Throwback Thursday: Childhood Reads
*Contributed by Sarah Jackson*
It was my first year of college and I decided to audition for several studentdirected one acts on campus. After a handful of unmemorable auditions with various directors, I was welcomed by a senior with a warm face and a gentle voice.
“Do you have a piece prepared?” she asked.
My stomach dropped. What now?
“Sorry?” I blinked.
“Do you have anything memorized that you’d like to perform for me before I give you the
script for my piece?” She must have seen my panicked expression because she added, “It’s not required, it’s just that some people have something prepared.”
I was about to tell her that evidently, I was an actor of the illprepared variety when I thought of something.
“Well, I do have something memorized,” I said. “It’s a children’s book.”
“Great!” she said. “Let’s hear it!
So I started in on my rendition of Tacky the Penguin, a sweet and raucous picture book by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger, which I’d memorized after countless readings with the many children I babysat in middle and high school. I flailed my arms and jumped around to convey Tacky’s unorthodox marching pattern. I put on my best terrified face as the penguins realize that there are hunters coming. Most importantly, I sang Tacky’s song as “loudly and dreadfully” as I could: “HOW MANY TOES DOES A FISH HAVE? AND HOW MANY WINGS ON A COW? I WONDER, YUP, I WONDER!” I felt the thrill of the stage, of penguin friendship rediscovered, of storytelling itself.
“Wonderful!” the senior said. “I really enjoyed that. Now here’s the piece I’ll be doing. It’s about a woman who commits suicide.”
Needless to say, I wasn’t the best fit for the role.
Cut to ten years earlier, when I was given Tacky as a birthday present from some close family friends and it quickly became one of my favorites. Cut to five years after that when I started babysitting and realized what a wonderful read aloud book it was. Cut to three years after that when I went on a semesterlong trip around the world and sent postcards back to the kids I babysat from Tacky. Cut to eight years after I graduated college and I included Tacky in my MFA thesis. Cut to the last few years as I write graduation notes to the children I used to babysit, reminding them of Tacky’s relentless authenticity, and encouraging them to continue becoming the truest versions of themselves. Cut to next week or one year or twenty years from now, perhaps, as I face one challenge or another, and I borrow some of Tacky’s bravery as he stood up to the penguin hunters (with their “maps and traps and rocks and locks”!).
Nostalgia is, according to U.S. diplomat George Ball, a “seductive liar.” But we who love books know that stories are also seductive liars, and, like Picasso, we know that these lies that art tells can make us “realize truth.” We know that certain books grab hold of us and demand to be reread throughout our lives. Do I love Tacky because I think it’s a good book? Yes. Definitely. Do I also love Tacky because I used to love Tacky? Yes. Definitely.
Some may say that nostalgia blinds us, preventing us from evaluating things neutrally. First, it is impossible to ever evaluate things neutrally; we are always a fantastic swirl of biases and preferences and a host of other cultural and emotional responses. But I also suspect that nostalgia in its best form makes the past, the present, and the future better simultaneously. The more I read Tacky, the more it becomes, and the more I become too.