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The Book That Changed My Life: At Home in the Pages

The Book That Changed My LifeMy mother, now ninety — the first person who ever read poems to me — must have given me this book, but she does not remember the occasion. By the time I was seven (1959), my copy was hand-worn and familiar. I toted it proudly. At 608 pages, containing more than 700 poems, it was surely the thickest book I owned. Since our second-grade teacher (Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane, Central School, Ferguson, Missouri) had her students memorizing one poem a week, I felt rich and ready.

Sections bore friendly titles like “My Brother the Sun, My Sister the Moon, the Stars, and Mother Earth.” Any time I opened Favorite Poems Old and New, a different poem appealed to me. So many topics and variant styles — who could tire of such a book? Even at age seven, I thought limericks (in a section of “funny poems”) had fleeting appeal, but John Keats or Christina Rossetti could call me back and back again, to fascinating phrases and lines.

Helen Josephine Ferris, born in Hastings, Nebraska, in 1890, didn’t even put her name on the cover of the poetry anthology she edited, at least not on the edition I had. Her lovely introduction describes her own falling-in-love with poetry as a child, thanks to the luck of her mother reading to her. She gave no biographical information about the poets she included in her collection. I don’t know if Helen’s name was on the spine, because the spine of my volume is now entirely gone, back cover disengaged from the rest of the book. Could she have guessed that her fabulous fat book would be in print for sixty years and counting? Today, in 2018, I do a Google search for Helen for the first time. She was editor in chief of the Junior Literary Guild for thirty years. Her family moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin. She loved the Mississippi River long before I did.

Emily Dickinson, Rachel Field, Robert Louis Stevenson all lived together in her Favorite Poems. Rabindranath Tagore from far-off Bengal made two brief appearances. On the cover, a child shepherd drawn in blue ink played a flute to two drowsing sheep at his feet.

I would return again and again to something as simple as a stanza by David McCord:

This is my rock,
This is the place
I meet the evening face to face.

Beyond all the directive, explanatory chatter of the world, here was simple truth, comfort, and sustenance. I felt at home in these pages. Memorizing Rachel Field’s “Some People” — which begins, “Isn’t it strange some people make / You feel so tired inside…” — would prove more useful than a second grader could ever dream. How many times later would her lines pop into my mind to rescue me with their wry admission?

Now I paw through the book carefully, not wanting any more pages to fall out. Astonishingly, today I find a yellowed, neatly folded lined piece of paper with my second-grade printing on it. I do not recall ever having seen it since 1959. How has it hidden so successfully all these years?

It’s a four-line poem with my brother’s initial at the top (“For A”).

The more I smile at people
The more they smile at me;
So I collect bright smiles each day
From everyone I see.

Did I make this up? A semicolon? Checking the index of first lines…it’s not from the book. Was it inspired by the book? Did I hear it somewhere and copy it to give as a gift?

My brother and I have not smiled at each other in years. In fact, we haven’t spoken in at least two or three.

I’m sending this poem to him.

Thank you, Helen. Your book, still doing its job.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

Naomi Shihab Nye About Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet and author of books including The Turtle of Oman, Habibi, This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, and A Maze Me: Poems for Girls. Her latest book is Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners (Greenwillow).

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