I firmly believe that the best preparation for becoming a writer is being a reader first, and while I did not know I wanted to be a writer until I was in high school, I loved reading from the first time I opened a book. Or so they tell me.
I was not a reading prodigy who was skimming through Shakespeare before I could write my name, but my parents—both readers—read to me and my siblings every night. The very first book I remember someone reading to me was not a Dr. Seuss book or a Beatrix Potter story. It was Janette Sebring Lowrey’s The Poky Little Puppy. The book was first published in 1942 and has been in print ever since. It was one of the original “Little Golden Books” put out by Simon and Schuster, and somewhere in a box stashed in my attic is probably the ragged remains of the cardboard-backed volume that was first read to me. (If you’ve never read it, the book is online here.)
What interested me about the book was that when the poky little puppy was caught outside the fence by his mother, he had to go to bed without any strawberry shortcake. Interestingly, I’ve always remembered the withheld dessert as being rice pudding, but the puppy gets his rice pudding earlier in the book. I guess liked rice pudding more than strawberry shortcake (and still do).
Being read to is a very warm memory for me, sitting on my mother or father’s lap—and it was as likely to be one as the other. Unusually for a man of his generation, my father took a genuine delight and interest in interacting with his offspring. I’m eight years older than my sister and I still remember the game he made out of reading Little Red Riding Hood to her. She was always interested in what Red put in the picnic basket to take to her grandma and she and our father would sit there, sometimes for an hour or more, coming up with ideas for provisions. “Chocolate cake, daddy!” she’d suggest. “And pickles,” he’d say. “And fried green tomatoes!” (Inexplicably, my little sister loved fried green tomatoes as a child.)
But I digress.
I was talking about reading.
I moved on from the Little Golden Books to books I read for myself. And somewhere along the way I discovered Beverly Cleary and her books.
I loved her books about Beezus and her sister Ramona and their friend Henry and his dog Ribsy. And although I didn’t know what a fan was then, I was Beverly Cleary’s number one fan. I read every book she’d written—our local library had them all—and then I reread them. And then I read them a third time.
I didn’t know it then, but as I read and re-read those books, I was absorbing lessons on how to craft believable and likable characters. I know I wanted to be in Beezus and Ramona’s family. Those characters were alive to me.
And then, when I was a little older—but not that much older—I discovered Nancy Drew mysteries and my fate was sealed.
I remember that at the time, Nancy Drew mysteries were in hardcover and they cost the exact amount of my weekly allowance.
Who needs anything but books?
I bought every single Nancy Drew book in print. Then I bought the Hardy Boys books. I moved on to the Dana Girls, though they weren’t as interesting. And from there I moved into big girl books and from there I moved into writing my own stories.
And those stories were—most of the time—mysteries.
The Nancy Drew novels were credited to “Carolyn Keene,” the pen name of a writer named Mildred Wirt Benson. (There were other writers who worked on the manuscripts but Benson was the main author responsible for the series.) Mildred was my mother’s name and so I felt a kinship to Benson and I loved reading mysteries with female sleuths. Believe it or not, they’re still not that common, a complaint you’ll often hear in crime fic circles.
I grew up reading women authors and now here I am, a writer myself. So thank you Janette and Mildred and Beverly. I owe you big time.
And if someone out there is planning a bash for Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday in 2016, please invite me. I have a copy of Beezus and Ramona I’d love for her to autograph. And I’ll bring cake.
To kick off our new blog, we’re having a giveaway!
You can enter below to win a Nancy Drew-themed bracelet. Thanks to Katherine for donating it!