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Written and illustrated by Syd Hoff (1958)
This was the first book I read by myself. (I don’t count the ones I “read” but had really just memorized.) I was in kindergarten, and we were learning to pronounce the letter sounds. I guess I’d proven myself, because my teacher said I could take Danny and the Dinosaur and go off and read it alone instead of pronouncing letter sounds with the group. It’s possible that half a dozen other kids were also sent off with I Can Read books, but memory is myopic, and I don’t recall anyone else being chosen. Not exactly sword-in-the-stone stuff, but for me it was close. I had been deemed worthy, set apart. I might as well have been sitting atop the dinosaur beside Danny. I Could Read.
Lydia Scott, illustrated by Mildred Wetmore (1939)
My grandparents had an eclectic collection of children’s books, none of which were of recent vintage, so they must have belonged to my mother and her sisters. My siblings and I read all of them over and over during visits to the grandparents, mainly because we were a captive audience. But Whitey was a true fan favorite. I located a (rare, hard-to-find) copy for my brother a few years ago because he wanted his daughters to learn the book’s timeless lesson about overindulging. Or so he claimed. He probably just wanted to see it again.
Whitey the bunny has a huge sweet tooth, and for his birthday, he is allowed to eat all the sweets he wants. Which he does. And he gets a stomachache. I remember an illustration that showed small soldiers marching over Whitey’s distended belly as he lies suffering in his darkened room. This was a metaphor for his pain, not a depiction of Whitey’s reality. But why soldiers? Had he been eating chocolate soldiers? Did he have a collection of toy soldiers that were now, in his hallucinating misery, stomping on him? I’ll have to ask my brother. The resolution involves a nice bowl of tomato soup. Pretty much the classic hero’s journey.
Written and illustrated by Hilary Knight (1964)
A precursor to the similar Where’s Waldo series by more than twenty years, this was a book that I studied, not for the text, which is fairly brief, but for the art. Wallace is an orangutan who lives in a zoo but keeps escaping to large public settings like the beach, the circus, a baseball game, where his long-suffering keeper and you, the reader, have to locate him.
The two-page panoramas in which Wallace is hidden are hilariously intricate, and I was delighted to discover the incidental humor and recurring characters sprinkled slyly through them. I felt so clever to have spotted these details, as if they were in-jokes that most people wouldn’t notice, as if the author and I were on some exclusive plane of existence together, nodding at each other and chuckling knowingly. Authors who can do this with their readers, by the way, are on a highly exclusive plane of existence themselves.
Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Robert Osborn (1969)
I picked this book out at a school bookmobile event. Something about that title just resonated for me. The text lists a clever mixture of actual scary things (stepping on something squishy when you’re barefoot), standard scary things (witches), and ridiculous scary things (an apple with a mustache). But it was the illustrations that I found both hilarious and inspiring. The glob of food “that you know you’re not going to like” has an evil grin and tentacles. The legs of the girl who has to talk to a strange grown-up are just zigzaggy lines of sheer terror. These weren’t the neat, finished drawings I was used to in picture books—they were exaggerated, sketchy (some kids don’t have noses), spiky, and wild. Some of them seemed closer to children’s drawings than adult illustrations.
It turns out the illustrator, Robert Osborn, was a satiric cartoonist for the most part, not someone who spent the majority of his career in children’s books. But his touch here was perfect for the material and also a revelation to me: “Real” drawings could be zany and scribbly and lack noses. Going a bit wild wasn’t necessarily wrong or scary. Let’s just say that’s a lesson I’m still learning.
Written and illustrated by Piet Worm (1957)
Every household has an odd children’s book that no one can recall purchasing or receiving as a gift. No one takes ownership of it; it simply exists. Ours was The Three Little Horses, and what a strange and unnerving book it was. The author’s name didn’t help one bit either.
