After I shared this story in class last week, Lena Coakley suggested that I blog about it. Our assignment was to identify the one children’s book that influenced us most, either as a reader or as a writer. Not an easy question at the best of times, and I admit, I was caught a bit flat-footed, being asked on the second night of class. So I talked about the time I read the wrong book, and why that experience has stayed with me.
This is me in grade eight: bad hair. Braces. Coke-bottle glasses. A chest that would make an ironing board proud. Brains, yes, I’ve got those in spades, but just catch me raising my hand — not gonna happen. Let’s just say I wasn’t winning any prizes for self esteem back then.
And oh yes, this is an important bit. Nose usually buried in a book. Often fantasy or sci-fi borrowed from Dad’s collection, but really, I’d read just about anything.
Also, I was convinced that the world was going to end in fiery nuclear disaster. I believe I wrote to the Prime Minister (it was Mulroney back then) once or twice to address the issue.
My grade-eight teacher, Miss Beaton, was either a saint or a martyr. There were 33 of us in my year; usually a full class with a few left over for a split grade. She decided that it was important that we all graduate to high school together, so she took us all on. She had experience on her side, and a student teacher for the second term, but still — a mammoth undertaking.
I don’t know if this was an experiment in self-sorting or if she was just too tired out by Spring to do things any differently, but for the final novel study of the year, she offered each of us a choice. Janet Lunn’s newly-published Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, a “challenging” historical novel with a girly pink cover, or Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, a much shorter read with some kind of spaceman on the front cover and promises of post-apocalyptic adventure.
She talked about each book. I had already made up my mind.
It was a no-brainer. I fidgeted, waiting for her to get to the end of the alphabet (T for Thomas), and when she did, I snatched up a copy of Z for Zachariah, relieved that there were still a few left. Funny thing, most people seemed to want Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Even some of the boys.
Maybe I hadn’t been listening properly when Miss Beaton described it. Maybe I’d been busy staring at the spaceman on the cover of the other book. It didn’t matter.
I had my book. I tucked it into the opening of my desk and started reading.
I think it was recess that day when Miss Beaton asked to speak with me. She wanted to know why I had chosen Z for Zachariah. It wasn’t because it was a shorter book, was it? Because she didn’t think I was one to back away from a reading challenge. Really, she thought I would find the other novel a more suitable reading experience.
I still remember how my face heated up. I loved Miss Beaton. I didn’t want to displease her, but I was already partway into Z for Zachariah and fully hooked. Memory says I gripped the tiny paperback, prepared to defend it with the safety pins in my jeans if need be. (Don’t ask. It was an 80s thing.) More likely, I stared at my shoes and stammered something about really wanting to read this book.
She let me read it. When we broke into our novel study groups, I understood better that I had picked the group that didn’t “fit.”
Most of the stronger students and nearly all of the girls were in the other, larger group, reading Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. I was in a smaller group, a handful of students led by the student teacher. It was the reluctant reader group, to use today’s terminology.
These were the kids who got detention, the kids who got into fights. The kids who skipped class to smoke… or at least said they did. Several of them I barely knew, despite having attended school together for eight years. Remarkable and sad when I think of it now, but at the time, I didn’t question it. We were all far-flung planets, but my orbit was on the opposite side of the social sun from theirs.
But the thing is, I really loved the book. And I remember the novel study as a positive experience. And while there were no friendship bracelets or phone numbers exchanged, I had one or two interesting conversations with people I hadn’t had conversations with before. And that was a good thing.
I’ve read Shadow in Hawthorn Bay since, of course. It’s a fine book. But it wouldn’t have spoken to my 13-year-old self the way Z for Zachariah did. So even decades later, I can’t regret having chosen the wrong book. It was the right book for me at the time, and it brought me into contact with people I hadn’t spoken with much before. We traded ideas and talked about nuclear disaster and survival.
I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I had that experience. And I’m glad that I stood up for my choice and read what I wanted to read, and didn’t let the judgemental vibes I was picking up dissuade me. That wasn’t exactly a characteristic move back then. I’m proud for that geeky little eighth grader.
And, as my friend Susan Blakeney pointed out, what do I write now? Books for reluctant readers. Books for boys. Science fiction.
I guess your literary home is where your heart is.