I remember in elementary school, the awe and anticipation tinged with uncertainty as the teachers would pass out the Scholastic Books printed forms from which to choose books. I remember wondering how books came to be on the forms. Who got to choose them? Are these books on the list all there are? The only ones for sale? The books were by grade reading level. I had to choose them based on the titles alone. I think maybe my mother had a say in my selection. I seem to remember her saying I couldn’t order every single title. The choices were blind, tough. I’d wonder if I picked the right things or if I might be missing out on what I didn’t select.
Eons later, maybe two to three weeks, the books would show up at school. They were bundled with rubber bands. No boxes. No bags. Most of them were paperbacks. Most of them were in color. My bundle would be handed to me by a teacher. They went alphabetically, and though, if by last name, I’ve always been midway through the alphabet, it took eons more for my bundle to be placed in my hands.
This was the moment. This was when I would find out if the titles I picked on the form were really portals into hidden worlds or if they were duds. Somehow they were never duds. – In retrospect, I believe the forms were mostly lists of Caldecott award winners – Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Frog and Toad, Bread and Jam for Frances…Scholastic Books were my tickets to other worlds of vividly colored imagination, where the main characters created their own realities out of sheer determination…and the occasional purple crayon.
It wasn’t until I was reading Neil Gaiman‘s acceptance speech for the Newberry Medal, recently published in The View from the Cheap Seats that I realized how profoundly receiving those rubber band bundled paperbacks was an event that I still seek to relive. Gaiman was speaking in favor of libraries and their crucial role in helping kids develop. – Reading his book made me realize I ought to venture into the Fulton-Atlanta Public Library System to borrow Kindle books. I could read even more stuff!
Truth be told though, as a kid, libraries completely intimidated me. It always seemed that in order to find the best books, you had to deal with adults, and I would do just about anything to avoid dealing with adults. They were endlessly patronizing and said stupid thoughtless things to me. I was always the smallest in my grade. My mother made me wear my hair in pigtails with nauseatingly cute outfits. – There were no baby Stevie Nicks clothes in the 1960s and 1970’s, so I never quite felt that I got to be me when I left the house. – Everyone always thought I was at least 2 years younger than I was, so the patronizing baby talk was even more insulting to my precocious mind. Did they not realize I would be reading these books to myself, that they needed to be colorful, fanciful, and all encompassing for my escape from the world of these same clueless adults?
No, they did not, so I didn’t beg to go to the library much when I was a young child. Later I would beg because they had computers but not because of the books. The bundles of Scholastic books were critically important because they were sacred, seemingly nearly bereft of adult interference, and they were mine forever.
These same books have moved hundreds of miles with me over the years and now sit proudly on my son’s bookshelves. Reading them to him is among my fondest memories as a parent. Even though he is a teenager now, he still understands the vital importance of Harold and of Frog and Toad, whose life lessons many American narcissists would do well to embrace. The Wild Things sit on my studio shelf. My son did not favor the monsters as I do, preferring instead Maurice Sendak’s character Mickey, a little boy to whom he could better relate. After all these years, I can still sing most of Aligators All Around set to Carole King‘s melody since I was requested to sing it every day for several years.
As a child I escaped into books, music, and making things. I thought I was biding my time until I could be an adult and make a world for myself. Ironically, as an adult I am no different except that now my escape includes recreating those childhood portals to a world better imagined. The thrill of the rubber banded Scholastic book bundles has been replaced over and over by shipments from Amazon and Edward R. Hamilton.
I can still find the books I love best by choosing titles and covers with little more info than the Scholastic forms held. When I rip the cardboard boxes open, I am again 7 years old, hoping for Wild Things and ways to shape my own destiny through other people’s shared ideas. Rarely am I disappointed. The books are mostly about art and fine craft, occasionally about Egyptology. They are stil mostly full of color images.
Best of all are the rare trips to bookstores like Strand Book Store in NYC because then I am inside the list on the form. The gatekeepers are a bit more removed, and I can flip through every spine or cover that calls out to me. I can even find my own artwork on these shelves. I don’t usually create beautifully drawn monsters, but maybe I’ve succeeded just a little in making my own world.