I've always been a reader. Before I entered school, my mom had already started teaching me how to read. We had a wide assortment of books at home, plus the frequent trips to the library offered even more choices. Mom encouraged us to read on our own, while Dad did most of the reading aloud. My favorite one to have him read us was The Sesame Street Bedtime Storybook, because he'd do the voices. Grover and the Count were two of his best.
Some of the earliest books I can remember were fantasy oriented. We grew up on the Serendipity books with stories about animals and fantasy creatures dealing some sort of life lesson like cleanliness, telling a grownup when someone is bullying you, and unique is special. Fantasy has a way of softening a message to make it both memorable and palatable. I loved those books. Since my mom still does, too, I have to go build my own collection for my son.
Fantasy plays a strong role in many picture books. Other books I grew up on included the Little Monster books by Mercer Mayer, Busy Town books by Richard Scarry, and the Berenstain Bears by Stan & Jan Berenstain. The Bike Lesson and Bears On Wheels were a couple more books my siblings and I often requested for Dad to read us. Back then I didn't think about these books being fantasy. I just picked books with enticing pictures and fun stories.
In time I moved into chapter books. Even though I was still reading, I don't remember any books in particular until I entered fifth grade. My family moved, taking me from a school where a quiet girl like me could have friends, even a best friend, to a school with consolidated cliques. I was shut out by the nicer girls, since I lacked the outgoingness to just join in, and picked on by the other girls. Not over my hair or my clothes or what I believed in. The first two I could have changed, and the last would have made me like the early believers of my Faith. But I was simply different and an outsider. I became the girl who was likeliest to cry, whether they caused my tears or I got frustrated over something I was learning.
But that school wasn't all bad. My fifth grade teacher taught me the basics of writing. We had regular writing time every week with the writing process printed on a giant poster. I want to say it had been broken down into five or six steps, but it taught me to write, revise, and edit, with some sort of prewriting type step at the beginning. My sixth grade teacher never saw the harrassment happening (girls can be very subtle, and that kind of bullying was less well-known back then), but she'd offer a kind word when she saw me looking sad. She made me feel special and recommended books, even loaning me ones from her personal collection.
Because of her, I discovered Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. Those books and the Narnia series were my first steps into a full fledged love affair with fantasy. Narnia was a new world, while Will Stanton's world was our own with the great conflict of Dark and Light going on beyond our awareness.
I learned how to step out of myself into the shoes of the main characters of my favorite books. Nowadays, we'd probably call that deep reading, but at the time, all I cared about was to forget me and become someone else for awhile. Even though the characters often faced worse situations than my own, their troubles made more sense, the issues clearer. I studied how the characters handled their problems, a quest to discover the magical answer for solving my own. I never found one, but I did learn I was not alone. I learned that even the downtrodden could find happiness.
I learned hope.