During a time in my life when I was feeling sad and isolated, and my own immediate circle–splendid, stimulating, and supportive people though it contained–was not offering me a certain kind of sensibility I craved, I had the maverick idea of augmenting my circle of friends with people I did not know but who were writers like me, so in some way kindred souls.
These writers might have lived in times and places very different from my New York contemporary situation, but all such were permissible, the whole affair taking place in my imagination. There were some writers, of course, whom I never thought to annex, though theirs was work of genius–the ancient Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, Proust (whose epic I actually disliked), Dostoevsky. They were irrevocably distanced from me by the grandeur of their work. But what about Sappho, Marivaux, Mme. de Sévigné, Trollope, perhaps, in his Barchester vein; Willa Cather, and, surely, Turgenev and Chekhov. Those I seriously entertained.
Jane Austen, whose work I idolize, remained a borderline case when it came to “friendship.” I couldn’t bond with her through her masterwork, Pride and Prejudice–perfection discourages personal intimacy–but I could get close, perhaps, through Emma, whose heroine is rich in commonplace human flaws, and certainly through Persuasion, which promises that one’s heart’s desire may not be fulfilled in the bloom of one’s youth, but belatedly, in maturity.
Actually, the idea of appropriating writers as friends took definite form when I glanced at the pile of Babar books stacked on our dining room buffet–a couple of well-worn ones from my own childhood that I had read to my two children, others bought just for them, and then, when my offspring aged out of pachyderms in clothes, still others that I bought for myself on successive trips to Paris, allowing myself just one each time, to draw out the pleasure of acquisition. Besides writing about dance, I am a children’s book writer and delight in having magical books for the young close to hand. I am currently reading these gorgeous large-format Babar albums–sight-translating the text from the French–to my two local grandchildren. Jean de Brunhoff (the author/illustrator of these wonders), I thought, he is my friend. And then I began to add other writers for children to my list. The category–of innocence, openness, and a belief that anything can happen–speaks to my soul.
Some of these writers I read as a child, some for the first time only once I had my own children to read the stories to. You will have your own list. You may even still have the books. My distinguished friend and dance-writing colleague David Vaughan once told me that the mark of a truly cultivated adult is his interleaving on his bookshelves the books he read and loved as a youngster with books he acquired later that were written with adults in mind.
I can’t resist providing a list of the writers and the books of theirs that made me think we might be soul mates.
First, some of the blessed ones who write for the very young:
Margaret Wise Brown: Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, of course. But don’t forget The Dead Bird. At kindergarten age, our children begged to have my husband or me read it to them because it invariably made us (just the adults, mind you) cry. One of our grandchildren, hearing the story for the first time when a kindergartner, commented gravely, “Yes, that is exactly how it is with death.” And don’t forget Little Fur Family. It fits into the palm of your hand and a two-year-old will understand it intuitively. It depicts the perfect love in which parents can immerse their child, giving him the courage to explore the “wild wood” beyond the cozy safety of his home, to which, of course, he can always return.
Arnold Lobel: If you’ve had anything to do with a child, you know about the “Frog and Toad” books–absurd and amusing adventures with their own pitch-perfect childhood logic, amounting to a mini-saga of friendship that endures despite (or because of) the quirks that might make the amphibians incompatible. Now try Uncle Elephant. A little elephant’s parents, out for a sail, encounter a storm and are presumed drowned. Old Uncle Elephant, wrinkled and rheumatic, arrives to take over the child’s care. Rescued, the parents return. Uncle Elephant quietly mourns the days he spent with his nephew: “They all passed too fast.”
Else Holmelund Minarik: The quintet of Little Bear books, ingeniously illustrated with Victorian-style crosshatched drawings by Maurice Sendak, who would blossom as both writer and illustrator in his own Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Minarik’s series is acute to the importance of a child’s fancies, expeditions, friendships, and overly ambitious projects, in which parents, and grandparents too, are essential for understanding, support, gentle supervision and–it goes without saying–unconditional love. The beauty of Minarik’s texts–as is true with so many memorable children’s writers from the mid-twentieth century on–is that none of these generic concepts are preached outright; they are in the books’ very nature, the climate of feeling in which events transpire, the code of behavior that prevails.