It’s about three horses that dress utterly unconvincingly as women and venture into the human world. Which is as awkward as it sounds. Clearly whoever bought the book for us saw the title and the three horses on the cover and thought it would be a nice story for the youngsters. And just as clearly, that person never looked inside. Where there’s a black-and-white scene of the three horses in jail, huddled together in a pool of their own tears, their empty-eyed woman masks lying on the stone floor. It looks like a still from an experimental film called Life Is Dismal.
But we didn’t put the book aside. We almost never put books aside. Instead, we acted like those cats freaked out by zucchinis you see in online videos: we would approach hesitantly, back off, and then return for another peek. It was horribly fascinating, like a weird rubbery mushroom you find in the woods and are compelled to poke at with a stick.
In spite of such reader reactions, The Three Little Horses must have enjoyed some popularity in its day, because there’s a sequel. I’ve never seen inside it, and I think that’s for the best.
Written and illustrated by Tove Jansson
I broke my Little My mug the other day, which is a shame. But I can easily replace it. And I still have my three Moomin T-shirts, my Moomin backpack, and my Moomin bank. Not to mention the stationery supplies. The point is that despite the relative (and totally undeserved) obscurity of the Moomin books themselves in the United States, there are plenty of Moomin-themed items available to anyone with an internet connection. This is probably because the Moomins are so popular in their native Finland (there’s a theme park!) and in Japan (there’s another theme park!). It’s also because the illustrations in the books are so endearing they can’t help but lend themselves to tea towels and umbrellas.
I was introduced to the Moomins when Steven V. did an oral report on Comet in Moominland in third grade. Steven V. may not know this, but he was an influencer way before it became a thing. He created at least one devoted Moomin fan that fateful day. Was it his obvious enthusiasm for the book that hooked me? He seemed pretty mellow, as I recall. But something he said sent me to the library looking for Comet in Moominland, and when I found it…Well. Let’s just say the book was one of a series, there was a map in the frontmatter, there were those adorable illustrations, and there wasn’t a human in sight. Bliss.
Steven V. has probably moved on to Pynchon and DeLillo since then, but I remain surrounded by Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, and the gang. I’m thinking the theme parks might be a step too far for me, though. I’m not sure I could handle humans dressed as Moomins. And a full-size human Little My is just wrong. She fits inside a sewing basket, as any fan knows. But right now I have a mug to replace. And maybe a few matching plates and bowls to order as well.
L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill
I read all the Oz books the local library owned at least once, including the late ones written by L. Frank Baum’s relatives and in-laws and assorted hangers-on. I believed in Oz. Literally. There was a map, so it had to be real. I believed in Oz so fervently that if I had slipped though a crack in the sidewalk one day and landed anywhere in Oz, my first thought would have been: Yup. That seems right. I would have known my way around.
The first and most famous book in the series was not among my favorites. As far as I was concerned, the next five or so constituted the Gospel of Oz, with the first one an important foundational text. I love the W. W. Denslow illustrations of the first book now, but John R. Neill’s drawings were what created my vision of Oz as a kid.
The only real misstep for me occurred in the fifth book, The Road to Oz, when Santa Claus appears. This felt all kinds of wrong. It seemed like a bad TV cross-over episode or cheesy stunt casting. Oz was a real place as far as I was concerned, and Santa—a mythical being—had no business hanging out there, being treated as if he were real too.
Yikes. I’m just now realizing that Santa’s presence may have undermined my belief in Oz in a way that none of the fantastic happenings there ever did.
George Selden, illustrated by Peter Lippman (1966)
This was my first “beach book” in the marketing sense of the term. I always brought books to the beach, but Oscar Lobster’s Fair Exchange took place in the ocean, which felt just perfect to me. There I was, reading about talking lobsters and fish, mere yards from actual lobsters and fish. Who might have been talking amongst themselves for all I knew.
Library books, with their protective covers, have a way of attracting sand. Which means that if you read a library book at the beach (and my beach books were almost always from the library), you will likely return it with a little bit of sand inside the plastic sleeve. Just a few granules to show where it’s been—tiny souvenirs.
