The Mightiest of Books
As an adult, I’ve had no interest in children’s books. I left them behind half a century ago. Or did I?
Chicken Little, for example, has been a powerful influence in my life. I was a nervous child—that hasn’t changed—and the Little Golden Book didn’t help. First my mother read it to me, then I read and re-read it on my own. I didn’t have many books then, which might help to explain why visitors never see walls in the home my sweetheart and I share. The walls are covered by bookcases.
After an acorn falls on its head, Chicken Little runs around telling everyone she meets that the sky is falling. Toddlers have few filters; I believed every word. I also remember the version in which the chicken is called Henny Penny. Other character names are still familiar and come out in my speech at times: Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey.
I never knew until now that Chicken Little was a folk tale so ancient even the Buddha told a variant of it. During World War II, a short film adapted the story to warn of Nazi propaganda. There are very bad endings to the tale, involving a fox, and there are benign endings with positive messages. In the rendition I read, Chicken Little, the runt of the henhouse, gathers a retinue of believers who go to the king to report that the sky is falling. The king corrects and reassures them, urging the animals to be courageous rather than panicked.
What a potent message. I internalized it and, for the most part, have lived my life with that moral in mind because I, like many, am a Chicken Little and need the weapon of conscious courage to get through life. Just as important, I learned that words and stories shape and change lives.
My mother didn’t believe in spending money on books (Little Golden Books cost twenty-five cents apiece!), but went to the library a lot. She parked me in the children’s section downstairs while upstairs she borrowed authors like R.F. Delderfield, Elizabeth Goudge, and Helen MacInnes.
Little Golden Books appealed to me. They looked most like the “real” books from upstairs, with hard-board covers and metallic gold strip spines. I read The Little Red Hen, Three Little Kittens, and The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, among others.
But I had an attitude. As soon as I could hold them, I moved on to books which didn’t have cartoonish pictures, but sophisticated illustrations and pages filled with words I learned as I went.
The family did own a Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Collegiate Edition. Now I could read Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, and The Yearling.
Those books were absorbing, but I don’t think they taught me anything as important as what I learned from Chicken Little and The Little Engine That Could. Well, okay, I was crushed by the marriage of Jo in Little Women, so I maybe learned what I didn’t want in life.
If Chicken Little taught me something about courage, The Little Engine That Could taught me that perseverance is a form of courage. I literally took, “I think I can, I think I can,” as my own personal maxim. It carried me through sixteen years of dreaded school days, into employment, and ultimately to writing.
I’m convinced those very early books were a big part of what made me the person I am—and a writer. My family read, so that helped. I had a facility for the English language which meant affirmation and encouragement from my teachers, and I had some very good teachers. Writing was all I ever wanted to do, besides be gay. I was a very silent kid, but there was so much to share. I scribbled poems in tiny looseleaf notebooks, and I was always being conscripted into working on school literary magazines.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I took the big plunge into fiction. It was truly terrifying. To this day I can’t listen to feedback on something I wrote, even from my gentle, careful, and kind sweetheart. It’s so excruciating I have to grit my teeth, cover my face, read it rather than listen, have some sugar sprinkled on any comments.
I still panic at every acorn that drops on my head, draw wrong conclusions, and want to give up and hide under a hedge to wait for the sky to fall. During such times I know there is no confident king to whom I can run. I forget that I’ve already learned the lesson he taught, that the voice of the king is now my own.
As a consequence of my reading those little folk tales, these days, “I think I can, I think I can,” sounds more like, “I know I can, I know
I can.” What’s more, when I see a shelf of books I have written, when readers acknowledge my work, “I know I can” evolves to
“I know I did.”
The moral of this story? The children’s shelves hold the mightiest books of all.