Elementary schoolers through middle-aged children will naturally want more complicated fare–longer and denser texts, harder words, more complex concepts–though the younger among them may not yet have outgrown animal protagonists.
A. A. Milne: Winnie-the-Pooh and its companion volume, The House at Pooh Corner: Some folks, especially in our hardened times, find the books’ charm off-putting. To these naysayers, the imaginary personalities and adventures of the stuffed animals that their little-boy companion creates and joins seem–well, twee. The author’s son, on whom the boy, Christopher Robin, was based, recalls in his memoirs that the books blighted a good part of his schooldays and adult life.
But three generations of my family have loved them and we’re not planning to stop. We even discuss which character each of us most resembles, one claiming to be the donkey, Eeyore, always looking on the dark side of life; another, the übermom Kanga, ministering a tad too protectively to her easily excited toddler, Roo; yet another, Tigger, whose bravado far exceeds his knowledge and skill. Myself, I favor Pooh, the “bear of very little brain,” who nevertheless is a born poet (of a sort). On the birthing of his works, he comments, “It isn’t Easy . . . because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you,” advice I have frequently passed on to my student writers.
The most poignant scene in The House at Pooh Corner is Christopher Robin’s farewell to Pooh as he is about to start school–in other words, a reluctant premonition of the end of carefree childhood that the boy, not entirely clear on the matter himself, announces to his beloved bear as “I’m not going to do Nothing any more.” My daughter read the passage aloud to the audience at her graduation from Hunter College High School. One auditioned for this “Inspirational Reading” gig by choosing a text and delivering it to a jury of one’s classmates. She was awarded the privilege for her selection and her heartfelt yet unsentimental recital. On Commencement Day there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
I beg you to ignore the Disneyfication of the Pooh books. Instead, take your kids and grandkids to see the play-battered original toys featured in them, prominently ensconced in a glass case that the New York Public Library has transferred from the Donnell Library Center to the Children’s Circulating Room at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library.
E. B. White: Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. One can barely choose between the two–and why should one have to? Still, I, my daughter, and her elder daughter (the fourth generation–my mom being the first–of our family’s obsessive readers), give precedence to Charlotte’s Web. My son-in-law demurs. “I don’t know about girls,” he says, “but for boys it’s Stuart Little all the way.” Within a perfectly ordinary surround, both stories treat the bizarre–a spider who can spin out words with her web, a feisty mouse as the child of a human family–with matter-of-fact calm, as if it, too, were perfectly ordinary. Both are written in an English so plain and clear, it serves as a beacon to neophyte and seasoned writers alike.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House series, to which my daughter introduced me when she was in grade school and which became a perennial re-read for us both. These nine books constitute the saga of an American pioneer family–fraught with danger, poverty, hard work endured wordlessly, the simplest homemade pleasures, and an often unspoken yet constantly evident loving mutual commitment despite the vivid differences in the characters’ temperaments. The story is rendered through the eyes of a young girl (the author), who grows to adulthood in the course of the series.
The writing’s immaculate matter-of-factness–you can learn to build a log cabin from this text!–often mysteriously accumulates to deliver a terrific emotional punch, as at the very end of the first book, Little House in the Big Woods. When young Laura questions Pa about Auld Lang Syne, the tune he’d just played on his fiddle for the family gathered close to the hearth on one of those “long winter evenings of firelight and music,” he explains that the words mean “the days of a long time ago.”
But Laura “thought to herself, ‘This is now.’ She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
The immortal Lewis Carroll double-feature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. It was my mother, really, who was obsessed by Alice, and she read it aloud to me over and over again. I found it fascinating, somewhat frightening, and, as I grew up, crammed with hidden messages–about puberty, about chess, about the way daylight reality slips so easily into nightmare, even madness, and, mercifully, about how a slip of a girl can be equipped to confront life’s mysteries if she possesses curiosity and courage.