I don’t know how librarians feel about this, but I always enjoy finding a book with some sand in it at the library. That sand means the book has been to the beach and been read in the sun by a person who is relaxing and possibly wearing sunglasses. It means that someone chose this book to read on vacation, which I would think is quite a privilege for a book. Slightly sandy books should wear their grit as a badge of honor on their return the library shelf: They are officially beach books, whether or not they feature actual sea creatures.
Written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
The best childhood books often drive their readers to do something: whether it’s making your neighbors act out the Awful Dynne chapter from The Phantom Tollbooth, forcing those same long-suffering neighbors to spend most of a week in a shrub after reading The Changeling, or searching high and low for a mystery—any mystery—in the throes of Nancy Drew. I’m guessing that almost anyone who’s read Harriet the Spy has grabbed a notebook and started “spying” on those around them.
At my school, when everyone was reading HTS (after the weaving craze and before the cinnamon-toothpick craze), the trend was less to actively spy on people and more to just write insulting things about them in one’s notebook. Which, yes, Harriet did, but that’s not what her notebook was for. Writing down insulting observations about our friends was a lot easier than spying, though, so that’s the angle we opted for.
Did some girls accidentally-on-purpose leave their notebooks lying around where they would be found? If they did, they were likely disappointed by the reaction. Which wasn’t scandal and ostracism so much as eye-rolling. Turns out you have to be highly attentive and a precociously good writer to come up with truly impressive insulting observations. “There’s a reason they call Mel ‘Smell’” just wasn’t in Harriet’s league. (Also, and just for the record, the only reason anyone might have called Mel Smell was that it rhymed. If her name had been Kathy, as most of our names were then, no one ever would have considered it.)
L. M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston (1959)
This is a magical book with marvelous illustrations, and none of what follows can change that.
I was in fourth grade, and we were supposed to do an art project based on a book. Like a diorama or a mobile—those were always solid choices. But I took my project in another, far more ambitious, direction. And I learned a hard lesson about the difference between how you picture your art and how it comes out.
In the book, the kids explore various islands on the river and have adventures on each. I wanted to create a 3-D model of the river, with real water and miniature islands. This would have been very cool—it was very cool in my head—but I didn’t have the tools or, crucially, the skills to carry it off.
I used a metal baking pan for the river. And grimy sand from our abandoned sandbox for the islands. I tried to create a sandy bottom in the pan and then pile up the islands so they would rise above the water level in the pan. Anyone familiar with sand and water knows this wasn’t going to work. I had been to the beach: I should have foreseen that the “islands” were going to slump into the water and disappear. My solution? I used plastic cups from an old tea set to hold the islands. I set the teacups in the pan and mounded sand inside them. Somehow I thought the sides of the teacups wouldn’t be visible once the water was in place, but water is clear.
So my awesome River at Green Knowe model was now a pan with some sand on the bottom and a few random sand-filled teacups set in it, water sloshing around them. I had eyes: I knew this wasn’t anything like what I had set out to create. But it was too late to empty a tissue box and slap together a diorama. I gritted my teeth and carried that pan to school on the bus because I had no other option.
Obviously this is a cautionary tale about ambition and overreach. And I still wonder when I picture the ideal version of something I’m creating if it’s going to end up as teacups in a baking pan. But I can also picture how very cool a model of the river at Green Knowe could have been.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder, illustrated by Alton Raible (1967)
My best friend, Lisa, and I tended to immerse ourselves in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books, but this one became an obsession. It started with a mild case of Ancient Egypt interest. Which was fine—even healthy. We invented our own hieroglyphs. Nothing fancy, just a symbol for every letter of the alphabet. Lisa was way better and faster at using them than I was.
Then things got more intense. We created an altar based loosely on the one in the book. Needing something to sacrifice on it, we sculpted some miniature oxen out of clay, then baked and painted them. So now it was getting labor intensive as well as time-consuming.
