On November 5, 1920, a fifty-three-year-old Wilder wrote in the Missouri Ruralist, “It doesn’t occupy our brains to peel potatoes … Our bodies learn to do the everyday tasks without much head-work, leaving our minds free to pass thru these windows and follow the fascinating ways that lead from them.” Wilder’s window was not in the kitchen of Rocky Ridge Farm, her home in Missouri, but in her mind. On this day, she floated out of it into “Shakespeare’s country,” lovingly describing the poet’s sixteenth-century England for the newspaper’s Midwest readership. It is no surprise that Wilder read Shakespeare; Western writing flows out of him like water from a deep well.
In How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, playwright Ken Ludwig celebrates the power parents have to introduce their children to literature. Ludwig’s investment in the cause is personal; when his daughter was in the first grade, he decided that “if there was any skill—any single area of learning and culture—that I could impart to her while we were both healthy and happy and able to share things together in a calm, focused, pre-teen way, then Shakespeare was it.”
Nowadays, it is accepted wisdom that Greene (and my mother) were onto something. One 2008 study confirms what Laura Bush and the rest of us already know—that children who are read aloud to have earlier language and literacy skills, becoming more likely to pick up a book down the road. In his autobiography, Salman Rushdie recalled his father reading him The Thousand and One Nights. Toni Morrison’s fiction also draws from the folktales her father told her. Did Shakespeare himself read to his children? We might have known, but his daughter died before the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon ever followed through on plans to interview her. We do know that he lived in London most of his life, seeing his family in the countryside only once a year.
It was Wilder, not Shakespeare, who informed my worldview. As a child, she urged me not to settle for the known world but to chase my own frontiers. The deeper lessons exemplified by the Ingalls about the importance of kinfolk only sunk in later, after I had left home for college in the Ozarks—Wilder’s own strange country—and found myself on my own. I think they are what my mother, who immigrated from Brazil to the United States in the early ‘80s, first saw in the books, and why she wanted to share them with my sister and me. It’s why she named me Laura.
from “Little House on Avon” by Laura C. Mellonnee from The Paris Review
a few notes
I don’t often come across pieces written about the Ozarks on The Paris Review‘s site. I lived in southern Missouri for twelve years–eight in the small town of Mountain Grove, four in Springfield, the Ozarks’ most metropolitan point–but if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll say Kansas City instead of those Ozark mountains, the geographical space I reluctantly called home in my formative childhood years.
When I think about the socioeconomic trap of the small town Ozarks (that is, the cyclical family system–kid born into poverty, educated in a school system that reinforces ideas that keep them poor instead of teaching substance and critical thought, high schoolers have no goals beyond marrying the hottest football player/cheerleader, twenty-somethings are divorced with kids, adults cooking meth to try and pay for their own addiction, whatever it might be, etc), and, to top it off, my own alienation from the natives thanks to my position as a child of European immigrants, I wonder why anyone would choose to move there. (RE Mellonee’s piece: Those kids are almost never taught to read by their parents. Maybe that’s part of the problem.)
Watching my middle school friends play out this cycle on Facebook is disheartening, but when the crumbling social relations are juxtaposed against the natural space of the Ozark mountains, the dynamic suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Every season entertains the senses; I remember, for instance, playing soccer in the backyard amongst the fireflies’ pulsing light and cicadas’ blaring hum in the heavy heat of the summer night, and inhaling the fresh smell of post-rain upon leaves of red and gold and orange that arch over you on a fall hike. What a strange backdrop for the poverty of the people who live within it. Humans and physical space. It just doesn’t fit.
…and a few more thoughts before I sign off, on the subjects of early reading
I’m currently in the process of organizing my books in my apartment (did I mention that I moved in three weeks ago?) I’m useless at this chore–I keep reading the novels and poetry and theory before it gets a chance to go from the floor of my living room to my bedroom. I sort of live in books, and I always have. This goes for Animorphs and The Babysitters’ Club books during my first-grade I-want-to-be-a-cool-teenager stage too as much as it does Junot Diaz or Tom Stoppard, by the way.
I teach kids who have dyslexia, and many of them hate reading. It’s understandable. They are embarrassed when teachers call on them to read out loud before their normal school classes, and they are frustrated when a word like “black” registers as “back,” and they can’t tell why by no fault of their own. I’m teaching them how to read, but equally as important, I so, so desperately want to teach them to love to read. I’m not sure how, so for now, I just give them my enthusiasm.