From the Dusty Mental Archives: When I Was Eight Or So…

Public school is a mishmash of memories. Mostly fragments and scenes with some longer narratives thrown in. You trust your memory to hold on to those things when you get older, but when you finally go back to the vault, you discover someone dug a tunnel underneath and blew it out with dynamite. All you have left are the pieces. Maybe your memory works different, I don’t know. But now that I’m sifting through the rubble, I want to see what’s left intact and dust it off a bit.

The first time I thought about being a writer in a way that went beyond writing for school, my grandma, or just myself, I was in third grade. My favorite classes then tended to revolve around the library. Not because of the books, per se, but because of the freedom. In class, you had a lesson plan to follow, but in the library you could follow your bliss. It was a sanctuary of sorts. Sometimes we went to read, sometimes we had stories read to us. Sometimes we watched movies and sometimes we had guest speakers come visit.

(not like this, exactly, but you get the idea…)

As a kid, it seemed like a big library, but then everything seems big when you’re a kid. One corner of the room was for the kiddie books—stuff like Mr. Men, Madeline, Dr. Seuss, and so on. Next to that were the more grown-up books (well, grown up from the perspective of an 8-year-old anyway). One wall had wooden booths where children could look at educational film rolls through a kind of primitive metal ViewMaster, listening to tape recordings that beeped when you needed to turn to the next image. The “front” of the library was where the big screen could be pulled down (only the gymnasium had a bigger screen) for movies. In later years, TVs would be wheeled in more and more frequently to show us videos, instead.

To be honest, I don’t recall what my reading level was back then… I certainly wasn’t a brown noser reading years and years ahead of his level (though I did get into Hardy Boys books a bit ahead of the curve). I think I was stuck somewhere between these two sections—the warm appeal and simplicity of kiddie books and the yearning for something more interesting and challenging in the rest of the library. I know I was interested in books on space, mostly for how the pictures captured my imagination and little factoids I could spout off later.

The books I remember in detail back then are few and far between. Of course, there were the classics, but a few obscure stories are stuck in my head as well. I remember The Seven Chinese Brothers—a children’s book that has as much hope of being reprinted in this world as a Golliwog has of being found in your local Toys R Us. Another had to do with a guy looking for a rare and elusive animal called—I think—a Whattzit. It’s a creature that is always behind you, no matter how quickly you turn around to try and see it.

I also remember some of the movies we watched back then. One was called The Electric Grandmother. If I recall correctly, it was about three orphaned children who end up having a robotic grandmother take care of them (she looked normal, of course). Eventually she has to leave (Damaged? I think so, but I can’t remember. Maybe she saved one of them from getting killed?) but in the end when the children have become old and need taking care of again the electric grandmother comes back for them. I know it was supposed to be sweet, but something about the story creeps me out to this day.

(turns out it was based on a Ray Bradbury story!)

Another movie was all about how commercials manipulate the truth to sell products. I really gotta give this one props. To this day, it’s still in my head, and I remember the lessons it taught. It gave me a healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to advertising—something we could all use a bit more of.

There was also a story that followed a toy kayak’s journey along the St. Lawrence River. Other shows are poking their heads out of the rubble of memory, but I can’t quite make out right now.

(turns out that one was called Paddle to the Sea)

But the one I remember most was a film about a children’s book writer. I don’t remember who, only that he was an older man—definitely grey hair or at least salt and pepper on his head.

This film wasn’t about him reading his books or talking about them, it was about him writing them. They showed him at his desk typing away, putting the pages of a manuscript together, sending them off to an editor. When he got the pages back, there were changes, corrections, suggestions written on it. Then he’d write another draft and send it back again. Once it was accepted, he worked with an artist who would do the paintings for his book (which was about a hermit crab, I think). Once it was all done, it would be sent to the printers, and eventually end up in libraries and bookstores.

This movie had a huge impact on me. When you’re a child, you never really think of anyone putting the time and effort into making a book—they’re just there. Sure you might see a picture of who wrote it, or even meet them in person, but still it never occurs to you that they have to sit behind a desk and work at it. Not unlike you, only with a bigger desk.

Books seemed more accessible after that. If he could do it, so could I. I won’t say I decided there and then I was going to be a writer, however. I also wanted to be an astronaut, a fighter pilot, a forest ranger, and an adventurer. But being a writer was always there in my mind as well. After all, astronauts, fighter pilots, forest rangers, and adventurers have to write about their exploits, don’t they?

But at the same time, it was still something for grown ups. Kids didn’t get published. There wasn’t a point in even trying before I got out of high school…

…or was there?

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