The Book That Made You Fall in Love with Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 7th, 2017

At a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt dinner for author Benjamin Saenz (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe), several booksellers, and HMH director of field sales Jen Reynolds, gathered at a Minneapolis restaurant during Winter Institute. As happens at these dinners, the conversation ranged far and wide; this one covered everything from bootlegging and brothels in 1940s Mexico to poetry, depression, and art, to diversity in the children’s book field, to hookup patterns in 21st-century gay culture. In other words, your typical youth literature discussion.

Mr. Saenz was in Minneapolis to share his upcoming YA novel, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life (Clarion, March 7). As in Aristotle and Dante, the characters both are and are not himself, and friendship, family, and the recognition/creation of the self are at the core of the story. We all had a lot to talk about.

Long-table discussions tend to fall naturally into two groups, divided along table halves. But toward the end of the evening, Benjamin Saenz raised a glorious question, which brought the two halves together: “What is the book that made you fall in love with books?” He advised us against quick answers. He said he didn’t mean the first book we remember liking or even loving; he meant the book that made us fall head-over-heels, permanently and ineluctably in love with books.

I love this question. I hope you will answer it, too.

The answers at dinner were marvelous and ran the gamut from picture books to James Baldwin. The Story of Ferdinand was one bookseller’s deepest love, and that struck a chord with me. I had also loved the peaceful little bull who preferred, instead of charging the toreador, to sit in the ring and smell the flowers in the hats of the beautiful ladies in the stands. I know Ferdinand planted the seeds of valuing being patiently, happily, stubbornly true to one’s nature in the face of enormous pressure, and cultivated a lifelong appreciation of pacifism. But I’m not sure Ferdinand was the book that made me FALL IN LOVE WITH LITERATURE.

I also remembered being fascinated by Where the Wild Things Are and Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water. I lived in Maurice Sendak’s drawings; they were funny and scary and mysterious and troublesome. There were beaks and pebbles and monsters and swords and hats and fierce, angry children who misbehaved. Those books stirred my imagination profoundly.

Remy Charlip’s Arm in Arm ignited giggles and recitations from my sister and me, acting out the tiny playlets, the endless-loop jokes, the Alphonse & Gaston posturing, all the repeating, twisty-turny, clever wordplay and verbal and visual jests. I spent hours upon hours lost in the colorful loops of that book’s creative magic. But none of these were THE book.

 

Charlotte’s Web was another contender. It was and is one of the only completely perfect novels ever written. I loved it wholly and uncomplicatedly, and like so many of you, I’ve often quoted those immortal lines: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” In fact, I used them at my Grandma Crys’s memorial service, because they so perfectly described her. The appealing round innocence of Wilbur, the irresistible, pragmatic mothering by Charlotte, the growing up of Fern, the humor of the gossipy animals in the barn, the villain Templeton with his rotten egg, the lurking farm realities underlying the enchanting pastoral charm… they are a concert of perfection. Charlotte’s Web was one of my touchstone books, and it is *almost* THE book. But it is perhaps too uncomplicated to take that highest spot.

Another of our dinner companions named The Little Prince, and again, that resonated with me. I can still recite whole paragraphs of that book (the old translation, not the newer and supposedly more accurate—but less poetic—version). It was odd and profound, both personal and distant, and full of observations one had never encountered before but immediately recognized as deeply and importantly true. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eyes.” And ” ‘It has done me good,’ said the fox, ‘because of the color of the wheat fields.’ ” The proud, vulnerable rose, the laughing stars, the astounding baobab tree, the mesmerizing yet commonplace horror of the hat that is really a serpent who has swallowed an elephant! And the gratifying comment, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” Saint-Exupery understood the sorrow and joy of the child’s heart.

I used to make my college boyfriends read The Little Prince, insufferably insisting that they couldn’t really understand me without reading it. And yet, with all that, it wasn’t THE BOOK. There was a distance to it that, as much as I learned from it and loved with it, kept me from tumbling headlong inside it.

