You have to understand how it was, though. Books -- fiction books -- were for me the rarest gold. I grew up without fairytales, without science fiction (with the notable exception of the original Star Trek reruns on TV. When we were allowed to watch TV.), and certainly without a concept of fiction directed towards my age group. Unless it was a Reader's Digest Condensed Book, or a sort of Guidepost/Chicken Soup/missionary story, I had to find it at school. Of course, at school, there was tons of great non-fiction (Molly Pitcher: Girl Patriot,
copyright 1952 was a favorite), but I never had as much time for curling up and reading plain old stories - wildly fictional, partially true, entirely ridiculous - as I wanted. So, it was with considerable jealousy that I regarded my cousin, Dee Dee.
Three years younger than me, and the girl had everything. I remember it was at a family function -- there were radio-controlled cars, lots of relatives talking and laughing, and the kids all underfoot. I was bored, and eeled my way under a low closet rail in my cousin's gaping closet, where I sat, hidden, and cranky. I looked around at the surfeit of ...frippery that had exploded everywhere, and I found, on the floor, bent and discarded, a paperback book.
It was short. It had a yellowy-greenish sticker on it, which I ignored, and the cover had a picture of a girl, and a little boy, and a massive bird which arched up like a bridge behind them. I opened to the first page, and read.
Somewhere in West Virginia, there was a girl with orange sneakers who hated her ugly this-is-what-we-can-afford shoes, and thought her dad hated her: just like me. I was almost ten.
I considered stealing that book. My father bellowed up the stairs for me, and I had only read the first few chapters. Sara Godfrey's hair wasn't looking good, but something worse was going on -- Charlie thought he'd heard the swans, and had left the house to go after them. Charlie was "retarded," which is the word the book used. I was worried sick, and it was time to go. Indecision! I stood with the book in my hand, and my cousin bounced in.
"Is this your book?" I asked her faintly, trying to summon a feeling of apology.
"Oh, Mom bought that. You want it? You can have it," she said with the cheerful disregard of someone whose mother bought them books all the time. (This is not to say my mother did not. We just didn't have money for books. We went to the library, and were steered toward non-fiction... and Snoopy, God bless him. I think I've read every Peanuts book that exists.)
I probably should have double-checked with an adult, but that wasn't going to happen. I tucked it under my shirt, into my waistband, crossed my arms, and went home. I fell in love with Betsy Byars and The Summer of the Swans. I read that paperback until it disintegrated.
"A picture came into her mind of the laughing, curly-headed man with the broken tooth in the photograph album, and she suddenly saw life as a series of huge, uneven steps, and she saw herself on the steps, standing motionless in her prison shirt, and she had just taken an enormous step up out of the shadows, and she was standing, waiting, and there were other steps in front of her, so that she could go as high as the sky, and she saw Charlie on a flight of small difficult steps, and her father down at the bottom of some steps, just sitting and not trying to go further. She saw everyone she knew on those blinding white steps, and for a moment everything was clearer than it had ever been."
The Newberry Project describes the book's illustrations and references as a little dated, but the story itself as "timeless." And yes - that yellowy green "sticker" was the Newberry Medal, which I disregarded entirely. This book was the very first YA novel I ever read -- and there were many years after in which I dutifully read what well-meaning and ennobling, character-building, intelligence-expanding, and perfectly good nonfiction that was put before me (and it was perfectly good, and I enjoyed it... but you always want what you are told you can't have, don't you?), but this was -- the first feast that led to me sniffing after other book crumbs, other 'truths' that existed devoid of the rigid structure of fact.
What was your first? Do you remember?
Stay tuned for more Wicked Cool Overlooked Books (now with zombies and hillbillies!) around the kidlitosphere!