Pony Boy was a Writer

March 4, 2015

My daughter Eve, who recently turned 10, brought her first early reader home from school when she was four. We go in the car. We go on the train. We go on the bus. Big black print on white page, illustration of car or train or bus on opposite pages to help guide her along. Ignorant, pushy, obsessed with the importance of reading, I would fold over the image so my beautiful, bright-eyed four-year-old wouldn’t be able to cheat. There were tears, mainly my own after I was gently scolded by Eve’s Reception teacher when I confessed to my illustration black-out technique. I let Eve have the illustrations but I still must confess to doing victorious – clandestine – fist pumps every time she brought home a new book indicating a higher reading level on its back cover.

Around the time she turned seven, she started bringing home chapter books and I took that as my ticket to ride. I left piles on her bedside table: Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Michael Morpurgo. C.S. Lewis and Kate Di Camillo, Katherine Paterson and Eva Ibbotson. I found her an old, deliciously yellowed copy of one of my childhood favourites, That Scatterbrain Booky, by Canadian author Bernice Thurman Hunter (previous owner’s bookmark still tucked into back page: a film negative four frames in length). She wept her way through Black Beauty then made me promise to never give her anything sad to read again. Sure, anything you want: my daughter was becoming, and has become, voracious. I’m bursting with pride; I can’t keep up.

A few weeks ago I was searching the shelves for my copy of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, as Eve will be going to see the play in the next month or two and she wants to read the book first. Wait. That’s a slight fabrication: I strongly suggested she read the book first and she shrugged and said, ‘sure, okay’. I was dubious, scanning my shelves, as to whether the book would be found, sure I had lent it out and not received it back (I keep a vague mental tally somewhere in the attic of my memory of Important Books That Have Not Been Returned). I was right. Haddon was gone, which was a major downer until I spotted something else. The book. The story, the writer, the characters and the voices that started it all. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

I brought it up to her room; she was already in bed tucking into Superfudge for the umpteenth time. Without a word, I held up the book. She patiently lowered Super-F onto her lap and tilted her head to the side, her cheek and shower-wet hair soft and glowing by the reading lamp.

‘Is it sad?’ she asked.
‘A little,’ I said.
‘Mu-um,’ in that pre-teen swagger.
‘It’s worth it,’ I said, thinking, it will be as sad as your love for Johnny Cade is great, but you’ll live. Thinking, some of the greatest novels ever written are sad; they’ll leave you bereft – it’s half the fun.

Cautiously, she took it, opened it, and settled back into her pillow. Suddenly my eyes were stinging. I took a picture. I sat on the edge of her bed and watched her eyes move across the page, reciting to myself: As I stepped out into the bright sunlight… Her gaze caught mine and she asked me, politely, to leave.
People who’ve read my book, The Mountain Can Wait, comment on the two male protagonists and ask how I got to be so comfortable writing in the voice of the opposite sex. My editor suggested it had to do with all the time I spend working with men in prisons, and as I’d never really considered it before, I thought that sounded pretty apt.

But maybe it started with Pony Boy (who was also an aspiring writer). Maybe it was Soda Pop or Daryl or Dallas. I mean, who couldn’t connect with greasy-haired tuff boys who survive on cold bologna sandwiches and recite Robert Frost at sunset while on the run for murder? S.E. Hinton’s characters captured my imagination from the start: dusty boys in denim, tough as nails on the outside but full of emotions they aren’t sure how to express. This love has carried through to my reading of Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, and it’s carried through to my writing.

Now, I’m not saying that my daughter’s reading habits excite me because it means she’ll turn out to be a writer like mum. I’m just enjoying this passing on of one of life’s most enriching pleasures. Reading is a friend that’s with you for life.

(If you happen to be reading this, Mark Haddon, I bought Eve a new copy of Curious Incident. It’s waiting on her bedside table.)

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