If you are a dreamer, come in, If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer... If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in! --Shel Silverstein Last week, CityBeat's Kia Momtazi wrote a short post at Last Blog On Earth (www.last blogonearth.com) mourning the loss of poet Shel Silverstein. Yes, he's been gone for quite some time now, but Kia's young and happens to be busy catching up on 17 years' worth of The Simpsons, so it's reasonable that she might have missed Shel's untimely passing--eight years ago. At any rate, Kia's post led me to a warm afternoon wandering through Where the Sidewalk Ends, which got me to thinking about some of my favorite childhood books.
So I decided, rather than grumbling about the pay inequities between women and men in the workplace or the fact that our schools are pathetically under-funded or that our sports icons, like too many government officials, cheat their way to the top--instead of writing about any of that soul-ravaging poppycock this week, I decided to recount a few memorable tomes and go to a happy place.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle was one of my first favorites. I loved the fuzzy lone egg on the oversized green leaf and how from that egg hatched a tiny but ravenous caterpillar. I used to peep through the holes he left behind in plums, strawberries, the piece of chocolate cake, with almost as much wonder as my daughter exudes when poking her growing fingers through them now. I was always delighted as the fattened larva completed his evolution into the giant, psychedelic butterfly he was destined to be.
A little later, I would read and re-read Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. I was engrossed in Sal's journey with her mother as they picked blueberries for canning. With each reading, I imagined being immersed, like Sal, in a blueberry buffet so deliriously encompassing that I, too, might accidentally wander off with a bear cub's mama. Then there was Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and my alter ego, Max. I related to his bold defiance, his pout and impish grimace and the adventure he took during his bedroom banishment. But I was always glad he found his way home and that his warm dinner was waiting to welcome him back.
I was wildly obsessed with Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman. The fearless little orphan girl--'she was not afraid of mice, she loved winter snow and ice'--was a hero to me. I adored her and felt somehow included in the fierce love of her protective Miss Clavel. I was captivated by the cadence of the text, the strength of my protagonist and by the whimsical illustrations. I'm convinced that my love of Paris can be traced directly back to the tattered and eventually taped-back-together pages of this book.
Mercer Mayer's fantastical One Monster After Another made me want to mail letters to my best friend across the street, to have pen pals and sleepovers my entire life and to be ever mindful of Stamp-Collecting Trollusks or Letter Eating Bombanats. It also became the reason that my mother--under my direction--put drop after delicate drop of blue food coloring into her homemade batches of Rice Krispie treats, turning each cauldron of the mixture into off-the-pages Bubbly Goo for my brothers and me to devour.
As I grew, Judy Blume was there to grow with me. Freckle Juice taught me not to waste time despising the tiny brown spots that decorated my nose. I couldn't get enough of Peter Hatcher's struggles in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the follow-up SuperFudge. And with Blubber, I learned about falling prey to peer pressure and how easy it is to be hurtful; I also learned empathy and how much more meaningful it is to choose compassion over cruelty.
Of course, no Judy Blume reading list is complete without Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, the ultimate coming-of-age novel, which saw me through the traumatic phase when I still didn't have my period! (To my younger self, I offer this bit of advice: Be careful what you wish for, sister.) I wasn't the kind of girl to pray for anything, least of all my first period, but I was athletic. So, privately, I indulged in the 'I must, I must, I must increase my bust!' exercises, quietly hoping to catch up with my more physiologically advanced friends.
Later still, I learned about first love and sex through Forever and Wifey, both of which I needlessly hid, among other things, from my mother. And at some point in there, I sneaked into Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews' haunting and incestuous tale of siblings locked away together.
When I think about it, all the phases of my life are clearly imprinted by a series of books or writers. I've learned, discovered and journeyed through many years of reading. But even as I've outgrown some authors, Shel Silverstein has remained a constant. He's someone I revisit, with or without my daughter on my lap. The Giving Tree is a beautiful tale that makes me cry every single time I read it; The Missing Piece holds a universal message for people of all ages; and the simple poetry of A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends reminds me not to take all the grown-up stuff so seriously. It reminds me of what it was like to be a kid. His work is timeless, ageless and inclusive. Kia was right: It is sad that Shel Silverstein is gone. But I'm thankful I still have him--and all the others--with me.