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First Reads and Forbidden Pages

I don’t remember my first day of school, though I do vaguely remember my first day at McKinney. 

Ms. McKinney owned both Playmate and McKinney Day Schools. A quick internet search this morning unearthed nothing. It’s as if the temples of my earliest learning never even existed. 

I eventually grew to loathe school with a gnarled intensity, but moving from Playmate to McKinney (like one of the big kids) was a happy time in my life. Four years old, and I wanted to know everything about everything. It might not have been the first day, but it was definitely no more than a week after starting school at McKinney when they gave me my first Dick and Jane book. I don’t remember my teacher, only her surprise that I could read every word in Dick and Jane, Go, Go, Go. She gave me the next book in the series, then the one after that, and by the time I got picked up (probably late) that day, the teachers considered me a reader. 

And because McKinney didn’t really have grades, I was free to read anything I could find. I did some pretty nerdy shit back when learning was fun, like deciding to read the encyclopedias in order. I can’t say how far I got into the alphabet — probably not far — but I can recall the first sentence of my report about Benjamin Franklin (that no one asked me to do) because I copied it right from the encyclopedia: 

Benjamin Franklin was a jack of all trades. 

I had never heard that phrase before, but I knew instantly what it meant. And therein lay the enchantment of reading. Books gave me ways to decode the language of grownups and understand the world around me. Reading was a way to experience magic and feed my curiosity, expanding my mind beyond the limitations of my immediate surroundings. Stories traverse time and space, filling my head with new things to dream about, and fueling my imagination. My parents loved to see me reading and constantly encouraged me. 

When I was five, in my second year at McKinney, Pop brought two typewriters home, the first a knockoff Selectric from Sears for Mom that I’m pretty sure she never used even once, and a much smaller manual for me. The ribbon was dirty and the letters were hard to press, but for the first time in my life, I was getting stories onto the page. I can only remember a few featuring Spiderman, but I’m sure there were some yarns about He-Man and Jack Tripper, too. 

He-Man and Jack were friends that I barely ever got to play with. Masters of the Universe debuted when I was six years old and I felt like the show was written just for me. But it aired in the afternoons while Megan and I were still at McKinney waiting to be picked up. Mom took me home early from school once, just so I could see an episode, but for the most part we stuck in the multipurpose room at McKinney until six p.m. or later, Monday through Friday. Class ended at 4:00, but the next two hours were aftercare, which I usually enjoyed even more than the school day. Because stories. 

The easiest way to manage a room full of kids waiting for their parents to pick them up, even back in 1983, was to park them in front of a TV. McKinney had the first VCR I’d ever seen, and there were some tapes they played until the images onscreen were barely more than tracking lines. Like Star Wars, some cartoons featuring Greek mythology, The Sound of Music, and all of the Silly Symphonies that Disney had on video.

Fast-forward to my third year at McKinney. I was six, and my relationship with stories had just exploded like a battered piñata — the candy of new reading experiences went flying into my life from everywhere. 

The Hobbit was Mom’s favorite book. By the time I found a weathered paperback in our musty garage, she had probably told me so more than a hundred times. That made it feel like treasure in my hand. And it was. 

The Hobbit was my first favorite book. It didn’t hold the title long, but that novel was still the gateway to everything else. The characters, dialogue, and story were all more complex than anything I had ever read before. The Hobbit taught me that I needed more from my reading. 

McKinney was unlike a regular school in most ways, but they did participate in the childhood nirvana of Scholastic Book Fairs. Next to the plays put on by Mr. Norm, book fairs were my favorite thing about school. They were rare, just a few each year, but I felt like the luckiest kid in the world during every one of them.

I was allowed to buy as many books as I wanted. Seriously, no limits. Five, ten, twenty, it didn’t matter. The only rule was that I had to read whatever I bought.  

By the time Mom was having her final confrontation with Mr. Butcher, I had hundreds of Scholastic titles on my bookshelf at home. Mostly I read standalones, but there were a few series I loved. None more so than Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

I barely remember this series. The investigators were all in their early teens. Sometimes they had clients hiring them to solve a case and other times they stumbled on some piece of junk, because one of the investigator’s uncles had a salvage business. The stories were lighthearted and fun. 

They also had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Alfred Hitchcock. The series was bought by by Random House and they retitled it The Three Investigators. Alfie is nowhere in the story, he is not a character, and the only place he ever appears is on the cover. It was a marketing play, before I knew what that meant. 

But my reading that Hitchcock-branded series was evidence in Miss Magee’s eyes that I was already doomed, and would upon my death be joining my parents to burn for eternity in the Lake of Fire. She had opinions about many of the titles I bought at the Book Fair, though none were so loud as her ire over that man who did the devil’s work for a living. 

I told Mom what Magee had said about my books as a by the way. That woman said crazy shit all the time, I was just sharing the latest tablespoon of nuttiness. But she took that report like a wrecking ball. I had never seen my mother so mad. She marched into the kitchen and yanked a 32 gallon trash bag from the cabinet, then stormed into my room and emptied the bookshelf by sweeping row after row of paperbacks into the bag, before she hefted it over her shoulder like Santa Clause. 

She drove to McKinney, and dumped the entire bag of books onto Butcher’s desk, demanding to know which one of the books bought at the school-sponsored fair would be sending her son to Hell. 

Butcher offered his effusive apologies and Magee finally started holding onto her opinions around me. 

I was eight years old when we stopped supporting the book fairs, but that timing could not have been any better. My curiosity was already piqued by the books my parents kept on their night stand. Like Pop’s hardback collection of Jules Verne novels: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and From the Earth to the Moon, all in one fat volume. 

But the book that really grabbed my attention (and altered the course of my life) was on my mother’s side of the bed: The Talisman, by Stephen King. It was his newest book at the time. King was Mom’s favorite author, and The Talisman (co-written by Peter Straub) was her favorite of his stories so far. 

I never asked for permission to read the book, I just went into my parents’ bedroom and got it, without ever questioning whether The Talisman would be something I was allowed to read. I had no reference for banned books the way I already did for TV and movies. Words were fine, from Grover’s There’s a Monster at the End of This Book to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.  

The Hobbit seemed more like Dick and Jane once I was reading a book where the main character was just a few years older than me. I didn’t know enough about genre to understand that The Talisman seamlessly blends fantasy, horror, and coming-of-age themes into its narrative. I just knew it was cooler than an arcade full of video games.   

At twelve, Jack Sawyer was only four years older than me when he embarked on a dangerous journey to save his mother, who was dying of cancer. He traveled to a magical world on the other side of our own called the Territories. He also had a Creedence Clearwater Revival-loving werewolf friend. I’m sure you can understand why that book was a gateway experience. Reading was never the same after that. 

I couldn’t get enough of King. I read whatever I could find at home, but I also didn’t want to ask for any specific books or out myself with an obvious hunt for more of them. Because while I don’t remember what book immediately followed, it was definitely worse than The Talisman, which already had me thinking that maybe (okay, probably) it was a book that I shouldn’t be reading. 

I was still years away from learning the phrase it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, but that was already my preferred mode of living. 

And it always will be.