Meghan Cox Gurdon
What books did you read when you were a child?
I was a voracious and indiscriminate reader, the kind of child who would read every word on the cereal box if there were nothing else at hand. My family was not well off, so I didn’t own many books (and those I did were dog-eared and speckled with biscuit crumbs from passionate after school re-readings), but I had an ample supply from the library and read all the time. I adored the Chronicles of Narnia, especially The Horse and his Boy, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, especially Farmer Boy and The Long Winter. I loved Ester Hauzig’s The Endless Steppe, Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and The House of Sixty Fathers, by Meindert DeJong.
If you could be a storybook character who would you be?
Mr. Toad, of Toad Hall, from The Wind in the Willows! Yes, he’s fickle, irresponsible, self-centered, and given to wild serial enthusiasms, but he has such a wonderful zest for life and its pleasures (and the means to enjoy them), and such fine friends that it would enormous fun.
What is the best thing about reading?
The magic of inky marks on a page transforming into meaning -- into people, landscapes, fragrances, textures -- in one’s head. It’s miraculous. I’ll never get over the wonder of it.
What is your all-time favourite book?
Ah, that’s like asking which of my five children I like best. I will say to you what I say to them: Each is my favorite child of her or her age. So, with books, I can say that the The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the Narnia Chronicles were my favorites when I was young. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my favorite as a young teenager. As an older teenager, it was A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute, then it became George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Today? Still Middlemarch, I think, along with A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
Other than reading books what is the most important thing a parent can do to help develop their children’s communication skills?
At some point every day parents simply must put our cellphones away, in a place where we can’t see or hear them, so as to give our full attention to our children. At that point, we can give them something else: The great gift of reading aloud, which will fill their heads with stories and language and grammar and syntax faster than any English class at school.
How big a part did your parents play in encouraging your writing skills?
When I was younger I do not think they cheered on my writing, per se, but I my mother has always encouraged me to try things and seize opportunities, and my father has always displayed a great enjoyment of the English language and taken pleasure in humorous, ornate turns of phrase -- so between them they emboldened me to have a go.
How do you encourage your children or grandchildren to read, what books do you enjoy reading with them?
Ah, this is the subject of my book! I am a huge believer in the value and beauty of reading aloud, and in my zeal have read most days to my children since the first one arrived 24 years ago. There are long lists of brilliant titles at the end of my book, The Enchanted Hour - so please have a look! - but among my all-time, best-beloved read-alouds must be Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Gillian Cross’s retellings (for children) of the Iliad and the Odyssey, both illustrated by Neil Packer.
Meghan Cox Gurdon is an essayist, book critic, and former foreign correspondent who has been The Wall Street Journal's children's book reviewer since September 2005. Her work has appeared widely, in publications such as The Washington Examiner, The Daily Telegraph, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and National Review. A graduate of Bowdoin College, she lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband, Hugo Gurdon, and their five children.
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