July 27, 2017

On the Subject of Books

I’m deep in the post-San Diego Comic-Con recovery period, so forgive my lateness. My feet are like blocks of blow-torched concrete, I’m peeling from sunburn, and my bank account is empty. Yes, I had a wonderful convention!  More about that later.

In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, there is a rather famous bookstore.  You maybe familiar with Powell’s City of Books, which took an entire city block of warehouses and melded them into one giant store. It has shelves stacked full to its 15′ ceilings, with every kind of book imaginable: old, new, rare, and out-of-print. If Powell’s doesn’t have it, good luck to you in finding it, because they have pretty much everything.

You have your version of heaven…this is mine.

Portland, in large part thanks to places like Powell’s, has become a nerd Shangri-La. As hipsterish as it is to say, though, I was here long before it was cool.

Remember I said I grew up kind of poor, so I didn’t often get books of my own (this may be a reason why I insist on having a massive personal library now as an adult, to the detriment of any other kind of storage space). Instead I regularly haunted my school and local libraries, devouring stories like a tiny elder god, merciless in my pace. However, every now and again I would get to visit a book store and claim a paper world for my very own.

My mother worked for the Oregon Symphony way back then (sometime in the halcyon days of the mid-80’s), and would often make my siblings and I her slave labor force, stuffing envelopes with fundraiser flyers for the symphony. Our reward for these long papercut-laced days was $5 and an hour to spend it where we liked. One of these days when I was alone in my envelope-stuffing, she mentioned Powell’s was only six short blocks away, drew me a map, and turned me loose. (Pause for a second while I explain that back then it was totally okay to allow a 8 to 9-year-old to wander by herself in the downtown core…yes, it’s unthinkable now. Then, nobody batted an eye. Cool?  Cool.)

The doors were too heavy to open by myself, I remember. Someone helped me, with a great big smile, and my thank you died on my lips as I saw the labyrinth of shelves immediately in front of me, ramps and aisles leading into the distance, all completely full. Today, when you enter Powell’s there is a map, and a brochure you can use to keep from getting lost. Back then, there was nothing but signs pointing in random directions for the rooms in all colors in of the rainbow.

I couldn’t trace on a map how I traveled through the store, aisle by aisle, running my fingers along the spines as I walked, stopping to read titles, and pulling the more interesting ones off the shelves to read the back covers. No idea how long it took me to find the children’s section, but when I did, I may have squealed and done a little jig in the aisle. The section was laid out like a storeroom, with nooks large enough for one to two kids on bean bags surrounded by shelves on three sides. I can still smell the dusty paper and floor cleaner in that tiny nook of little girl books, dimly lit from the overcast sky through a distant window.

It’s amazing how fast delight can go to dismay when you realize how little $5 will get you in such a paradise, even at mid-80’s prices. Discovering that the used books were much cheaper, I started ruthlessly culling the shelves of their $0.99 quarry. I had piles of books, mountains of them still. How to decide which would be mine?

I’d like to say that I grabbed classics and timeless literature to treasure forever, but I’d be lying. Children don’t value great literature, I’m sad to say, that only comes with age and experience. I’m pretty sure I ended up with at least one Babysitter’s Club book, a few horse books, and a couple of princess stories. I can promise that while they weren’t the kind of literature with staying power, they were very much loved by my little-girl self.

Thinking back on it, I probably left an unholy mess of discarded books behind me as I went in search of the registers. Sorry, Powell’s people! If it makes you feel better, at one point in my life a little more than a decade later, I was in charge of a Barnes and Noble children’s section which was destroyed on an hourly basis, so you have some karmic payback there. The swath of destruction created by an unsupervised child has reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. Thus, I am now deeply apologetic for any such messes I left in my youth.

Once bought (and forever grateful that Oregon has no sales tax, thus ensuring that I got to keep all five books instead of having to put one back), I’m pretty sure I read them over and over until they fell apart.  I don’t remember all the stories, but I remember how they felt. They felt like adventure. They felt like happiness. They felt like I was there and doing what each protagonist was doing, because each protagonist was a little girl like me.

Wind this back around to today, where I am writing stories for little girls, for the same reason. It’s kind of a neat little loop…if I ever finish one of these projects or make it into an anthology.

In the meantime, here’s every age-appropriate Neil Gaiman book to tide you over:

Coraline – In an odd, twisty house full of odd, twisty people, little Coraline finds a door to world very much like her own…or is it? Full of weird and wonderful characters, it tweaks the emotions as it reminds you where you started as a child, and how to be brave in the face of the unthinkable.

The Graveyard Book – The first line says everything in this book: “In the dark was a hand, and in the hand was a knife.” The prose is spare and delightful, wielded like that knife. Nobody lives in the graveyard, raised by ghosts for his own protection, but he must rejoin the living eventually.

Odd and the Frost Giants – Odd is just that, not quite the Viking that his family had hoped for with a crippled leg, to boot. But he is clever, and when he gets mixed up with the full bevy of Norse gods and their antics, he comes out shining.

Fortunately, the Milk – If you were the recipient of a father with an extra serving of imagination, the way I was, you will doubly appreciate this wild tale of exotic adventure on the way to the corner market for milk. Also contains space dinosaurs, which is of more than passing interest to yours truly.

While some people may say that the first two books are too scary for young children, remember: Children already know that monsters exist. They know this with every fiber of their tiny beings. What scary stories teach them is that monsters can be killed, and that children like them can do it.

Now go forth, and read something amazing!

Week 5 of ? of the weekly writing project