I don’t remember learning how to read, but my mother told me that I would sit on the couch with her while she was helping my older brother with his homework, and I guess I just absorbed all the letters and sounds. When I started Kindergarten, I thought there would be more books to read! Desperate to find something new to read, I picked up a magazine from my Kindergarten teacher’s desk, and I’ve been looking for something good to read ever since. When I was finally old enough to go to the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, I started reading everything that looked at all interesting.
Sometimes a clever title jumped out at me. From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg is about Claudia and Jamie, two children who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. While there, they try to prove that a newly acquired sculpture in the museum was actually carved by Michelangelo. For six years I went to Hunter College High School on E. 94th Street in Manhattan, which is near the museum. When I realized that I could get into the museum for just a quarter, I started stopping there after school a few times a month. I made a point to look for all the places that Claudia had been. The cafeteria there was marvelous, with high ceilings, and occasionally I would think of Claudia and Jamie’s bookbags and instrument cases filled with clean underwear and socks while I ate my yogurt. The 18th century beds where they had slept did look beautiful, but not at all comfortable. In my wanderings, I found the the Chinese Garden. This became my favorite place to do my homework and read. It wasn’t Claudia’s place, but it became mine.
Looking in the library for more by E.L. Konigsburg, I found A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, a children’s historical fiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine. I didn’t like Eleanor but I loved her world. And she was Richard the Lionheart’s mother, as well as Prince John’s! That meant that Eleanor was part of Robin Hood’s world, and I wondered why she wasn’t in any of the Robin Hood books and movies I had read and seen. I thought of Eleanor when I read other books set in medieval England, like The Wrong Plantagenet by Marian Palmer and The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, and I wondered what she would have thought about how her descendants were carrying on.
I also found Lisa and Lottie by Erich Kastner in the library. I had already read Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives and found it hysterical, so I looked for more by him. Lisa and Lottie made a big impression on me. The library’s copy was old and it felt special in my hands. I think it was the first book I had ever read that dealt with divorce and I felt slightly daring when I read it. The little details in the book really stood out to me. Reading about eating pralines at the opera made me try Pralines and Cream Ice Cream for the first time at Baskin-Robbins. It was delicious and made me feel elegant and grown-up!
Years later, I learned that the movie “The Parent Trap” with Hayley Mills was an adaptation of Lisa and Lottie. I enjoyed the movie, but I did wish that they had left the setting alone. Boston was fine, I was sure, but nothing could be as romantic as Vienna! As an adult I found Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson, also set in Vienna, and I recognized the charm of the city from Lisa and Lottie. Vienna seemed the perfect background for a love story about a princess. All of Ibbotson’s books have that classic European charm, that idealized Europe that probably no longer exists. And when I dream of traveling to Europe, Vienna is my first destination, even before London and Paris.
Sometimes, while wandering around the library, I would choose a book just because the cover art drew me in. It was this way with D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. I remember borrowing this book from the library every month or so for a year when I was nine or ten. I loved fairy tales and Greek myths but these myths were different, funnier and darker. I looked for it again when I was a teenager, because I had been reading some Thor comic books and thought he was hot. Well, not hot but whatever we called attractive men in 1981. Thor was not at all attractive as drawn by the D’Aulaires’ but the stories were just as great as I remembered!
Recently, I remembered the Book of Norse Myths when I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This was the funniest, darkest mythology I have ever read. I find myself thinking of American Gods a few times a week these days. While of course I don’t believe that religions work in the way that Gaiman describes, it has given me a larger vision of how myth, legend, and organized religions have influenced and modified each other. I am a little concerned about watching the mini-series that is coming out soon… just putting the story on screen will narrow the infinite possibilities of his vision. I generally prefer my mental version of a good book to any movie or show made, especially anything fantastical.
Of course the library isn’t the only place to find a good book. I remember one time I was staying with my aunt and, being bored, went down to her basement to see if I could find something amusing. My Titi Aida never threw anything away so I found a pile of my cousin’s old books. The red cover in the pile caught my eye and the illustration of an old car with a big crowd of olden-days people excited me. The book was Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace. I was about ten years old at the time, and the book was as good as it looked!
One of my favorite things about Betsy and Tacy go Downtown was how Betsy was starting to choose books for herself. She had read all the books her family owned and, looking for something new, she secretly read the hired girl’s trashy dime-store novels. When her parents’ found out, they encouraged her to go to the library. There she read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Tanglewood Tales. I also found it hard to find good books to read and I loved that Betsy read myths, just like I did! I remember finding The Tanglewood Tales in the school library. A year or two later, I found Gone with the Wind at a yard sale and read it for three days straight. I knew that if my parents realized that I was reading this book, so unsuitable for my age, they would have reacted exactly as Betsy’s parents had!
