Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Woman Who Helped Author Me: An Interview with My Mother

As I’ve been cleaning out the house and packing up for my husband’s and my move to Spokane, I ran across the first book I “wrote”, in 1984. It is palm-size, stapled, and page after page of letters, letter after letter--top to bottom.  Mostly Ks because I must have just learned that one. It is the first of several homemade books I made as a child—several of the books my mother “translates”, which she would do in letters she wrote to her mother (she and her mother wrote each other a letter every week). 

I would scrawl, telling mother what the scrawls meant, and she would write the words under the scrawls.  Something similar to when I was learning piano before I began lessons, and she would write the names of the notes beneath them so I could play the sheet music.  Something also similar to when I learned cursive—making her teach me because I didn’t want to wait until second grade, and so for a while, each day that we (my father, my mother, and I) went to the diner for coffee, she would write words in cursive, and I would copy them.  I would get in trouble in first grade for writing in cursive on my spelling test because I wasn’t following directions, and I shouldn’t have known how to write like that yet.

She read to me most every night before bed.  Grandpa in Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Ozma of Oz, Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, Ramona the Pest, book after book from the library.  Mole and Troll, Frog and Toad, any book by Maurice Sendak.  On and on, books and books.  And she would always make the voices. (I always liked how, before she was done reading a page, she'd slip her hand beneath it ready to turn it so she wouldn't miss a beat.)

During my mother’s visit, we take time during our coffee so that I can interview her.  I get the idea mainly because I'm currently chatting online at Goodreads, and I can never think of what to say in online chats--how to get them started, how to make them interesting for readers, and it had occurred to me that my mother would be here during one of the two weeks I'm chatting online, and so I thought as part of the chat, she could answer reader questions.  And so, although no one has yet asked her a question, I decided to write up some questions myself, quickly realizing that I didn't know any of the answers.  

A brief bio: 
My mother was born in 1939 and grew up in Indiana. She will turn seventy-one next month.  She has her college and Masters degrees in Elementary Education and has taught in elementary schools for "thirty-plus years". Also, she likes to read, which is the main subject of this interview since I’m a writer, and it seems I should try to keep this blog as thematically focused as possible.

We are in San Marcos, Texas, sitting outside the coffee shop where I penned most of The Floating Order.  It is hot, but my mother says no to my offer of going inside.  She says she has been waiting for this kind of weather for a long time.  My mother says I have to wait for her to finish copying a scripture into her notebook before we can begin (in July, she is going to Liberia to teach in a literacy program; she asked members of her church to tell her their favorite scriptures so that she can read over them each day while she is gone).  One thing then the next, that’s my mother.

What is your earliest memory of your mother reading to you?
I remember us all sitting on the sofa together.  Not just me—my sister and my brother.  And I think she was reading us The Honeybunch classics.  Every night she would read us a part of that book.  I was four or five.  It’s interesting that you didn’t ask if my father read to me—he didn’t.  I never had a man read to me.

Did your parents read?
Yes!  They took a book to bed with them to read every night.  Avid readers, avid readers.

I remember your mom reading mainly thick, hardback mysteries.  Was that what she read when you were a kid? 
I don’t know.  Sometimes she’d read a book more than once, but when she got older, old as me, she’d make lists so she wouldn’t read a book more than once.  I know she read Harry Truman’s wife or daughter, I remember her reading those books.  Mother wasn’t a jabberbox, she didn’t tell you everything, so I don’t remember what she read.  She was very reserved.  She didn’t say things like, I really enjoyed that book.  We didn’t have, for example, book discussions around the supper table.

I know your father wrote letters to your mother during WWII.  Did your mother have you include notes in your letters to him?
Well, there was a special V-mail.  I don’t know what it stood for.  They took a picture of them [the letters], and you got a negative of it, and it had been reduced in size.  But, yes, we wrote to Dad.  I don’t know if it was one letter included in Mother’s or if she’d just write what we said.  But he would respond to what we had said in her letter.  I was five or six.

When did you learn to read?  What did you learn to read on?
The Dick and Jane series.  I don’t remember using phonics to learn to read.  We learned it in first grade because I was six.  I remember the big book the teacher had.  I remember her telling us the difference between how and now.  The h and the n.  That’s all I remember her telling us. I don’t remember if we brought our books home to practice on.  That’s still during WWII, you know.  There were like thirty kids to a classroom.  And that was all the way through grade school—those poor teachers!

