The horse's pasture to the East...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


I'm a story teller. Always have been. I love to capture my listener's attention, love to watch their face(s) and hear their reactions. Sometimes I paint the story, sometimes I write the tale...and sometimes I tell it. 

I read too, all the time. We haven't watched TV in years. You'd be surprised how much more time that gives a person to pursue the things they really love, the stories that feed their soul. 

I saw this article today, written by another story teller, about the five books that have influenced him. Now I've read a LOT more than five books and there have been more than a few that have influenced me. I've been reading since I was three years old...taught myself (my children did too. Comes from reading books to them from day one. ). I used to spend my free time when I was very young reading, because, again, we had no TV. Best thing my Mom ever did was to take me to a library and say "There are more stories here than you can read in your lifetime. Even better, you get to use your imagination to make the pictures to go with the stories. AND IT'S ALL FREE! Doesn't get any better than that!"

So, I'm going to choose five books to write about today. Even better, you can still find them in your local library and read them FOR FREE! Really doesn't get any better than that. (Thanks Mom!) Make no mistake, there are five more and five more after that and five more after those books that have left their mark. I'm choosing five because I have to start somewhere.

"THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD" There've been so many versions of this book that the original author has been lost. The first use of the phrase, "I think I can." traces back to a Swedish journal published in 1902, the first English version was published in the New York Tribune in April, 1906. 

The book I read was probably a reprint of one published in 1930 by Watty Piper under the pen name Arnold Munk. It was my first real book that I owned. And I read it until the pages fell out and the binding had to be taped together. It was also the first book I bought for my sons. I still have it too. I dragged it out, dusted it off and read it to my Grandson when he was here last November for his first visit to his Kansas Grandparent's ranch. It's become a family tradition.

I loved that little book, especially the landscape with all of the animals and the train cars with more animals. It was such a plucky little engine. It never gave up even when it got tired and the hill was too high. I can recite the book cover to cover. And when I get in to one of those adult corners, where I'm feeling overwhelmed, I pull out my memories of figuring out how to read that book...and I read it again!

" I think I can...I think I can...I think I can!" My nick name in High School was Can-Do, by the way. Uh huh...really was. Funny what one simple parable can do to shape your life. I'm still a taker of chances, a person who keeps leaping...who keeps chugging along.

THE WIZARD OF OZ, by L. Frank Baum
Well, you knew this one had to be included. I'm Kansas born and raised. My Grandparents had a homestead that was started in 1856. And I watched the movie every single year at my Grandparent's home when it was on, always on a Sunday evening. We'd have a fried chicken dinner with apple pie for desert and then settle back on to my Grandma's scratchy sofa with pop corn and cocoa, to watch the 1939 version with Judy Garland in the title role. 

But it was the book that I really loved. The version I read was one that my Grandma had, published in 1900. I have no idea if it was a first edition. But I know it was old, well read and cherished by my Grandma. I wasn't supposed to take it outside, but I always did. I'd lay down in the shade under the old Elm in the side yard with Penny, their farm dog, draped over my stomach. I'd read it cover to cover too while Grandma brought me lemonade to drink and molasses cookies on a plate. " I thought I told you to read that inside? " And then she would turn to go inside, smiling, because she knew I wasn't going to listen to her. Some books are better read while laying in the grass under a perfect blue sky.

I'd read my favorite sections out loud to Penny, especially the parts about flying to another magical place and then traveling down a never ending road where anything could happen. That book and the rest of the series took me to places that opened my imagination to the idea that anything was possible!

BLACK BEAUTY, by Anna Sewell 
Just writing the title of this book brings tears to my eyes, a very feminine reaction. But also a very humane reaction. 

Anna Sewell wrote the book originally to bring attention to the way horses were treated. It was an immediate sell out in it's first publishing in 1878. Miss Sewell lived only five months after it was published, just long enough to enjoy it's success. It remains, to this day,  the fifth most successful book printed in English. 

I read BLACK BEAUTY when it was given to me as a birthday gift. I was just seven years old. I remember sitting up all night with a flashlight under the covers, reading. My Mom had already been in to my room twice to tell me to turn out the light. " You need your sleep young lady. The book will  keep until tomorrow."  No, it couldn't! I had to find out what happened each time the beautiful black horse was moved to a new home, to a new set of circumstances good or bad.

