Joanne Jacobs graduated from Stanford in 1974 with a degree in English and Creative Writing. In 2001, she left the San Jose Mercury News, where she'd been an editorial writer and op-ed columnist, to write Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Great Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds, about a school that prepares Mexican-American students to succeed in college. Joanne blogs on education at joannejacobs.com. Here she writes about her reading life.
Joanne Jacobs on books and wardrobes
When I was a child, children were limited to five books at a time at the library. I'd check out five and my sister Peggy, who's one year older, would check out five; we'd read all 10 and return them in two weeks for another 10.
By fifth grade, I'd also read every fiction book in the elementary school library, except for the sports and science fiction books that were considered boys' books. There was nothing for it but to read the sports books: John Tunis is excellent! Then I read the sci fi.
Our favorite books were the Narnia series, especially The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It had the essentials: children free of parental supervision, a magic world with rules all its own, adventure.
We'd been reading and acting out Narnia stories for years before my sister said she thought the book might be a Christian allegory. Being Jewish - or maybe just being in it for the adventure - that hadn't occurred to us. Aslan dying for Edmund's sins... Hmmm. Yes.
What I liked most was the idea of the wardrobe, the door to Narnia. Anything, however mundane, could be the portal to another world. But it only happens when you don't expect it. We kept going around trying to not expect to be transported. And we never were.
I read other fantasy books. I loved Edward Eager's Half Magic, which is funny, and Seven Day Magic, which is a perfect book for avid readers.
Edith Nesbit's books, such as The Five Children and It and The Wouldbegoods, are great too. The kids roam around the countryside for the whole summer with almost no adult attention.
I loved The Lord of the Rings because of Tolkien's linguistic inventiveness, the quest and the sheer length of the thing. Once I enter a new world, I want to stay there for a while.
A mid-baby boomer, I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, the sort of place people move to 'for the sake of the children'. Like my friends, I was raised by two parents, one male and one female, who were married to each other. It was a very secure life. And kind of boring.
So I never read books about suburban girls. I preferred Horatio Hornblower or Captain Blood, the Three Musketeers and Huck Finn.
I also read 132 'little orange books' in the Childhood of Famous Americans series, including a biography of William Henry Harrison ('Young Tippecanoe') and another on Henry Clay ('Mill Boy of the Slashes'). Every single person's future was foreshadowed by their youth, as it turned out.
When I was in sixth grade, I received a late notice from the library for books I'd never checked out. My sister admitted she'd borrowed my library card and forgotten to return the books. I was furious. 'You ruined my good name with the library!' I said. She said she'd pay the fine. I was not appeased. 'I've never returned a book late! You put a black mark on my record!' She promised to explain to the librarian that it was Peggy Jacobs, not Joanne Jacobs, who had checked out the books and returned them late. I stood behind her as she returned the books to make sure she cleared my name. She fulfilled her promise. I noted a quizzical expression on the librarian's face. Perhaps, I thought, the librarian didn't care about my perfect book-returning record.
Now I read a hodgepodge of books: mysteries, historical fiction and spy novels. Periodically, I go on a classic fiction jag. I'll decide to read Dickens (avoid Barnaby Rudge), Dostoevsky or Faulkner till I'm burned out. Then I'll go back to light reading for awhile.
I don't read much modern fiction. Plots seem to be passé these days. Things happen for a while and then the book's over. Characters are dull. Or they're picaresque. I hate picaresque.
When my daughter was in school, she devoured contemporary problem books. The main character, a suburban girl or boy, was dyslexic. Or the new kid in school was homeless. Or the main character's brother was going to run away from home, use drugs, get a girl pregnant or die of cancer. Kids in these books don't have adventures. They have problems, which are solved when they appeal to a parent or teacher. Boring! No wonder kids don't read. The books they encounter aren't taking them to a new, exciting world where they can have adventures on their own. Kids don't need to read about their own boring, dyslexic lives. They need magic wardrobes.