“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
Thanksgiving is this week. Many people are planning their feasts, but I’m gratefully taking this much needed five-day weekend to feast on books. It’s time to make good progress on the ample stack on my desk: Pale Fire, multiple translations of Rimbaud and Rilke, The Angel’s Game and The Book of Flying to savor again… As I look at this magnificent stack, my mind flashes back to when I was struggling through picture books.
I came to the U.S. in 2008, at the start of fourth grade. Picture a little Chinese kid hunched over Berenstain Bears and the Prize Pumpkin with an electronic dictionary, painfully looking up every five words and advancing at a glacial pace through every page. That was me. I excelled at the English subject at school in China but couldn’t even read Berenstain Bears when I came here.
My other first ventures into English literature included The Magic Tree House series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Then I moved up to Captain Underpants and began devouring The Secrets of Droon series. Harry Potter was still a bit difficult in 5th grade. Daniel Pinkwater’s books were life-changing. At the end of 5th grade, I got 99 percent on the State Reading Assessment and started on Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I think that was when my reading level moved up to par with my American-born peers.
I had come a long way, and to this day it still seems to me like a miracle. What used to be an ocean of incomprehensibility in Harry Potter is now little kids’ stuff. The floodgates of the English language had been blown wide open in two years. I can now be enraptured by Shakespeare and Nabokov, and that was the greatest blessing until we got an extension on our chemistry lab due date. So this thanksgiving, I’m grateful for all the books that helped me slowly ease open those floodgates. Y’all are rad.
The Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne
The first full-length non-picture book I’ve ever read in English was Magic Tree House #12: Polar Bears Past Bedtime. I loved the adventure and magic and began slowly moving through the whole series. Each book brought a little more ease. The author is still cranking out new ones, I believe, but I’ve long since stopped reading them. Thanks, Mrs. Osborn. My favorite installment would have to be Christmas in Camelot.
The Secrets of Droon Series by Tony Abbott Tony Abbott was my favorite author in fifth grade. I obsessively read every single installment of The Secrets of Droon series, about three friends who discovered the entrance to a magical world in a closet. The magic, the adventure, the secrets, the ever-continuing webs of stories… I felt like this series was written for me, and it cultivated my love for reading. Abbott’s mystery novel, The Postcard, is about a boy who discovers hidden stories about his grandparents’ history through clues on postcards left by an unknown person. It still intrigues me to this day with its adventure, suspense and hardboiled detective novel feel. Thanks, Mr. Abbott. You’re the best.
Captain Underpants Series by Dav Pilkey These books were responsible for shaping my personality. They’re about a school principal who turns into a superhero in underpants and fights against evil toilets. Enough said. They touched me on a personal level; they were perfect. Thanks, Mr. Pilkey. I hope you know you’re the reason why I turned out this way.
Daniel Pinkwater (author)
This is an author whom I’m not sure if everybody had read when they were young. If not, they should have. He has a brilliant, quirky, unique, deadpan sense of humor. One of his books, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, is about a boy who couldn’t pick up a turkey for Thanksgiving so he brought home a giant, 266-pound live chicken. Fat Men in Space is about fat men in space. The Neddiad, my favorite Pinkwater book, is about a boy who moved to Hollywood in the 1940s and picked up a sacred stone turtle along the way. The turtle has magical powers and a evil man wants to use it to destroy the world. It’s a fun, magical, immersive adventure filled with Pinkwater’s indescribable brand of quirk and humor. The sequel, The Yggyssey, is just as amazing. Thanks, Mr. Pinkwater. You opened me up to the endless possibilities in humor and writing.