by Heather Gudenkauf
On the last day of school, when most of my classmates were racing out the school doors cheering about upcoming summer days filled with trips to the pool and to the park for games of kickball, baseball, and boys-chase-the-girls, I was silently celebrating the many hours I had in front of me expressly reserved for reading. Being the youngest of six didn’t allow for much alone time in our home, especially in the summer when everyone was running in and out of the house,so I had to be creative in finding a place to call my own. Growing up we had a toy box that my father’s students made for our family. It was painted robin egg blue and was my perfect sanctuary. I would toss out all the stuffed animals, dolls and puzzle pieces and climb in with a pillow and immerse myself books like The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, Richard Scarry’s Best First Book Ever!, Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman and The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. I was completely enamored with Ferdinand, the tenderhearted bull, who only wanted to sit and smell the flowers. I would while away the hours reading about Ferdinand and poring over the illustrations. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I was given a record (remember those?) with a narrator reading the story aloud so I could follow along.
When I finally graduated to the thrilling world of chapter books it was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie series made me into an avid reader. I would escape to Wilder’s unsettled prairie, beginning with The Little House in the Big Woods and eight books later end with The First Four Years. Then I’d start all over again. These books led me to the idyllic adventures of Betsy, Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace, I met the smart and sassy Harriet the Spy, and visited the war-torn home of Jo March and her sisters in Little Women. Inside this toy box (which I still have) the seeds of becoming a writer were planted.
In junior high, I was in that somewhat awkward stage of wanting to read more mature books and remaining tenuously ensconced within the books where I found comfort. I was scared witless by Stephen King’s Cujo and Christine. I was scandalized by Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds (and my mother was too when she caught me reading it) and I was brokenhearted to learn that someone my age could have had such a tragic, heart-wrenching childhood as Anne Frank. In between these ventures into adult books I would always return to some of my old standbys: Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary and the Choose Your Own Adventure series. In high school, I had a wonderful teacher who introduced me Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and the intricate, but surprisingly lonely, lives of its inhabitants. It was within the pages of this book of short stories that I learned the power of unforgettable characters.
When I was a college student I stumbled onto what would become my favorite author and novel: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. Cather’s writing is beautiful. I love the way that she could describe the setting in a novel and it actually seemed to become a character within the story. Cather’s writings showed me the magic and impact of words. I revisit My Ántonia and O Pioneers every single year and can only dream of writing such powerful stories.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and a mother myself that I discovered Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If I could read a book again for the first time it would it would be this one. When you close a book and realize immediately that you desperately miss the characters and can’t stand not knowing what has become of them, you know it is a very special book. Betty Smith had a way of writing and talking to the reader in such a way that I found myself in dialogue with her. Yes, that is exactly how it is! I would exclaim (most of the time this was an inner dialogue, but not always). There is such a truth to her stories, a turn of phrase that leaves you nodding your head.
Summer, for me, remains that time of year when, like Ferdinand the Bull who sits to smell the flowers, I’m able to stop and grab those few extra minutes (or if I’m lucky—hours) of reading. I dig into my tottering to-be-read pile that has grown taller and taller over the winter months and even revisit some of my old tried and true favorites.
Heather Gudenkauf is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and These Things Hidden. Her new novel, Little Mercies releases July 24, 2014. You can enter to win an advanced reading copy today. Giveaway ends Friday, May 30.
Heather was born in Wagner, South Dakota, the youngest of six children. At one month of age, her family returned to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where her father was employed as a guidance counselor and her mother as a school nurse. At the age of three, her family moved to Iowa, where she grew up. Having been born with a profound unilateral hearing impairment (there were many evenings when Heather and her father made a trip to the bus barn to look around the school bus for her hearing aids that she often conveniently would forget on the seat beside her), Heather tended to use books as a retreat, would climb into the toy box that her father’s students from Rosebud made for the family with a pillow, blanket, and flashlight, close the lid, and escape the world around her. Heather became a voracious reader and the seed of becoming a writer was planted.
Heather Gudenkauf graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education, has spent her career working with students of all ages and continues to work in education as a Title I Reading Coordinator.
Heather lives in Iowa with her husband, three children, and a very spoiled German Shorthaired Pointer named Maxine.