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Childhood Classics and Clues

Student 24's picture

What is striking about Katy Mugford’s chapter, “Nature, nurture; danger, adventure; junkyard paradise” is the four photos of children all in front of different landscapes. And they all have very grim expressions and the same awkward, unenthusiastic, reluctant postures.

This reminds of me of parents taking photographs of their children when on trips to various places, with the classic reluctant child pose. Why do we like taking family photos when we travel to new places, monuments, historic sites, etc.?

There are already countless of photographs and documentations — both professional and amateur — of the Eiffel Tower or the Capitol building or the Rocky Mountains, and yet we still take our own because they are not as meaningful as when they include a familiar, non-stranger person. When we know the subject, or we are ourselves the subject, of a photograph in any landscape, we are capturing ourselves inserted in that landscape. Printed out on a flat surface, that photo physically levels out the degrees to which we may be separated from the landscape. We become part of the landscape.

My family has countless photographs as well, of our own trips. I owe so much to my parents for giving me the lifestyle and platform that allow me to create a relationship with the many environments I’ve experienced. However, I don’t know if I’ve consciously gone about relating the books I read in my childhood with the way I learned about my ‘setting,’ my environment in the close world around me.

Thinking back onto what major reading phases I experienced, there are two phases I can recall. The first was when I would walk to a Richmond public library and fill up a basket (yes, I carried around a woven basket with me for books) with as many Magic Treehouse paperback books as I was permitted to check out. I would spend afternoons devouring one book after the other. I was intrigued by the time travel, by the children’s ability to wholly remove themselves from their home and enter environments of the past. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to know more about past historical events, but it was fascinating how two children who’d grown up in an entirely removed context (though, sure, I suppose we can question the extent of its removal, given that the future is composed of the past…) could integrate themselves in this new environment and in fact become crucial in the events that unfolded around them.

The other prominent phase was my addiction to Nancy Drew mysteries. She was my hero for a considerable amount of time. I wanted to be Nancy Drew and I distinctly remember one day, when I was with my family, biking along the C&O Canal in Washington DC (a five minutes walk from our house in Georgetown). I did my best to bike a bit ahead of the rest of my family, so that I could speak out loud to myself, pretending I was Nancy Drew talking on the phone her best friend Bess Marvin. By trying to emulate Nancy Drew, I practised observing the world around me as a talented amateur sleuth. I looked for details (“clues”) I wouldn’t normally look for, and by playing pretend with a fictional character, I trained myself somewhat to interact with my environment in a new way.

I suppose I read a lot of books. Definitely more than I am able to now. I loved ghost stories and haunted houses. Even now, ghost towns and abandoned houses thrill me, though I’ve never actually played in a junkyard or an actual abandoned house. I played in dodgy alleys and parking lots and city parks, but I don’t recall having much opportunity for exploring dilapidated buildings. 

From this chapter, a prominent theme I noticed was the absence of parental/adult supervision. I know I said already that I owe so, so much to my parents for making my life full of opportunities to get tastes of countless landscapes, but I suppose that’s one half of the story. The other half is them trusting me to be responsible and learn how to navigate my cities and neighbourhoods on my own, without them. Because of this, yes, I’ve had plenty of unpleasant experiences, but those experiences are learning material. I don’t think I could learn about my life and space by reading books, but I did learn how to think about my life and space by trying to incorporate fictional characters into my own behaviour.