I was blessed to be raised in a house bursting with books. My mother was an elementary school librarian, who swore she came by the profession naturally. Here’s why:
My great-grandmother loved to read and often read Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible to her thirteen children. One of her daughters—my grandmother—carried on the valued tradition, as did my mother. My wife and I read a modern language version to our only child, a daughter. For me, Bible stories laid a solid foundation for my faith, marriage, family, and writing career.
In the latter 1920s, my grandmother purchased My Book House, a six volume collection of stories and poems compiled for children by Olive Beaupre Miller. My mother was raised on them, as was I. By the time my twin sister and I were born, the number of volumes had doubled. I still love reading The Cock, The Mouse, and The Little Red Hen. Yet in all honesty, I’ve never seen a Purple Cow.
My mother and grandmother were also fans of author Mal Lindman, who penned the beautifully illustrated books about the adventures of dual sets of triplets in Sweden: Snipp, Snapp, Snurr, and Flicka, Ricka, Dicka. Simply written, each story contained conflict, resolution, and an important moral truth.
Like many a preschooler, one of my favorite books was A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. I remember sitting atop my mother’s lap and pointing at the colorful pictures. Surely I was learning setting, characterization, and that a bear—or boy—must be wary of heffalumps. Furthermore, he must never poke his head into a honey jar.
After I began to read on my own, I never missed an episode of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang in the Sunday comics. Even though creator, Charles Schultz, wasn’t a novelist, he knew every strip must have a beginning, middle, and end. He also used cliffhangers, hooking my attention week after week. Last year, I enjoyed reading his biography. Schultz endured his portion of struggles, some of them life-long and subtly reflected in his work. Yet he wasn’t afraid to incorporate spiritual truths. It’s why I keep a Peanuts calendar on my desk.
In the third grade, I was introduced to author Beverly Cleary. Not face-to-face, but through her wonderful series about Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy. And who could forget Ramona Quimby, the pesky neighborhood character on Klickitat Street who constantly interrupted Henry’s plans. Eventually, Henry grew to respect Ramona, which taught me how characters must grow and change. And isn’t Klickitat Street fun to say. Say Klickitat Street fast, three times. It sounds like empty train cars on a passing track.
In the sixth grade, our teacher read aloud A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I was instantly captivated, hoping—no, knowing—that good would triumph over evil. Our teacher also read The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. As before, I found myself totally immersed in a fantastic adventure, where science holds hands with grit and imagination.
At some point in my childhood, I tried reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, but put it down. The language was over my head. As an adult, it’s one of my favorite reads. A mix of humor and wisdom fills each page. Each Christmas, my wife and I read chapter five aloud—Dulce Domum—which translates Sweetly at Home. It’s where Mole accidently sniffs out his long-lost, underground house one snowy Christmas eve. What could be better than a blazing hearth, a tin of biscuits, a roll of German sausage, and childlike field mice singing carols.
It’s hard to be a Texan without reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, a novel I enjoy over and over again, purely for pleasure. I’ve ridden horseback through some of the same rugged country. As an author, I’m amazed at McMurtry’s talent regarding viewpoint. He’s one of the few writers I know who can seamlessly have POV in five different heads, in the same paragraph, and get away with it. Who’s his editor???
I relish reading prose that’s beautifully crafted, weaving its way through deeply layered stories; particularly Southern fiction where Pat Conroy is a master. In Beach Music, it’s as though his sentences encompass all five senses. It’s the level of writing excellence I strive for.
In regard to excellence, the author who’s influenced me most is Sheldon Vanauken. For those unfamiliar with his books, he wrote A Severe Mercy, one of the most exquisite and tender love story memoirs ever penned. Winner of the National Book Award, it chronicles the unique relationship he shared with his wife. Yet because of her tragic death, he came to know Christ personally. C.S. Lewis called it a severe mercy. While attending Oxford University, Vanauken and Lewis became good friends. They shared meals together, discussed theology, and corresponded about the rigors of faith and service. Also the joy. Many of these letters are included in A Severe Mercy. Sheldon Vanauken is the author who inspired me to write Forever Friday, and has had a profound impact upon my own marriage.