Once upon a time, I was a child. These are my stories.
My mother likes to recall the moment I learned to read, back when I was three years of age. They were short sentences and very easy words, but I had taken so long to start speaking, the fact that I was reading shortly after demonstrating that I neither was nonverbal nor had a developmental delay was kind of a big deal to my mother. (My father doesn’t remember the incident, but, to his credit, he has nearly four decades of memories to sift through.)
The truth was, I did not enjoy speaking at all. I enjoyed reading a great deal, and, once I got the hang of writing, I employed my time doing that, as well. Occasionally, I discover some of my juvenile prose scribbled on those blank pages at the very ends of books. My favorite one is a picture of a smiling pig with the caption, “Spred a little sunshine to every body”.
The summer after third grade, I became fascinated with the night sky. I flipped through pages of encyclopedias we kept in the house to learn more about planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies. I can recall reading an article about Venus (which had been described as “Earth’s twin”) and becoming convinced that there was another little girl lying on her living room rug thereupon, reading about Earth.
To facilitate my interest in the galaxy, my mother bought me a book called, Number the Stars.
The book, for those who are unfamiliar, is about two best friends living in Denmark at the time of Nazi occupation. It goes without saying that the book had absolutely nothing to do with the Milky Way, but it had the word “stars” in it, and that was about the extent of my mother’s research.
At first, I was disappointed in my mother’s selection, but, once I started reading it, I found that I could not put the book down. I even chose to read right through dinner, which was almost unheard of, I loved food so much. But the story was so fascinating to me. I had never heard of the Holocaust before, and I was horrified that human beings could do such a thing to other human beings. Even though the story ended well, I was so troubled by the fact that Ellen and Annemarie would never see each other again. I wanted to read more stories about girls living through the war, so I ended up reading The Diary of Anne Frank, which was even more upsetting to me, partially because Anne ultimately did not live through it. I decided that it was better for me not to read about the Holocaust (though I did resume later on in my little life) and focus on more lighthearted topics.
In the fourth grade, I became interested in Roald Dahl’s books, starting with Matilda. I got into Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Babysitters Club series. (I gave Sweet Valley High a shot, but I couldn’t make it work for me.) From there, nothing fascinated me more than a good murder mystery. Sherlock Holmes tales came first, and then nonfiction crime stories. I was barely ten years old at this point. I didn’t know how to socialize with other children, but I knew how to hide a dead body!
“Didn’t your parents monitor what kinds of books they bought you?” a friend once asked me.
“Nope, but they really should have,” I said. Although I was really interested in the subject matter, I hardly recommend allowing a fifth grader to read grisly tales of homicide. Sure, I could have grown up to become a detective or forensic scientist (which was my original intent), but I could just as easily have become a serial killer. As the target of bullying and teasing, I can’t say that I didn’t entertain the notion a couple of times in my youth.
As an adult, I learned that I have cyclical depression. Obviously, I was neither diagnosed nor treated for the condition as a child though I was obviously (in hindsight) suffering very much from the condition. Back then, children were rarely diagnosed for anything. We weren’t dyslexic; we weren’t good in school. We weren’t on the Autism Spectrum; we were weird, rude, or socially awkward. We didn’t have ADHD; we were badly behaved or willfully not paying attention to be spiteful. Not that I agree with how much children’s behavior is being pathologized today, but it would have been nice if my parents had been open to the idea that I was not mentally healthy. In any case, the only “treatment” I had was “escape from real life via reading books and writing stories”. Despite being unable to overcome what felt like a never-ending cycle of sorrow and rage, I remember those long hours of reading books with a lot of fondness. It was the only thing that gave me any pleasure. I would have traded food and slumber for a chance to read books for twenty-four straight hours. My parents were probably a little relieved that I was no longer coming up with crazy “inventions”. They had finally stopped wincing instinctively upon entering a new room of the house. I think the one thing they would change about this period of my life was not allowing my aunt Mariela to suggest that I lock myself in the bathroom for some private reading time. We only had one.
“But nobody will ever bother you in there!” she said. In one sentence, she inspired me and also got back at my dad for all the times he bugged her when they were kids.
As an adult (who grew up to be neither a forensic scientist nor a serial killer), I visited the children’s section of the bookstore and, with great enthusiasm, pointed out all the books I’d read as a kid. I gave book reports about each one in thirty seconds. Smart children were standing nearby taking notes. That familiar feeling of excitement washed over me, and, without my mother rushing me out the door, I spent far too much time and money that day.
In the midst of my animated discussions about various books I liked and disliked, I noticed a little girl with pigtails and glasses looking over and smiling. She was by herself, so I could only assume that her mother was off in the cafe (something that my own mother wished existed back when I was a little kid taking forever to make a selection). I can’t say for sure, but I think she, too, agreed that Sweet Valley High sucked and that Nancy Drew was a much better series. If I wasn’t afraid of looking like a creep (moreso than I likely already had, being the oldest childfree person in the kids’ section), I would have strongly suggested that she stay away from nonfiction crime stories and save the Sherlock Holmes for high school.
But who am I to hold a blooming little bookworm back?