We moved on to costumes—and here I’m remembering togas, which weren’t historically accurate, but we worked with what we had, which was sheets. We decided we needed an Egyptian-style snack and settled on stale sugar cones—so stale they were pliable and could be unrolled into a sort of sweet, soggy flatbread.
At this point the obsession was full-blown, and we were ready for the grand finale. This took place publicly, on Lisa’s front lawn, because her backyard was wooded. We were lucky she lived on a dead-end street, so there weren’t many passersby, but two of my older brother’s friends lived in her neighborhood. I can only hope they weren’t home that afternoon. Ditto Lisa’s older brothers. There we were, in our flapping togas, “sacrificing” our clay animals on our makeshift altar. I think the sprinkler was going, though how that detail fit into the scene eludes me now. Did we bow down at any point? I can’t confidently say we didn’t. Was there ritual dancing of some kind? Mercifully, I can’t recall. I’m sure Lisa can. And there’s no way I’m going to ask her.
Jane Langton, illustrated by Erik Blegvad
I drove past a house I’ve always admired recently, and it was for sale. I looked it up online and it is my dream home. Not so much for the house itself, which is lovely, but for the grounds. Not yard. Grounds. (It goes without saying that any house with grounds is way out of my price range.) Behind the house, not visible from the street, there is a garden abutting a field, and a stream and a little island and a small domed structure. My covetous response was so intense I had to think hard about what was causing it.
The answer was T. H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose.
That book is about a girl who lives on a crumbling estate and spends a lot of time exploring the grounds. She rows to a small island with a domed structure on it and discovers a colony of displaced Lilliputians living there. Who wouldn’t want to live in the non-crumbling, less lonely version of that?
The reason I sought Mistress Masham’s Repose out as a child was that Jane Langton said it was one of her favorites, and Jane Langton was one of my favorites. She was also the first author I ever saw “live and in person,” at a library visit.
Here are some awesome things about Jane Langton and her Hall Family Chronicles, which were the ones I was devoted to:
- She came to my local library live and in person,
- Where she recommended Mistress Masham’s Repose, which I probably never would have read otherwise and obviously took to heart based on my decades-later longing for a home with some vaguely similar outdoor features;
- She lived in a town near me;
- The books she wrote were set in and around an actual house that you could drive by in a town near me;
- The books she wrote were about ordinary modern kids having magical adventures in and around an actual house in a town near me;
- She managed to work Transcendentalism in there too.
This was my first brush not only with an author live and in person but also with fantastic (in both senses of the word) books that showed magical things happening currently and locally. For me, a major implication of the Jane Langton books was that you didn’t have to hitch a ride in a tornado or travel through space and time or be born in a whole other world to experience magic. Magic could happen now, here, to kids like me.
Side note: As a young adult I got to spend a night in the Halls’ house. Nothing magical happened. It was thrilling.
I first discovered Nancy Drew in our basement, where my mother had stored her childhood copies. After my sister and I devoured these musty volumes, we moved on to the then current versions. Many elements had been updated, including Nancy’s car and her (possibly related) predilection for “warm woolen car coats.” But somehow it was the older books that made a lasting impression on us. In fact, certain themes—including a hard-to-miss tendency for the villains to be “foreign” in some way—ran through these older editions so indelibly that my sister and I took to writing parodies of them. Mine tended to be snarky, spilling over into mean. But my sister’s were spot-on, as the following excerpt (presented verbatim, with her permission and apologies to “Carolyn Keene”) will attest.
“Nancy,” George Fayne was saying, “you really must come to the house and solve Aunt Ruth’s mystery.”
“Of course I’ll come, George. I’ll take the first plane to Rancid Oaks I can get!”
“You’re a lifesaver,” George gushed. “See you soon.”
Nancy raced upstairs to pack for the trip to Rancid Oaks. The trip promised to be a fun one, and she had longed for another after solving the Mystery of the Missing Warm Woolen Car Coat. She raced to the airport and found, to her delight, that a flight was just leaving for Rancid Oaks.
