When I was a sixth grader, a wonderful thing happen. A friend of my parents, a large, pale skinned gentleman named Don Peterson, gave me a book for Christmas.
Getting a book wasn’t unusual. My mother and father, both voracious and enthusiastic readers made sure my siblings and I grew up with the luxury of stories all around us. Before I could read, I slept with books. The Pokey Little Puppy and Johnny Crow’s Garden with its fabulous pictures of animals were my favorites.
But Mr. Peterson’s gift that Christmas was not just any book. He gave me the complete Sherlock Holmes, a huge volume bigger than the Bible and obviously meant for grownups because it had no pictures. Most people would not have considered it appropriate book for a shy, awkward 11-year-old. But Mr. Peterson was not the average guy.
I loved Mr. Peterson, maybe as much as my own dad. He worked with my dad at The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper. He and his wife and their adopted Navajo twins lived in the same neighborhood as my rambunctious family. I loved Mr. Peterson because he told me silly little jokes about sunburned Zebras, and because he treated me like a grownup. I loved him even more after he introduced me to Sir Arthur Connon Doyle and the world of Baker Street. I read each of the four novels and 56 short stories in that giant book. My mysterious adventure started on Christmas night and lasted through the spring. That also was the year I got my first pair of glasses, but I don’t blame Sherlock or Mr. Peterson. Like many preteen girls growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I’d read Nancy Drew but I abandoned her after meeting Sherlock.
I stuck with my other favorite, however, the magical adventure stories of Edith Nesbit. Some wise adult in my life—maybe it was Mr. Peterson again—gave me Nesbit’s The Five Children and It. I still have that yellow book on my bookshelf, along with the fine, huge old Sherlock. That, and the other Nesbit stories may have appealed to me because they are complicated and clever and funny. Nesbit knew how to build suspense, a key factor in any who-done-it. The Five Children and It features a grumpy, odd-looking being called a Psammead who grants the children wishes, that, fulfilled, lead to trouble. The story enchanted me so much, I went to the library to see if Nesbit had written anything else and I found a few other of her books on the shelf. Like the Sherlock stories, they were full of puzzling developments and unexpected plot turns. I inhaled them.
Books sustained me as an introverted misfit teen. They became my friends, my tools to surviving the emotional roller coaster of adolescence. Because my parents valued good stories—and perhaps because my five siblings demanded much of their time—Mom and Dad encouraged me to read broadly and deeply. They were pleased when I asked for a book in which to keep a journal and when I decided to write stories of my own.
My friend Mr. Peterson died before I published my first mystery, but I can still see his pleasure as he watched me open that big Sherlock Holmes book. What gives us readers more joy that sharing books we love with people we think will appreciate them?
Anne Hillerman authors the series featuring Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn, and Bernadette Manuelito begun by her father, the bestselling author Tony Hillerman, in the 1970s.
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews April 2017 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.