Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thanks, Mrs. Brumhall

As long as I can remember, I've loved books. I like to read them aloud to others and silently to myself. I even enjoy having them read aloud to me, but only if the person does it well. Childhood trips to the library were heaven for me and later, when I was old enough to work up a healthy disdain for all manner of shopping with my mother, I routinely convinced her to drop me off at the mall bookstore and come back for me when she was done.

I loved checking out my limit of books from the public library or filling out the Scholastic or Arrow Book Club order that we would get at school and then wait impatiently until my loot was delivered. Some of my most vivid memories of elementary school involve books. Sure, I remember spelling tests (I was really good at those) and handwriting (having to use a yellow crayon to color a solid line between each line of writing) and math (always confusing). I loved lunch and I liked recess (I was a good runner and one of the first to reach the swingset once we burst through the double doors. The first swing was prime real estate and it was a big deal to be fast enough to get there before anyone else).

But frequently, two very wonderful things happened after recess: Either the teacher read aloud to us or we entered the classroom to discover that our book club orders had arrived and were stacked in orderly fashion on our desks. If the books arrived, we were allowed some time to pore over our orders and decide which book we would be reading first. Trust me, a big stack of money could scarcely have made me as happy as the arrival of those books did.

However, if it was just a day for the teacher to read aloud, that was good, too. In sixth grade (back when it was still elementary school), Mrs. Lotven introduced us to The Good Earth,
The Hobbit, and A Wrinkle in Time. She had an engaging voice and I developed an affection for those books that has lasted my entire life. She read to the entire sixth grade--all at once, and that meant three classes of squirmy kids--not all of whom were as crazy about the written word as I was. But Mrs. Lotven didn't tolerate fools or their foolishness and everyone generally fell into line. Some even fell asleep, but I stayed awake like a junkie awaiting the next fix.

But even Mrs. Lotven doesn't rank as highly as my third grade teacher. This wasn't just because Mrs. Lotven was also my math teacher and possessed an alarming amount of proof as to what a numbskull I was when it came to fractions. It was because third grade was the year that I fell hopelessly in love with a pig named Wilbur and his spider friend, Charlotte.

Young Mrs. Brumhall wore her hair swept up in a lovely bun, though she later cut it into a disturbing teased/rat-combed bubble-do that required about three cans of Aqua Net and a flotilla of bobby pins to construct. She wore dresses every day and low-heeled pumps. Truthfully, I remember nothing else about that year. NOTHING...except Spring afternoons where Mrs. Brumhall would sit at her desk and read E.B. White's Charlotte's Web aloud to us.

After tearing around the playground for 30 minutes and then getting a cold drink of water at the fountain, we would file into the classroom and plop exhaustedly into our seats. The lights in the classroom would be off and Mrs. Brumhall would have already used the big wooden pole to open the tops of the windows and let in the gentle breeze, if there was one. On days that it rained, the room was a little darker, but it was so cozy and inviting that no one seemed to mind. Many of us just put out heads down on our desks. Listening seemed easier that way. Regardless, the opening words of that timeless classic about the search for friendship were forever burned into my head and the honeyed voice of Mrs. Brumhall became the voice of Charlotte.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

I've wanted to find Mrs. Brumhall and tell her about how her reading to me changed my life, but I don't think she stayed in the area. Her accent indicated that she was not one of us, someone E.B.White (a native of Brooklin, Maine) would have described as being "from away". I knew nothing else about her, though for years I was convinced that her first name was Charlotte, so closely did I identify her with the voice of the spider.

If I could, I would tell her that I've worn out several copies of the book and to this day I can't read about Charlotte's death without crying. I've shared this book with each of our children. I wanted to give our daughter (the one we never had) the middle name Charlotte and I did name one of our best cats after EB (Elwyn Brooks) White. I own a copy of the audio book and EB White is the person reading it aloud. When he died on October 1, 1985, I tied a little black ribbon around my arm and talked to my classes about White's contributions to the literary world. I remain an avid reader of the New Yorker, a magazine where White's name is still invoked to this day and where his influence is still evident in the writings of his stepson, Roger Angell.

Sometimes I think the book means more to me now than it did when I was a kid. Maybe it's the fact that Wilbur's search for real friendship is something that translates well into the daily grind of the child-centered life that we live as today's parents. Or maybe it's just because it's something from a long time ago that I remember with a feeling of complete and utter happiness. No embellishments. No nostalgia to filter out the bad stuff. But a starting point in my life that I can recall with real clarity that involves something I love and the person who gave it to me.