So what was the one book that made me forever and ever fall in LOVE with books in a deep and wholehearted swoon of total absorption, commitment, longing, and appreciation? I think my true love book has to be To Kill a Mockingbird. Devouring those pages one hot summer in childhood took me on a journey after which I was never quite the same. What is it about Scout and Dill and Boo Radley, Atticus and Calpurnia and Jem and Tom Robinson that stayed with me (and millions of readers) forever? They felt true. In addition to being a suspenseful, sometimes comical, always beautifully told page-turner of a story, To Kill a Mockingbird struck a great bell tone that rang out in favor of integrity, fairness, compassion, and courage, and showed us that, when coming up short against one’s own smallness and flaws, we needed to right the wrongs in ourselves just as ardently as we want to right the wrongs of others. It also revealed the evils of systemic racism and the dangers of small-minded assumptions.

In my reading life, there were certainly formative, even life-changing, books after To Kill a Mockingbird—but it was my first greatest love.

As we head toward Valentine’s Day, that holiday either loathed or loved, here’s a passion that’s easy to ponder: what was the book that made YOU fall in love, irrevocably, with books? Think carefully; your real answer might surprise you.

16 thoughts on “The Book That Made You Fall in Love with Books

  1. Y. M. Nelson

    “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame made me love books (and “Charlotte’s Web”). The “Sweet Valley High” series and the newer “Nancy Drew” series made me believe I could be a writer.

  2. Elizabeth Bluemle

    Wow – LOVING these replies!! Thank you so much for sharing your memories of favorite books. There are so many familiar favorites among these titles, and a few I need to check out! LINDA: I want to read The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou! LESLIE: A Wrinkle in Time was one of my touchstone books, too! SHELDON: I loved Heinlein, though I’ve never read Ellison. (Shh, don’t tell.) PATRICIA: I remember avoiding Girl of the Limberlost because I associated the title with limburger cheese, which was smelly! Isn’t that ridiculous? ELEANOR: Your comment about escaping from your cousins reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on the fire escape charmed the bejeebers out of me. NANCY: The Red Balloon!! I don’t think I’ve ever seen Peco and the Pirates, and now I want to, especially with the image of you carrying around your beloved tattered copy for decades. CAROL: CoFA series, yes!! Remember Helen Keller and Betsy Ross? And Paddle-to-the-Sea was unlike any other book I’d read; a treasure! DEBBIE: Ahhh, all those timeless classics! JAY: I must have read The House with a Clock in Its Walls about six times. And as a school librarian, one of my favorite moments was the third-grade boy, Sam P., who told his friend, “If you really want to see what John Bellairs is made of, read The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn.” LYNETTE: Time and Again is an all-time favorite! (And… Shakespeare! Lucky.) JAMES: I love the Mushroom Planet books! I wish they were all still in print.

  3. James Frenkel

    I’ve been thinking and thinking, trying to decide just which book was the one that made me fall in love with reading. I fell in love with reading when I was eight years old, and I remember loving a few books. One was a Murray Leinster SF novel, Conquest of Space; another was a Hardy Boys mystery, The House on the Cliff. And I had started to read biographies for kids, as well as some Landmark books about various historical events. I remember a series of precious-sized hardcover biographies with orange cloth covers, especially one about Kit Carson, which I loved, and another about Daniel Boone, from a different publisher. But the one that put me in the unregenerate book lover category was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron. The (pardon the expression) flight of fancy that the young protagonists take in that novel was enchanting to me. From the moment when Chuck and David realize that they can build their own spaceship and fly to the mysterious Mushroom Planet, I was totally hooked. I wanted to be one of those kids, who were roughly my age; I wanted to fly into space and discover cool, strange stuff. That novel ignited my sense of wonder about space and the future. I remember reading with a flashlight under the covers after bedtime so my mom wouldn’t catch me. That’s how hard it grabbed me. I’m happy to say I’m still as smitten by stories, SF and otherwise, as I was then. I don’t need to do the flashlight-under-the-covers thing anymore, decades later, since my wife is also a huge reader (as well as being a writer.) Obviously, I was destined to be in publishing.

  4. Lynette Winegarner

    I’ve always been a reader (with a great, great grandfather named Milton Shakespeare, it was embedded in my DNA), and I have those books that I adore and return to time and again, but I think the one that made me fall in love with books was a relatively recent discovery — Time and Again by Jack Finney. The premise is time travel via self hypnosis. I got so engrossed in the story one night that when I stepped off the bus, I actually thought I had landed in 1880s Chicago. The streets of my usually bustling neighborhood were quiet. The air was thick causing the streetlights to give off that sepia toned hue you see with gas lights. It was eerie and wonderful all at the same time.

