Sunday, April 11, 2010

Once Upon A Time a LONG LONG Time Ago

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

Once upon a time, in a far away place, I grew up with books. Lots and lots of books. They were my refuge, my passport, my secret adventure. We didn’t have a lot of money so we didn’t own that many but then, like now, the library had a secret passage to a lounge full of magazines, a conservatory with albums and tapes (not 8-tracks, I’m not THAT old), a ballroom of Jane Austin dances and elegant dresses. To pick a favorite from them would be like turning my back on the Velveteen Rabbit because Winnie the Pooh’s fur hadn’t yet worn rough. I couldn’t do it without my heart breaking a little. So, I won’t. Like any recalcitrant five year old, I will stick out my lower lip, cross my arms and stomp my feet, refusing to allow that one may be more loved than another. They all stuck with me, each in its own way.

I thought I was Anne of Green Gables, accidentally born two generations late and a little farther south. I had red hair. I had freckles. I once accidentally got my little sister drunk on our version of cordial, which was really nothing more than a bad attempt to make raspberry juice in the fermenting heat of a Wisconsin summer. Afraid of heights, I would have inevitably accepted the dare to walk the roof’s ridge pole. And while my best friend Sandy never lost her music lessons because I’d frightened one of her rich relatives, I do remember her being grounded a time or two due to association with incorrigible friends. Alas, we were kindred spirits and blame was never assessed.

I wanted to be Nancy Drew. First of all, she was an only child. That sounded like a much better deal than being a middle child in a pack of eight. She got to go to cool sounding places like Larkspur Lane and had her own car. I didn’t own a car until I was twenty-five. Best of all, her life was never boring. Okay, so the boyfriend was a little dull but there were always mysteries to solve and a caring, understanding, can-get-you-out-of-jail attorney father. I still keep a “you never know” overnight bag in the trunk of my car because Nancy did. Nothing special. Just enough to get by in case I trip over a dead body or a famous necklace goes missing at some out of the way inn where I am coincidentally lunching.

Marco Polo made me want to see the world. It was all so foreign to a kid from North Freedom, Wisconsin, population 596 (I heard they broke 600 with the last census). Marco left home. I didn’t know anyone who’d left home. Not like that, anyway. Everyone I knew stayed and went to community college, maybe, or just straight onto the family farm which they would then pass down to the next generation. Marco got on a boat and off he went to a strange land with people not related to him who spoke a language he didn’t speak, sold spices he’d never heard of and lived lives he couldn’t imagine in Venice. Venice. With gondolas and doge’s palaces and courtesans. All that glamour and exoticness and still he hungered for more. After reading Marco, in the fourth grade, I covered my walls with maps from the National Geographic and dreamed of all the places I would go. And read all about them.

Which leads me directly back to my children’s book author I discovered as an adult. Because I had older siblings, we didn’t have a lot of books actually targeted to little kids. There was no ‘Go Dog Go’ at the family homestead. My older sister by two years was reading ‘Gone with the Wind’ in the third grade. With that ahead of me, I skipped the basics and went straight for To Kill a Mockingbird (which, since it’s told from Scout’s eight year old perspective didn’t seem like a grown up book to me). Several years ago, during a heated presidential election season Michael Moore, he of Roger and Me fame, said something that stuck with me. He said it wasn’t that the politician with the best ideas who won elections. He said that the best storyteller did. And he was right. Being a political junkie, I decided what my political party needed was a story they could tell, one that struck a chord with the right values of tolerance and non-violence and rewards for artistic endeavor. My political manifesto would be so accessible, so in tune with the masses, that it could be put to song and added to the School House Rock play list.

To script my oh-so-adult manifest, I sought out the master. Dr. Seuss. At age 35, I read every children’s book he ever wrote searching for the magic, the blueprint, the pattern, so I could teach my theories to the masses and alter the course of mankind. The only one who changed was me. Seuss was a genius. He made up his own language. He served non-preaching morality with Green Eggs and Ham and the Sneeches would be welcome in any neighborhood in any city in any country anywhere wearing whatever color they wanted. While I recognized, for the first time, the depth of his talent, I also saw common ground. We shared points of view. We had a common, albeit warped, sense of humor. We wrote because to do otherwise would be to remain silent and unconnected to what mattered to us. Dr. Seuss taught this tall enough to ride all the rides child to read in a whole new way, to see the meaning behind the cartoons and to challenge myself to pull the story from the deepest part of myself even if I needed a Cat with a Hat to get my point across.

In the end, I simply can’t play favorites. I can’t imagine my life, or even myself, without all those wonderful words glowing like lightning bugs in my imagination. They were the original batch of intellectual sourdough, tended carefully with yeast and flour (and large helpings of Michael Connelly, Christopher Buckley and Stephen King, among so many others), continuing to rise and provide food for my writer’s soul. And I loved them every one. The End.

Thanks for reading.


Meredith Cole said...

Dr. Seuss is one of my favorite philosophers, Gabi. You're right, he is incredibly political (Better Battle Book: the arms race, The Lorax:the environmental movement, The Sneetches: racial intolerance). And his rhyming ability rivals Shakespeare's skills. I read them as a kid, but have definitely enjoyed revisiting them as an adult.

Gabi said...


I am simply in awe of both his sheer talent and his ability to reinforce my own philosophy, years after his death without ever even meeting me. How many of us can say we affected even one person (other than our own kids, maybe) that way? He set the bar very high and then said 'I know you can, Sam I am.' Thanks for stopping by and letting me go on an on about the great and powerful Theodor Geisel.

Shane Gericke said...

Geisel was a sheer genius. But your line about words being lightning bugs in a bottle is pretty damn fine, too. Even if it doesn't rhyme :-)

Kelli Stanley said...

Beautiful post, Gabi. :)

I cry every time I read The Lorax ... and wish it were required reading in every school (and home!)

Maybe we could start a movement to get Seuss in hotel rooms ... worked for the Gideons. :)


Gabi said...

When I was a kid, my mom said that lighting bugs were magic. Maybe she should have gone with the science behind the glow but that early explanation created a link in my mind between anything extraordinary and a Mason jar with holes punched in the lid. Seuss would have totally gotten it.

Gabi said...


I'll happily support A Sneetch in Every School Bag!