What was the first book you ever loved?


Blogger jess said...

I would love to be in your third grade classroom right now. The first story I remember is Rumplestiltskin. I remember my mom reading Little House in the Big Woods outloud after I fell off my bicycle and scraped up my knees and elbows. The Little House books were probably the first ones where the world really came alive to me. But the Chronicles of Narnia were the first time I fell head over heels.

My fondest read-aloud memory, though, is of my 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Morgan, reading The Giver.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Tink said...

You completely took me back into that memory. *Sigh* I still adore books with the same passion I did as a kid. Although I don't have the patience to let someone else read it now :).

My favorite book as a kid was "The Indian In The Cupboard." Kind of funny considering the post I made earlier. I read and reread that book.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Harridan said...

Now I'm crying thinking of Charlotte dying in the book!

That was pretty much the first and the all-time favorite, made even better (was such a thing possible?) by the movie (Paul Lynde as Templeton - voice casting genius).

I also loved Stuart Little (NOT made better by a movie) and The Trumpet of the Swan. Garth Williams + E.B. White is a magical combination.

Great post!

2:01 PM  
Anonymous irene said...

I really loved reading this post. the first books I ever loved were the ones from the comtesse de Segur. don't know if you know her though.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Kurt said...

The Mouse and the Motorcyle, then Beezus and Ramona, then The Black Stallion books. I still have my letter from Walter Farley.

2:38 PM  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

The Little House Books (all of them!!!). I remember taking our fakey Aunt Jemima syrup out to the snow to make candy and it wouldn't freeze!

My all time favorite book in the world is "Where the Red Fern Grows". I cannot even talk about Ol'Dan and Little Ann dying without crying. OMG, I am crying right now.....

2:42 PM  
Blogger mama_tulip said...

Oh, such a great book, Charlotte's Web.

When I was a kid I really loved the Ramona Quimby books. I also loved Ameila Bedelia and anything by Judy Blume, except Superfudge and Dear Mr. Crenshaw.

My all-time favourite book when I was a kid was Anne of Green Gables. I loved it...I loved the miniseries on television. I got lost in that story.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Reading. My first great love. I was a skinny, shy, mama's boy who was terrified of anything new.

When I learned to read, my mind burst in a shower of fire-flies that warmed me to the core.

The first books I read backwards and forwards were "Where the Wild Thing Are" By Maurice Sendak and "Hungry Thing" by Jan Slepian.

When I was 7 or 8 I read my first hardback book, 'Wrinkle in Time' being the first I remember. I LIVED in the library after that and systematically worked my way through the Hardy Boys, Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit.

Who knew the Dewey Decimal System would bring back so many fond memories...

4:08 PM  
Blogger daysgoby said...

The Wind in the Willows. And all my memories of it come back to me with my father's voice, reading me a chapter before bed every night.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
The Cay.
Any Roald Dahl book.

E.B. White? Magical man.

4:49 PM  
Blogger The Gradual Gardener said...

I read them all. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, all the Ramona Quimbly books, Little House on The Prairie, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Stuart Little, the list goes on. My mother tells everyone I spent ages 2-6 in my room, being punished for throwing pretty spectacular temper tantrums. Until I learned how to read, and then I never uttered a peep. My nose was always in a book.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Meg said...

I'm seeing all of the books people have commented about and my mind is flying thinking about all the wonderful books I read as a child. Oh, how I loved to read, especially Judy Blume and Shel Siverstein who did where the side walk ends and light in the attic. His poems were so fun. I've read so many of the ones listed, but also wanted to add Bridge to Tarrabethia to the list. How come so many of these books were sad?

8:20 PM  
Blogger Ditsy Chick said...

I have always loved books as well. I loved 'The Really Hungry Caterpiller', you could poke your fingers through the pages.

I had a teacher who read to us as well. The last book I remember is "The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles" by Julie Edwards (Andrews). We moved before she finished the book and I made her tell me the ending before I left.

9:33 PM  
Blogger V said...

Oh man, that post was like warm fuzzy therapy. I so needed that!

I think I read Ramona and her Father about 30 times. But earlier, I would make my mom read "One Kitten for Kim" and "The Little House" every night.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous sheryl said...