  5. Jay Hartman

    For me it was The House with a Clock in It’s Walls by John Bellairs. I was in 1st grade but reading on a 4th grade level, and I was fascinated by the secret passageways and mysterious doings in the book. Many years later I would become a Waldenbooks store manager. During that time I contacted an out-of-print book service and asked them to find me a library edition of the book with the exact same cover and preferably with a pocket with a checkout card still inside. I didn’t care about the cost. Miraculously, they actually DID find one. Now I co-own a publishing house and that book sits above my desk to keep me inspired every day.

  6. Debbie Vilardi

    I’ve always been a reader, so The Book may be one I don’t even remember. But I do remember the little series (small trim size) of books by Beatrix Potter. I can tell you where they were on the library shelf. I don’t know if I read them or they were read to me, but I bet that’s where my love affair started.

    I graduated to Carolyn Haywood and then met Henry and Ramona and the Hatcher family along with the Bobsey Twins, who I only read in school, and the Hardy Boys, which my brother read before me. It continued from there through many works and authors. Our books were donated or passed to friends’ kids, but I own representatives of each of these series and authors today. Still, I suspect a small rabbit of having started it all. Suits him.

  7. Carol B. Chittenden

    Soon after discovering biographies, starting with Dolley Madison in the Childhood of Great Americans series, I encountered the Holling Clancy Holling books, especially Paddle to the Sea and Seabird. Ah! Stories AND pictures AND information, my ideal forever.

  8. Nancy Silverrod

    I remember having a great attachment to McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Seuss. I still have my tattered copy of Peco and the Pirates by Alex Forrest, which was given to me by my best friend, Ricky, for my fifth birthday. Likewise, I still have my copy of The Red Balloon. The first book I can remember reading by myself was The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright. I think Peco and the Pirates comes in first. I have taken it around the world, and cross-country and back for 55 years.

  9. Eleanor Miller

    I was reading by the time I was four, but it took five more years for me to understand what a hold books had on me that would become a live-long addiction. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was the decider. I stumbled across it in a little ‘library’ alcove during a family reunion at a summer resort where I was trying to hide from being relentlessly marched out to “play with your cousins.” The cover had a little girl my age sitting on a fire escape with a book. I took it off the shelf, sank down on the floor and started reading. Instant bonding! When my mother found me, I hid it behind other books on the shelf so no one else could take it. Every miserable day we were there, I snuck away to read until someone stopped me. My folks wondered why I cried when we left and had to leave Francie in limbo. So I gave up candy…saved my 25 cents allowance…until I had $3.49 cents…enough so that the next time we went to our department store, I could go to the book department. I’d already checked before and it was still there and finally mine. I still have it. Still love it.

  10. Patricia Annalee Kirk

    It’s been a while since I’ve been a child. Heidi was the soul food of books for me. The mean old man who learns to love a little girl. Also enjoyed Tarzen books, and a book no one today has heard of: Girl of the Limberlost.

    1. Eleanor Miller

      Oh, no…you’ve got company! I read and reread not only “Girl” (my favorite) but every other novel by Porter I could lay my hands on. Tarzan and other Burroughs novels too.

  11. Sheldon Wiebe

    My junior high school librarian clearly had no clue what books by Harlan Ellison were about so, nestled in with books by Robert A. Heinlein and other genuine young and juvenile titles was the odd Ellison.

    Between Heinlein’s Star Beast and The Rolling Stones and Ellison’s Earthman Go Home!, I was hooked on reading and science fiction at the same time.

  12. Leslie Hawkins

    I’ll give this more thought, but I sense that I’ll keep coming back to my immediate response of A WRINKLE IN TIME. I was wholeheartedly a book lover for years before reading it, but I often think of AWIT as the first book that really demanded more of me, both intellectually and emotionally, than anything I had read previously. It had a profound impact on what I came to expect from books and from myself as a reader, and it’s one of those books that speaks to me on a different level each time I read it at different stages of life.

  13. Linda W. Jackson

    Without a doubt, that book would be The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou by Kristin Hunter Lattany. I was in 7th grade and still afraid to read books without pictures (just like my son is now at age 10). But by 7th grade, picture books became scarce in the library (of course!). As I scanned the shelves on library day, I spotted a title that intrigued me because it had “Soul Brothers” in it. I figured this might be a book that would interest me. And I was right! The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou led to a lifelong love of books and reading!

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