First Grade, State Street School. My mother put on her lipstick and headed out to parent teacher night to meet Mrs. Phillips.
“Don’t forget the bookfair,” I said.
I wanted one of the textbooks, Bright Horizons? Up and Away? Could someone really own a book that grand? But what other kinds of books would a school sell? Imagine being able to play school with my dolls (all of whose heads I’d shorn, imitating my sister Jeanne’s homework assignments from beauty school), my blue and orange stuffed cats with the jewel eyes, and my polka dotted clown, lined up on the sofa as I hoisted that impressive volume and read aloud to them!
Our house sat at the end of a long laneway. From my parents’ bedroom, I could watch for the headlights as cars turned off Franklin Street. Patiently, not so patiently, I waited for my mother. By the time she walked in, I had sprinted into the back entry to meet her.
The book she held out to me was far too small, too insubstantial a thing to be the answer to my prayers.
“What’s this?” I said. I had a temper. I was trying not to use it.
“Mrs. Phillips thought you would like this one. Besides, they don’t sell the ones you use in class. She said that would be against the law.”
My friend Jackie’s mother told us if we swallowed gum our bums would stick together. My own mother told me smoking would stunt my growth even though I never saw my Aunt Nancy without a cigarette and she was taller than my father. My cousin Kathy told me if you walked through a car’s exhaust, you would disappear. Sometimes, people said stuff just to scare you. (Sometimes, it worked).
I tossed the flimsy thing on my dresser, climbed into bed scowling. What kind of a mother let a teacher talk her out of what her kid really wanted? What kind of a writer called his book something as stupid as Charlotte’s Web?
Because my mother finally took Charlotte’s Web away from me (“You need to read something else,” she said, though I didn’t (still don’t) understand why), I had no choice but to start foraging for more material. In the face of the kind of friendship Wilbur and Charlotte possessed, basal readers lost their appeal. I loved that book because I believed it. That story was as true as any article I read in our Encyclopedia Brittanica. More so because it was hard to imagine something as homely as a frog could have such colorful innards, but a spider who saves your life with the help of a rat? How could that not become a kind of religion?
I thought I’d never find another book like it, but then I read chapter one of A Day No Pigs Would Die where a boy chases a prize Holstein through a briar patch and helps deliver her twin bulls. I thought our cows were the only ones stupid enough to labor amidst a patch of thorns, and that, aside from me and my brother and sisters, no other kid had seen anything like those pearly hooves poking out of the cow’s rear end, the way the muzzle emerged, nostrils quivering, eyes blinking before the calf was fully out into the world.
This is what I learned from E.B. White and Robert Newton Peck: Anything can become a story. Even unbelievably magical things. Even the kinds of things that happened to me.