Great post! I learned to read when I was 3 (my family says) because my sister was in kindergarten and I didn't want to be left out.

But I don't remember reading stories that stuck with me til I was older. I think when I was in third and fourth grade my reading took off, as a result of my teachers reading to me in class.

My favorites were anything and everything by Roald Dahl; many of his short stories some to mind and of course the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory series.

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by Lewis Barnavelt

Many of Judy Blume's books, including Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Beverly Cleary's Runaway Ralph and all of the Ramona books.

I also loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

But my absolute favorites were the (old fashioned) Boxcar Children books by Gertrude Chandler Warner and The Borrowers series by Mary Norton.

Now that I look back at this list I think I was drawn to stories of children being resourceful and living independently of parents, as well as the idea of being miniature or almost invisible.

8:17 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

I loved the Ramona books as well. Anything by Beverly Cleary was wonderful. I think the first Little House book I read was "Little House in the Big Woods". Also charming. Illustrator Garth Williams did the sketches for both the Little House books and EB Whites (amonth others)
Louis Darling (married to another illustrator whose name--was Lois) did the Cleary books when they were originally printed in the '60s. I re-read Ramona the Pest every year just about the time school starts.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous TB said...

WordGirl, this is a beautiful and resonant piece of writing. Just lovely.
My first love and the book that I have read over and over as an adult and found new meaning in with each read is The Velveteen Rabbit. The story is simple nd beautiful to read as a child and I adored it. As an adult the meaning changes for me each time I read it again.
I own two copies one that I've had since I was little and a new copy, never opened that I bought ten years ago to give to my own child someday.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Arabella said...

I honestly can't remember. _A Tree Grows in Brooklyn_ was definitely one of my early favorites.

The other comments are like a trip down happy memory lane. :)

Great post.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Wonderful!

I had a teacher in elementary school who read Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little aloud to us, but never got to Charlotte's Web. No matter, I got to discover it for myself.

My vote would have to be for The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. Drawings also by Garth Williams, who as Mrs. Harridan pointed out did such a magical job with two of E.B. White's books. I'd also recommend two of the sequels to Cricket...: Tucker's Countryside and Harry Cat's Pet Puppy, although the rest of the sequels are a bit iffy.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Kelli said...

I just stumbled upon your blog thanks to the Sarcastic Journalist & I just had to say how much I enjoyed this post. It brought tears to my eyes & made me recall all the many afternoons I spent in Miss Stocker's class when I was in 3rd grade listening to her read aloud.
Charlotte's Web was one of the 1st books I ever fell in love with too.
Gosh, there are so many from that time in my life that I hold so dear - Little Women & Black Beauty are two that come to mind instantly.
I will always remember Steinbeck's The Red Pony as the 1st book to ever make me really, really weep.
Thanks again for the post. I look forward to visiting your blog again soon!

11:19 AM  
Blogger Cat said...

Although I loved all of the Ramona books, the first book I remember just adoring was The Secret Garden, by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Which was read to me, incidentally, by my fourth grade teacher.

The I discovered C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and a whole NEW world was opened up to me!

1:15 PM  
Blogger Mit_Moi said...

I remember being transported by, "James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl, falling in love with horses after reading "Misty of Chincoteague", by Marguerete Henry, and beginning my love affair with the desert because of of "The Black Stallion" by Walter Farley.

My favorite periodical was "Cricket Magazine". The writing was magical - and the illustrations! I still have them to this day, 30+ years later

2:20 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

The earliest book that I remember was Kidnapped. Not the original by Robert Louis Stevenson, but a Walt Disney version. I loved the story, and the illustrations which quite captured the excitement and the characterization. I still have the book.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I feel deprived. I think I am going to begin reading children's books!

6:13 PM  
Blogger Odd Mix said...

I was an avid reader and I remember many books fondly - the Little House series and Encyclopedia Brown and the like. But my Dad read me the Chronicles of Narnia when I was about six, and then The Hobit and the Lord of the Rings when I was seven and I was hooked for life. I have read each more times than I can count and now I am sharing that love with my kids.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Shrinking Violet said...

In fourth grade, my school welcomed its first African American child. Vernell. He was the greatest. In preparation, every grade was read "Black Like Me". The school principle was a Man among men. Mr. Bradham. I was in the 4th grade. It simply changed my life forever.

7:12 AM  

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