was given to me when I was in first grade, and not a moment too soon. I was so sick of Dick and Jane ("Run, Dick, run. See Jane run.") and their old-fashioned stilted nonadventures that Dr. Seuss hit me like a splash of cold water. It was a classic encounter of a very ready child meeting a good book for the first time, eyes agog and jaw hanging slack. It was under the covers for me and a flashlight, where I read the whole thing, page after crazy page. For the first time, I was transported to a fantastic universe populated by fuzzy creatures with large eyes and drooping eyelashes, crazily stacked plates piled up on spindly towering cliffs and all sorts of birds and people wearing baggy pajama suits. Stripes, feathers, and rhymes were fascinating, amazing, puzzling but funny. I was so completely hooked that I could hardly breathe.
After devouring every Dr. Seuss book that our local Bookmobile stocked, I discovered Joan Walsh Anglund's Hansel and Gretel story. I was as good as in the forest with Hansel as he dropped bread crumbs and wandered in the dark with Gretel. The twisted and gnarled quality of the illustrations were captivating. I copied them in my own pictures and drawings. I wanted to make a gingerbread house with thick mounds of icing dripping off its eaves, candy stepping stones and gumdrops leading to its carved thick gingerbread door. The witch had an immense nose with a horrible wart and was so evil that I felt like I was helping the children push her into the oven when they finally had the chance. Who wouldn't love to find an edible house in a tangled forest?
The book that really did me in next was Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which I read as often as I was allowed to check it out of the library at school. The original illustrated version was beautiful and did not pander to me as a child. It opened an exotic door to a world far away where a strong boy grew up with wild animals and learned to speak their languages. I imagined myself living in tree tops and singing with wolves or learning bear talk. Shere Khan the tiger and all the other characters had traits that Mowgli could adapt and master. Loyalty was an idea that appealed to me; the bond of friendship and caring was probably my first real lesson in altruism that I'd encountered in literature. The book made sense to me and my developing nature ethic where human and animal lived side by side and made use of their strengths as individuals to look out for and help friends in need as well as to live in the natural world. Beyond that, I was allowed entree to the Indian forests and the animals that lived there, so different than central California. Years later, when Disney's version of the story came out, I was so let down and disappointed that the essence of the wonderful stories had been dumbed down and made ludicrous.
Harold and His Purple Crayon encouraged me to use my wits and imagination, so I admired it many times and still think in those terms to a certain extent. Marguerite Henry wrote what seemed like dozens of captivating stories, usually having to do with animals, especially horses, like Misty of Chincoteague, Justin Morgan Had A Horse, Cinnabar The One O'clock Fox and others. I read every one and learned about horsemanship, animals and people who loved them. They were funny, sad, heroic, incredible.
Books with lots of illustrations that were expressive, interesting and intelligent; rhyme and language that drew me into new worlds; animals and nature that inspired and reassured me that I was right to love them and care about them were what shaped my childhood and my emerging self. I am grateful beyond measure to the writers and illustrators who did the work of sharing their imaginations in a way that respected my own imagination and intelligence. The only assumptions they made, it seems to me now, was that the world was a rich and fascinating place and that children were taking notice with open minds and open hearts.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way