I was one of those children who preferred staying inside with my nose stuck in a book to watching television or playing on the field outside our house on the Dublin Road. I borrowed books from the North Eastern Education and Library Board van that parked around the corner every couple of weeks. The newspaper boy, a lanky Hugh McGarry, delivered a variety of magazines – The Twinkle when I was little, and then later The Bunty, The Judy, The Jackie, The Mandy – all very girly. My little brother, on the other hand, got comics, The Beano and The Dandy, Superman and Spiderman. Every Christmas, Santa Claus would leave a selection of ‘annuals’ for us – hardback compilations of the comic’s best features. I’m quite sure I could find these if I crawled into the attic of my parent’s house in Ireland. Too, I’d probably find several Guiness Books of Records as well as the leather bound set of The Encyclopedia Britannica which had been purchased by my parents from a door-to-door salesman circa 1970.
Add to this print-rich environment three black and white TV channels from which to choose – Ulster Television, BBC1, and BBC – and you have my recreational options as a child (later expanding to include Channel 4, its color commercials and edgy content pushing the envelope).
I always had books in my bookcase (including some that never made it back to the library if truth be told). Admonished by my mother’s “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” it never occurred to me to borrow from or loan books to my friends.
The adventures of Nancy Drew kept me up at night, and when I had chickenpox, Nancy and her ilk kept me from going insane with boredom. My mother still remembers being barely able to feed my reading habit during the weeks I was home from school. I’d beg her to go into town to Eason’s bookshop to bring me more books, which she did without fail.
Thanks to the prolific children’s author, Enid Blyton, I was never without company. My best friends were her ‘famous five,’ and her girls who attended the posh boarding schools, St. Clare’s and Malory Towers. Written in the late 1940’s, I’m quite convinced her books would be lambasted today as politically incorrect and sexist, reinforcing class and gender stereotypes, but they provided hours and hours of delight and pure escapism for a working class girl in Northern Ireland. I just can’t bring my enlightened self to criticize Enid Blyton. That would be sacrilege!
Given all of this, it never occurred to me that any of child of mine would consider reading a chore. I’m alarmed to find myself cajoling and bribing my daughter with the promise of a new electronic game if only she would read for 20 minutes. Even more alarmed to realize just how little she has read in her young life. Unthinkable to me. She has an expansive vocabulary – words gleaned not from a copy of Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop delivered to me by Santa when I was 10, but from the Nintendo DS, a Game Cube, a Wii, an I-touch. The books painstakingly collected by me over the years sit, untouched, in their bookcases.
There will be, I’m quite confident, no deep conversations with my daughter about the heroines of Thomas Hardy’s novels. We don’t go to church, so she won’t grasp all the Biblical illusions in the plays of Shakespeare or the poetry of T.S. Eliot (that is, of course, if she ever encounters these brilliant works). Her teachers, sadly, have done little, if anything, towards helping me establish our very own mother-daughter book-club around the kitchen table.
I realized this morning, while she was applying Cherry Crush polish to my toenails, that my daughter has just completed the 6th grade having read a grand total of two books – Huck Finn and The Cay – and an abridged version of The Odyssey. Along with her ‘gifted’ classmates, she has watched the movie versions of Huck Finn, Hatchet, and The Odyssey. She tells me, with some regret, that they were supposed to watch Coraline but the teacher ran out of time. They did, however, have time to watch Mulan, The Prince of Egypt, and the delightful Fern Gully.
Almost conspiratorially, she tells me that when her teacher ‘forgot to do something’ or when ‘the copier was busted,’ the class watched Planet Earth. Better yet, they got to see the entire series while her teacher ‘played on her computer.’ Further, she tells me that the highly acclaimed Planet Earth is divided into several parts devoted to the jungle, the deep sea, the desert plains, and the arctic. Conveniently, each of these can fill almost an entire class period. As I replay the last year in my head, I recall, with some irony, that when the country was in the middle of a historic presidential election, my daughter’s class was immersed in the opening chapters of the new Social Studies textbook, ‘covering” Egypt and Greece. When President Obama was being sworn in, my daughter was running around her campus in a toga, crafted by me from a white sheet and a piece of rope. When the country was in the grip of a massive financial meltdown, my daughter was learning about what the Pharaohs ate for dinner.

Not wanting to be ‘the parent from hell,’ and trying not to wear my principal’s hat, I had broached, with her teacher, the possibility of a Current Events lesson or two. Well, there was just so much to cover in the new Social Studies adoption that we wouldn’t be able to get to current events until January. This, of course, would be after the most significant current event in the country’s history, the inauguration of an African American President.

And so we are moving on to a new school. Again. Blithely unaware of how she has been cheated, my daughter is quite resilient and socially adept, having been something of an educational tourist over the past eleven years. We’ve tried them all – two Montessori adventures (where she acquired the drink-serving skills of a flight attendant), parochial (where there was some proselytizing but I didn’t mind because of those all-important biblical allusions), public (where she got lice), a small charter (no music, no art), and public again. Come August, she will attend a school that values a liberal arts education. I must admit to feeling rather smug when I informed her of the mandatory summer reading assignment. I could barely contain myself as I logged into amazon.com and placed the order for My Brother Sam is Dead and Airborn.
**********
Hah. Poetic. The mailman just arrived with two packages from amazon.com. “Momma. Momma! My books are here!! Can I just tear it open?? It’s my books!!’
*********
She has already counted the pages – 501 in Airborn and 211 in My Brother Sam is Dead. There are 14 chapters in the latter, she informs me, so one chapter a day will suffice to complete it in a fortnight. Delaying the agony of Airborn, she is already calculating how many pages she can manage on our annual road trip to California.

No better way to spend a summer than with your nose in a book.
Advertisements