A Portrait of the Reader as a Young Girl

When Gina lays down across the green grass in her backyard, stomach to the ground, and stays quiet and absolutely still for several minutes, she swears she feels the earth turning on its axis. The earth hums into her ear pressed against the ground. Before her eyes, the little ladybug dressed in shiny red and black shell inches up the blade of grass on a slow but steady journey to the top.

Kindergarten is large, yellow, and bright. Colorful hard blocks spill out of their containers onto the open floor in the middle of the room. The craft center is filled with all sorts of green, purple, and red paper, along with sticky white glue and every color of crayola crayon, marker, and colored pencil from brick red to midnight black. A giant play house is set up in one corner, and in the other corner is the great stuffed purple octopus. The king or queen of the week, appointed by Mrs. Goldstein, gets to sit on the great stuffed purple octopus, a highly coveted treat. Gina sits off to the side and regards this octopus with a mixture of awe and regret. She knows she will never be good enough to merit that seat–she isn’t very friendly, because when people talk to her she wants to hide away in her shiny red and black-spotted shell, like the ladybug. She dresses as a lion for Halloween to disguise her cowardliness, but behind the yellow makeup and pink nose smudged onto her face, she knows she isn’t much of a lion at all. Mrs. Goldstein asks her students to paint her a picture of an apple, one day, and Gina’s picture comes out all wrong. She knows it does because the other kids have all drawn perfect round little fruits, while her paper boasts splashes of black, dark green, and gold paint thrown helter-skelter across the page in a manner reminiscent of Jackson Pollack.

At recess the kids like to go down the orange and yellow slides, swing on the swing-sets, and play games like tag and jump rope. The girl sits to the side, though, on the long wooden border running the perimeter of the playground, and intently peels the woodchips that cover the ground. Intently peeling, she feels the earth moving around her, feels herself floating away and leaving this small dirty world of woodchips and splinters. At playgroup she talks to the pillars in the church basement instead of to the other children. Pillars make better friends because they don’t talk back, they don’t judge, and they can’t hurt feelings on purpose–or accidentally, for that matter. In second grade Gina comes to accept who she is and dresses up like a ladybug for Halloween. For one day, she can show off her big red spotted shell that grows larger and heavier with each passing moment.

The first literary role model Gina has is Harriet from Harriet the Spy. Determined to be just like her, she holds meetings every Thursday on the playground at the big red block with holes in it that looks like a block of swiss cheese. She instructs all of the other girls regarding how to spy on the boys, who all play basketball during recess. The boys start asking why all of the girls line up to watch them play, however, and why some of them pretend to be hiding behind the yellow and orange slides, so the club has to be stopped.

And so she plods along through each day, singing to mosquitoes to heal them when she accidentally hurts them and pretending to be a stowaway on the great wooden train on the outskirts of the playground. So she goes home each evening and takes out the large bin full of figurines. To each figurine she assigns a name and a personality, and then she lines them up across the floor of the family room and assigns different stories to each of them. The stretchy pink bunny rabbit with the bowtie is the male love interest, while the Barbie figurine in the pink ball gown is the one after whom he pines. He must compete for her interests against the evil villain, though, the large muscular gargoyle who lives in a great stone castle. When Gina reads books, she imagines her own characters taking the places of the ones in her novels. That is, until she reads her first classic, Dracula. She realizes throughout the course of the book that it actually reads better if she just goes with the characters Stoker has already provided for her.

And so it happens, that gradually Gina emerges from the fantasy world under her great red shell. The shell cracks and breaks in middle school, so she has no choice but to shelve away the figurines and stop singing to the mosquitoes that would drink her blood if she did not kill them. She makes some friends and realizes there is no need for her to spend her time talking to the pillars in the church basement any longer.

One day she goes outside to read and lays on her stomach across the grass in the backyard. As the earth moves she looks up at fluffy white clouds and imagines that the entire sky is really one great dome-shaped painting, like the one in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The essence of life is movement and change, and so the clouds are constantly changing shape, piling atop each other, and moving faster all the while.