The Book That Changed My Life: A Sense of Possibility

The Book That Changed My LifeI am sitting at my desk, age seventy-five, and I am searching my mind, going way back for “a book that changed my life.” I’ve managed to get as far back as the late 1940s in Sydney, Australia. There I am on my stomach on the living-room floor and…no, that won’t do, those are comics! The Phantom (the “Ghost Who Walks”), Superman, Popeye, Donald Duck. No, maybe not those; surely something more worthy.

In my mind I can tiptoe down the hall to my older sister Lyndsay’s room; she’s the reader. She has a whole bookcase full of books, including a row of small dark-red ones with soft leather covers and gold titles on the spines. The Complete Works of Charles Dickens. They are all there, shoulder to shoulder, all lined up and on their best behavior. I would like to be able to nominate those, but no, I have to move on in time.

I am now in the 1950s and reading my father’s nonfiction library books — exploring the Australian Outback, uncovering the relics of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and traveling down the Amazon. Boy’s Own Adventures, I guess.

And meanwhile I’m always drawing, and then I’m at art school in the 1960s and reading J. D. Salinger and everything I can get my hands on by Kurt Vonnegut. And before I know it I’m picking up books left around by my new wife, Carolyn. I’m hearing her recite Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Well, I could stop right there. But that’s not a book; that’s a poem.

Now it’s the 1970s and I am reading books, all kinds of books, to our children, Naomi and Peter. Library books, books from the op shop, and books carefully saved for and put in their Christmas stockings.

This included Rosemary Wells and her Max and Ruby series. Rarely if ever would I recognize a “life-changing moment.” It doesn’t work that way for me, as sometimes things can only be seen clearly through the perspective of time. But I loved the quiet undercurrent of humor running through those stories and the (seemingly) simple interplay of words and pictures. And the turning of the pages.

So one day in the early 1980s, at forty years of age, and home from work sick (not all that sick, though), and encouraged by a story unfolding in our house at the time and also by these little books of Rosemary’s, I sit down to write and illustrate what is to become my first picture book, Pete and Roland.

And here I am in 2018 and still at my desk making picture books, fugitive pieces of sticky tape still stuck to my elbows.

Thanks, Rosemary Wells; Max and Ruby. You amused our kids, and you gave me both quiet enjoyment and, as it turned out, a sense of possibility.

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.
Bob Graham
Bob Graham
Bob Graham won the 2002 Kate Greenaway Medal for Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child (Walker) and the 2002 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award for "Let's Get A Pup!" Said Kate. His most recent picture book is Home in the Rain (Candlewick).

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