My Life, With Books
I have always loved to read. Really—almost always! When I was a toddler, my mother started teaching my older brother David to read. I wanted to do everything David could do, so I spied on the lessons, and started to read (or so the family story goes) at the age of two. I remember one doubting librarian who made me prove I could read the books my proud mother was checking out for me.
I grew up in Baltimore, in a small, noisy house, with my five brothers and sisters. Our dog was named Toto. One cold winter night, I found her huddled on an old mattress in our carport. I begged to keep her—and we named her after The Wizard of Oz.
The Lost Book
When I was in first grade, I had a reading disaster. I loved the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren. The library was getting a new one, and I put my name on the long waiting list. After waiting for what seemed like forever, finally it was my turn. I was so absorbed in the story that I brought it into school the next day and read it sitting outside the classroom—and then, when the bell rang, somehow I left it behind. That night I panicked.
The next morning my teacher told me that she had found the book. I started to smile—until she cheerfully informed me that she had returned it to the library. Then I burst into tears. Because she returned my precious book, I had to put my name on the list at the library all over again—and wait for weeks and weeks to finish it!
The Stolen Book
I had another near disaster with a book a few years later in fourth or fifth grade. My Uncle David and Aunt Ann (who is also a writer, novelist Ann Swinfen) lived in Scotland, along with my granny. For my birthday, they sent me wonderful British books that I never would have been able to find in Baltimore. They arrived in brown paper packages with British stamps on them. I still have those much-treasured books from across the ocean. One book they sent me was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which quickly became one of my favorite books of all time.
Unfortunately, there was a girl in my class that year who stole things. I’ll call her Mary. After a while the kids in my class complained enough that our teacher found an excuse to send Mary out of the room. While Mary was out, our teacher looked through her desk. As the teacher picked up pencils, erasers, and jewelry, various kids called out indignantly, “That’s mine!” Then, to my great shock (though I loved books, I obviously didn’t keep good track of them!) she reached into Mary’s desk and lifted out my copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
When Mary came back, our teacher asked her if there was anything in her desk that didn’t belong to her. Mary gave some things back but insisted that my book was hers. I said it was mine, but the teacher didn’t seem to believe me.
But suddenly I remembered something.
“Where did you get it?” I asked.
“My parents bought it for me,” Mary said.
“Where?” I demanded.
Mary named a bookstore in nearby Towson.
“No they didn’t!” I exclaimed triumphantly. “Look at the back of the book.”
The teacher turned my book over, but didn’t see anything.
I jumped up. “There!” I said, pointing.
I had studied and loved the book so much that I knew every detail about it. In small print on the back it said: “For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A.”
I got my cherished book back, and I still have it. In the photo, you can see that is a little water-damaged from the time I left it in a bag next to my wet swim suit.
When I wasn’t reading . . .
Of course, I did other things as a kid. I babysat for my younger brothers and sisters and neighbors. I played softball with the neighborhood kids—and we only sometimes hit the ball through windows or crushed the azalea bushes. I loved swimming, dance classes, and gymnastics. I was really proud when I made it onto the Rebounders Gymnastics Team.
College and After
I went to college in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University. I started out as a math major but then changed to English. It was amazing to realize that I could sit and read all I wanted and have that count as schoolwork.
I went on to study literature in graduate school at UCLA (where I got my master’s degree in English literature) and then at Yale (where I got my Ph.D.). I am now an English professor at Wellesley College outside Boston. I write literary criticism (books and articles about works of literature) as well as children’s books. I teach courses in Victorian literature, American literature, and creative writing.
When I came to Wellesley for my interview, I really wanted the job, partly because the campus is so beautiful. One of the first things I noticed about the campus was how much the lights looked like the lamp post in the Narnia books. See what I mean?
I live outside Boston with my husband, Ken, and daughter, Hannah. We used to have a wonderful Labrador Retriever, Luisa (named after one of the daughters in The Sound of Music).
Now we have a cat, Molly, who definitely has a mind of her own.
She likes to settle down on top of my warm laptop computer when I’m trying to type! Here she is inside my husband’s banjo case.
I spend too much time reading and writing at the computer. Maybe Molly is trying to tell me something when she walks over the keyboard.
But I also like kayaking, playing with my daughter, exploring the rocky coast of Maine, berry-picking, bicycling, hiking, and ice-skating. I hate lima beans—I never outgrew that from my childhood. I love old public libraries, the French language, fountains, fall in New England, and caramel apples.