Anyone can be a Zuskateer if they want - many of you are, and I thank you for reading! Perhaps some of you more adventurous folk look at your young ones, picture them in a onesie emblazoned "Future Zuskateer!" and wonder "just how the heck did she turn out that way anyhow?" Being childfree myself, I am the last person in the world to turn to for childrearing advice. Nevertheless, I have spent some time pondering the positive things my parents did for me, and at the top of any such list would be this: valuing books.
"Disposable income" there was not much to speak of, but we always had books in the house. Not a huge library, but enough to justify, at some point, my parents purchasing a bookshelf. Back in the olden days, when people still read actual books printed on paper, men used to travel door-to-door as encyclopedia salesmen, exhorting working class families to purchase encyclopedia sets so that the poor kids could learn. My parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia, and the Childcraft books, and the Grosset & Dunlap Companion Library two-in-one books. We had a raft of Dr. Seuss books and other small story books for small children - I remember being particularly fond of "Splish, Splash, and Splush", a book about some ducklings afraid to swim, who head off to the pond with rainboots and umbrellas. The water strips them of their fear-born coping mechanisms and voila! Swimming!!! The wise mother duck allows them to clutch their useless umbrellas and figure out for themselves that they like swimming - unlike my dad's father, who taught him to swim by repeatedly throwing him in the Monongahela River until, in self-defense, he swam.
But my most favorite book, when I was little, was this one.
"I'm Suzy" is a "Whitman BIG Tell-Tale" book, by Dorotha Ruthstrom, illustrated by Alice Schlesinger, copyright 1966 by Western Publishing Company Inc. It is beautifully illustrated, with repetition of key images and phrases throughout the short book. My mother bought this book for me primarily because of the spelling of Suzy on the cover. I did not look like the Suzy of the book - my hair was not blond, nor particularly well-behaved. But we spelled our names the same - Suzy not Susie.
Suzy-in-the-book spends a lot of time pondering about what she is, and is not. "If I were a frisky little puppy, I'd lap up my food with my tongue. Or if I were a pretty little baby, my mother would feed me. But I'm not a frisky little puppy, and I'm not a pretty little baby. I'm Suzy. And so I eat my food with a spoon or a fork." On the very last page of the book, after Suzy has contemplated all that she is and is not, all that she can do and that makes her herself, she pronounces "I'm so glad I'm Suzy!" I read this book, and had it read to me, over and over and over again.
When I say that I had this book (and others) read to me, I need to give you some background, so that you can really appreciate how much my parents, especially my mother, valued books and reading to their children. My mom had six kids. The first three were sort of clustered close together, and then she had a break for about four years. Then she had my next oldest brother, then eighteen months later me, then eighteen months after that my younger sister. When she was still breast-feeding my sister, my next-oldest brother had some kind of allergy problem for which he was supposed to drink soy milk. The soy milk didn't exactly agree with his system, either, and often ran right through him. So she would be breast-feeding an infant, have a young child running around with soy-milk diarrhea running down his leg, and a toddler hanging off one side clutching a book and begging "read to me mommy! read to me!" Then dad would come home from the mine. And you try washing work clothes full of coal dust and grease with a wringer washer and some washtubs. Remember to make dinner for nine people, too - because did I mention that my Pappap lived with us? (Of course, some people think my dad was just paying for her kids, that freeloading mother of mine.)
Well, my mother did read to me. The older brothers and sisters read to the younger ones, too, and Pappap read to us, and we learned to read to ourselves quite young. As I've said, there were books in the house. You might not get that new pair of jeans or blouse that you just had to have - your sister's hand-me-downs will do just fine! And your cousins just sent over a nice bag of clothes, hardly worn! So who needs new?
But if you asked for books, the answer was nearly always yes. Yes, you can order two or three or four books from the school paperback book club form. Yes, we are going grocery shopping in Carmichaels, you can come along, and go to the public library while we shop. Yes, the bookmobile is coming to our town this summer - let's mark down the days and hours so you can check out some books when it is here. Yes, I will read you that book while I am nursing your sister, if you will stand alongside the rocker and hold the book for me and turn the pages when I tell you to.
Maybe you won't find a book whose title proclaims "I'm [insert your child's name here]!" and that offers a subtle lesson in valuing the self for one's growing independence, ability, and kindness, rather than beauty. But anyone can read to a child. If you value books and give of your time, even in the midst of chaos, it should get you decent mileage.
The last time I was at my mother's house, I went looking for the books I ordered over the years from those paperback book club order forms in grade school/middle school. Many of my books are gone, given away or sold in yard sales, but a large number of them remain, and I thought it might be fun to revisit them one at a time, now and then. Reading was such a huge influence on me in my early years, and some of those books really affected me. I retrieved a cardboard box full and lugged them home and into the house, despite the looks Mr. Z cast at me - "More books? Seriously? Just how many hours per day will you be reading?" The "How to Grow a Zuska" category will include looks back at those works of child literature, and occasional stories about Things My Parents Did Right, as the spirit moves me.
Meanwhile, in the comments thread - if you'd like to share a memory of a favorite early childhood book (the stuff you had read to you when you before you could read or were just learning to read), please do. Or as usual, comment on anything in the post that strikes your fancy.