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Magic Books

baum_wizard of ozI am an author. But before I wrote books, I read them. My parents claim I made them read aloud the front matter — the publisher’s address, the Library of Congress data. In elementary school, I added ISBN numbers to the stories I wrote. Those numbers conveyed legitimacy, even if I didn’t know what ISBN meant. I have a book I wrote in fifth grade that features a list of other titles by the same author (I’d employed a pseudonym), and a bio with an author photo “courtesy of The New York Times.” So clearly I loved books. The stories, yes, but also the books themselves, which I studied like artifacts.

I distinctly remember reading The Wizard of Oz. I must have been six, because we moved before I turned seven, and I can recall the feel of each page, the daybed on which I sat, the sunlight coming through the window (I just googled the house, and that room faces south). I can recall getting up to check on my mother.

I checked on her because The Wizard of Oz scared the crap out of me. It was the scariest book I’d ever read in my life. Which doesn’t sound like much because I was six, but few books since have scared me as much. And that’s why I remember the details of my environment: I was recording them. I needed to reassure myself that the daybed, the window, my mom, were reality. That the book I was reading was — well, it’s not that it wasn’t real, but it was a reality I could leave. A reality I could enter and exit voluntarily.

That’s the thing about reading as a child. You don’t just read a book: you enter it. The best image I can come up with is climbing into a submarine — a small bolt-covered steampunk submarine with lots of cranks, and you seal yourself in and you descend. With The Wizard of Oz, on a fundamental level I was leaving my world. And when I reemerged from my submarine, cranking open the hatch, I needed to make sure that nothing in that world had changed.

But of course something had changed. Me.

For a child reader, a good book changes you. That, in fact, is my definition of a good kids’ book. It does not need a moral — oh, God no — or a Lesson with a capital LThe Wizard of Oz didn’t need that insipid Hollywood ending the movie tacked on. It needed only the reassurance that a girl could survive. In Kansas, or in Connecticut. A book should broaden the aperture of your perspective. Which, when you’re six years old or fifteen or two, is not very wide at all.

fellowshipA book is not simply a narrative. The world is full of narrative — we’re drowning in it. A book is greater than that. A book is itself a precious object. It is a totem. When my son was in elementary school, he reported morosely that his buddy Cameron was reading The Fellowship of the Ring. This was impressive: Nick was still working on The Boxcar Children. The next time I saw Cameron’s mother, I complimented her, and she laughed. “Oh, Cameron’s not reading The Fellowship of the Ring. He’s carrying it.” The book was Cameron’s totem.

In the marvelous coming-of-age novel Daddy-Long-Legs, the heroine, like all good heroines, is an orphan, with the added bonus of an orphanage upbringing. She reports to her benefactor:
You wouldn’t believe...what an abyss of ignorance my mind is...For example: I never read Mother Goose or David Copperfield or Ivanhoe or Cinderella or Bluebeard or Robinson Crusoe or Jane Eyre or Alice in Wonderland or a word of Rudyard Kipling... I am the only girl in college who wasn’t brought up on Little Women... [I] quietly went and bought it with $1.12 of my last month’s allowance; and the next time somebody mentions pickled limes, I’ll know what she is talking about!

The heroine needs the education — the references to pickled limes. But she also needs the objects (objects, by the way, worth a small fortune in 1912 — Little Women cost twice as much as dinner). She plans to save all her books and display them to show who she is, like Cameron carrying The Fellowship of the Ring.

A book, really, is magic. There are, for example, books about books about magic — so many! The most memorable for me is the third of The Chronicles of Narniawhen Lucy tests a book of magic spells and ends up inside a English railway car. Many books feature books of magic so powerful they must be locked away. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series employs this concept repeatedly. The heroine of Garth Nix’s Lirael is a librarian who must arm herself before she enters the stacks — such is the power of books.

Monster_Book_of_MonstersBut magic is not simply the words within the book — it is the book itself. We’re all familiar with J. K. Rowling’s Monster Book of Monsters, a book with so much raw power that it will literally devour its reader. My favorite book in all the world is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, about magicians warring in Napoleonic Europe. In the story, an illiterate charlatan claims to own a legendary volume penned by a fairy king. “I’ve got a book,” he snarls when challenged. How he acquired it, or where he hides it in his tattered rags, we do not know; but we learn his drunken father for a moment had actually possessed this precious work, and as the result of a bar bet ate the thing.

So it’s like The Monster Book of Monsters, but the other way round.

(By the way, the ancient Egyptians believed that drinking the ink washed out of a papyrus scroll imbued the drinker with the scroll’s knowledge. So this conceptual relationship between reading and consuming is not new.)

jonathan strange coverAt the climax of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, we discover the truth of the illiterate charlatan — a truth I cannot possibly reveal here. It’s worth reading; I’ll leave it at that. But the phrase “I’ve got a book”...it’s carved in my soul.

I’ve got a book.

This book does more than merely describe Oz or Hogwarts, or Vassar College in 1912. It takes me there. It sidles up like a submarine and slips open the hatch. It swallows me whole. And when I return, at last, to earth — to my own room — I am not the same. I am better, possibly; possibly I’m worse. But I am different. I am more. And that is why children’s books matter.

Read Catherine Gilbert Murdock's classic Horn Book article "The Adventures of Mommy Buzzkill" from the March/April 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Catherine Gilbert Murdock's debut middle grade novel, The Book of Boy, will be published by Greenwillow Books in Winter 2018. Catherine is also the author of Dairy Queen, The Off Season, Front and Center, Heaven Is Paved with Oreos, Princess Ben, and Wisdom's Kiss. She grew up in Connecticut and now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband, two children, and two vocal cats.
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Kimi Rose Vander Ploeg

I love this post! I write a blog all about reading, specifically reading with children. I am a preschool and kindergarten teacher and a massive book lover. I totally agree with everything in this! Your totem metaphor is spot on! I think I may share your article with my blog readers in my newest post!

Posted : Jul 29, 2017 07:52


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