We just returned from a family vacation to the Florida panhandle, where we spent more than a week hanging out with my lovely–and lively–in-laws. Thirteen people (9 adults, 1 teenager, and 3 kids under age 8) in two small beach condos. It was glorious chaos.
But one morning, looking to start my day with a little peace and quiet, I stepped out onto our balcony and closed the hurricane-proof door behind me. As I looked up and down the beach, I noticed that it was full of holes. My daughter and her cousins were responsible for a couple of them; the rest had been dug by other kids from our building. They were all within a few yards of the waves, where just a little excavation will bring water oozing up from under the hard-packed sand. As I stood on the balcony, I suddenly remembered a poem from my childhood:
When I was down beside the sea/A wooden spade they gave to me/To dig the sandy shore./My holes were empty like a cup./In every hole the sea came up,/Till it could come no more.
That’s “At the Sea-side,” from one of the cornerstone works of children’s literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It’s the first book I remember reading independently, somewhere around age 4. For years, that poem was my favorite thing to read; I still remember the way the words looked on the page, with the adjacent watercolor painting of a small child crouched in the sand.
I think it resonated with me because I went to the beach a lot as a child, and I was fascinated by those water-holes in the sand. Sand is the driest dirt there is; yet, no matter how far up the beach I went, the water would appear if I just dug deep enough. Digging water-holes at the beach–and reliving the experience every time I read Stevenson’s poem–was my first taste of the Eureka! that still sparks in my mind every time I learn something new.
Stevenson wrote his poem almost 150 years ago, yet here I was digging the same kind of holes in the sand with my daughter and niece and nephew–and kids all up and down the beach were doing the same with their families. That’s the power of good children’s literature: the kindling of the Eureka! spark, the lingering memory, the capture of something universal about childhood and its watershed moments (good or bad).
A Child’s Garden of Verses was the first book to inspire me. What about you?