The year was 1955. I was ten years old, and it was the most important year of my life. My family and I were in the first full year of living in the small suburban town of Oradell, New Jersey. The house we lived in was a rental, built somewhere in the late 19th century.
It was so old that there were still remnants of the coal furnace formerly used to heat it, before the new oil-fired one was installed. We were privileged to have not only a porch, but a yard, as well—actually, three: front, side, and back. In the side yard were several trees, and among them was a pear tree, which would play an important part in my young life.
By age ten, I was already an habitual reader, having been introduced to literature by my mother when I was two. Back then, we lived in a federal housing project in Brooklyn. Mom would read to me as I sat on her lap in front of the picture window in the living room. I loved seeing the word pictures she painted as she read to me. Before long, I was reading for myself. My love affair with words has continued to the present.
Imagine my delight at finding that the Oradell Public Library was situated directly across the street from our new home. After obtaining a library card, I set a goal of reading as many books as I could—as quickly as possible—in order to receive the reward of a free ice cream cone for every ten books read that was offered as an inducement by the library.
I soon fabricated a makeshift “tree house,” which consisted of a seat made from several boards nailed to a low-hanging limb of that pear tree, along with “rungs” made of pieces of 2″ x 4″ wood, nailed every 12 inches, going up the trunk.
Each day, as long as it wasn’t raining, I climbed the several feet up the trunk necessary to reach my treehouse, carefully carrying one or more books with me. It’s there that I spent the majority of my time throughout the hot summer months. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were discovered and adopted as my new best friends. So engrossed in their adventures was I that I actually felt the cool waters of the Mississippi River when Huck and Tom went swimming. I passed notes in class, just as they did, and fell in love with Becky Thatcher. I saw her personified in every pigtailed, pre-teen girl I met. During the day, Edgar Allan Poe’s razor-edged prose filled my mind with its vivid imagery and haunted my dreams at night. Black Beauty was the horse I rode when none other was available.
All through that summer, I devoured pages of books as though they were peanuts or popcorn, until my mind was so filled with literary content that it could scarcely contain it all. I became a walking, talking encyclopedia, a veritable font of knowledge, regurgitating whatever I’d read to anyone who would listen—willingly or not. I was a small boy with a huge imagination—fueled by the force-fed subject matter of the countless books I devoured. By the end of that summer, I was hooked so hard on reading that nothing could break its grip. Writing was just a natural extension of that endeavor.
If you’ve got children of your own, or nieces or nephews, or grandchildren, introduce them to reading. Give them books as gifts. Read to them. Let them read to you, as well. You’ll be planting seeds that will grow throughout their lives, yielding fruit that will mature and ripen into nourishment for their minds and their souls. Reading is the ultimate adventure—a veritable magic carpet that can take us anywhere our heart desires.
And to think it all began in a treehouse in the side yard of a little rental house in suburban New Jersey. And I owe it all to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for the greatest gift you could ever have given me: a love of reading!