The Magical Power of Reading

It was great to see the story by Jim Memmott in today’s Democrat and Chronicle about an elementary school in Spencerport, N.Y., that has given every family in the school a copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (which in the interest of space I’ll call LWW). The school has built a whole series of activities around the book in an effort to engage kids in reading. (Read his story.)

I have a long history with the Chronicles of Narnia series. I think my mother read LWW aloud to me when I was little (that and Ballet Shoes), and then over the years I read the whole series. In college, I took a children’s literature class and did my term paper on  Narnia. For that, I read all seven books in just a couple of days and purchased the Narnia Companion to help keep track of all the characters and themes.

I still have a full set of the paperback books – some of which my mother saved for me when they closed the little library at our church. If the slip in the front of the book is right, I took out The Silver Chair four times!

LWW is still the one I know the best. It’s really the simplest of the stories, a battle of good versus evil and a little girl who trusts her instincts to do the right thing. She gets help from unexpected sources (fauns and beavers?), and discovers a magical world right in her own house. There obviously have been many articles and books written about the religious themes in the series, but for me it was just a wonderful place where you could use your imagination.

As I think about it, there are a number of books I associate with childhood. I remember crying at the end of Charlotte’s Web (although at the time I also had an earache which might have added to the vividness of that memory). I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series and the adventures of the assistant pig-keeper Taran, Princess Eilonwy, and the bard Fflewddur Fflam.

In high school, I read voraciously, lots of mysteries (Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes), among other things. It helped that I worked at the library so I had a ready supply of books. And I think that a lot of my language and grammar skills came from all that reading. But in recent years I haven’t had as much time to read as I would like. (Although I did dive in to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series during a recent vacation.)

So when I heard about Writers and Books’ program “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” – featuring The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean – I purchased the book with the hope of reading it before the author came to town. Well, she’s here now, and I haven’t even started it. But I went to the event this afternoon at Nazareth College anyway and got to hear the author talk about the book and read excerpts.

I was interested to learn that she hadn’t intended to write a novel – in fact, it started out as a short story that she had set aside. But her agent insisted that she work on turning it into a full-length book. She hadn’t ever been to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), but went to reference books and online resources to help flesh out the historical information. She initially was inspired by a PBS special about the Hermitage museum during the Siege of Leningrad. Talk about synchronicity between art forms – a TV show about an art museum inspiring an author to write about a woman with Alzheimer’s and her memories of World War II.

Well, with all this writing, now it’s time for me to dive in to the book. Click here for more information about the Writers and Books events with Debra Dean, and happy reading!

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