Like most of us who write, I was a reader first. And like most of us who read, my love of reading started when I was a child. I think about this often—the way being a reader has shaped my life.
We always had books in our home when I was a kid. I saw people enjoying books, and I grew up knowing books were special. Both of my parents were readers. My mom liked to read romances and the popular fiction of the day. My dad liked to read history and westerns.
I have vivid memories of teachers reading books aloud in my childhood classrooms. I can still picture my third grade teacher sitting at her desk and reading Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories to us. My favorite was the one where Mrs. Piggle Wiggle gives some gossipy girls candy sticks that make their voices fall to a whisper. I remember another teacher reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler aloud to us, another reading The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and another reading A Wrinkle in Time.
I loved exploring the library shelves. You can learn anything in a library! I remember finding a book with diagrams which taught me, at the age of nine, how to make hospital corners on a bed, a skill I still use to this day. I went through a “magic” phase, sparked by Ruth Chew’s The Wednesday Witch. I went through a pretty intense The Borrowers phase, too, and I discovered my first science fiction—The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron.
A teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud in one of my childhood classrooms, and this naturally inspired my early decision to become a pig farmer. My grandfather bought two pigs. I named them Salt and Pepper and helped to feed them and take care of them. I loved those pigs. I went to the library and checked out books about pigs, with the dream of becoming the best pig farmer ever. I learned a lot about pigs. For example, did you know pigs don’t actually like being dirty? They only roll around in the mud to stay cool, because they don’t have sweat glands. I decided my pig farm would have clean, shallow pools of water instead of mudholes and spent hours diagramming my future, state-of-the-art pig farm. I abandoned the idea of becoming a pig farmer when Salt and Pepper disappeared from their sty and showed up in my grandparents’ freezer, in many packages, all wrapped up in white butcher paper.
By fourth grade, I was writing my own stories, spending hours in the library, and discovering all kinds of books on my own. I can still picture the spots on the school library shelves where I discovered S.E. Hinton’s books (they were up high, and I needed help reaching them) and the biographies of strong women like Abigail Adams and Florence Nightingale (those were on the bottom shelf, no help needed).
I loved reading series, too. I started with The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore and the other Bobbsey Twin books, then moved on to girls’ mystery series like Nancy Drew, the Peggy Lane theater stories (Peggy Goes Straw Hat was my favorite), and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. In junior high, I discovered Flowers for Algernon and Judy Blume’s books. I remember re-reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in 8th grade, during a particularly unhappy period after we moved from San Diego to the San Joaquin Valley.
When my mom grounded me the summer I turned fourteen, I spent happy hours alone in my bedroom reading Gone with the Wind. It was the best grounding ever. At sixteen I was in drama class at North Salinas High School. I fell in love with Shakespeare, and my mom bought me a leather-bound volume of his complete works. It still sits on my home bookshelf.
As a teenager, I remember many summer days spent with my mom and my sister, all of us reading. We were alone with our books, but together, too, reading funny passages aloud to one another and swapping books back and forth.
My first year of college, my English professor, Dr. Lucindi Mooney, inspired my decision to study literature and later helped me transfer into U.C. Santa Cruz. She introduced me to early American authors, like Hawthorne and Melville, and to women writers, like Doris Lessing and Katherine Anne Porter. Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen” is still burned indelibly into my brain. Dr. Mooney made me read Moby-Dick several times and write three or four papers on it during our time together. I will forever be grateful to her for giving me the time and the opportunity to fall in love with this book that I started out hating.
Aside from the enjoyment I get from reading, I think reading is the most important skill for a person to learn. The ability to read unlocks doors to learning about any subject, whether it’s history or math or science. You can learn anything in a book. In the years before YouTube, when the wax seal on our toiled needed to be replaced, I went to the library. I checked out several books on home repair and plumbing and learned how to dismantle a toilet, replace the wax seal, and put the toilet back together.
I read to my three children when they were young. They still tease me about the time I forced them to do a table read of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with me, so their reading skills wouldn’t stagnate over the summer. About five years ago, they surprised me with tickets to our local theater’s production of Our Town for Mother’s Day—they all went with me, and I still tear up when I think of it.
At Christmas when my children were young, I read to them from a picture book called Sophie’s Surprise by Lee Richardson. I bought it my daughter’s first Christmas. They are all grown now, with children of their own. Imagine my horror when one of my now-adult sons accidentally posted on Facebook that I read Sophie’s Choice to them each Christmas when they were children. My daughter and her husband blessed our family with another child in 2021. I gave my daughter that old copy of Sophie’s Surprise, and I’ve read it to my granddaughter Louise the last two Christmases.
Reading has enriched my life, inspired my desire to write, and taught me to be a better human being. I’ll forever be grateful to my parents and the teachers who introduced me to the world of books and taught me how to love them.