Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When I Was Very Young

I was privileged to have a mother who read to me from as early as I can remember. She joined the Parents Magazine Book club where she accumulated a sizable collection of children's books including most of Dr. Suess as well as others which are now out of print. Some books we received from neighbors who were moving and trying to get rid of excess baggage. One of these was a prized treasure- but I didn't realize that until much later.

When I was eleven years old, on an impulse of generosity, I gave all these books away to a friend whose mother kept a daycare in her home. Years later I came to regret it. So much so that, after I had my son, I began a personal quest to find and acquire these books that meant so much to me.

Dr. Suess wasn't a problem since they are still hugely popular. I got them by joining a book of the club month. Many of the others, however, were out of print. Nevertheless, one by one I began to collect them. Some I found in places like the Salvation Army or Goodwill. A number I found on eBay. It's wonderful what a google search will do. Many of the books I could not recall the title but I simple googled in a description of the story and voila! There they were!

I still haven't found all of them. One of my favorites I actually found at a church library and offered to pay for it but they refused. I have not been able to find that one anywhere-probably because I cannot remember the title. It's about a Dutch boy who helps work locks at a dam as the boats go through. Any help on that would be greatly appreciated.

One of the most interesting aspects of reading a book as an adult that I had also read when I was little is to compare my adult perception of the story with how I perceived the same story as a child. Children are much more sensitive to the sensation they receive from colors and images. Also, because they are interpreting stories from a concrete operations stage of development they visually process what they are seeing and reading differently than adults. I think that's where a lot of the wonder and magic comes in for a child when reading. It's almost sad to reread the same books grown up because much of the mystery is no longer there.

Even though I'm still missing the Dutch boy, here is a list of the books that I have so far managed to obtain. I am going to describe what I as a child got out of them rather than give a dry recounting of the story.

1.Miss Suzy by Miriam Young; pictures by Arnold Lobel
One of my all time favorites. I made my mother read this to me until she couldn't stand the sight of the book (that's what she told me years later). Lobel is the writer and illustrator of the Frog and Toad books. His drawings of Miss Suzy's little house with its furniture and also the doll house that she later had to move into after the red squirrels kicked her out of her home appealed to me as a little girl in the same way playing with a doll house would. It seemed so cozy. Besides that, the heroism of the toy soldiers coming to her rescue and fighting off the red squirrels captured my young heart because I think all girls (big and little) want a hero.

2.The Cookie Tree by Jay Williams; illustrated by Blake Hampton
Of course, children love sweets so one can see why a child would love to read about a tree that grew cookies. All the people, especially their facial expressions, were drawn in a dramatic way that fascinated me. The story ends with the smiling of a magician that only deepens the mystery. The story is set in medieval times so children get the added benefit of seeing what a village from the middle ages would look like as well as the costume of the time. As an adult I was able to appreciate the message that adults can rob themselves and others of the joy of a thing by thinking too much. In "The Cookie Tree", the adults refused to eat the cookies on the tree. Instead,they stood around it arguing with each other about why such a tree would be in their midst while the children simply concluded that a cookie tree exists so the cookies can be eaten.The Cookie Tree

3.Alexander by Harold Littledale; illustrated by Tom Vroman
Alexander is a big candy-cane striped horse that sometimes has a bad day and gets into trouble. Or so the little boy tells his father. Of course as a child, I didn't understand that the horse was a figment of the boy's imagination and every naughty thing the horse did was actually the boy recounting his own behavior. The drawings are simple and outlined with black around bold solid colors. Being young, I was amazed how a horse could jump on a sofa, hide under a table or sulk behind a slide.

4.Never Tease a Weasel by Jean Conder Soule; illustrated by Denman HampsonWhen I sought this book out on the internet I saw that there is a later edition with different illustrations. I don't know if it is a better or worse version, but the illustrations painted by Hampson is the edition I had. It was important to me to get the original because, as I said, a young child is extremely responsive to the visual more than the abstract symbolism of the written word since they don't yet have enough information in their minds to associate the words with images. The colors are very bright and the concepts imaginative. The story is done in rhyme with the refrain being, “Never tease a weasel! Teasing isn't nice. A weasel will not like it and teasing isn't nice.”
The verses are nonsensical and stir a child's imagination because for the very young the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. They state that you can give a fox mittens or a mink coat to a goat or a pink wig to a pig and so on, accompanied by brightly colored pictures depicting what the verses are describing. These verses were tantalizing notions to me yet entirely acceptable for this reason.

