Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Childhood Reading

All of us who write are, of course, influenced by other writers. And as far back as we were able to read some writers stand out.

For me, the writers of my childhood who helped put me on the path to being a writer are still foremost in my mind. Some authors were suggested to me by my parents, but I think the ones that I enjoyed most as a kid were the ones who I discovered on my own. And so, here is a list of the writers who amazed me and fascinated me and actually made me want to convey my own thoughts into passages to be read by others.

Jim Kjelgaard is one who I recall as an effective and insightful writer of children's books. He wrote about things that I enjoyed even when I was very young--the outdoors and the creatures who share the Earth with us. His style was very stark and no nonsense, but there was sometimes a softness to it that appealed to me. His novel that stands out the most and which I never forgot is FIRE HUNTER. Herein he tells the story of a primitive caveman who--in bouts of brilliance and good fortune--discovers how to make fire, to make throwing sticks, to domesticate dogs...Kjelgaard in a display of pure brilliance put into the lives of one prehistoric man and a single prehistoric woman shows how we might have made the initial technological discoveries that set us apart from the other animals. And may I point out that Mr. Kjelgaard did this decades before Jean Auel followed him.

Kjelgaard did it first.

I've written about Ernest Thompson Seton before, but I can't go too many years without mentioning him. More than any writer, his work had an enormous effect on me. Here was a man who had actual respect and compassion for our fellow creatures. He showed me that things such as prairie hens and cottontail rabbits and yellow dogs and powerful grizzly bears had feelings and emotions and personalities the same as people. I'm not sure how I found his books, but the first one I read was BIOGRAPHY OF A GRIZZLY. Here was a tale about an animal whose life was packed with misfortune and wealth, with pathos and joy, with danger and triumph. Here was a bear with a name--Wahb! I followed Wahb from birth to death, and not a sentence was anything less than amazing to me. I went on to read everything I could find by Seton, collecting and hoarding the novels and collections. Not a day goes by that I don't reflect on the lessons I learned from reading his books.

"Wahb smashed his skull with a single blow."
In addition to being a great writer, Seton was a masterful artist--considered one of the finest wildlife artists of his day.

The first fantasist I read--even before my mom showed me books by Ray Bradbury--were the Dr. Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting. Here was a series devoted to a man of learning who could, quite literally, talk to the animals. From the moment I read the first line of the initial book I was captivated. Here was pure fantasy, not the more realistic material I enjoyed by other writers, but flights of fancy. And, as with Seton, the author also illustrated his own work with drawings wonderful enough to please any kid who found them. I found the first Dr. Dolittle book in the school library the first day of the third grade and I continued to check them out until, at last, I finally outgrew the stuff. But I never forgot it, and those tales hold a special place in my memories.

Good old Dr. Dolittle. Hugh Lofting was the first writer I ever overdosed on. I finally reached a point where I couldn't stomach one more Dr. Dolittle novel. I must have blazed through about seven or eight of them before they lost that initial charm.

Another writer who grabbed my attention was Evelyn Sibley Lampman. And, of course, it was her best-selling novel THE SHY STEGOSAURUS OF CRICKET CREEK that stopped me in my tracks when I pulled the book down from the shelf. Wonderfully illustrated, it told the story of a talking stegosaurus discovered by a pair of kids out hunting for fossils in a western desert. Ms. Lampman was another one who had a way of speaking to kids. And more, she taught me that there were other human points of view than those I heard each day there in my Decatur Georgia neighborhood. Some people lived on ranches in the big sky country, and some kids were Indians who lived on reservations, and not everyone spoke English and listened to Dixie as if it were the national anthem.

Sometimes a wonderful kid's novel is perfectly paired with a terrific and talented artist. So it was with THE SHY STEGOSAURUS OF CRICKET CREEK (art by Hubert Buel).

This illustration astounded me when I was eight years old. It still does...

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