Alice is one of the books I knew before I could read it for myself. Being an imaginative child, I found Carroll’s Alice both endlessly fascinating and deliciously frightening. One measure of how deeply woven this book was into my childhood is the frequency with which I still quote it. Just last week in a conversation with a friend, I quoted the Cheshire Cat: “We’re all mad here.” And I quoted Alice and the Red Queen in my response to Julie’s comment on this blog
Alice: “There is no use trying; one can't believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
Oh, how I loved this book and all the Anne books. I read them over and over again. I was sure that Anne and I were “kindred spirits.” She gave voice to many things I felt but lacked words to express. She too thrilled to a world rich in wonders: "Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?"
The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams (1922)
My mother read The Velveteen Rabbit to me. I read it to my nephews. When the oldest Grand, now ten, was still at the age when her very best friends were a stuffed bear named Button and a stuffed rabbit named Clover, this was her favorite book, the one she begged her daddy to read every night at bedtime. I like to think that one day, fifteen or twenty years from now, she will read Rabbit’s definition of REALNESS to a child of her own.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.
"When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
My mother read Milne to us, but I didn’t truly appreciate his characters until I was an adult. I taught composition, freshman and advanced, to college students for more than two decades, and I often told my students that Winnie-the-Pooh was my favorite philosopher. I kept a couple of Milne quotations on my wall to remind me of things I believed about teaching composition and literature.
1. “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different
when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
2. “Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.”
1. “Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
2. “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think, but the most important thing is, even if we're apart… I'll always be with you.”
The very first book I checked out on my own library card was Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. For the rest of my childhood, I read and reread Lovelace’s thirteen Deep Valley books. I followed Betsy Ray’s life from the age of five, my age when I read the first books, through her early 20s and her first year of married life. The books are on a keeper shelf even today, and from time to time I revisit Betsy, Tacy, Tib, and all their friends. Because of Betsy, a place (Deep Valley, Minnesota) and a time (turn of the twentieth century) that are not my own feel as familiar as the Southern scenes of my own experience. I never enter my local library that I don’t remember Betsy’s bi-weekly library visits: "She thought of the library, so shining white and new; the rows and rows of unread books; the bliss of unhurried sojourns there . . . ."
At one time I had six copies of The Little Prince, including a copy in French. It was one of those books that friends loved giving as gifts with a favorite quotation as inscription. One copy, a gift from a friend who named her son Antoine after the author, was inscribed with the book’s most famous passage: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Another copy, a gift from a man I wanted to fall in love with, reminded me “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst (1972)
I first read Viorst’s most famous book when I read it to my oldest nephew. Children and adults alike feel a kinship with Alexander from the opening lines: "I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." We read this one so often that “Alexander days” became family shorthand for the days that made one long to run away. I still have Alexander days. Don't you?
This was the favorite book of my two younger nephews, who when they were very small loved shouting an enthusiastic “Yes!” to questions such as “If I found a wistful unicorn / And brought him to you, all forlorn, / Would you pet him? and “If my rainbow were to turn all gray / And wouldn’t shine at all today, / Would you paint it?” The questions end with “If any of these things you’ll do / I’ll never have to say to you, /"Do you love me?” By the time they were four, they had memorized the lines and “read” it to every family member and unsuspecting visitor. I love pulling out that same, now-battered book and reading it to the Grands. The four-year-old begs as eloquently as his father dead, "Read it again, please."
"I AM CHERRY ALIVE," THE LITTLE GIRL SANG, Delmore Schwartz (1979)
"I am cherry alive," the little girl sang,
"Each morning I am something new:
. . . . . . . . . . . .
But I don't tell the grown-ups: because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up and forgot what they knew
And they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!"
It saddens me that the book is out of print.
Among my favorite books to give an older child when a new baby is born into the family is Barbara Joosse’s I Love You the Purplest. The mother answers the question “Who do you love best?” by assuring each of her sons of her love. I especially like Joosse’s use of colors to explain how a parent’s love for each child is superlative and unique. The active, adventurous Max is red; the more introspective Julian is blue. And her language is wonderful: “Why Max, I love you the reddest! I love you the color of the sky before it blazes into night. I love you the color of a leopard’s eyes when it prowls through the jungle, and the color of a campfire at the edge of the flame. A wide open hug. The swirl of a magic cape. The thunder of a shout.”