In Jacob Needleman’s newest book about finding spiritual hope in our troubled world, the scholar reflects on his own childhood many years ago. Needleman credits both a young friend and early picture books with awakening his own interest in the cosmos. From his youthful fascination with astronomy to his adult research into the world’s ancient religious traditions, Needleman draws a straight line from childhood to his career as a writer. In his new book, he invites all of us to remember our childhood experiences of awe. Do you remember talking with a childhood friend about the night sky? Do you remember a favorite children’s book that entertained and amazed you?
NOW, ReadTheSpirit is inviting readers to respond to Dr. Needleman’s challenge. Specifically, we’re asking: What children’s book shaped your life? The first to respond is Mitch Horowitz, an author and also the publisher of Needleman’s newest book.
The Childhood Book That Changed Everything for Me:
Stevie by John Steptoe
Illustrator and writer John Steptoe produced Stevie in 1969 when he was 19 years old. When I discovered the slender volume at my neighborhood library in Queens at age 7, it changed everything for me. Stevie awakened me to the emotional experience of reading.
In a narrative of fewer than a thousand words, Stevie possesses more poignancy than most novels. It tells the story of two inner-city boys, Stevie and Robert, whose lives are thrown together when the younger Stevie is left in the care of Robert’s household. Stevie’s mother must work around the clock, perhaps as a domestic maid, and can see him only on weekends. Robert, our narrator, spends most of the book complaining about “Little Stevie” messing up his room, breaking his toys, and getting him in trouble.
One day, however, Stevie’s parents arrive to say they are moving away with him. Robert wakes up the next morning, fixes two bowls of cornflakes, and gets ready to settle in to watch cartoons with Stevie. Then he realizes despondently that the other bowl isn’t needed – Stevie is gone.
The book shows how loss often takes us by surprise. It’s a sad irony given how much time we spend complaining about others. I liked the author’s soft-spoken realism. Stevie first comes to live with Robert, and then is taken away from him, because Stevie’s parents are pressed to earn a living. Steptoe wrote Stevie in the idiom of young African-American boys: “But why I gotta take him everywhere I go?” Some readers objected to that. I loved it. As a kid I recognized it as real.
Steptoe worked and died at a young age – he passed away in 1989, just before his thirty-ninth birthday. In his author photograph on the original jacket he looks just a few years old than his own characters. After many years of my rereading the book – I share it today with my sons, 5 and 8 – I still feel the emotions of Robert’s surprise when he realizes that Stevie is no longer there.
MITCH HOROWITZ is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin. He is the author of Occult America (Bantam), which received the 2010 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Award. He is writing a history of the positive thinking movement, forthcoming from Crown. Visit him at: www.mitchhorowitz.com
PLEASE SHARE YOUR STORY: What’s the children’s book that changed your life? Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com