I have again been hit with a period of extreme interest in writing, so I thought it might be a good time to post something else about writing…at least indirectly so.
Below are my favorite children’s books, having in mind around up to 6th grade — or, probably actually younger (not my genre, BTW). I may be forgetting some — I read voraciously as a kid. A couple of these are kind of obscure, so I’d love to hear from anyone else who grew up reading and loving them.
1. The Ghost of Windy Hill, by Clyde Robert Bulla (1968)– my all-time favorite no questions asked, I must have read this book 5 or more times over the childhood years. It is kind of a suspenseful mystery, yet nothing violent or inappropriate. I also was stunned to look it up the other day and find out it takes place in 1851! I think as a kid I really had no grasp of what living in a different time meant. Reading that made me realize why some parts of the book seemed so strange, like something involving a stream and something involving something that seemed like a greenhouse but wasn’t exactly (sorry, it’s been a couple decades, I don’t remember it clearly). They were probably getting their drinking or washing water or something from the stream…which didn’t make a lick of sense to me at age 8 or whatever. But I think that vague sense of strangeness was actually part of what drew me into the novel.
2. Betsy-Tacy-Tib, as I thought of it, more properly known as the Betsy-Tacy series, by Maud Hart Lovelace (1940’s) — wow, I loved these books. Interestingly, they also take place in the past, late 1800’s to early 1900’s, in Minnesota (to a Florida girl Minnesota may as well have been China). Again, this explains why some things seemed so strange to me about the book, the calling cards, things like that. The stories basically follow the (mundane but thoroughly engrossing!) adventures of two friends, beginning at age 5, then the new friend Tib that moves to their street, up through (at least) Betsy’s wedding. My memories are so vague on the stories, but I do remember some strange intriguing thing about them visiting these people (they seemed like foreigners of something to me, it was all very strange!) no one else knows and getting their signatures for some kind of petition (this is where I learned about petitions), but then people not believing the signatures were real because they didn’t know the names. But as I’ve read little bits online, I remember them dressing as beggars, leaving calling cards, Tib being from Milwaukee (the first time I heard of Milwaukee, and where I learned about the German cultural aspects of Milwaukee). Apparently there is a small legion of fans of this series out there. I found these books in my church library as a kid — what a joy to see that other people out there loved them too!
To read the opening lines (and find other information), click here.
Check it out on Amazon, Wikipedia (where you can learn that the series was “written at progressively more difficult reading levels as the characters age” — how clever! — I don’t recall noticing that as a child), and the Betsy-Tacy Society.
3. Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder — I’m not even going to bother with links. Is there anyone unfamiliar with this series? If you grew up in the 80’s you’ve at least seen the TV show. The show was pretty different in a lot of ways; it had to be because of the constraints of the genre. I loved both. Again, I have weird little unconnected memories from the books, the family living in a not-a-real-house thing with dirt and grass on top, maple syrup (we ain’t got trees where you can get stuff out of the trunk in Florida — weird!), Nellie and her pale skin looking down on Laura for her tanned skin (huh!), Laura passing some test at age 15 (!!!!!) to become a teacher, Laura refusing to say she will “obey” Almanzo (Manly!) in their wedding vows, and the last book in the series so clearly written in a different style, so sad with the death of their baby, actually it kind of made marriage look depressing (shortly after reading that one I learned that its stark differences were due to lack of editorial involvement — and the Wikipedia article linked to above says the material is of a much more mature nature). Anyway, good, good stuff, and if you have somehow never read them, you need to remedy that!
4. The Narnia series, by CS Lewis (1940’s-1950’s) — magical, incredible books. Like most people, probably, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first, and loved it, but was always disappointed aftwerward that the kids were not the focus (or not even in) the subsequent books. I have again only vague memories — I do recall being traumatized when, as it seemed to me at least, two characters were about to go sail in some boat right over the edge of the earth — and they are confounded by many viewings of the 1979 TV movie (first made-for-TV movie, who knew?), plus a coule of viewings of the recent film, and the more recent Prince Caspian film (am I too old to be saying that that Prince Caspian was darn cute?). But these are exciting, engaging, enchanting books, with Christian themes incorporated (though not in a way to put off non-Christians). The Wikipedia article is interesting, but includes the requisite (for Wikipedia) criticisms, like how some people find the books racist (for making fun of some made-up country called Calormene or something) and sexist (for disparagingly noting that Susan is now only interested in lipstick and nylons — hence proving that Lewis disdained women’s sexuality). Puh-lease. These are the type of people who could look at the dishes in my cabinet and find something racist and sexist about them. As for Susan’s obsession with her lipstick…does that symbolize sexual maturity (womanhood) or frivolousness (misplaced priorities, perhaps vanity)? Hmmmmm….seems obvious to me it’s the latter…unless you’re just looking for any excuse to impugne Lewis. Whatever. These are incredible adventure stories — if you haven’t read them, you really must! Read them for the adventure and the magical delight of the children and the joy of Narnia…not for some psychoanalysis of Lewis (!).
As I reflect on these books, one thing I note that they all have in common is a certain fantasitic quality, some kind of other-worldiness. Quite literally with Narnia, but with the others more of a removal from time and geography. In a sense they were just as different as Narnia from rural Florida, for a girl who knew nothing more than Florida and our northern neighbors GA and AL. Of course, later there were family vacations around the country, and much later, even world travel. But as a child I traveled through time and space (and wardrobes!) quite regularly through the books above and many, many others. I suspect that I owe a great deal of who I am today to that childhood literary travel. And I am grateful that while I might have begged for toys and such as a child that I didn’t get (and didn’t need), I never had to beg for books. My elementary school teacher mother bought any book I wanted, and my church library (unfortunately no longer in existence — the library, not the church!) was available to me twice a week.
Least favorite childhood book? Black Beauty. I must have started that book three or four times but always found myself completely bored and unable to continue. How much can I read about a dumb horse, anyway? (Maybe if I’d grown up with horses I’d have enjoyed it…?) Actually, I think the same is true of Little Women — I just couldn’t get into it. And the title annoyed me I seem to recall.
What were your favorite childhood books? What drew you into them? Any least favorite ones come to mind?