Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Savoring Children's Books

Some of the most important books I’ve ever read are children’s books. Their words dance in my head, their truths linger in my heart, and they keep alive a child-likeness I hope never to lose. As Judith Viorst says in the foreword to What the Dormouse Said: Lessons for Grown-ups from Children’s Books, "At their best, children's books offer insights we'll want to remember and ponder and savor and learn from and revel in."

I’m not sure I could make a list of all the children’s books I have relished. From the age of five, I was a voracious reader. In those early years I read not only the children’s books that were popular during my own childhood, but also those that my mother had loved as a child. Then in the 70s and 80s when my nephews were small, I discovered wonderful books from that time. For the past decade, the Grands have been introducing me to yet another generation of authors writing for children. Among those countless books I have enjoyed, I remember, ponder, and savor the following with particular affection.

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)
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?"

She too knew what it felt like when all the pieces of her “self” sometimes failed to fit together: "There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting."

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."

Winie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne (1926)
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.”

Another two quotations are dear to my heart now because poignantly they link my own childhood with the childhoods of four little boys I once read to and the seven charmers they and I read to now.

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.”

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Maud Hart Lovelace (1943)
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 . . . ."

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)
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?

If I Found a Wistful Unicorn: A Gift of Love, Ann Ashford (1978)
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)

This edition of Schwartz’s poem, gorgeously illustrated by Barbara Cooney, offers one of the best examples of responding to poetry emotionally before you understand it intellectually. I have never read this to a child who didn’t feel the joy and freedom of the poem even though I suspect very few of them could explain its meaning. I don't think anyone can read it without remembering a time when all things seemed possible.

"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.

I Love You the Purplest, Barbara Joosse (1996)
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.”

What are your favorite children’s books? Do you agree with Judith Viorst that the best children’s books have lessons for adult readers? Are there lines from children’s literature that dance in your head?


CheekyGirl said...

Hi Janga!

I also loved Anne of Green Gables - I still have the original complete set my mom gave me as young girl.

Another big book for me was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. Loved it so much my elem. school librarian gave me my very own copy for Christmas. She was the best and had a huge impact on my life.

Jen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen said...

I agree with you on Betsy-Tacy wholeheartedly! I have also reread the series again and again throughout the years -- they are my comfort food. Did you know there was a Betsy-Tacy convention this summer in Mankato (Deep Valley) MN? I went and it was amazing to see Betsy's and Tacy's houses, the Sibley's side yard (and sleeping porch) and we got to go into the Carnegie Library (which is now an art gallery). It was amazing.
(not sure why but I can't seem to post my blog as my signature, so hope you don't mind it here www.bookclubgirl.com)

Janga said...

CheekyGirl, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh is one that I read after seeing the movie--rare for me. But I loved the movie, so I looked for the book and loved it more. Have you heard someone is remaking The Secrets of Nimh? I view remakes with caution.

Jen, a Betsy-Tacy conference? How wonderful. It sounds like such fun. You know I have discovered when meeting someone who loves the series too that there is a bond that makes friendship almost inevitable.

My sister and I still discuss from time to time what happened to Tony. I always hoped he returned to Deep Valley and fell in love with Margaret. :)

Kate S. said...

I share your fondness for the Anne books and the Betsy-Tacy books. I still reread both series regularly. Alongside those, I'd also put Elizabeth Enright's Melendy series (especially The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake) and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking high on my list of childhood favourites.

...... Bobbi said...

I love Winnie-the-Pooh, The Secret Garden, The Velveteen Rabbit, Where the Wild Things Are and Charolette's Web. I also love the Trixie Belden Mysteries (I'm really showing my age), The Three Investigators, and the Betsy books by Carolyn Haywood.

Great post!

Beth said...

Anne of Green Gables is a big favorite, but I have to say it is Little House on the Prairie that captured my imagination and started a life long interest in history. I so wanted to be Laura, but living in suburban Philadelphia I couldn't have been any further from her reality. I religiously watched the t.v. show and checked out all the biographies about her at the library. As I got older Judy Blume books were favorites.

Janga said...

Kate, thanks for reminding me of the Enright books. I haven't thought about them in ages, and I bet the ten-year-old Grand would love them.

Oh,Bobbi,The Secret Garden! That's another one that I read dozens of time. I much preferred it to The Little Princess.

Beth, I loved the Little House books too. I'm too old to have read the Blume books as a child, but I did read them when I was a young teacher.

Did any of the rest of you read the Sue Barton books? I loved those too. Reading them made even me, who gets sick at the sight of blood, dream of being a nurse. Image Cascade has reissued the seven-volume series.

J.K. Coi said...

Janga, I LOVE children's books. I loved the Velveteen rabbit! That's my all-time favourite.

I also loved Where the Wild Things Are and Are You There God? It's me, Margaret.

When I got older, it was the Chronicles of Narnia and Nancy Drew (books 1-50 I still have in the original yellow spined hardcover :)

For my son, he likes Bunnicula, and I love to read him the Dr. Seuss books, and there's this one series of books starring a little chihuahua that he just loves. Cracks up laughing the entire time: "Where's the fuego, dude?" -- but I can't think of the name of them now.