I didn’t spring from a literary family. Our shelves didn’t contain the classics or even the near classics—more like a strange collection of mistakes from The Book of the Month Club, discards from the library, or sometimes
outright thefts books that somebody forgot to return. These were the days when withdrawals were noted in ink on slips of cardboard tucked into tiny pockets on the inside back cover. Easy for the odd book to fall through the cracks.
Our incomplete set of encyclopedia came from the various weekly promotions at Food City. Buy enough laundry detergent and you, too, could go home with The World Book of Knowledge [C through N], unmatched towels or flower-stamped dinner plates.
I remember a Reader’s Digest anthology, a fat wine-coloured Websters, an atlas with full-page colour pictures of gemstones, ocean life, constellations, that my dad and I would pore over at the kitchen table after dinner. After supper. We’d look at maps and I’d flip those huge pages, ask daft questions, revel in his answers, true or made up. We sometimes lingered for hours.
There were no kid books, no one read stories out loud. But I discovered the library early and dragged home stacks of things and don’t feel deprived in the slightest. The memory of choosing books, the way they smelled, the joy of surrounding myself with them in my room… I’m sure I missed out on something by not having them read to me, but fortunately I have no idea what that might be.
The only book I owned as a kid was a ‘Laidlaw Reader’ called Stories We Like. There were some Aesop fables and condensed Grimm’s among its contents, but mostly it was a collection of crazy little things about pillow eating geese, mud turtles, mornings on a farm, a talking brass kettle, what kittens dream about, a homesick monkey, flower fairies, and one delicious story about a boy sent to deliver three perfect cherries to the king but the cherries looked so good and it was so hot that he ate two of them en route and when the king read the accompanying note that mentioned three cherries, he said: Well, where the bloody hell are the rest? Or words to that effect. The boy, bless his heart, admitted he ate them, prompting the king to say: You ate them? How the hell did you do that? To which the boy replied, “Like this!” and popped the last one into his mouth.
God, I loved that story.
Still think of it every time I eat cherries.
I found the book the other day, among the many kid books I’ve collected as an adult. Lovely to open it again, immediately felt about eight. For the first time, I wondered about the authors—Louise Abney, Eleanor V. Sloan, Gerald Yoakam, M. Madilene Veverka, Margery Clark. Googling them only brought me to a lot of ‘Laidlaw Reader’ links that amounted to zip information. I suspect they were pseudonyms anyway. They have that ‘Ernest Hemingwaithe’ ring to them.
It’s beat up and written on inside and out, my name all over it, The Monkees etched into the cover, then I notice a stamp with the name of my elementary school. Uh oh. A bit late to take it back. Does anyone even read ‘Readers’ anymore? And who writes them? Are there still a team of Eleanor V. Sloans and Gerald Yoakams out there? It might actually be fun to show up at the Principal’s office, book in hand, apologize, admit to being a bit of a slow reader.
But, nah, I’m pretty sure it was a discard.