What excited you more—learning to read or learning to write?
Photograph of Carol Ryan Pringle as a child in Evansville, Indiana 1940s
I don’t remember learning to write.  You’re assuming I was excited to learn to read.  It was just part of what you learned.  I remember in second grade being bored.  Because everyone read together, and the slow readers took longer.  I know I sighed.  First grade you learned to read, second grade you learned to tell time, third grade you learned cursive.  You knew what you would learn.  No, fourth grade we learned cursive.  I was impressed by that.  But we had ink pots.  You couldn’t control the ink.  Big blobs.  That was before ball-point pens were invented, apparently.

Did your elementary school teachers read aloud to you?
Oh. . .  yes.  I especially remember fifth grade because she was so good at read-aloud stories.  To this day, I still wonder what one of the books was.  One of the characters had a lisp and she would read it that way.

Were the books in the boxes in Grandmother’s attics ones that you read?  Like the Bobsy Twins?  Where did she buy them?  Was there a bookstore near your house?
No bookstores, no.  I think Grandma ordered the books, but I don’t know where she ordered them from.  I know she ordered The Child’s Book of Knowledge.  And that’s where I felt so badly because I always thought everyone else was more prepared than we were. I couldn’t go to The Child’s Book of Knowledge to make any report because it didn’t have in it what I thought was in the reports by the other children. 

It seems like on radio—this was before TV days—people read stories to you.  You could buy records.  Margaret O’Brien—that’s where I heard “The Bremen Town musicians”.  On a ’78 [record].  We must have bought records.  I remember the day we bought a record player because Dad said we were going in to town to see a movie, but we went to get a record player, and I was so mad because I wanted to see the movie. 

And the movies, they had—I don’t know what kind of movies you’d call  them—in the summer time, every week you could go to the movie and it was a classic book on film, and I thought that was wonderful.  We were being better educated than I realized.  They were entertaining, I don’t know if we realized they were classics.  Like Tom Sawyer, I’m sure there were others, but I can’t remember the titles.

What did you like about the city library where you went as a child?  Could you walk to it, or was it a special trip by car?
Yeah, we could walk to it, about six blocks.  It was a regular occasion.  You never had your books overdue, that was a no-no.  So every two weeks, and it was special to be with mother.  It wasn’t a place where you could have conversation—not like today’s libraries.  You were always told to shhh, be quiet. 

I remember the librarians being mean, except one, which wasn’t conducive to wanting to go to the library.  They had these things you could look through and you could see a picture from two sides.  There was a slide.  Before view masters came.  That was an extra perk of going to the library, what you’d do while Mother looked for her books.  There weren’t many books in the children’s section of the library.

Did you like reading out loud when you were in elementary school?
Yes, because there was a time—this was in fifth grade, this is why I loved fifth grade—opportunities just came for us.  We read to the lower grades.  I owned probably three books.  My favorite book I took and read.  I knew which ones were my sisters—hers were the Raggedy Ann stories.  My brother won all kinds of books in a drawing contest, and I thought that was wonderful, like he’d hit the jackpot. The books just kept coming.  We went to the library every week, and I really wasn’t that much of a reader.  I don’t know if it was because I couldn’t see so well [Mom got glasses when she was three].  There was a summer reading program.  If you read the book then gave librarian book reports, we got to go to Lincoln City.

What fairy tale did you like the most and why?
I liked “Rapunzel” because she had long hair and I never did.  I was tender-headed.  It hurt to have it brushed or combed.  Did I like “Cinderella”?  “Snow White”.  Definitely I liked “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.  “Three Billy Goats Gruff”.  That fascinated me—that was almost like birth order.  I was the middle child.  It made me feel safe because the oldest goat goes first and so I knew the ogre wouldn’t get me because I knew he was there.  And “Little Red Riding Hood”, that was a prominent one.  I remember reading it over and over.  And see, I didn’t mind the different versions—especially the ones that Grandma was safe, where the hunter came and saved everybody. Oh, and “Three Little Pigs”. I liked that one.  I liked the building process, the different ways they built the houses.  They were clever.  The ways they thought to outwit the bad guy.  They used their head to solve problems.  That still appeals to me.

Were you in spelling bees?
Yes, fifth grade.  Did I win? No.  You know what word I missed?  Weird.  I spelled it w-i-e-r-d, and I never misspelled it again in my life. 

My teacher made everyone feel like they were smarter than all get-out, made them all feel special.  We got new desks that year, they were blondish wood, and you could raise the lids.  She went on all year about how well we needed to treat these desks, and we’d have special days to wax the desks, and she made us feel that way too, special.

