Here’s another post in the life-changing literature series – this one from Sarah Monsma, one of my fellow Boston-area writers. But maybe I should be saying life-shaping literature. As you can see from the title above, Sarah edited my prompt a bit, and I’m thrilled she did, because in doing so she made a great point about the books that all the authors and readers in this series have so far discussed. These books didn’t show up, change our lives, and then disappear. They were gobbled up, digested, and then – to use Sarah’s exquisite phrase – forever made a part of the fabric of our lives. Whether or not you ever set such a book’s words to memory, as Sarah and her siblings did, you nevertheless continue carrying it inside of you, and over the years, by returning to it again and again, the book can (and will) go on changing and shaping your life long after you’ve put it down.
Read Sarah’s post, and then make sure to learn more about her and her work below.
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Jarrett asked me to write a post about a book, story, or poem that changed my life. Immediately, a book – actually two books – popped into my head. But I tried to dismiss them. I was sure they weren’t what Jarrett was thinking of when he asked. They weren’t at all the types of books I write, nor were they the types of books I’ve been remembering in my Flashback Friday posts.
That evening I mentioned to my husband that I’d been asked to write a guest post on a book that changed my life. His response was, “So you’re going to write about A. A. Milne?” That was all the validation I needed.
I can’t really say that the writings of A. A. Milne changed my life. Rather, they’re a part of the fabric of my life, woven in from birth or quite possibly before. As a child I listened to and enjoyed the Winnie the Pooh stories, but Milne’s poetry from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six shaped my literary world.
My father and his dearest friend from childhood, who often spent the weekend at our home, were born only a few years after the volumes of poetry were published. They both grew up in homes in which it was common to read aloud, not only to children but also to adults. In fact, the two families gathered once a week for decades to read together.
Fortunately, Robert and my dad made certain to read Milne’s poems to my brothers and me. The poems were charming in their acknowledgement of children’s ways, in their humor, and in their sheer Britishness. (Both my father and Robert were confirmed Anglophiles.)
Often in the evening one of the adults would start to read and then we’d all request our favorites. The cadences of the rhyme rang through the living room. I loved to listen and to laugh with my brothers and the grownups.
As my siblings and I grew older we stopped reading the poems regularly as a group, and yet it became a part of the Thanksgiving tradition to see how far we could get reciting from memory some of the longer favorites. Someone will begin with the first line of “Disobedience” (known in our house as “James James Morrison Morrison Whetherby George DuPree”). If we make it safely through that one without consulting the book, we’ll move on to “Buckingham Palace.”
This recitation of those childhood poems continued easily into my adult life. When my children were small I found myself blithely reciting “Happiness” as they dressed to walk in the rain. (They knew from the age of two that a Macintosh was a raincoat.) We contemplated existentialism together with “Halfway Up,” which inevitably devolved into counting stairs and scaring the cat off his favorite roosting place as they tussled to share the spot.
Did these books provide a moment that divided my life into “before” and “after”? No, because they were always there. But they gave me:
- A sense of language, of particular words chosen because they were just right in meaning, in sensibility, in cadence and in rhyme.
- A pleasure in the sound of the words. I loved the way the rhyme, rhythm, and meter rang out in the room.
- A sense that reading was fun and that good literature could be enjoyed no matter what your age.
- A love of humor in writing and a sense that humor and profundity could go together.
- A sense of myself as a lover of literature and also a part of a family of literature lovers. This sense was strong even before I could read for myself.
Reading is so often thought to be a solitary pleasure, and yet there is so much to be gained from reading in community, from sharing a laugh or a tear together, from having a shared reference to return to.
So how have these books changed my life? They have made me a lover a words, a member of the community of readers, and a believer that good children’s literature is good literature no matter what your age.
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Sarah Monsma is a writer who lives in the Boston area. She’s worked as a teacher (her students knew to tap her for book suggestions when they couldn’t find something good to read at the library, but were smart enough to tap someone – anyone – else when they were down a player in kickball). She worked at a living history museum where she got to cook over a fire, milk goats, and pretend she was a Pilgrim all day. She writes lessons and educational game content for elementary school students. Her absolute favorite work of all is writing middle grade fiction and nonfiction. Her writing time is currently divided between a nonfiction project on World War II codes and code-makers and a middle grade spy novel. She reviews middle grade and young adult books at www.mgyabookreviews.com.
Click here to find Sarah on Twitter.
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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed (or shaped!) your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.