As the plane took off, Nancy, who was in perfect health, found herself feeling a bit queasy. “It must have been the salami,” she said to herself. “I never could stomach foreign food. I never could stomach anything foreign.”
As the plane soared over the countryside, Nancy could not help noticing the unusual amount of shifty-eyed foreigners that seemed to be watching her. “Oh, well,” she said to herself, “perhaps they are just admiring my smart wool dress and matching pumps.”
The plane landed at Rancid Oaks Airport, and Nancy took a cab to Rancid Oaks Estate. As soon as she had gotten out of the taxi, she knew something was amiss. George ran hurriedly toward her and dragged her into the house. Nancy surveyed her surroundings quickly. The house was tattered and worn, like Aunt Ruth.
Aunt Ruth was wan and disheveled, and told Nancy of her problems. “There is a ghost living here,” she told Nancy, “and I don’t dare leave the house for fear of being kidnapped or something equally sinister.”
“Don’t worry, Aunt Ruth,” Nancy told the homely, frumpy old maid. “No one in his right mind would kidnap you.”
When I heard that Tanith Lee had died, in 2015, I wasn’t surprised. I assumed she was really old, since she had written two of my favorite childhood books. But she was only sixty-eight. Which made her twenty-four in 1971, when The Dragon Hoard was published, and twenty-six when Princess Hynchatti came out. Which was a surprise.
It turns out that these two books were pretty much the only ones Lee wrote for children. She went on to become a prolific writer of mostly science fiction for adults. But The Dragon Hoard and Princess Hynchatti are well worth picking up if you come across them. Both take classic fairy-tale setups and liven them up with relatable characters and sly humor. I remember one story in Princess Hynchatti involving a kingdom so poor that the royal family was reduced to living on sandwiches “made with real sand.”
The Dragon Hoard so impressed me and my best friend that we decided to write our own epic fantasy that was basically a straight rip-off. We warmed up for this monumental undertaking by making a map of the countries involved, which took a long time because we were essentially world-building without knowing it. (Although the aforementioned straight-rip-off nature of the project gave us a big head start.) When we finally started writing, we got bogged down almost immediately and decided that we needed an illustration before we could continue. As inspiration or something. So we commissioned one from a classmate who was a gifted cartoonist and also one of the only boys in school we could even consider talking to. His drawing of a harried frog wearing an oversize apron and stirring a bubbling cauldron with a huge spoon was the best, and one of the last, contributions to the epic work, which remains unfinished as of this time.
Margery Sharp, illustrated by Garth Williams (1962)
I found a paperback edition of Miss Bianca on my mother’s nightstand when I was in upper elementary school. Someone must have lent it to her (it didn’t look new), not realizing that (A) she has a horror of small rodents and (B) she doesn’t like narratives that feature talking animals. She also doesn’t read children’s books generally speaking, which is why I assumed when I came upon this one that it was an adult book.
Unlike my mother, I didn’t have a problem with talking rodents. In fact, I was surprised by how appealing this presumably adult book looked lying there on the nightstand. So I picked it up, whisked it into my lair, and started reading.
As far as I was concerned, this was the first adult book I’d ever read, and I have to say I was impressed with myself—both for how easy I found it to understand and how much I enjoyed it. I felt as if someone had left the keys to the family station wagon lying around, and I’d picked them up and taken the car out for a spin. I was driving along, the window open and the breeze in my hair, enjoying the sights. This was easy! It was fun! There were talking mice!
This experience with Miss Bianca—even if it was based on a misunderstanding—got me through some tough times when I hit junior high English and actual adult books without a friendly animal in sight. (Although I should add that Margery Sharp was also the author of several books for adults, and that the first book in the Miss Bianca series, The Rescuers, seems to have been originally intended for adults.)
My objections to my seventh-grade-English reading list are a rant for another day, but if those books, unleavened by Miss Bianca, had been my introduction to the world of “adult literature,” I would have been well and truly discouraged. Let’s just say that Miss Bianca and the Prisoners’ Aid Society rescued me from giving up on adult books prematurely.