7-Day Book Challenge: Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail

I stole this book from the King County Library system. I didn’t forget to return it. I didn’t lose it and find it years later. I made a deliberate, conscious, and purposeful decision to keep it because I needed it and back in 1981 I didn’t have any way to get my own, lawfully-owned copy.

I happened upon it by chance; I worked as a page at the Burien library, which was, it seemed to me, a rather twee (though it would be years before I was introduced to the concept of “twee”) job title for those of us who shelved the library’s returned books. Sorting and shelving books was a fabulous way to discover titles I’d never have otherwise found, and this was, perhaps, the best of the treasures I uncovered, for it helped me find a way back to writing.

Kind of ridiculous to think that, at 17, I’d already lost my way as a writer, but I had. Actually, considering all the ridiculous things we do and say to children around the subject of writing, it’s not ridiculous at all. At any rate, I’d lost my way, and this book helped me find it again.

“What do you do with this book? There aren’t any rules. Start anywhere and go anywhere….If a teacher likes the book, don’t let her (or him) shove it down your throat and make lessons out of it, unless that’s the way you want to use it. And tell your teacher, if you have to, that the kind of writing this book is about isn’t a spelling assignment, or a lesson in grammar or handwriting or how to make paragraphs. This writing is to get down your good ideas, and what you think and feel inside.”

–Jacqueline Jackson, Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail ©1974 Little, Brown and Company

The author, Jacqueline Jackson, wrote children’s books that I didn’t find particularly compelling but this book gave me a vision of what life as a writer could be:  One filled with kids and books and talk about books and humor and joy and mess-ups that were not failures or potential triggers for frightening adult anger but material for great stories. (There’s a whole chapter on the merits of being horrid!)

This was no how-to-be-a-writer guide that required me to live my life as a loaded gun or end it with my tragically young head in an oven. It was a book full of anecdotes and kids and dogs and mishaps and references to books I already loved (Harriet the Spy!) and books I was sure I would love as soon as I read them. A big part of me, even though I was nearly grown, longed to be a child in this household. (Her children had wonderful names–the youngest was Elspeth–and they had a dog named Frodo! Who knew you could do that?) Since it was too late for me to have that kind of childhood, I dreamed that some day I might create such a life for the children I hoped to have.

The title is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster Quadrille”:  “Turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance,” and this was the first book I read that suggested that the path to writing was not, in fact, to shut oneself up in a room with one’s demons but to enter into life as fully as possible and live to tell the tales. It probably doesn’t seem such radical stuff now, but for a good (read: “compliant”) student in the early 80s struggling with what she’d later know was anxiety and depression, the idea that there was a whole different way to learn about writing and to live as a writer than those I’d been taught was ground-shifting. Life-saving.

The librarian in me now would be perfectly fine with the younger me keeping this book.  (But you don’t have to steal it now. Amazon has multiple old copies available.)

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

8 thoughts on “7-Day Book Challenge: Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail

  1. Marian says:

    This really makes me want to read this book! (Unfortunately, our library doesn’t have it and a used copy on Amazon.ca is $45!)
    I’ve gotta say I’m impressed that your teenage anxiety allowed that badassness to come through (although I suppose it wasn’t badassness, but rather, desperation, which is a whole other thing) — I would have been too terrified to steal a library book, even if I were desperate. Sadly, I still would be.
    Harriet the Spy would definitely make the cut for my top seven favourite books list. That, and Charlotte’s Web.
    I hope you do more of these posts (and please continue to break the no-commentary rule; I love talking books 🙂 ).

    • Rita says:

      Yes for Charlotte’s Web! Another favorite favorite from childhood. Also loved From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. And The Westing Game. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think I favored books with smart, brave girls. 🙂

      As for taking the book, I don’t think it was either badassedness or desperation. I just couldn’t bear to part with it. I felt bad about keeping it, but not bad enough to give it back. Only book I ever did that with, though.

      • Kate says:

        Mixed up Files and The Westing Game are two of my mom’s favorites that I never read because they were my mom’s favorites. (Like Violet won’t read Anne of Green Gables or The Secret Garden). Now I’m thinking I should go back and read them because so many people loved them!!

        • Rita says:

          I haven’t read Westing Game in decades, so I’m not sure how it would hold up. I will confess that I was inordinately pleased the summer my daughter made it her mission to read through the entire Anne series. (And she did it.) I don’t think she did it because she loved them (although she did like them) so much as because she’d set it as a challenge for herself, and she never backs down from challenges. I really like that we now have that common point of reference.

  2. Kate says:

    My mom actually has spent her retirement working as a page for her local library and she would agree to both your points – that the title is far too twee for the work involved AND it allows for the discovery of titles that she would have missed.

    And I have to agree with Marian. I’m impressed (and a bit shocked) at you stealing a book from the library. Sadly, our library consortium doesn’t carry the title either, so I’ll have to see if I can purchase a copy!
    Kate recently posted…A Piece of PeaceMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Clearly I have been misrepresenting my youth, that both you and Miriam are so surprised by my larceny. Not that I was regularly committing crimes, but…I was no angel. Maybe since the statute of limitations has long expired on any of that, I should write some of those stories…

  3. May says:

    These comments are fantastic! I have been voting faithfully on the PBS website for The Great American Read which features many , many books I love. But these comments…oh, my! The Westing Game was one we read as a family multiple times. I have read it again fairly recently, and found it does hold up by the way. Rilla of Ingleside was the Green Gables book my second-born could not get enough of. She and I read it aloud to each other at least three times. Secret Garden was a favorite here as well. Charlotte’s Web was too, but it made the Read so I can’t fault them there. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn–same.
    Booklovers are a dreamy lot, aren’t we?! Now I cannot wait to revisit some of these old friends!
    May recently posted…Summer’s EndMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’d really like to read The Westing Game again. It was such a nice surprise when I happened upon it in the library. I think I was past the target audience age when I found it. I worked in our public library when I was in high school, and I read all kinds of things I discovered when I was shelving. I’m so glad I had that experience. I still like to go to the library and wander around in all the sections, seeing what jumps out at me.

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