A few years later I ran into a whole shelf of Betsy-Tacy books in the library. Even though I was in high school, I read straight through them, from Betsy-Tacy, which featured Betsy’s fifth birthday party, to Betsy’s Wedding which featured, well, Betsy’s wedding! One of the funniest scenes in the series is in the sixth book, Betsy in Spite of Herself. She and her friends had all been assigned Ivanhoe to read over the summer and Betsy is the only one in her crowd to actually read it.
Betsy is afraid to admit that she had read Ivanhoe several times and loved it, because she is ashamed to really be herself in front of her friends. Joe Willard, the boy she likes (who is also the boy she marries!), calls her out on it. When she is asked to help her classmates by giving them an overview of the plot, she thinks of Joe and tells everyone that it is a “perfectly grand” book and explains the story. Then they all write an essay on Ivanhoe and all of her friends get a better grade than she does! I felt bad for Betsy, as my friends and I were always recommending and sharing books.
Since I had heard of Ivanhoe, I went and looked for it in the school library. I remember not wanting to stop reading long enough to get up to check it out! I felt for Rebecca and despised Rowena, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about Ivanhoe himself. I knew that he was supposed to be the hero but I thought that he was sort of boring. He was too much like Luke Skywalker and not enough like Han Solo.
Not long after this I watched a new TV version of Ivanhoe. I think it was the first time I had seen a filmed version of a book that I loved. Rebecca was amazing and Rowena was a simp and Ivanhoe was still sort of boring. I didn’t mind some of the changes because I was totally into Sam Neill as Brian de Bois-Guilbert. I preferred to think of him as really in love with Rebecca rather than as the lunatic he was in the book. At that age I thought a lot about heroes and villains and what made a male character interesting. Couldn’t a good guy be interesting and attractive? Betsy’s Joe Willard was! In one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, Anne said that she wanted a man who could be bad, but chose not to be, rather than a man who was “hopelessly good”.
I read straight through high school, still picking up everything that looked interesting – P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Barbara Pym. But I was still open to children’s books. Once I was waiting for a chorus rehearsal to start and I noticed a friend reading a book that looked like fun – Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager. She was shocked that I had never read it and gave it to me. It was a fun fantasy novel, full of magic and the story of Ivanhoe! The book even mentioned Betsy-Tacy! I loved that Edward Eager was telling me what his characters liked to read.
In Knight’s Castle, the children use their toys to set up scenes from Ivanhoe, only they set it up the way they thought it should have been, rather than the way it actually was. The children’s ideas mixed with some magic made for a crazy, AU fan-fictionesque version of Ivanhoe’s story. Rowena got fat, De Bracy played baseball, and Ivanhoe sat around reading science fiction books. It was all much more extreme, and entertaining, than the changes in the TV version I had seen!
After I read through all of Eager’s books I could find, I went looking for E. Nesbit, who Edward Eager had praised. I tried Five Children and It first, but I was underwhelmed. I had loved how breezy Eager was and I found Nesbit’s book kind of creepy. But I tried one more of her books, The Railway Children, and found I liked it better than her fantasy.
The Railway Children was just about perfect. It’s set during the turn of the century and tells the story of a family who has to move to Yorkshire and cut down on expenses after their father is falsely imprisoned for spying. I liked the world Nesbit created, which was old-fashioned and sweet. Bootlaces and flowers, and prayers for all prisoners and captives, and butter or jam, but not both. The book reminded me of Noel Streatfeild’s Shoe books, which had both real problems and juvenile drama, with a solid background of cozy family life. I like cozy adult books, too. Several of my favorite authors, like Elizabeth Goudge and Rosamund Pilcher, and even J.K. Rowling, write books with those descriptions of family and food and furnishings that make me feel like I am a part of the story.
As a young adult, I tried to find copies of many books that I had loved as a child. I bought myself a copy of Ivanhoe and read it so many times I wore it out. I was still able to find the Betsy-Tacy books in the library but I could not find them in a bookstore. I even wrote to Random House to find if they were still in print. They weren’t. Thankfully, nowadays it is so easy to find out-of-print books online! I love to treat myself to a few of my old favorites. One of the first I bought was a used copy of Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I think it is back in print now; I know that the Betsy-Tacy books are!
