'Refreshing' book celebrates childhood, gently urges kids to enjoy all their senses

April 25, 2000

"Play outdoors a lot. Go bare-footed in the summer-it's the only way to feel the heartbeat of the earth. Keep a lookout for something shy or rare: a hummingbird, a fawn, a box turtle, a May-apple, a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

"Go speeding on your bicycle. Experience the exultant, lacy taste of snowflakes. Rock-a-bye your favorite doll and smell the bronze scent of her waxy hair.

"Dare yourself, not somebody else, to go wobbling on tall stilts, uphill downhill in a slow glissando of thrill. Watch the quarter moon, dippering over a pond pontooned with lily pads, frogs afloat on them, singing their grumpy arias. You will know another kind of happiness then, solitary, transcendent, almost divine."

Those and numerous other nuggets of youthful advice appear in a new book, "How to Have a Happy Childhood" by Marianne Gingher, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's creative writing program. The little book, just released by John F. Blair Publisher and distributed by Zuckerman Cannon Publishers, represents the author's attempt to share many of the best, most lasting memories of her childhood.

"A few years ago, I read a review in the New York Times of a 'Mommy-Dearest' type of book about Anne Sexton that her daughter had written," Gingher said in an interview. "It was a scathing review of just how horrible it was to keep reading memoirs of people who grew up in such dysfunctional ways and suffered throughout their adult lives.

"The reviewer asked at one point would somebody out there who grew up happy, is leading a fairly contented life and doesn't rely on Prozac night and day stand up and be counted? Do we have no books about people who grew up in functional families? I thought maybe we don't have enough of them, and I began writing a series of 17 essays about my childhood, my young adulthood and becoming a mother."

Louisiana State University Press plans to publish that book, but Blair editors found one of the shorter essays so refreshing that they proposed publishing it separately as "How to Have a Happy Childhood."

"This is a piece that celebrates childhood, and especially the curious and alert, attentive child who has time to dawdle over some of the pleasantries that come along when he or she is well-nurtured," Gingher said. "I felt a challenge to write about a time that I certainly equate with serenity, contentment and a degree of satisfaction that was matchless in my life. I was lucky, and I owe a lot of that luck to being born to the people I was born to."

Her father was a Navy doctor on Guam where she was born, and her parents named her after the Marianas Islands. Gingher built her "advice" book from thousands of memories of a girlhood spent growing up in Texas, Tennessee and, chiefly, Greensboro, N.C. She included more universal memories than just those specific to her own family, she said, so that the book would have more meaning and appeal for children in a different time and other places.

The book is richly illustrated with drawings and photographs of young friends playing, parents, grandparents, bicycles, bees and other bugs, blackberries, beaches and books. In colorful language approaching poetry, Gingher encourages children to tell ghost stories at slumber parties, make mud pies, suck honeysuckle flowers and read "The Secret Garden" and other imagination-stimulating tales about Tarzan, Nancy Drew and a host of beloved characters.

"Lie on your stomach someplace comfortable with good light and something tasty to eat-an apple salved with peanut butter, a tangerine to peel, pretzels twinkling with studs of salt-and read way past your bedtime," she wrote. "Don't only read mysteries when real ones dart and settle into the shadows just beyond your own yard. Consider why the elderly woman across the street always rolls her trashcan to the curb after midnight. ... Attach yourself to your favorite mystery and try to solve it."

"My own youngest son Sam just loved the book and wanted me to tell him about my grandmother and a lot of other things we really hadn't ever discussed," Gingher said. "That got us talking about good things from our past and took us out of the complaint world, the world-weary syndrome we all can get fixated on sometimes.

"I hope this book will prompt people to remember their own childhoods in their own specific ways and want to share that past with children and grandchildren."

Gingher wrote "Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit," which American Library Association named to its best book list and which NBC produced as a movie of the week. She has published a collection of stories, "Teen Angel & Other Stories of Wayward Love." Her next book, the series of personal narratives about growing up in the South, will be titled "A Girl's Life: Horses, Boys, Weddings & Luck" and appear next year.
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Note: Gingher can be reached at 919-962-0468 or via email at mbging@email.unc.edu. To order review copies, call 800-222-9796.

Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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