The story behind my bookshelves

Lily reads "Marley & Me". Her uncle, Joe Fleenor, reads "Born To Run".

Some of my favorite growing up memories involve books – reading them and being read to, shopping for them and writing them.

My parents will say my favorite book as an infant was something called “Mr. Paint Pig,” and I swear I remember it, sitting in their laps and the laps of my mother’s parents,  nestled into easy chairs on the porch of my grandparents’ house near Niagra Falls. “Here comes Mr. Paint Pig. What is he going to do with all these colors?” A happy memory about family, not fiction.

In third grade, I started to write my autobiography, beginning with the first day of first grade, tackling mundane moments in excruciating detail, including what our family ate for dinner and what we watched on television. I renamed myself “Catherine Comb” in the book. (“Knight Stivender” did not, to me, sound like a likely name for an ordinary five-year-old from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.) For some inexplicable reason, my great-uncle Billy loved this.

Throughout my tween and teen years, my mother and I bonded over shopping trips at Davis Kidd Booksellers, which was at that time located in Grace’s Plaza in Green Hills. I’ve repeated that tradition with my daughter despite the “special bookstore’s” move to the less ambient mall.

How I read "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", "Kiss of the Spider Woman", "The Feminine Mystique" and at least 20 more books in one semester is beyond me.

In college, I found interesting crannies in which to enjoy books. The window unit in our dorm room was a good spot, as was the porch swing when we moved to a rented house in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood. Barnes & Noble made a good, cheap date night. One intense but lovely semester, I took five lit classes at once: Southern Literature, Journalism as Literature, the Bible as Literature, Women’s Literature, and the International Novel. For Dr. Paul Ashdown‘s Journalism as Lit class, I wrote each paper in the style of the writer’s work I reviewed. I’ll spare you from sharing my tortured James Agee report, but I felt deeply moved by what I believed to be old sharecropper houses on Highway 280 in central Alabama where most of my extended family lives.

Throughout the years, I have shared books with friends and family members whose tastes I’ve admired and favorites I’ve learned to appreciate. When my college roommate (whose blog receives more traffic in an hour than I can ever dream of) moved to New York, she routinely mailed me advance copies of books sent to her office. She regularly tossed into the package whatever else she had just finished reading on the subway, and this is how I discovered Tom Robbins. My sister-in-law and I trade whatever we think the other one will enjoy, and this is how I discovered Paulo Coelho. Right now, I am pages from finishing Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty, a memoir about her friendship with poet Lucy Grealy. I’ve read all of Ann Patchett’s fiction; I don’t know why I never got around to her memoir, but it’s almost better that I waited until the book was loaned to me by a friend.

Funny how other people’s lives – even lives imagined – can have such an impact on your own. You are snuggled up in bed, reading your friend’s book while you wait for your daughter to wake up and ask you for breakfast. When she crawls under the comforter with you, her own book in hand (which  she borrowed from her uncle, who borrowed it from his mother), you feel compelled to write. We are all sharing one big story.

Rosemary Wells, Margaret Wise Brown, and Nonny Hogrogian are among my favorite children's writers.

Which gets me to Jackie:

I am lucky to have parents who read to me and bought me books as a child. They understood all the growth and pleasure that comes from early childhood literature. So I recently asked Jackie Johnston, children’s book publicist and one of my favorite Nashville bloggers, to share some thoughts on her favorite writers and trends. Here is a snapshot, which I hope is helpful to parents and others with young children in their lives:

Margaret Wise Brown: A perennial favorite (of hers, mine, and everyone’s): “Goodnight Moon”, by Margaret Wise Brown. Also: “The Moon Shines Down“, which was discovered forgotten in a Vermont barn long after Brown’s death. Nashville-based Thomas Nelson was fortunate to be chosen to publish it. Johnston enjoys the “soft, classic” feel of these books. My personal favorite by Brown: “Runaway Bunny”. I love how the mother rabbit keeps reinventing herself to be near her bunny. (What working mother can’t relate to that?)

Oliver Jeffers: “I know they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I judge a book by its cover,” says Johnston, who admits she appreciates artful illustrations – particularly in children’s literature, including on the cover. Jeffers is exceptional in this craft. Johnston made note of “The Incredible Book Eating Boy,” which looks luscious.

Regional books: Johnston travels quite a bit for her job, which involves shepherding authors through book tours and other publicity stops. (I’m kind of jealous, I admit.) When she’s in another city, she makes a point to browse the local section in that community’s bookstore, making purchases for her collection of regional children’s books. So far, her favorites are Native American-themed stories from Northern Michigan.


7 thoughts on “The story behind my bookshelves

  1. Thank you, all, for your kind words, borrowed books, shared memories and (Catherine) perfect moments captured on your iphone. I wrote a longer post about the power of saying thanks. I specifically mentioned Jackie and Kathi, but you all made my day yesterday. P.S., Arienne: Of “Truth & Beauty” – I’m trying very hard to be an ant and not a grasshopper.

  2. Pingback: Say thanks! It might make someone’s day. « Knight Stivender's life in full

  3. I remember trying to take the flashlight away from you in the middle of the night when you were supposed to be asleep and “just want to finish this chapter.” I am certain that my efforts were unsuccessful – and probably not very serious attempts anyway.

  4. One of the great pleasures of my life is seeing my granddaughters, ages 12 and 9, bringing their books to read at the table while they eat breakfast — just as my father and I did when I was young.
    Many thanks to you for arranging for me to have books when Tim was ill and I couldn’t get to the library. Reading is as vital to me as breathing.

  5. Pingback: The Story We Share « JayeWalking

  6. I love book recommendations from you. Especially when you scribble a poetic note in the front about where a great place to read that particular book may be (ie. Bel Canto: alone, relaxing in a bath tub). Your picture above is one of my favorites. I am happy cell phones have cameras so I was able to capture the natural moment.

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