Lois Lowry has been writing books for children for a long, long time. She has won many, many awards. I think we can all agree that Lois Lowry is a wonderful writer, one of the best who's ever written books for kids. She even has a blog.
Her most famous book is probably The Giver, and I adored it when I first read it back in the summer of 1997, and it blew my mind, and it deserves all the attention and love it's received the world over. It is a phenomenal, important book that shook me down to the core of my being. And Lord knows I loved all of the Anastasia books, and I made "Things I Love" and "Things I Hate" lists throughout my entire childhood, all because of Anastasia.
But the first book I ever read by Lois Lowry was Taking Care of Terrific, first published in 1983, and of her many books, it is still my favorite. I still have the tattered copy I bought in elementary school. The pages are yellow and brittle and worn. (That's a picture of it at the top of this post.) I've read this book at least once a year my whole life. And here's why.
This book tells the story of Enid, who wants to change her life, and how she does it. Enid is 14 and takes a job for the summer babysitting a four-year-old boy named Joshua Warwick Cameron IV, which seems like an ordinary thing to do, but she definitely sets her sights on a more-than-ordinary summer.
I decided that I would spend the summer meeting new people and maybe becoming something of a new person myself. I decided that my life was going to have elements of romance, intrigue, danger, and pathos in it.
And she decides to do it in the Public Garden, saying this: If that sounds foolish to you, it only means that you don't know Boston. Well, I didn't know Boston, but after that introduction, I sure wanted to. Chapter One sets the stage: Enid is looking back on her summer, thinking about the new friends she made, and she is in big trouble, but we don't know why. By page three, though, we know that something amazing happened, if only for an hour:
... on that night we were all together, and a thin slice of moon was shining; there was music playing, and the green was all around us so green that you could feel it down inside your soul, and everybody's life was changed. At least for one hour. Maybe that is all you ever get in this world, one hour like that.
I am fairly certain that when I first read this book at the age of eight, I'd probably never had an hour like that, but I've had plenty since, and they are some of my favorite memories. I think that when I first read that passage, I might have held my breath a little, wondering what had happened, wanting an hour like that.
Reading on, we learn that Enid is one of those painfully aware girls -- aware of herself, aware of the details of the world around her. Enid is the sort of person who reads books and between the lines, and I've always liked that about her. Enid hates her name. This is the book that taught me about all of those adjectives that end in "d" ...
Maybe you have never noticed, but the most hideous adjectives end in the letter d. Pick up any one of Stephen King's horror novels and open to any page; you'll find them: horrid, putrid, sordid, acrid, viscid, squalid. And the very worst: fetid. Probably you don't even know what "fetid" means; it isn't a word you hear people use very often. But if you read a lot, the way I do, especially horror books, you come across that word, usually describing the breath of creatures who have returned from the grave and are covered with green slime. They all have fetid breath. Enid isn't a repulsive adjective, as far as I know. But it sounds as if it should be ... You can see why I decided to change my name.
Enid and Joshua Warwick Cameron IV ~ who decide to change their names to Cynthia and Tom Terrific, in the effort to become and feel like all new people ~ end up hanging around the Public Garden that summer with a saxophone player named Hawk, some bag ladies, and Seth Sandroff, a boy Enid knows from school and thinks she loathes. Of course, they end up having all sorts of unexpected adventures, big and small.
Part of what makes this book so wonderful is that Lois Lowry, as usual, treats her readers like they're smart. There are references and ideas in this book that might have been a little bit too big for me at the time, but I hung in there because I knew that Lois Lowry knew I could. Not that this book is hard to understand or anything like that, but there is a humor and sophistication to it that must have taken me beyond where my mind was circa the third grade. Enid says she isn't sure what transvestites are, and neither was I. This is the book where I first heard of Gregory Peck and Portrait of a Lady and Moby Dick, and this is the book that made me want to read Jane Eyre, because the housekeeper is reading it, and Enid tells her to just wait and see what Mr. Rochester is hiding in the attic.
Another thing I love about Lois Lowry: She tends to treat little kids -- little boy kids, particularly -- less as nuisances than the little charming bundles of smarts and cuteness they often are. Like Sam Krupnik, brother of Anastasia, and Joshua Warwick Camera IV. Sam and Joshua are very different characters, definitely, but they are characters, not caricatures. They are not depicted one dimensionally as pests or brats: they're just little people. I think I fell in love with this book right around the time my own little brother was born, and I think I subconsciously appreciated that Anastasia and Enid were allowed to love these little boys -- why wouldn't they? These little boys were awesome! That's how I felt about my little brother, too, and so I felt like I was a part of the Anastasia and Enid club, the best club on Earth, as far as I was concerned.
Like all my favorite books from childhood, this book had a big impact on me that has lasted for decades. I think in those years when I was first starting to become real friends with the boys in my neighborhood and on my school bus and in my class, I really absorbed the idea that boys who seemed utterly grody like Seth Sandroff might be secretly fantastic in their own secret Seth Sandroff-y kind of way. And whenever I accomplish some sort of goal, even now, I think about how Enid thought about how fun it was to win a battle and how fun it might be to start another one.
I never hear Stardust without thinking of Hawk and his long legs, remembering how this book was the first time I ever heard of that song and learned that it's special, and the way Hawk would say, "Long as she doan rain." When I would take a job babysitting some truly magnificent child, I would think, like Enid thought of Tom Terrific, "It sure doesn't take long to start to love a kid." The best kid I ever babysat was named Thomas, and I thought of him as my Tom Terrific. This book is the reason I went to the Public Gardens when I was in Boston at the age of 31 and sat on a bench and watched the swan boats glide across the lake. It's so I could feel close to Enid and Tom and the bag ladies and Hawk and Seth Sandroff and the whole gang. And I took these pictures, and I did.
This book is the story of one of those summers that starts out ordinary and turns into magic, and it is the story of how trying to transform yourself really just shows you who you were all along. This book just taught me so much. It taught me how your life and your very self can be forever changed by people you would have never expected to change you. Perhaps most importantly, it taught me that people are often not what they seem.
Romance, intrigue, danger, and pathos ~ that summer, Enid's life ended up having all of those things. And because of these characters, so did mine. And so I'll love this book forever.