Mother Daughter Book Reviews is pleased to welcome author Leigh Shearin as a guest contributor with us today to share her experience of first reading the classical children’s book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.
Paging Mr. Seagull, Mr. Jonathan Livingston Seagull!!
by Leigh Shearin
Westward Ho Road.
Overlooking a long, narrow lake, Westward Ho was my childhood home. A sprawling mid-century wood-and-glass, pseudo stone-chalet perched atop a low rise in a Pacific North West neighborhood full of similar cedar shingled, contemporary, heavily wooded properties. It was a terrific place to grow up.
Raised in the Birkenstock-wearing, Save-the-Whales, granola crunching west coast of the early 1970s, I was what would now be considered a “free range child”. As long as my chores were done, I came and went as I pleased, spending large chunks of time at the nearby Hunt Club, where I took riding lessons, groomed during Polo matches and shows, and participated in Pony Club. Our neighborhood too, was loaded with my schoolmates, and we all roamed through each others yards, sharing toys, building forts under the jungle-like rhododendrons, and cruising on bikes. None of the area kids spent much time indoors when the weather was fine, and I was no exception. In those days, our mothers didn’t try to be our friends. They laid out graham crackers and juice for snacks, bandaged scrapes, and called us for dinner. Aside from that, they expected us to be outside, playing, and leave them alone.
An imminently sensible system which has sadly been killed off by modern Helicopter Parents. But that’s a blog for another day.
Television at Westward Ho was strictly controlled, and not allowed during the daytime. Music, however, was played in every room (my father’s HiFi system routinely loaded with endless classical music tapes), games and puzzles littered card tables and carpets. What kept me occupied indoors most of the time, however, was books.
When my family moved to Westward Ho, the property was a relic from the 1950s, complete with sparkly counter tops, open carport, bland concrete exterior finishes, and chrome everywhere. The first thing my parents did was close in the bare-bones parking shelter, and turn it into a hip family hang-out spot that we still- 43 years later- call “The New Room”. The New Room was bright and modern, with a florescent orange woven wool carpet in the middle of the floor, low-slung Scandinavian canvas recliners, (beanbag chairs for the kids), built ins on either wall, and a conical freestanding orange enamel wood stove at the end of the room, pipe centered on high fitted glass transom windows that let light into the room without the worry of a draft.
For me, the best part of The New Room was the massive modern oak bookcase that took up half a wall. It was groaning with books. Along the bottom, Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes weighed down the case, while dog-eared paperbacks were wedged horizontally and vertically into upper regions. In between were odd smatterings of reading material; everything from Auntie Mame, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to Grey’s Anatomy and grim texts on genetic disorders. War and Peace was there, along with all 4 books of the iconic series All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot.
Not just a simple oak bookcase; I saw it as a gateway to other realms. Although I had my own small bookcase in my room loaded with C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, my parent’s oak bookcase was an irresistible attraction. I began reading All Creatures Great And Small in the 3rd grade. Although it took me several years, I’d read the entire series – intended for adults- by the time I was 14.
By that time I was hooked. On books.
As an animal-obsessed young girl, if the book title or cover art contained or displayed an animal- any animal- it was fair game. Starting at age zero with Goldilocks &The Three Bears, Make Way For Ducklings, Curious George, and Babar. I moved on in later years to My Sister The Horse, and every horse book ever written by Marguerite Henry.
Eternally discontent with reading one book at a time, even as a youngster, my nightstand has always held multiple literary options. James Herriot always present in one form or another, along with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’m not shy about recycling books. I’ll reread anything that isn’t in shreds by the time I get back around to it. I recall one rainy afternoon, with the funky orange wood stove aglow with flame, I ran tragically out of fresh (frozen, dried and leftover) material.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. It was time to mine the oak bookcase. Pulling volume after volume out of tidy alignment, (briefly distracted by the Invisible Man within the covers of the circa 1960 Grey’s Anatomy,) I rejected each title in turn, until I arrived at Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Hmm. I thought to my 10 year-old self. It’s not very thick. And it’s small. Small books are for kids…Hhmm. Richard Bach…wonder if he likes birds? I recall flipping through the dark blue paperback. Oh! It has photographs! So…little, short, a story about birds, and pictures….Hhmmm…
I plopped down into my nearby red fuzzy bean bag chair, scooted closer to the fire, opened the book and began to read.
I didn’t understand a single word.
Well, of course, I understood the words, I just didn’t get the concept. Something about flying…higher planes…being yourself… tiresome earthly pursuits… making the most of your life, no matter the cost…
All first-rate notions if you’re an adult reader, but not much use to a 10 year-old. (Children already know all these things. They un-learn them along the way, and need books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull to re-learn them as adults) To my childish self, the pictures were dreadfully disappointing. Still, I slogged through most of it over the ensuing several days and returned it to it’s gaping space in the oak bookcase, mildly annoyed at having invested that much time in a book that seemed to talk about nothing and everything at the same time.
I was a lucky child. I was given the key to a mystical secret at an early age: books.
Books endure. Comfortable on their shelves, in their boxes or stacks, they remain constant, never changing with the times or evolving their views. Recently, I revisited the same copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull which still sits in my parent’s bookcase, (albeit a newly minted model of oak shelving), and found the little book just that; the same.
Thirty-eight years after I picked up that small blue book, it’s comforting to know I can return to it at any time, and find it no different, even in a world that changes rapidly by the day. Remarkably, although I didn’t realize it at the time, Jonathan Livingston Seagull soaked into my soul through the austere foyer of my young intellect. Moving forward into my life, the impression that one tiny volume made on my heart and spirit was undeniable in it’s steadfast vitality. A stack of pages brilliantly written, whose message sculpted my destiny and guided my footsteps, all without my permission or knowledge.
Books will love you through it all, tolerant of scorn and neglect, they remain faithful even while the hours of your life whirl and lash around you. Books endure, and are enduring. My first love, constant companion, unfailing comrade along the path I tread.
Celebrate Book Lover’s Day (We book lover’s like to draw the day out to a week!) and hop on over to some of my writerly friend’s blogs, to see how they love books!
About the Guest Contributor: Leigh Shearin
Leigh earned a B.A. degree in Studio Art at Maryville College and worked as a graphic artist before earning an ASS degree in Culinary Art. She has worked as a chef, baker and culinary arts instructor. Most recently, she and her husband bought rural land and are developing Winterrest, a small farm in central New York. Through all this, Leigh wrote stories and poems…some published; some tucked away.
She is happiest living off the land and developed a passion for local and sustainable farms, farmers and practices, spending hours researching farming and learning by trial and error. She is an avid supporter of Farm-to-Fork and “locavore” restaurants and plans to supply these restaurants with her own farm’s products soon.
Leigh writes fiction stories for middle-grade readers. Along with illustrator Kate Shearin, Leigh spins tales of self-sufficiency and independence, along with gentle agriculture education. Since historical fiction is also a lifetime interest, Leigh uses true stories of the past to bring inspiration and joy to modern-day children.
Leigh lives with her husband and children in rural central NY. You can check out Leigh’s blog at www.LeighShearin.weebly.com