Today is a special day for anyone who loves children’s books.
It’s my birthday!
I mean, it is my birthday too, but the real reason for celebration is that October 13 is the publication day for EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK : LIFE LESSONS FROM NOTABLE PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE, a stunning new volume edited by Anita Silvey.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Anita Silvey is a friend and I have worked “behind the scenes” on many of her books. Formerly the editor of Horn Book Magazine and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books, Ms. Silvey is one of the bright lights -- perhaps the brightest light -- in the field of children’s literature. She has been a great source of information and inspiration to me since I first worked with her over a decade ago, contributing biographical and critical essays to her volume CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS -- an indispensible source for anyone interested in kids’ books and the people who write them. Since that time, I’ve contributed to THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS, done background research for her publications 100 BEST BOOKS FOR CHILDREN and 500 GREAT BOOKS FOR TEENS (two more volumes that should be on everybody’s bookshelf) and even contributed a short story to her anthology HELP WANTED : SHORT STORIES ABOUT YOUNG PEOPLE WORKING.
A couple years ago Ms. Silvey asked if I would help her do some research for a new project -- a volume in which notable individuals would discuss their favorite childhood book and explain how it had impacted their lives. I did the best I could to track down sources of information as well as find addresses for famous folk, but the material was difficult to obtain and I felt bad that my input to this project was somewhat limited.
So I was very pleased and humbled when I received a copy of the finished book in the mail with this wonderful inscription:
How’s that for a birthday present?
But even without the inscription, this would be a book I’d treasure.
An oversized volume, EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK is beautifully-designed and graphically appealing. Divided into six sections -- Inspiration, Understanding, Principles & Precepts, Vocation, Motivation, and Storytelling -- each double-page spread contains first-person commentary from an author, actor, athlete or other notable explaining the importance of a particular children’s book in his or her life. A sidebar provides background information on the book, while the opposing page contains an excerpt of the text, which frequently features an illustration.
Reading the personal essays, it’ s fascinating to note how often a children’s book kindled a young person’s future career aspirations. Oceanographer Robert Ballard recalls his favorite book TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne. Steve Wozniak was inspired by Tom Swift’s ability to invent. William C. DeVries, who performed the first successful artificial heart transplant, has vivid memories of the Tin Woodsman in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ pleading, “I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me a heart.”
Other young readers drew life lessons from their favorite books. TV executive Les Moonves learned about curiosity from Babar. Tiki Barber, Donna Shalala, and Edward Villella were inspired by the determination of the Little Engine that Could. Perri Klass cites Harriet the Spy for teaching the value of observation.
Still others report on the titles that first taught them the simple pleasure of reading. For coach Rick Reilly, it was the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobel. For Roger Ebert, it was THE SATURDAYS and other books about the Melendy family by Elizabeth Enright.
EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK is the type of volume you can browse through, dipping into an entry here and there -- or you can read from cover to cover. It’s the type of book that gets you thinking of the children’s titles that changed your own life, and asking friends about the books that shaped their lives. I think many of us will find ourselves nodding in agreement with this statement from Lynda Johnson Robb: “Children’s books stabilize me; they are my roots; they help me in times of stress. They help me connect happy memories, to those I love, to the generations in my family. They provide comfort.” And I like Anita Silvey’s own conclusion that, “When we give children books, we become part of their future, part of their most cherished memories, and part of their entire lives."
That’s something to consider as the holiday gift-giving season approaches.
And how about getting a copy of EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK for yourself while you’re at it? Then set it out on your coffee table when guests come over and listen to the conversation that flows when people start recalling their childhood favorites...the books that they've never forgotten...the books that changed their lives.