Growing up, I was read to a lot. And I mean a lot. Lucky for me, I had a patient mom who was willing to read me the same stories over and over.
Did I mention that she's a librarian? She’s got an eye for great books and my childhood library was cool to the max.
There were books that I could “read” before I could read - you know, recite every word, turn the pages at the correct times. Most notably, Piggins by Jane Yolen, an Upstairs/Downstairs type story in which a pig butler solves the mystery of a jewel heist.
(You’re probably wondering if I quoted Piggins on the regs, twirling around the house saying, “My diamond lavaliere - it is gone!” The answer is yes, yes I did.)
(Actually, my husband sometimes quotes "Good show, Piggins!" at hilarious moments and I don't think he's even read the book.)
(Note to self: have him read Piggins.)
There were other books I requested often, like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Martin and Archambault), A Day with Wilbur Robinson (Joyce), and The Paper Bag Princess (Munsch).
But nothing, and I mean nothing, rocked my world like The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
I can’t tell you how many times my mom read that to me.
And she was dedicated. She did all the voices! She read all the tiny print! No text escaped her eagle eyes!
Apart from my mom’s engaging performance, which had a lot to do with it, why did I love it so much?
Because it’s funny. Not “slip on a banana peel” funny. Funny like, “Hey kid, I take you seriously. You’re a smart cookie and this book is full of hilarious stuff.”
The Stinky Cheese Man is absurd. The Stinky Cheese Man has dark artwork, with ugly characters so skillfully created that you can’t help but take in every detail. The Stinky Cheese Man is paradoxical. The Stinky Cheese Man has stories that don’t finish!
I had never read something like that. My mind was blown, and I was forever changed as a reader.
But the thing about The Stinky Cheese Man, or any great book really, is that its impact can be long lasting.
If I look at my most basic writer instincts - the ones that come out strong in draft one - I see wry humor, off-the-wall digressions, and dialogue that’s very aware of itself.
That’s The Stinky Cheese Man. It’s in my writing DNA.
My work never stays The Stinky Cheese Man. But the book’s enthusiasm and playful spirit make it a touchstone that never goes away.
So I encourage you, I implore you, to give your kids good books. Give them variety. Give them the chance to find their own life changing book.
Someday, if you’re lucky, they’ll thank you for it.