That story taught me, again, that you never give up no matter how hard things seem. Something better will come around the corner. You really are loved even when you feel like you're all alone and forgotten. It also gave me my first look at man's inhumanity to animals...and man's capacity to love greatly. 

Just two years later, in 1880, a million copies of BLACK BEAUTY were published in the United States. People were so outraged at the description of what it was like for horses that the "bearing rein" was outlawed for use in both the US and England. Now that's what I call walking your talk. It's the perfect illustration of the power of one voice that is STILL being heard almost 140 years later.Anna Sewell and her BLACK BEAUTY taught me to question authority, to find out why the so called status quo is accepted and to make a noise loud and clear when it needs to be changed.

 A WRINKLE IN TIME, by Madeleine L'Engle
My Mom gave me a first edition of this book, published in 1962. I was eleven years old. It was autographed by the author too. She went to a local book store and waited in line to buy the book for me, to get it signed. Years later, after my Mom died at much too young an age, my father sold it. It was in my Mom's secretary. I remember it sitting there on the shelf with all of the other books that were most important to her. She had kept it safe for me until we had our own place, to give to me after the rolling stone years when we moved from here to there and back again. It was one of the few things I grieved for after she was gone. And I still do too. 

This book was another birthday gift, probably why I still love birthdays.  I always got a new book to add to my library. This one came along at just the right time in my life. I was a geeky, gawky teen with big feet and ears that flapped in a high wind. I felt awkward inside my body, was too smart (taking courses at the junior high level in grade school and college level in high school) and very shy. And so was Meg, the protagonist in A WRINKLE IN TIME. I identified with Meg right away and fell in love with Calvin before she did! 

My Mom was a mathematician and chemist, one of the scientists who started Midwest Research  Institute in Kansas City. She communicated with me through math games, while looking through a microscope or telescope. She was Meg's Mom, a loving but remote person lost in her laboratory. This book was our bridge. We read it together, stopping to talk about where the author was taking us and why. It was my first introduction to the fine art of book reviews.

It also took me to other worlds through the tesseract and the world of quantum physics. Math and the sciences came easily to me, so I chose the path of an artist. That's something for another essay but it's also why I read this book over and over. It introduced me to a reading genre I hadn't tried before, Science Fiction. And the protagonist was a girl too boot, something unheard of in those days. 

It's easy to say that this book reinforced the themes of my first favorite books ; never give up, follow your heart, question the status quo, remember that you're never alone and always loved. 

There are five books in this series and all of them well worth the time to read them. 

TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, by Harper Lee. Last for best...
What can I say about a perfect gem? That's the way I always think of this book. It was perfect in every way...the language, the use of metaphor, the rhythm and cadence of the words...all of it. 

This was another one of those books given to me as a gift. I read it every year. I never miss a Summer reading of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, not even the years of babies, lack of sleep, full time work and full time school, the teen years with my sons or any of the years since. And every time I read it I see it from the point of view of another character or see a part in a different light. If I wear a teacher, no matter what grade, I would either read this book to the students or require that they read it.

The story, narrated by Scout, takes place in the deep south during the hardest years of The Great Depression. It takes the reader on a journey through Summers and Winters when people were so poor that work was paid for by barter with a bag of nuts and a quarter was a fortune. It was about a coming of age for Scout and her brother, Jem during a period when their father, Atticus, defends an African American accused of rape. It deals with racial injustice and, on a secondary level, prejudice created by gossip about a neighbor of the Finch's family who later saves Scout from almost certain death at the hands of a white trash drunk.

I think it's one of those books that everyone should read before they die. If nothing else it will take you to a time when things were hard and straight forward, complicated and more innocent. Again, it reinforced the ideas of honesty, questioning rules that need to change and never judging any book by it's cover.

It's cold, in the thirties, and raining here today but tomorrow the temperatures will begin to climb  and the two pairs of mockingbirds that we have here will begin to sing again. When they do, I will get out my worn copy of TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD and read it again for the fifty third time. And I will sit with Scout and Boo Radley on the front porch while they wait to see if Jem is OK.

When you read a book, you take a walk with the author through their imagination. It's one of the more intimate forms of art. Anyone who is published puts them self on the line, waiting for the reader to understand or to slice and dice the author's heart. I read because it takes me to places I would never go on my own. It keeps me open, thinking and believing that anything is possible.

It just doesn't get any better than that!

  I am, ever yours, Nancy ... reading and dreaming