I’ve implied previously that learning to read was one of the great epiphanies of my life, and I read voraciously from the moment I could do so. Many books I bought, but a lot were library books, as my limited allowance couldn’t begin to buy everything I wanted. And like many other kids, I ordered Scholastic books through school. By the time I was 12, I had amassed a pretty good library of my own. There were a couple of good bookstores downtown --- I was going to say ‘independent’ bookstores, but truth is, in the good old days they were all independent. And I could go on the bus downtown or walk to the public library on my own, because also in the good old days, nobody thought anything of a 12 year old going places by himself.
Today I scoured my library and chose ten (plus a bonus!) books, in no particular order, that I really loved as a child, and still return to because, as C.S. Lewis said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I’ll focus on the first half today, leaving the fantasy/SF picks until next time. (Yes, I read more than fantasy and science fiction even when young... a true Renaissance child, that was me.)
- Freddy the Pig books, by Walter Brooks. There were more than 20, published over a couple of decades. Freddy was a talking pig living on a farm in New York state with a large collection of other talking animals, and he had all kinds of adventures. I realize that statement puts us within shouting distance of the fantasy genre... but if you looked past the anthropomorphic characters, things were pretty down to earth, in a charmingly original way. It chronicled a sweeter, more innocent time which I’m not sure ever really existed, but wish it did.
- The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snider. Set in California during the Great Depression, this gritty story focuses on a girl named Robin whom I thought was a lot like me: introspective and a dreamer with a vivid imagination. Her frequent escapes --- to an empty but preserved mansion with a tower chamber she called the Velvet Room --- appealed to my burgeoning love of old, abandoned, secret places.
- The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. Ancient Egypt? A setting for a children’s book? I think the idea was more unusual then. But I liked Ranofer, the orphan boy who was the story’s protagonist. Under the thumb of his evil half brother Gebu for most of the book, he was a plucky kid who ended up doing more than all right, although he was no Indiana Jones. But who could resist the lure of fighting Egyptian tomb robbers?
- Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books. Set in England shortly after the end of the Second World War, they chronicled a group of seven young children who were amateur detectives --- the European version of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. The Secret Seven had no small opinion of themselves, and the stories were not about earth shattering murders, but they were always entertaining.
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. What’s a reading list without a little apocalyptic fiction? Pat Frank spun a tale of World War III, told mostly from the perspective of a family in small town Florida. While the book was written in 1959 and so was, in light of what we know today, laughably optimistic in terms of survivability in a nuclear war, it told a compelling story that even at 12, I could sink my burgeoning political science interests into.
What made these books memorable, decades later? Well, they had several things in common. First and foremost, none talked down to the reader, as children’s lit sometimes does. They dealt with varying degrees of mature situations in believable ways, where the child protagonists were able to negotiate the twists and turns of adversity in effective and decisive manners. The plots were clever in the Goldilocks way --- not too simple, not too complex --- which was important, because I was well beyond Dr. Seuss by that time, but not ready for Tolstoy. The characters were sharply defined --- Robin and Ranofer, in particular, were kids you could really relate to and imagine being. The situations traditionally punished the evil and rewarded the virtuous, and the dialogue was very natural and believable... which is not as much a given as you might think. So... good groundings in plot, character, situation and dialogue. That’s a pretty fine start, don’t you think?
Last, an important point about these stories: they stood the test of time... and I know, because in the fullness of time I hauled them out and read them to my own children. They loved hearing them... and I loved reading them. Had to, really. Because, as Lewis has also said, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”