How did you find books to read to your third-grade students?
Well, Scholastic Books always had these things you could send home and they’d buy them.  We had a library at school—not a very extensive one.  I had taken the course in Children’s Literature in undergraduate school so I knew what quality books to read to them.  For me, it was more the authors.  Like E.B. White, Beverly Clearly—still to this day.  C.W. Anderson who wrote Blaze books, they’re still around to this day.  I don’t know if other teachers, probably other teachers mentioned books they thought were good, or the special reading teachers would mention them.

One of Mom's teacher photos
What were your favorite books to teach as a teacher and why?
I didn’t teach them. I just read them to them.  I always thought, whatever reading series we were reading from. . . I thought there were some good stories in them but all the questions in them messed up the literary. . . it didn’t create a desire to read—all the questions we had to from the teacher’s manual.  I know why we had to ask them, but it didn’t create a love for reading any more than AR [Accelerated Reader] does, but I don’t think that was ever the aim.  Reading comprehension was.

I know you and your class wrote E.B. White one year as part of your Charlotte’s Web unit.  How did your students respond to receiving a reply, and what made you think to write him?
We had just read Charlotte’s Web—I read it every year except the last page, I couldn’t read that without crying so I’d hand that over for someone else to read it to them.  We’d dress up like Charlotte or Wilbur.  I don’t know how we decided to write him. I just wrote letters to people. I didn’t expect a reply.  They were excited that he wrote back.  I thought it was wonderful, that it was teaching them that authors were real people and did ordinary things like write back when people wrote to them.

Do you think there’s a certain age when parents should start reading to their children?
Yes.  Probably six or seven months old so they can hear the rhythm of the language.  And that’s where language develops.  This produces imagination, hearing the beauty of the language.  Even the rhyming of it.  That all leads up to good reading skills—it’s a predictor of later-reading skills, their ability to handle the language as they hear it.

Do you think a children’s book has to have a happy ending?
No, but I think it needs to teach something, and I think it needs to relate to something in their lives or their imaginations.

What elements do you think make a good children’s book?
Conversation among the characters, an interesting setting, universal things that happen to children like in Where the Wild Things Are where Max gets sent to his room without any supper because he has been bad.  A plot that makes them think how the characters will solve the problem.

What do you think a student gains from writing a book report that he or she doesn’t gain from reading programs like Accelerated Reader that have students answer multiple-choice questions?
I don’t know.  Book report is almost a dirty word.  It’s painful for them.  Ideally, it would make them think about what appealed to them in the story and how the character worked through whatever the problem was.  –Whereas, the AR is really superficial, low-brain thinking. It’s not an evaluation of anything, it’s just what they remember from the facts they read.  You don’t have to have any empathy for the characters to read an AR book.  From the child’s perspective, they’re probably only doing it so they can meet the requirement and go to a party at the end of the quarter—and eat pizza or popcorn or watch a movie.  That’s how AR is set up, that’s the big reward. 

On the other hand, the kids who didn’t make the goal, they have to go to some other room while everyone else goes to the party, which is almost a punishment.  There are realistic goals. It’s not that the goals were too high, but that will never teach them to enjoy reading.  By fifth grade, it’s almost impossible to administer the program honestly and motivationally.  They just seem to lose interest, although there are some good books up there, but there must be another way to motivate them to read those good books.  Maybe they are all worn out from being pushed every year previously.  It [the program] starts in kindergarten.

What do you think causes children not to like to read?
It’s not modeled for them at home.  They probably don’t see the connection between the books and their lives, and feeling forced to read when they don’t want to rather than inspired to read. I think it’s who comes into their lives at a crucial point to make that happen.

[She then relates a story about a child who grew significantly in his reading from kindergarten to second-grade, how exciting it was watching him grow—how she thinks he’ll always be a reader now.  Her face is bright as she tells the story, her hands gesturing, talking through a smile]

Why do you think children make fun of children who like to read? 
I was just thinking that what is valued in our culture is sports, and so they spend their lives practicing sports at the expense of spending time reading.  Maybe it’s a stereotype of especially boys being nerds if they read. I haven’t heard other kids put down kids for not reading, but there’s a lot adults don’t hear of what kids are saying to each other.  I don’t know if it’s a popularity thing or not.  I’ll stop there.

Photograph of Carol Pringle teaching literacy in Liberia, Africa 2010
Mom teaching in Liberia, July 2010
In thinking about the thirty years you’ve been in elementary school education as an educator, have you noticed any changes in children as readers?
I don’t know the answer to that, but there’s a lot more distractions today in a child’s life, starting with TV that could pull them away from loving to read.  We’re not talking about skills here, just the loving to read. 

