It was 1967 or 1968. I was in first grade and my teacher at St. Eugene’s Catholic School was sister Joan Maureen. I remember Sister Joan as a possibly heavy set woman with a florid face. She had a great smile and I think she had an idea that school should be fun as well as disciplined. I remember one time she had us form a fake band in the front of the class and we pretended to play rock and roll. And another time after coming back from singing lessons she had those of us who participated come up and try to sing the song we were learning, which was Talk To The Animals from Doctor Doolittle. I know for a fact I couldn’t remember the words. Sister, I think would be proud to know I can sing that song straight through 54 years later.
I don’t know if Sister called my mother up for a special conference or if it was a regular parent teacher meeting. I do know I was there because there was no one at home to watch me. Sister calmly informed my mother that I was not keeping up with the class when it came to reading. She wasn’t alarmed and she had a plan. She told my mother to buy me comic books and let me read them and or read them with me. I don’t remember which. Sister felt sure that my reading would improve if mom did this.
Telling a child to read comic books in the mid sixties was a daring plan. Comic books had gone out of favor in the 1950s with the publication of the book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredrick Wertham which alleged that comic books were a bad influence on the youth of the United States. He alleged that they would cause all kinds of problems including homosexuality as Batman and Robin were obviously gay. He felt that the violence by street gangs could also be traced back to the violence in comic books. His views were widely accepted especially in middle of the McCarthy era where everyone and everything became suspect. Sister Joan was a rebel.
The only three comic book heroes to survive Wertham’s book were Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Batman survived by having Bruce’s Aunt Harriet come live with Bruce and Dick. This would relay to the world that there was nothing sexual going on between Batman and Robin. DC comics at this time introduced the first Batwoman and Batgirl so that each of the caped crusaders would have a love interest.
As I said at the beginning this was 1967 or 68 and The Batman TV series was in full swing. To adults it was pure camp but to a six year old it was deadly serious. So, it will not surprise you a bit to learn that my first comic book was Batman. It, however, wouldn’t end there. I fell in love with all comic books. First I had my juvenile stage where I read Richie Rich and Caspar The Friendly Ghost Comics then I had my Junior stage where I read everything Archie and then I graduated to superhero comics and have stayed there ever since.
Comic books themselves opened up whole new worlds of reading to me. Superhero Comic Books by the early 1970s had grown up a bit. The market still included children, but it also included college students and other young adults so the comic book itself had to take on a more mature persona in order to keep its audience. This was mostly due to the work of Stan Lee over at Marvel Comics with the creation of The Fantastic Four and Spiderman. Comic books began to grow up. The good guys were more three dimensional. Some of them were tragic figures even the bad guys were motivated for what they were doing. Occasionally the comic books would quote other books. Alice in Wonderland for example or the works of William Shakespeare. There was even a villain in the Marvel books named Sauron after the evil character in The Lord of the Rings.
This is where my own curiosity kicked in. I wanted to know where those quotes came from and what they meant. I was entering 7th grade by now and I no longer had any trouble with reading. I was a bit lazy when it came to schoolwork so I was not as advanced as I could have been, but I wasn’t doing badly either. Back then 7th grade was the beginning of Junior High School, the middle school system hadn’t started yet. I had left St Eugene’s after my second-grade year and transferred to Primos Elementary which was right across the street from my house.
I should talk a little bit about Primos as I had some wonderful teachers there. First there was Miss Arabia who had the class stage a mini production of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown where I was given the role of Linus. I had already grown to love the Peanuts newspaper strip, but that love became life long after portraying one of its characters. Then there was Mr. Monteith, every year Mr. Monteith read his fifth-grade class Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this was a great book and after he read it to us we all wanted to read for ourselves. Also, in fifth grade my friend Jack Jennings and I read the book My Side of the Mountain together. We both loved the book so we read it to see who could finish it in the least amount of time. In Primos I was also introduced to novel Peter Pan and found I loved it more than the Disney version and that goes for The Winnie the Pooh books too.
It was about the end of my elementary school career that The Walton’s became a part of my life. The Walton’s was a CBS television show about a family surviving the Great Depression in the 1930s. Its main character was John-Boy Walton the eldest son of seven children whose dream was to go to college and become a writer. That changed a lot for me as I found myself imitating John-Boy so not only was I reading but I began to write too. In sixth grade with the help of my best friend Charlie Meo we started The Primos Press and though I think we only got out two issues I was a published author.
Going into Junior High was a new adventure in reading. Now there were books that I was required to read, but I loved them. In those years we read Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and best of all A Christmas Carol. My eighth grade English Teacher Mr. O’Connell taught A Christmas Carol and he did it with passion. I knew the story. There was at least one TV version Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and my mother owned a set of records that had the original radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol which starred Lionel Barrymore. Those were played every year. But none of those were like the book. I personally feel that A Christmas Carol is Dicken’s greatest book. I believe literary society feels Bleak House is his best, but they are wrong, it’s A Christmas Carol.
School reading went forward thru the years, but my own personal library grew as well. It was in High School that I began to read the works or JRR Tolkien and Agatha Christie. If there was a popular movie, I would see the movie and then read the book it was based on. Sometimes the movie held a rating that prevented me from seeing it like The Exorcist, but I read the book anyway.
As I grew older my tastes expanded. I would read biographies and autobiographies. One of my favorites is The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The first half of the book would become the Sound of Music but the second half was all about what happened afterward and it was quite a bit.
I was never a popular kid in school. Truth be told I was bullied on more than one occasion, but books gave me the escape I needed. They were the best of friends always saying something different or taking me to strange places. Reading became a refuge and a solace. I found comfort in adventures, and I loved the books that in one way or another all the characters lived happily ever after.
CS Lewis said, “There will come a time when we will be old enough to read Fairy Stories again.” For me that time comes around regularly as I love revisiting the books of my youth. The Wizard of OZ, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the willows, and The Phantom Tollbooth all have lessons that we as adults need to continue to pay attention to if are to live well in this world.
A lot of people say they don’t have time to read or that reading isn’t worth their time. There is one thing I have learned in this life is that you make the time for the things that are important to you. If reading holds no interest than you won’t read. If you are one of those people, I would like you take a moment and choose of the books I listed above. Or go back and find the book that you loved when you were ten and read it now. Find out how much more wisdom there is to find in its pages.
Books change us. They rearrange our thinking and they do it without us even being aware of it. I know I’m a better friend for having read The Wind in the Willows. I know that I can think well because I read The Phantom Tollbooth and I know that prayer, hard work and healthy eating can make people well by reading The Secret Garden and lastly by reading Little Women I understand how important is to have family, to be honest and to have good manners.
My reading adventures were started by Batman, but I continue today to have adventures across the multi-verse by picking up a book.
PS. Many thanks to Sister Joan Maureen who made all of this possible.