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What Lee Smith can teach us about summer reading for kids

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(Read caption) As Lee Smith reminds readers of her memoir 'Dimestore,' 'I was a reader long before I was a writer. In fact, I started writing in the first place because I couldn’t stand for my favorite books to be over.'

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Parents looking for summer reading suggestions for their children can get some help this vacation season from an unlikely source – Lee Smith, a novelist best known for her works of fiction for adults.

Though Smith doesn’t bill herself as an expert on juvenile reading, she has two stellar qualifications to talk about books for kids. Smith read broadly and avidly as a child, and she seems to remember just about every book that she devoured. Or so we learn in “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” Smith’s new memoir of her formative years in the small Virginia mountain town of Grundy in the 1950s.

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Smith has written 17 celebrated works of fiction, including “Fair and Tender Ladies,” “Oral History” and, most recently, “Guests on Earth.” But as she reminds readers of “Dimestore,” “I was a reader long before I was a writer. In fact, I started writing in the first place because I couldn’t stand for my favorite books to be over, so I started adding more and more chapters onto the ends of them, often including myself as a character.”  

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Among Smith’s most cherished books were “Heidi,” “Anne of Green Gables,” “Pippi Longstocking,” and “The Secret Garden,” “which I’d read maybe twenty times,” she writes.

As a sickly child, Smith used to stay home a lot, which allowed her to feed her reading habit even more.

“Other books had affected me strongly,” she adds. “‘Little Women,’ especially the part where Beth dies, and ‘Gone With the Wind,’ especially the part where Melanie dies.... I also loved ‘Marjorie Morningstar,’ ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ and books like ‘Dear and Glorious Physician,’ ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman,’ ‘Christy,’ and anything at all about horses and saints. I had read all the Black Stallion books, of course, as well as all the Marguerite Henry books.”

Henry was a celebrated author of children’s books about horses, including “Misty” and “Sea Star.”

When the young Smith learned that Henry had once stayed at her grandmother’s boarding house, the idea that writers were real people encouraged her to think that she might become a writer, too.

In “Dimestore,” Smith has provided a pretty decent summer reading list to get youngsters through the next few weeks. Meanwhile, we grown-ups can read “Dimestore,” a charming memoir of a little girl who loved books so much that she grew up to write her own.

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Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”