On the other hand, children’s literature has exploded, so I think more children own books, so I don’t think we have a poverty of books in the home that I know of.

I think we know more about children and child’s development that we know more about what books can match to age.  I’m a little bit bothered by videos of children’s books.  I don’t know if it leads them to read books or stunts their imagination that reading the book would give them.  We know more about dyslexia and things like that to know how to teach.

 It doesn’t matter if you’re a good reader if you don’t read.

I’ve often heard you complain about bathroom humor in children’s books—what other aspects of content in children’s books do you not welcome?
Have I?  That’s just where they are developmentally, I’m sure.  It’s just one of those repressed things society makes jokes about.

Sometimes when I’d be reading in third-grade, and there’d be content about beer parties and things like.  Not that they don’t know about them.  I just think society puts a bunch of stuff on children that doesn’t allow them to be children for very long.  Far more from TV than books.  And swearing.  I’m talking elementary-level.  I just don’t think it’s appropriate.  I remember even in eighth-grade, we could choose our own books to read.  I think we had it in our home, and that’s why I chose it: Showboat, and I came to the word “damn”.  I was shocked that it was there and then felt so guilty.  Does my teacher know this word is in this book?  I felt assaulted by the book, and it’s not that I hadn’t heard swearing in my life—Dad swore all the time.  So, I’m saying, beer parties in third-grade books?

I realized one positive aspect of the AR program is that children recommend books to each other.  I see the pattern of what books are read and what are not.  Like those Boxcar books are read a lot and the Bill Wallace books. 

Why do you think reading is important?  Do you think reading is less or more important as an adult, or what exactly do you think?
I believe reading is just as, if no more so, important as an adult.  To be challenged and aware about life.   There’s just so much more to learn, and it’s usually by reading.  It’s like people are back to living in the here-and-now.  What’s the conversation at a coffee shop?  It’s the weather, last night’s news, news around town, and politics, rather than what’s the latest book you’ve read, how can we improve our community more by this or that.  People are just tired and stressed these days, but they don’t look to a book to relieve any of that.  I hate to generalize.  I can think of others who are teaching their children, taking them to the library, teaching them how to be socially-integrated, but think how much time is spent on a cell phone.  That is not an intellectual hobby.  I think books connect people to each other, especially when you’re reading the same thing.  There are book clubs. 

I think reading is important as an adult because you’re still looking for the truth, the truth of life, and I think books can do that.  Even when we don’t know, when we have questions our mind are working on, and when we see that in print, it’s a huge relief, like “Oh, yeah!” There it is, the solution right there on the page.  It helps you know about your inner world.

What were the last four books you read?
Cover of Three Cups of Tea by Greg MortensonThree Cups of Tea—that was a non-fiction about a guy who was a mountain-climber originally and was trying for the top of K2, and so at the point he was supposed to go to the summit the next day, someone in the group got sick, and he chose to take them back to base camp, so he missed his chance to get to the top.  However, he had a heart for the poor and the children of India, Afghanistan, especially those, and so he said to these people, When I come back from America, I’m going to build you schools for children, and he had no idea how, how he’d fund it or anything.    

I’ve been reading this collection of short stories, Hemingway and Chehkov and Fitzgerald and . . .  [Shirley Jackson, I remind her, as she told me earlier that she had read "The Lottery".  She says, Will they know who I'm talking about?  Yes, I say.  Okay, she says,  And Jackson.]

Over your life, who have your favorite writers been?  I already know Maeve Binchy and you liked Erma Bombeck.
Those [Bombeck’s books] were light-hearted.  Eugenia Price.  A woman who wrote Amish books.  I want to say Matthews but I don’t think that’s right.  Catherine Cookson.  My authors are dying off, you know.  Who was that who wrote The Thorn Birds?  That must mean I like female authors.  It never occurred to me.  I guess I do, I do.  That’s interesting.  Oh, the one that wrote about the Episcopal priest, a whole series.  I read that last summer.  I can see where they were in the library.   

Do you read books that people recommend to you?
Cover of The House at Sugar Beach by Helene CooperNobody recommends any to me.  [I remind her that I recommended Carol Shields to her, that she then read all Shields’ books.  Oh, yes, she says.] Mother and I had pretty similar taste.  Robin Cook.  Yeah, I do.  I ordered a lot of Liberian books [she’s going to Liberia in July]. Sirleaf, this woman [writer].  Sugar Beach, how it was during the war when the rebels took over.  I read a lot of those Liberian war stories.

