The Book That Made Me A Reader
Francine Prose on Fun with Dick and Jane and Mary Poppins
The book that made me a reader was, to be honest, Fun with Dick and Jane. I can’t remember much about it. See Spot run, I guess. The point was that I learned to read at an early age, so that it became a sort of party trick, much admired by the grown-ups. I liked being able to do it before I cared much about content.
The first books I recall loving (and which made me a reader in that sense) were the P.L. Travers Mary Poppins books. Over the years it has broken my heart to see Mary Poppins possessed, like that unfortunate little girl in The Exorcist, by the spirit of Julie Andrews, by the demonic forces of Disney, and now, most recently, by Emma Sands and Tom Hanks playing Travers and Disney. In fact the novels are (except for the details of character and setting) nothing like their stage and screen versions. The books are odd and delicate, much quirkier than a flying umbrella-toting nanny, and they appealed directly to something very strong in my child’s imagination.
The most beautiful chapters in the Travers novels, the ones I still remember, were like short stories or little fairy tales that captured certain fantasies that thrilled me, or certain truths I’d intuited about childhood that the adults around me seemed unwilling to acknowledge or discuss. In one chapter, the infant twins, John and Barbara, have a kind of friend, a crow who perches on the windowsill of the nursery and chats with them until they get older and (apparently like all babies) forget how to talk to birds. In another, Mary Poppins takes the children to a candy store whose proprietors are themselves made of candy, and when the children try to go back and find it, they never can. In yet another, the constellations become the human creatures they once were before the gods turned them into glittering arrangements of stars.
I used to read the books over and over, and I became addicted to their magic-carpet-like powers to take me somewhere else and make the impossible happen. I read for escape and for the sheer pleasures of the imagination. Like the conversation with the crow, like the magical candy store, they are no longer available to me in the quite same way they once were, but I can still admire them, if only from a greater distance, when every so often I take one of the Travers books off my shelf and read a chapter or two.
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger
Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her latest novel is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. She is the recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, and has been a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in New York City.
Watch Francine Prose read and discuss her novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, with Rivka Galchen at the Center EVENT video