Few things can time-warp us back to any particular happy childhood moment–but a good book is definitely one of them!
I’ve heard it said that the person we are at eight years old is the truest version of ourselves.
Something about the end of summer and the return to school makes me long to be reintroduced to that girl. And always, it’s the books that girls read which remind me the most about who she was and who she may still be.
Today, I am a middle-aged woman starting something new yet familiar. I am reporting to elementary school again, this time as the librarian. In the process of helping children I don’t yet know learn to find themselves and others in books, I hope also to become reacquainted with this younger version of myself and perhaps remember how to see the world through the wondering eyes of a child.
If wrinkles and taxes tell the truth, I am a full-fledged grown-up now. But some days, it feels like the mirror lies to me, and I want to walk through it into the past. I know more things now, but I want to know things I knew when I wore braids, then cut them off for a Dorothy Hamill haircut.
Chasing that dream and the purest of my childhood pleasures naturally took me back to the library. The place of pencil shavings, lined paper, books, and myself. Good books can operate as mirrors, reflecting elements of ourselves back to us in ways that help us feel seen and understood.
The library I operate does not yet have enough books that accurately reflect the lives of the children I serve. It’s my job to change this. It’s also my job — perhaps even the job of every adult — to help children understand that books can be their friends when they feel alone and their source of adventure when they crave it.
Books nudge open doors we can step through, into the past, into someone else’s shoes, into worlds entirely different than ours. Reading by its very nature is an active experience of empathy because it allows us to feel like we are someone else for a time. Books can teach us about ourselves, but even more importantly, they allow us to learn about others.
Not long ago, as a grown-up student completing my master’s degree in literature, I focused my studies on award-winning children’s books; I took myself back in time to 18th Century London to discover who John Newbery was.
Then I time-traveled to 1921 Swampscott, Massachusetts, to understand why a man named Melcher and a group of librarians there created a book award in Newbery’s name. Finally, I started reading the books. This collection of one hundred years of Newbery Medal winners represents the most distinguished books for children in the United States in any given year.
It was like seeing my oldest friends again after a very long time and realizing that they hadn’t changed a bit while I went about the business of growing up. Hitty is now well past her first hundred years, but that doll made of strong mountain ash hasn’t aged. Sarah remains plain and tall but beloved by her mail-order-family. Thunder still rolls while I cry with Cassie Logan. And wretchedly, Leslie is still dead, drowned under the Bridge to Terabithia. Adult me finally read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which 8-year-old me wasn’t allowed to read because it had ‘witch’ in the title. Turns out, she wasn’t a witch at all.
So many stories, so many friends.
Magically, in the years since I was a young reader, more brilliant books have been written. More authors of colors and childhoods different from mine are flourishing, helping me see into other people’s ways of living with interest and curiosity. The context of life today makes reading some of these older books different. I can see how certain dated language and ideas would land unkindly on children’s ears, and I may not treat those books the same way my own childhood teachers did.
It seems adulthood is a process of reintroduction. In fits and starts, we learn how to be ourselves in the places life takes us. God meets us in these places, and we are not alone.
God is meeting me in a new library in a neighborhood that is not my home. He is helping me see my students as part of His family and, therefore, kin to me as well. Let’s not forget that all the selves we have ever been still live within us. Reading children’s books peels away some years and helps me see the world and myself with eyes that work better and see more clearly. Experiencing life in the steps of someone else’s path gives me new curiosity for the world – or, more accurately, the old, wise curiosity of the young.
For me, filling a canvas bag of Newbery books and taking it to school to share with my students reunites me with my younger self. It takes me straight to the childhood summer I was eight. I did not excel at sports camp, but I ran away with the local public library reading contest. That is one of my prouder moments from childhood.
What takes you back to a happy childhood moment? Is it a ride on a rusty bicycle? Climbing a tree? Does the smell of drying leaves beneath your feet take you someplace deep inside?
We were all eight years old at one time. We are today all those ages we’ve ever been. Eight, eleven, seventeen, and thirty-three. Would you like to take your eight-year-old self by the hand and explore the world together? It could be a lovely adventure.
Perhaps you could start by reading a Newbery winner from the year you were eight. Then, if it fits, perhaps you could read it again with a child you know who is at that magical age today.
Allison Gaskins is a reader and writer from Virginia, where she is a wife and mother surrounded by books and children. Often she can be found working in a school library in Washington, DC.
*Note from Lisa: In addition to being a librarian, Allison also happens to be my good friend and the daughter of Susan Alexander Yates, who often writes here at Club31Women.
100 Words of Affirmation Your Son/Daughter Needs to Hear
Matt and Lisa Jacobson want you to discover the powerful ways you can build your children up in love with the beautiful words you choose to say every day–words that every son and daughter needs to hear.
These affirmation books offer you one hundred phrases to say to your son or daughter – along with short, personal stories and examples – that deeply encourage, affirm, and inspire.
So start speaking a kind and beautiful word into their lives daily and watch your children–and your relationship with them–transform before your eyes.