Post by Fiona Ross
When I was five years old my mother and I used to fight about reading on a daily basis. She was an elementary teacher and I think the thought that her own child was not a “good” reader was an impossibility she was not willing to accept. It was Scotland in the 1970’s. Early readers on loan from the school were to be meticulously wrapped in brown paper or wallpaper samples. I am sure they were appallingly racist and sexist but I just remember the battles with my mother. Which, where and with were my Achilles heels. I still remember the tears to this day.
One day, no doubt in desperation, my mother took me to a big book store. It wasn’t in our own small town so I can only assume it was in Dunfermline or Edinburgh. To six year old me it was huge. I was told I could pick any book in the store, as long as I could prove that I could read the first page. I found one. It was by Enid Blyton and titled Bimbo and Topsy. It looked like a “real” book and had the picture of an adorable puppy and kitten on the front cover. Each chapter was about their adventures, they conveniently lived next door to each other, if I remember correctly. That was it, I was hooked. I read it all in one day and magically became a reader.
As an adult now there is much amiss with Enid Blyton, but as a young reader in Scotland her some 600 books offered a lot to choose from. I devoured the Famous Five and Secret Seven, although the obvious sexism did wrankle. The Magic Faraway Tree was my first taste of fantasy and Malory Towers and Tales of St. Clare’s introduced me to the “wonders” of boarding school (and socio economic privilege and classism, which I understood later). I don’t remember where or how I got all these books but I do remember reading about a book a day for much of my childhood in Scotland. I mean it rains there. A LOT! And I remember nights under the covers with a flashlight until the wee hours of the morning. I was terrified of being discovered, but much more distressed that I wouldn’t find out how the story ends.
At about 9 or 10 I found a new passion, horses. My parents couldn’t afford such a hobby but I could read about it endlessly. Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, King of the Wind and Misty of Chincoteague. My copy of The Horsemasters by Don Stanford was read so much that it was held together by an elastic band to keep all the pages in place. My tastes had definitely become more international too. Another much loved favourite was The Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell about the wild horses on the Australian outback. Through the magic of reading I was able to ride a horse and even be a horse, such was the power of words. Then I met Anne.
Anne of Green Gables was me, without the red hair, and with a stable loving home. Okay, maybe we had some significant differences, but I loved her. I loved her imagination, her intelligence, her passion for the underdog and making things right. I loved her disregard for gender conventions and her endless optimism. I read the whole series and then my parents told me we were moving, to Canada. Well, of course I assumed that meant Prince Edward Island, right? I mean, who has heard of a silly place called Ontario? Or Brampton? But that’s where we landed in September, 1978. I still haven’t made it out to PEI, but hopefully someday.
My mother was a huge influence and an avid reader herself, so by my teen years she would just pass along whatever she had just finished reading. Now, as a mother of teens, and a teacher librarian in a high school, those books were often highly unsuitable, in short, they would get me fired. Still, Flowers in The Attic and Clan of the Cave Bear were highly engaging reads, especially compared with Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind and Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Who chose those books to inflict on grade 9 and 10 students? Just as well I was an established, avid reader before then.
By grade 11 I had been placed in the enriched English program, ENG 361 for those who remember that coding system. It was a class of 21 students, 18 of which were young women. That year we read Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Macbeth and The Admirable Crichton (a J.M Barrie play). I distinctly remember the male teacher characterizing Lady M as the temptress and villain, and thinking to myself that was not how I saw it at all. In a discussion of Lord of the Flies, he wisely decreed that this was Golding’s view of human nature, to which I replied I didn’t see how that could be when he was missing 51% of the population. I hate that book to this day. This is when I started to become a much more critical reader, to understand that representation matters. Who is telling the story and who is interpreting the story becomes very important. I started to question the notion of the canon or the classics. Reading changed from being a beloved recreational activity to a powerful intellectual one.
Fast forward for the next thirty years and reading was a constant in my life. I got a degree in English Literature, became a high school English teacher, a mother, a member of two book clubs, a teacher librarian, and a book reviewer. Books were a significant part of my daily life, and I feel incredibly grateful for that. However, reading became an obligation, something that needed to be done. I ceased to have any choice in what I was reading, and while I still enjoyed books, it was not the same. My TBR pile was ever growing and the weight of what I “should” be reading became a heavy burden to bear.
Which brings me to (mostly) now. Where am I as a reader? Can I still even call myself that? In 2017 I was diagnosed with Cancer. It is extraordinarily rare, chronic and incurable #EHE (epithelioid hemangioendothelioma). My bandwidth and headspace became occupied with my own mortality, instead of books. Now, in Covid times it surely hasn’t improved. I am reading so much less that I feel like an imposter. What is unchanging is that I still love words and ideas. I still believe with everything in me that words are the surest and best way to change the world. I feel honoured to meet and promote Canadian authors through my work at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) and The Authors Book Club. I may only be reading (or listening) to 30-40 books a year, but I have a lifetime of books behind me.
My name is Fiona, and I am a reader.
Fiona Ross is teacher librarian and book club consultant with The Authors’ Book Club. From the time she read her first novel, Bimbo and Topsy by Enid Blyton at age 6, she was hooked on fiction. Fiona is an avid reader, a teacher librarian, a current member of two book clubs and past chair of the Secondary Fiction Review Committee at the Peel District School Board. She also serves on the planning committee at the Festival of Literary Diversity, (FOLD). Although her job demands lots of YA she occasionally tries to read a book aimed at adult readers.