5.Harvey's Hideout by Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban
This book 's theme of loneliness and the need for friendship resonated with me. Probably because living on military bases, my friendships could be ephemeral with all the coming and going of neighbors. I don't think I had a friend longer than a couple of years before one of us moved. Being alone and the need to create my own imaginary worlds to amuse myself allowed me to relate to Harvey. Also, I don't know why but the anthropomorphizing of animals is really effective.

The story is about a muskrat named Harvey and his bossy older sister, Mildred. School is out and Harvey and Mildred's friends, for various reasons, are gone for the summer. Like most siblings they spend the day getting on each others nerves and for Harvey everything is exacerbated by the fact that he is lonely and has no one to play with. Not so, Mildred. She has a party to go to every day. She carefully selects a pretty dress for herself and her doll before going off somewhere in the woods.

 Harvey also goes off in the woods where he makes a hole (his hideout) and tries to enjoy playing by himself. It simply doesn't work and finally Harvey sits on the floor and cries out of sheer frustration. Then he hears noises next to his den. He digs a little hole and discovers that next to his hole is another one. Guess who's there! His sister, alone, playing with her doll. Some conflict ensues when Mildred discovers that Harvey has been “spying” on her but, as you can guess, it is resolved and the two siblings realize that they can actually be friends and enjoy each others company.

6.The Tall Book of Make Believe selected by Jane Werner; illustrated by Garth Williams
I still cannot believe my good fortune at getting this book. This is the book that was given to me by a neighbor who was just getting rid of stuff before they moved. As I said, I didn't realize what a treasure it was until I began looking for it as an adult.  I got a shock. This book is not only out of print but treasured by many, many people.

You can't buy it for under a hundred dollars and many are being sold for considerably more than that. How I rued the day I gave that book away! I scouted many a used bookstore and charity outlet but to no avail. Finally, on a lark, I looked it up on eBay. I was actually looking for something else but typed it in on an impulse. As usual, most people were selling this book for at least a hundred or even two and three hundred dollars.

By chance I noticed one copy for sale for fifty dollars and there was only fifteen minutes left.  I bid for fifty one dollars and thought I had it made in the shade. I'd never bid on eBay before so I figured the book was mine. At just a couple minutes before the bidding closed I saw that someone else had bid! The nerve of them! I bid another dollar. With thirty seconds to go I began a frantic race to out bid the other guy. Through plain luck,I was the last to click "enter" and got the book for sixty-two dollars.
Then of course, I panicked. Was it a trick? I prayed for God to make it right. (I'm ashamed to admit how often I pray that prayer.) All's well that ends well. I got the book and it's in very good condition, considering its age (1950, first edition).

Some of you may wonder what's the fuss about. This is really a wonderful book. It's an anthology of some of the most imaginative and colorful short stories and poems written for children. They really don't make stuff like this anymore and Harper and Brothers really needs to reissue this book because it's not right that such a valuable collection of children's literature should be so unattainable to the average parent of young children. Until that happens if you can come across a copy that's not outrageously expensive appreciate your good luck.

That is all I have. Which is to say I possess in my hands and in my memory a treasure trove of literary riches that have filled my mind and imagination with the richness of color and fantasy that added so very much to the joy of being a child (and also an adult).

Book Blogger Hop
How many books in my TBR pile?  Over one hundred!


  1. Oh Sharon! I still have three of these books you reviewed from when i was a little girl. Like you, Miss Suzy was my favorite. Next in line was Alexander. I was always impressed with the ways that little boy was able to implicate Alexander in all of his naughty behavior! And who wouldn't like Never Tease A Weasel? I need to dig that one out and read it to Lindy! She would love it.

  2. You're right! All those books are truely treasures. Also, I think reading the same books we were fed on to our own children makes a connection with them. Like passing on an heirloom. I'm sure Lindy will love Never Tease a Weasel. I wish you both many happy hours of reading together.

  3. Sharon, I don't suppose the story you are talking about is Hans Brinker or the silver skates? It seems to match what you have said.......... Have a look: https://www.amazon.co.uk/%2522Hans-Brinker-Silver-Evergreen-Classics/dp/0486428427/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311575034&sr=1-1

  4. Hi Ceinwinn: No, I have Hans Brinker. This book is for early childhood reading, is very basic with pastel illustrations. It's the only book I haven't been able to google in some kind of description and pull up the book. Very frustrating. Thanks anyway!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.