Small Treasures

By Rosemary Wells
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Fifty-five years ago, when entire years seemed to accumulate between one Christmas and the next, we were to have a Christmas visitor in our house. Mr. R.'s family anecdotes had been dropped at our dinner table, but I had never met him. While tacking strands of German tinsel into our windowpanes, I managed to Roto-Root out of my mother the information that Mr. R. was coming because he would otherwise be "alone" at Christmas.

"And what happened to Mrs. R. and his kids?" I wanted to know. Well, they were at her mother's.

Children in 1953 were master code breakers, and so I knew the reason for this sudden visitor was that un-sayable word: divorce. My mother never used it on people we liked, at least not in front of me, a child.

On Christmas Eve, our living room was dark save the tongues of the fire in the fireplace and the lights on the tree, big thumb-sized bulbs in those days. Mr. R. read aloud to us by these lumens. He read us "A Child's Christmas in Wales" from beginning to end. Lying near the embers, sleet beating our windows outside, I was entranced. I have never forgotten the uncanny charm of those words spoken by the lonely stranger.

My childhood is irreplaceable and the greatest gift that I own. It was allowed to stretch through a landscape of utter innocence.

Lucky children got books for Christmas. I was a lucky child and could hardly wait the interminable hours while grownups smoked, cocktailed and ate their way though the day. I was not really released to kick off my patent leather shoes and undo the plaid silk sash around my waist until about four in the afternoon, when the grownups fell asleep in their armchairs. Then my brother and I would attack our new books as if we were starving. In that time, children's books were not published every year in the thousands as they are now. We owned just a few, relatively speaking, and we read them over and over. My mother must have read Robert Lawson's Rabbit Hill to me dozens of times. With my father, it was Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

All the studies and research in the world tell us reading aloud is no longer a common occurrence in the lives of our children, rich or poor, although an unimaginable variety of books is available to them. For a writer who enjoys the benefits of modern publishing, whose livelihood depends on the next book and the next, it's heresy to say, but I will say it: If you were to take any given child into any given good bookstore and let him enjoy all its fruits just as they are this holiday season and never add anything new for the next 10 years, that child would never need another book. Our bookstores are like book heavens. Mostly they are stocked to the gills with what childhood ought to be made of: imagination, critical thought, dreamlands and adventures of all kinds.

I would like to see a time of wonder and innocence come again to American children's lives. Children spell love T-I-M-E. Memory and worth come not from the screen but from the living human voice, the spoken word, the written word.

Many years after Mr. R.'s visit, when I was married with children of my own, my husband and I shared memories of the books we loved as youngsters. We, in turn, had lucky children. It was before computer, cellphone and video game America, of course. But by reserving the TV for the Mets and Walter Cronkite, we were able to give our children something priceless. It was the power of idiosyncratic imagination that books richly breed and nourish in children's minds.

Once, I could not rouse my daughter from her book. When she finally raised her head, she assured me that the room and I and even she had disappeared. Only the gripping chapter of the Nancy Drew mystery was real. "If you die now," I told myself, "she'll be okay!"

The kruggerand of my heart is that window in time at four o'clock on Christmas day. I can still see and feel the fabric of my grandmother's sofa, where I curled, knees up, velvet dress askew, free at last to devour my new books for the first of many readings, as day faded to early night.

Christmases come faster now, but none passes without my remembering Mr. R. reading to the sound of blowing sleet, with blue and red Christmas tree light spilling over his shoulder onto Dylan Thomas's pages. ¿

Rosemary Wells's 126 books for young readers have been translated into 13 languages and have won numerous awards.

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