When I had children, I looked for as many good books for them as I could find. I read aloud to my children and so did my husband, and they knew how to read themselves, but it was not quite enough. So we borrowed books-on-tape from the library and the children listened to them at bedtime. One of the best tapes we found was The Children’s Shakespeare. They were charming retellings of the plays, read aloud by actors like Linda Hamilton and Jim Belushi. One part my children loved was the opening of King Lear, where the voice actor drawled out, “King Lear was old and tired…” We loved these stories! The author? E. Nesbit.
Reading to and with my children naturally led to homeschooling them. I read everything I could find – books about educational philosophy and articles about phonics vs. whole language and many, many catalogs. When I was introduced to Charlotte Mason’s idea of educating using living books, a lightbulb went off in my head. I realized how much I had learned from the books I had read over the years. I was introduced to Michelangelo in The Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler and purgatory in A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis wasn’t just a fantasy – it was the story of children displaced during the London Blitz in World War II. Noel Streatfeild’s When the Sirens Wailed told a similar story – not fantastical, of course, but set in the same the time and place as Lewis’ book. And when I recently read Blackout/Allclear by Connie Willis, I was brought back to the same world of the London Blitz that I had been introduced to as a child.
The great thing about historical fiction is how it not only made history come alive, but how it sometimes introduced me to characters and situations that helped me better understand human nature. For example, I first read about the black death (Bubonic Plague) in The Door in the Wall by Marguerite DeAngeli, which is set in medieval England. It’s a book about overcoming adversity and the nature of bravery. I remember thinking of Brother Luke, the kind monk who worked in the equivalent of a hospital, when we studied that time period during AP European History in High School. The book had ended happily, as most children’s books do, but at sixteen I was ready to learn about the horrific death toll. Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, an adult time travel story about the black death, immersed me in that world again. Knowing about the plague gave me the background to better appreciate the book. And reading about Father Roche, who cares for his people despite the dangers of the plague, reminded me of Brother Luke.
Homeschooling introduced me to many new authors. Rosemary Sutcliff is the first that comes to mind. The Eagle of the Ninth was recommended in so many catalogs and used in so many programs that I just needed to see what it was all about. Of course the library had a copy, and I was enthralled by the book. When I had read all the Sutcliff books I could find at the library, I actually bought a few. I rarely buy books without reading them first, but this author was an exception. And it was worth it! The Lantern Bearers is one of the best books I have ever read. The heartbreaking story of the lights going out in England as the last of the Roman legions leave and the barbarians come made my knowledge of that time in history come alive. Sutcliff introduces King Arthur as a boy named Artos, which helped me see how his legend fit into recorded history. And when I found Sword at Sunset, her adult novel about King Arthur, I was blown away. By leaving out all of the magic, Sutcliff made her version of the legend seem so possible!
Over the years, I have found most of my favorite books in the library. I haunted my elementary school library and spent so much time in the Hunter library that I did an internship there as a senior. I can still see the exact shelf on which I found all of the Betsy-Tacy books in the Flatlands branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, as well as the shelf where I found A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the 96th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. When I was first married, the Parlin Memorial Library in Everett, MA became my favorite place in Massachusetts. All of these libraries, and more, have special places in my heart. I remember using the card catalogs and searching the shelves, looking and hoping for just one more book by E.L. Konisgburg or about the Greek Gods.
But the internet has changed all of that! On Amazon, I can find almost anything. Wikipedia and Goodreads have lists of related books, so I can find every title by a certain author, as well as lists of books about certain topics. I can search for “historical fiction about Ancient Greece” and come up with lists of everything from Theras and his Town by Caroline Dale Snedeker to The King Must Die by Mary Renault. Homeschool companies like Veritas and Sonlight have lists of books organized by grade-level and historical era. And, after I find a book I want to read, I can go to the Brooklyn Public Library’s website and look for it. If they have a copy at any branch, I can order it and they will send it to my local branch and e-mail me when it it is ready. If it is available as an e-book, I can borrow it immediately. And, if they don’t have a copy, I can recommend that they purchase one. I can search the online catalog and find books by author or topic. After over forty years of using the library to search for new books, it is still my best partner, helping me find everything that looks at all interesting.
Liza Q Diehl was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and has raised her children there as well. She has been homeschooling for 20 years and is on the Steering Committee of her local homeschool support group. Homeschooling has led her to revise her opinion of Dickens and Hemingway and she now regrets not assigning more of their books. And, no matter what her children say, she knows that “Amos Fortune, Free Man” by Elizabeth Yates is one of the best children’s books ever written.