Although I was late to learn to read (public schools in the Bronx didn't teach reading until 1st grade when I was a kid), I took to it faster than most kids around me. Yet, I only ever read the odd in-class shorts or the random children's books we had lying around the house. It took until the 3rd grade for me to work up the courage to read a book longer than 10 pages, but the very first "big kid's" book I read opened up a lifetime of reading for me, not to mention cemented my love for all stories fantastical and strange. And this was the book that did it!
The Shades by Betty Brock was a tale I was not expecting when my teacher assigned it to me for a book report. At first, I thought it was just a straight-forward (read: sappy) plot about a boy being sent to stay with his eccentric "Aunt," who was in fact a friend of the family, while his parents vacationed in Europe over one summer. The boy, Hollis, feels rejected and lonely. I sympathized with the latter, if not the former, at the time, but I really didn't want to read about this. I mean, it was just too boring for a wildly imaginative 8 year old! :-)
But, somewhere around the 3rd or 4th chapter, things changed drastically. Hollis's "aunt" lived in a big house on a tidy, old estate replete with a large garden and fountain. Naturally the boy goes exploring and, on one particularly hot day, decides to climb into the curious dolphin-shaped fountain for a refreshing dip. He emerges to find a strange boy standing by the fountain. Turns out the boy is Hollis's shadow, which he can only see "in the flesh" thanks to the magical properties of the fountain water. The two instantly become best friends (naturally), but turns out the strange boy is not the only shadow in the garden. A veritable community of "Shades" exist within the walls of the estate, leftovers from every person who has ever set foot onto the grounds. They can never leave the estate, and can only be seen by real people after water from the dolphin fountain is rubbed into one's eyes.
The Shades are likable folk, and Hollis eventually spends more and more time in the garden, much to the puzzlement of his aunt. It's after this point that details of the plot become hazy in my recollection, although I do remember some sort of danger presenting itself to the Shades from the outside world. There are also logistic shortcomings, such as the fountain getting turned off at one point, and a rainy day or two where Hollis cannot play with his friends.
I think what grabbed my attention the most was not so much the fantastical element of the Shades itself, but the fact that I had not been expecting it. Up until that point, I had only read situational dilemmas for kids, such as Freckle Juice and Hello, My Name is Scrambled Eggs. Cute, but not too much removed from the real world.
I had never read anything "magical" or fantastical before, except maybe our little children's Sunday school Bible. :-) I remember my heart racing each time we would be allowed "reading time" in our class for our book report project. See, we were not allowed to take the books home because, well, our school could not afford to lose them. This only made the escape from reading a good book all the more palpable for me. From that point on, I would actually crave books more than any other thing in my childhood world. Reading became my everything.
What was your first great book? The one that unlocked a whole new world for you?