Friday, March 2, 2012

Fun with Secondhand Stories

This post is long overdue for many reasons, but here goes . . .
Photo courtesy of Muffet

Because of the recent death of Jan Berenstain, I found myself remembering books I read as a kid, specifically Dick and Jane books. Though now an avid reader, the story goes that it was actually incredibly hard to get me to move beyond the classic Dick and Jane books. It figures that even in the 80s I would have had a vintage passion.

I started grade school at a small Catholic school. Since we had no school library, we walked to a city library a few blocks away. It was an impossibly grand (to a 5 year old) but aging building where the librarians read us Corduroy Bear. I’m sure there were other books, but that’s what I remember.

Their collection of Dick and Jane books was extensive. I have no idea how I got started reading them, but once I did I couldn’t stop.

My grandmother, who watched me after school, would beg me to bring home something—anything—other than trite little stories about Dick and Jane and Sally and Father and Mother and Spot. I think it was a combination of simple-sentence-fatigue syndrome and a worry that I didn’t think I was smart enough to read books with heady elements like multiple syllable words and complex plot lines.

The truth is I was actually captivated by the story . . . sort of. I don’t know that many people consider Dick and Jane books stellar examples of writing, but I would have fought you to the death if you told me that then. I loved them.

Never before had I been so in control of the pace at which a story unfolded. Never had I been in the position of uncovering such a complete mystery. Here I was, at 5 (and also at 6, as I said, it was hard to get me to stop re-reading the books) untangling these pages of letters into words that told stories.

It was—and is—unlike any other experience. Movies, TV, and even being read to made me a passive audience. I had to let the story develop on its own. Here, I was part of the whole process. In the mad flurry of words and concepts and story, I was in the middle of it and outside of it, making it happen. It was amazing.

I had no way of knowing—of guaranteeing—that any other book could do that. As far as I knew, this was the highest peak of all narratives to scale. So I stuck with what worked. Until one day, there was a ghost story. I have no idea what book it was, but in the process of trying to make me read anything other than Goddamn Dick and Motherfucking Jane again, my grandmother pointed out a ghost story.  

And that was it. I had to read that. From there, I graduated to The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley Twins (and later High), Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Goosebumps, and  even a weird series that was like The Baby-Sitters Club but with party planning (anyone remembering the name should immediately comment here). The world has never been the same.

My point is that I want to say a fond farewell to Jan Berenstain, though I was never much of a fan of the Berenstain Bears. Because for someone somewhere (probably a lot of someones in lots of somewheres) those books brought to life the idea of what reading could be. And that is certainly worth taking the time to honor.

Goodbye, Jan Berenstain. Thank you for making the world just a little brighter for young readers.

Did you read the Berenstain Bears? Or were there other books that made your young hearts flutter?


  1. I think I liked the Berenstain Bears! I also remember reading a lot of nonfiction books, like about dinosaurs (which I was obsessed with for a while). My favorite book as a young child was probably this one:

    because it was one of the first books I ever read that actually related to my own experience. (In this case, like the kid in the book, my mom went to the hospital for a while and I was really concerned that she'd never come back. She did, though.)

  2. I love when books seem to find you at the right time for you. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does it's amazing.

    I was thoroughly disdainful of nonfiction as a kid and had to be forced to read it. Now, I'll read it quite happily. I don't know what it would have taken to get me to get it then though.


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