Thanks for the memories.
So often, our memories, bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia, turn out to be flawed. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and dread that I arranged for a reunion with the very first book I read all by myself. Reading is such a central part of my life that it’s hard to remember a time when I haven’t had a pile of books stacked on my nightstand. But the truth is, when it came to learning to read, I was the quintessential late bloomer. To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick’s film title, “Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,” this is the story of how I learned to stop crying and love the book.
In second grade, when the good readers in my class were preparing for their first trip to the school library, I was still stumbling over “See Jane run. Run Jane, run” in my “Dick and Jane Basic Reader.” I could identify the words, but for some reason, when I tried to put them together, they just didn’t make sense. The whole process was so frustrating (and boring) that I cried every time my mom sat me down to practice. Luckily, she was both a resourceful woman and a trained actress, so she told me about the famous Russian director, Konstantin Stanislavski, and his “Magic If.”
“Just imagine how you would feel if you were Jane, and something was chasing her. Then read like you mean it,” she coached. Suddenly, my imagination on fire, I could feel the hot breath of the huge, fanged monster chasing poor old Jane. “Run, Jane, Run!” I screamed. And that was that. I could read. In my “dummy” reading class the next day, I read like Jane’s life depended on it, much to my teacher’s amazement. Unbeknownst to her, I was a woman on a mission. I needed to get into the stellar reading group because I wanted to go to the library in the worst way. And I succeeded. When the great day arrived, I scoured the stacks, seeking the perfect book. As I recall, my only criteria was that it had to be a big, fat one. Although the librarian said the one I chose was too advanced for my grade level, mercifully, she allowed me to take it home. She was right. I struggled over the big, unfamiliar words, but the story was so captivating that I eventually finished it.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I was struck with the urge to revisit the book that turned me on to my lifelong addiction to reading. With only a vague recollection of the title – “The Wee Men of….something or other,” and a hazy memory of the cover’s image of a little elf riding a goose silhouetted against the moon, I looked on Amazon and found “The Wee Men of Ballywooden,” by Arthur Mason. When it arrived, its cover, though tattered, was just as I remembered it. Endearingly, the bookseller, Laraine Lewis, had attached a little post-it note urging me to “Enjoy these charming tales!” And I did. Settling down on the couch and gingerly turning the fragile pages, turned tan with age, I was pulled back into the magical world of the little people who had enthralled me so long ago. Reading it now, I can see why I loved it. Beguilingly illustrated by Robert Lawson’s black and white illustrations, Mason’s beautifully drawn characters, rich language, and his gift for spinning suspenseful, imaginative and funny tales make this book a real keeper.
Two stories make up the book’s 260 pages. “The Night of the Big Wind” and “Coggelty Curry” both center on how the fabric of human lives is torn by the temporary absence of the wee men so dear to Irish folklore. You can almost hear the Irish brogue in Mason’s writing, which is no surprise, since he was an Irishman by birth. Like me, Mason was a late-bloomer. A sailor and gold prospector, he didn’t begin writing children’s books until he was 44. The wee men in his stories have wonderful names and personalities. The Paver of Caves, chief of their clan in “The Night of the Big Wind,” is irascible and demanding, but he keeps his little band together as they struggle to find a way home after being blown to a strange land by the storm. He’s aided and abetted by the Midsummer Mower, Willie the Wisp, the Weaver, the Cradle Rocker and the Meadow Sniffer, along with a gaggle of others. As you can guess, the wee men eventually find their way home and restore order to the human lives that have been discombobulated by their disappearance. In “Coggelty Curry,” another band of wee men must set sail in their tiny boats to find the rascally Jackdaw (a kind of crow), who has stolen their bagpipes.
What I love most about Mason’s writing is his way with words. His stories are larded with figurative language that makes his description just sing. For example, describing the big wind’s damage, he writes: “The cow paths looked twisted, and the stepping stiles were open gaps. Even the rushes in the meadow lay like combed hair.” Reading “The Wee Men” now, I have to wonder whether this language fed my own and in some way helped me become a writer as well as a reader.
Although most of the words in “The Wee Men of Ballywooden” are easy for me now, I am struck by how difficult this book must have been for a new reader, and I’m glad I was stubborn enough to stick with it as a 7-year-old. I’m grateful too, to the kind librarian who let me borrow this book against her better judgment, and above all, to my mother, who found the way to make words come alive for me. Without this book and these woman, I doubt you’d be reading “See Jane Read” today.
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