It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I fell in love with reading. I’ve been an avid reader since before I actually mastered the art, thanks to my mother, who adored books and read to my little brother and me every day from the time we were babies until I convinced her I could handle it on my own. Classic literature and poetry were her favorites, so we were fed a steady diet of Dickens, Frost, and Shakespeare. I was probably the first five-year-old in history who could quote from Great Expectations and David Copperfield, although Oliver Twist was my favorite.
Mom also taught me to master words on my own, and I was reading chapter books before kindergarten. I don’t remember Dick and Jane type early readers. The first book I remember deciphering was an old volume of my mother’s about an elderly rabbit, Uncle Wiggily Longears. First with her help, then all by myself, I read Uncle Wiggily and the Littletails over and over until I practically had it memorized. After that, I was a reader.
Once the skill kicked into high gear, the book that introduced me to the joy of contemporary fiction was Misty of Chincoteague. I was a young horse lover, and at age seven dreamed of having one of my own. The notion of capturing a wild pony stoked that fire in my heart. While the classics instilled in me a love of language, the worlds they portrayed seemed far removed. But in Misty, I found a story I could relate to. I could be one of the characters. Ah, this was what a book was supposed to do—draw you straight in, and put you solidly on the page.
This is something I strive to do for my readers with the books I’m writing today.
After Misty, I devoured Marguerite Henry. Sea Star. Stormy. King of the Wind. Justin Morgan Had a Horse. When I’d exhausted hers, I moved on to other equine adventures. Black Beauty. My Friend Flicka. The Black Stallion. By then, I did own a horse and could relate to the overwhelming love the protagonists and their animals shared. I combed the library for more horse books. Longer horse books. Harder horse books. The children’s librarian would hold new arrivals, or inform me she had nothing new, but maybe I’d like to try a novel about dogs?
Old Yeller was sad, and so was the next, Where the Red Fern Grows. At that point, I had no real relationship with loss. I experienced it first through books, learning life is impermanent, but that it’s possible to survive the grief surrounding death and keep moving forward. Also that life begins anew or, as I found in The Incredible Journey, sometimes you get a second chance.
Then Island of the Blue Dolphins carried me, a desert dweller, to a place surrounded by ocean—one my eyes had never seen. There, a girl not much older than me was forced to fend for herself, using only her wits. (I read this in a day where few females worked, and most were encouraged to rely on their husbands.) Not only did Karana survive, but she thrived. A kid could do that? And a girl, no less? What possibilities books contained! What promise the future held!
After that, there was no stopping.
Beyond my familiar world lay otherworlds, past, present, future, and totally invented. Jules Verne. Robert Louis Stevenson. Lewis G. Carroll. Madeleine L’Engle. Roald Dahl. Shel Silverstein. Ray Bradbury. Jack London. I was—and remain—an eclectic reader, but I always preferred stories with characters that could be me.
While it started with my amazing mother settling me toward sleep with her own beloved favorites, it was a mysterious pony that introduced me to the myriad treasures to be discovered on the page, and eventually drove me to create relatable worlds for new generations. Worlds populated with characters those readers could be. So thank you, Marguerite Henry, for showing me the way. And hey, maybe I’ll even write a horse book one day.