Eve and I were snuggled up on the couch after watching “Maleficent” when she wandered into the library for some books to read while I graded essay tests. She came back with a small stack and asked, “Mom, do you remember reading this book all the time when I was little?”
I remember reading that book all the time when I was little, my girl.
My family didn’t do Scholastic book orders very often—why, I don’t really know. All the other kids would give checks to the teacher from their moms in a special envelope marked Book Order and I wouldn’t. They would wait for their packages of books, posters, pencils, and shaped erasers and I wouldn’t.
But one very special time, Mom let me order my own book. Did I have my own money or did she treat me—I don’t remember that, either. I don’t remember why I ordered the book I did, but from the moment it arrived at the school in a clear bag with my name on the top, I loved it.
Stand Back, Said the Elephant! I’m Going to Sneeze! It’s not a literary work of art or a classic or even one known by most people. But it was mine, and it was quickly a favorite. I read it over and over until I had the entire book memorized. I created different voices for each of the animals as they tried to convince the elephant how dangerous his sneeze would be—a dignified deep voice for the crocodile, a bumbling silly voice for the bear, and a Scarlett O'Hara inspired Southern accent for the four words said by the fly. I thought myself quite the actress managing all those voices as I read.
As a teenager, I allowed my younger sisters to use the book, which by that time had lost its cover, exposing the strings that held the binding together. I read it to them on occasion, but I’m sure it wasn’t often that I found the time in my busy high school world. It’s not a quick read for a picture book, but the final page always made them laugh, and not softly either, as the mouse asks the elephant from a puddle of water.
When I got married, Mom gave me a box filled with stuff (including books from my childhood) that Brad and I placed in a storage closet on the porch of our first home—a one-bedroom basement apartment in Provo, Utah. Just a few weeks later, that closet flooded, and the books, which happened to be on the bottom, were ruined. I was heartsick, since I’d been saving them since I was a girl to share with my own children. Some were replaced, others tossed, and some were saved, but all were mourned. Sadly, Stand Back didn’t survive the flood of ’89, and I couldn’t find a replacement.
Fast forward a few years. We had a few small children and I was walking through a bookstore. There on the shelf was my book—shiny and ready for me to share with my children. First published in 1971, it was back in print (this time with enhanced colors), and I scooped it up before anyone else could buy it. I was so excited about my purchase that I gathered a whole group of kids (including Heidi and Tucker) on a family campout that weekend to share with them the story of the crazy elephant whose belly laughs are just as damaging as his sneezes. I know they don’t remember sitting under that Ponderosa pine and reading, but I always will.
The book still sits on our library shelf, and I’ve read it to a few of my grandkids, three generations now of kids who know the damage that comes when elephants sneeze. Each time my kids bring home a book order from school, I think of that moment, 40 years ago now, when I bought my very first, very own book.