Oh, and I read a lot of religious books, too, you know.  Philip Yancey.  And then Beuchner.  Those are my favorite Christian authors.  I don’t do well with C.S. Lewis.  He’s beyond me.

Has your mother’s side of the family always sent books to each other after they read them—why do you think that started?
I remember it was either a birthday or Christmas, I was very disappointed as a child that my Grandfather gave me the book Winnie the Pooh.  I wasn’t interested in it.  I didn’t think it was a good present. I don’t know what I wanted.

I have sent books to my aunt that I thought she would like, like Beverly Cleary’s autobiography because it was in the era my aunt grew up in.

So, how did it start?  I don’t know.  Did you know your great-grandmother was a teacher?  I don’t know if she was a reader or not.

It just started because people shared everything, and we were far enough away from each other that if we wanted to share, you either mentioned it so they’d get it at their library, or you sent the actual book, but that wasn’t until adulthood.

You know your great-aunt was a librarian.

I know you have a wish-list, but I never check it.  What books are on it right now?
Mostly the Christian books.  Nouwen. I have a lot of his books on there.  After we went to North Carolina and all those places, I  think I have more Eugenia Price on there.  [We had gone to Eugenia Price’s living and burial place, Saint Simon’s Island.] One book by someone about his aunt’s mental illness. He was being interviewed on NPR about his book, and it hadn’t been published yet so I put that on the list.  I’ll probably get that this year.  About how his aunt was treated—her mental illness—in her day.

I think I remember you reading the ends of books when you were still in the early part—why did you do that and do you still do that?
I just started doing it as an adult because I’d get too anxious about how it was going to end, so I couldn’t even concentrate on what I was reading.  So, I’d check, and then I could be calm and read it to the end.

What book would you say is your favorite book and is that the same as the book you care about most? 
Cover of The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. WhiteI think it’s Charlotte’s Web.  I know it is.  I still quote from it.  It’s a book I would give to children. I also like his book, The Trumpet of the Swan.  You know he was not originally a children’s  author.  He’s the one I wrote a report on in graduate school.

What was the first book you read to me?

One of the first books was just where you identified objects, a Richard Scarry book.  Here’s the grocery, where’s the squash.  Someone had given it to me for my birthday.  But, "The Three Bears".  Oh, man, we used to go to the library and get four at a time, but that wasn’t one of the first ones I read.  I guess they were fairy tales I read to you.

Why did you let me read whatever I wanted?
I didn’t know that I did.  Well, I would think that if you thought it was good it appealed to you.  Some of the books I got you were discarded.  I remember the one about the girl with red hair and everything was red.  And one where the girl kept changing who she was.  She’d switch who she was.  Someone would say, You’re this, and she’d say, I’m not this, I’m . . .  What stage is it that kids go through that—when they don’t want nicknames.  Five and six year olds want to be exactly who they are. 

I know Dad wasn’t very pleased with my phase of dirty romance novels when I was 13.  What did you think of it?
Well, I read some of them myself. I didn’t think they were dirty romances.  Didn’t someone suggest that it’s good to read those kind of books every now and then?  It’s just kind of a break for your brain to go there.  That’s probably the same thing Cinderella was when you’re a little girl.

Do you have any thoughts about books becoming electronic—books being read on computerish devices?
Like Kindle?  I think it’d be handy on a plane trip.  It’d just be a handy thing, an expensive handy thing.  But, unless it has the feel of holding a book in your hands, I think it loses something—becomes impersonal.  There’s something about turning the pages.  You do have a relationship going on with the book in your hand.  Although I did check out the Kindle to see what it was about, but I thought the price was too high.  Maybe frequent travelers--that’s the very thing they need to do, but I’m a homebody. I didn’t see anyone on the plane having a kindle.  They had real books.  Paper pages.

I think the audio books are also a good thing, travelling as you go.  I’ve put them in the computer so I can listen to them while I’m going about the house.

Anything else that you’d like to add?
I'm pleased that you became a writer, that both you and Jennifer [my sister] became writers.  I’m glad you enjoy reading, though I don’t know if I had anything to do with it.  I think it’s because we introduced you to books early, took you to the library.  You responded to them.  I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t.  I remember what you said about being so disappointed in kindergarten because you came expecting to read, and it wasn’t taught until first grade.  I think now you would have learned in kindergarten. 
At one point I had asked her what her favorite book in the bible was; about an hour after the interview, she exclaims, Psalms!  Psalms is my favorite.

Read my Christmas 2011 interview with my mother, "Christmas Began at 1104 South Linwood".