The First Stories I Read

I always find it interesting when people talk about their first experiences with books. It’s a connection to a shared passion for reading, and a way of honoring the hundreds of paths from start to …wherever we each are today.

In my case, I remember a number of early childhood books, many of them German. My mom would read the stories to me, translating as she went. It wasn’t until I started trying to learn German myself, a couple years back, that I realized exactly how heroic that act was. The stories she spun were absolutely magical, and much like the apocryphal tale about The Princess Bride, she altered the stories as she went to make them more appealing to an American kid. When I read the translation of, for example, Struwwelpeter, I was aghast. I remember loving that book as a kid! It … did not age well, to say the least.

Another favorite of mine was Max and Moritz, and that one I actually read for myself — I had a version with German on one page and English on the facing. That set of stories has aged a little bit better, but my god, German stories have some brutal consequences in place for minor infractions.

I remember a big book of German fairy tales that she would translate freestyle, especially a story about Snow-White and Rose-Red. I remember (dimly) a story about a Pobble Who Has No Toes. (I need to look that one up again….) I remember being completely enraptured by the writing styles of Shel Silverstein and A.A. Milne.

In going through my mother’s estate two years ago, we found some of these old books, most of which were crumbling and mildewed, and I wept as I remembered her reading to me from them. Then, with a sigh, I noted down the titles, so as to track down better copies in future, and put the old ones in the trash. Fortunately, there weren’t many of those. My sister has been the Keeper Of The Childhood Books for many years, so quite a few of the books had long since been rescued from the damp Florida house. She presented me with a box of them recently, since her kids are grown and gone, and I’ve been tremendously excited about sorting through the memories and the stories alike. It’s good to have sisters…

I read Tales From Moominvalley by Tove Jannsen when I was … maybe ten? I fell completely in love with that book. I still have it, and it’s one of the most battered books I own. I read it over and over, I wrote stories about the characters, I drew illustrations of my own. I didn’t have a name for it until I was in my thirties, but I was committing fan fiction. I’ve since picked up just about everything Tove ever wrote, and I still turn to her books when I’m feeling ill or particularly sad about something.

The earlier books, eh, they’re kid’s books. But the later ones are so incredibly complex underneath the simple storylines. I’m still a complete geeky fan. And when I found out for sure (I was, I confess, this year old when I did) that she was queer, my heart grew ten sizes and I cried with joy. No lie. I’m so fucking happy that my ultra amazing favorite author was gay.

Of course, then I sat back and started thinking: C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Bear, Seanan McGuire; I never really thought about it, but when I stop and look, there’s definitely a theme to the authors I love these days. And I swear to god I did not know, when I started reading their work, that they weren’t heterosexual. I just knew their work felt comfortable and exciting at the same time, a safe arena for my imagination to roar around within.

As a related side note, I read Samuel R Delaney’s Dahlgren when I was twelve, and adored it, and re-read it constantly. I didn’t know about him, either, until many years later. (And yes, I’m aware of the controversy about him, and I’m not getting into that here.)

Good Omens has been one of my favorite books for years, and the recent TV adaptation was the most glorious thing ever. I’m completely geeking out over it. I’ve watched it five times so far, and I’m always willing to watch it again with someone who hasn’t yet experienced the joyous snarkiness. The absolute neutrality around gender expression and sexuality feels so tremendously safe and restful.

On bad days, it’s so tempting to stick with the stuff I’ve already read and hang on to the happy feelings; to not risk being disappointed or upset by a new book, a new author, an unknown. But the diving-off-a-cliff-and-discovering-you-can-fly feeling of finding something really damn good is just too addictive. I want the joy of reading Milne for the first time, of rediscovering the Pobble story, of exploring Moominland with fresh eyes.

And there are so many excellent authors out there who deliver that swooping exhilaration, who translate the childhood wonder into complex adult fancies. I started a bookstore (The Scribbling Lion) precisely to point other readers towards such works. I write in hopes of providing some of that myself, but I still fall far, far short of the benchmark I’ve set for myself: Patricia McKillip, Ursula LeGuin, Delaney, Gail R Martin, Seanan McGuire, Cassandra Khaw, and many others.

I’ll get there. I don’t think it’s possible for me to not get there, given the legacy of story that’s bone-deep by this point in my life. It’s just … going to take the time it takes.

And in the meanwhile, I have a TBR stack to attend to… if you’ll excuse me…