In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Guest blogger: welcome home!

Dear Annie,

We hope your family is thriving.  To celebrate your son Will's arrival, my daughter Lizzie (just graduated from college) has volunteered for a guest blogging slot. She's home right now, and revisiting her past.

I've been getting rid of books recently. I went through all the bookshelves in my room at home in DC and pulled down much of their contents into piles bound for used book sales or – in the case of a select few – the still unfilled shelves of our house in Maine. The goal behind this destruction was to make space for the more recent additions to my collection and to transform the room through literature into the home of a college graduate instead of a 10-year-old. All of which starts to sound a little heartless – so let me reassure you that many of the books from when I was younger stayed on those shelves. How could I be at home without the books I loved back then? How could even the hefty novels I used in writing a college thesis crowd out the stories that held my imagination when I was 6? Books don't work that way.

So I want to start out this guest blogging with one of the books that's been on my bookcase for almost three-quarters of my life: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi.

It's a book that I think of as wholly mine. A story of adventure that I picked all by myself. My parents and I agree that I must have been about six when I went into the Cleveland Park Public Library and selected it off of a spinning rack that I remember as being in a section that felt more mature than the usual kids section. I think I picked it entirely for its cover: a young woman in a blue dress standing at a ship's railing and gazing off into the distance. That cover seemed to invite me into the story; I was a girl, I liked the color blue, and I could be on the same adventure as the 13-year-old “Miss Doyle.”

Rereading the book over lunch today, I realized that I didn't remember much of its content, but its world was still familiar. It's the story of a girl who ends up as the only passenger on the Seahawk, a ship crossing the Atlantic, heading back to her family in Rhode Island. There's a captain who turns out to be evil, mutiny, death, the harsh reality and rules of the ship and crew. It's about a proper young lady who ends up taking responsibility for herself in a new way and ends up more at home at sea than in her family. My parents both remember the plot as heavy-handed, but I remember that it took me into the self-contained world of an adventure.

On the first day at sea Charlotte (who writes in first person) is talking to Zachariah, a crew member who she still snubs as well below her own status, when this exchange takes place:

            “I don't need a friend,” I said.
            “One always needs a final friend.”
            Final friend?”
            “Someone to sew the hammock,” he returned.
            “I do not understand you.”
            “When a sailor dies on voyage, miss, he goes to his resting place in the sea with his hammock sewn around him by a friend.”

The book is full of moments like this: concepts introduced as a normal part of life at sea, things that connect death and danger to friendship. As a 6-year-old, I must have learned all of these things alongside Charlotte, I must have been with her on the Seahawk's voyage. The world of the ship was specific and separated from the life on land. Death is different, friendship is different.

I know all of these things caught my imagination and held onto it. As a first-grader, I wrote a story in class whose villain took on the name of the Seahawk's evil captain, Jaggery. At any point in all those years between that 6-year-old experience of the book and my recent reacquaintance with it, I'm sure I could have described the image and feel of the 13-year-old girl looking into the distance on its cover. And finally, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is still part of what it means to be home; it welcomes me into my room from its spot on the top shelf of my bookcase.

Welcome home, my dear.  And welcome to your Will, Annie.



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