C. S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My enthusiasm for this well-nigh perfect book–perfect as a fantasy adventure, perfect psychologically–didn’t extend to Lewis’s Narnia series as a whole. As my then pre-teen daughter said when she got terminally discouraged halfway through, “It was getting too religious.” But a passage in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, describing the attempt to test the mettle of the eldest of the four child heroes and heroines and redeem the one among them who isn’t instinctively good (or timid or righteous), made me, a pacifist, see the physical thrill–and sometimes nobility–of combat unto the death as few pieces of writing have done:
Peter did not feel very brave; indeed he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster and aimed a slash of his sword at its side. That stroke never reached the Wolf. Quick as lightning it turned round, its eyes flaming, and its mouth wide open in a howl of anger. If it had not been so angry that it simply had to howl it would have got him by the throat at once. As it was–though all this happened too quickly for Peter to think at all–he had just time to duck down and plunge his sword, as hard as he could, between the brute’s forelegs into its heart. Then came a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare. He was tugging and pulling and the Wolf seemed neither alive nor dead, and its bared teeth knocked against his forehead, and everything was blood and heat and hair. A moment later he found that the monster lay dead and he had drawn his sword out of it and was straightening his back and rubbing the sweat off his face and out of his eyes. He felt tired all over.
Louisa May Alcott: If you didn’t cry over Beth’s death in Little Women, forget Alcott; she is not for you. If you did, and certainly if, like me, you re-read the book annually for decades, be sure not to miss its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Nothing can touch Little Women, in which the Alcott family biography is transmuted into novelistic drama and perception. Still the sequels have wonderful moments and continue the story of three of the four Victorian sisters who became so real in the first book, we’re avid to know what happened to them afterward.
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows. Set in a luminous natural landscape dominated by a river and woods, animal characters, each true to his breed–most prominently, Rat, Mole, and Toad–still display a glorious assortment of human feelings and foibles. The earnestness of these figures, and all the minor ones, too, in being wholly themselves is one of the paramount joys the book provides.
The irrepressible, irresponsible, wholly self-involved Toad’s mercurial interests and his escalating vehicular ambitions are ingeniously balanced by the contemplative wisdom of Rat and the almost febrile sensitivity to nature of Mole. Together these two evoke the virtues of a calm, simple life, taking things–and appreciating them–as they are; respectful of the fact that nature, enlarged by imagination, can be terrifying as well as beautiful; responsible and effective when real danger arises; and always their brothers’ keepers.
P. L. Travers: The Mary Poppins books. The first three are by far the best, and they are divine. On a Spring Break trip to California to visit a college classmate in her parents’ home, I was assigned a then-uninhabited children’s bedroom furnished with commodious bookcases sheltering the grown-and-gone children’s early reading. There, I stayed up til dawn, night after night, in a private orgy of re-reading Mary Poppins. I remember nothing else about that trip, not even, I confess, the name of my undergraduate friend. Mary Poppins, however, subsequently became my model for grandmotherhood: Hold the kids up to strict standards of behavior and take them on magical adventures. To this day, I crave a carpet bag and a parrot-headed umbrella.
Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. It’s tough to choose between them. Most of us come down on the side of The Secret Garden, but my novelist friend insists that A Little Princess has had a deep influence on her life. She explains, “Even when the heroine, Sara Crewe, is reduced [in the book, she loses her fortune] and is no longer a princess on the outside, she refuses to let her own sense of her identity falter. I am still a princess on the inside, she thinks. If you behave that way,” my friend continues, “it gets you through troubled times. Then maybe the people around you will finally see your worth.” She adds with typical ironic reservation, “Maybe not.” (This essay is for that friend, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who has never let me down.)
J. R. R. Tolkein: The Hobbit. I can’t claim to be a fan–and certainly not a friend–of Tolkien, who has had almost every kid I’ve known in his thrall, but I have finally succeeded in reading The Hobbit through to the end, after several tries. In the adventure/fantasy category it’s clearly one of the Great Books but, alas, this is not my genre.
Admittedly, the encounter of the story’s unlikely hero–or at least central character–the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, with the eerie Gollum is something I would kill to have written. Just for starters, try this: “Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum–as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.” Having no companion to talk to but the occasional about-to-be-devoured victim, Gollum talks to himself, in a chilling whisper and cracked syntax, calling himself “my preciousss.”
Apart from this haunting creature, which resurrects childhood nightmares for me, what fascinates me most about the book is the fact that, just when you think the story is winding down to a conventional triumph of the good, Tolkien offers a startling change of tone. Bilbo, who generally prefers homely comfort devoid of disturbing incident, lets his recessive gene for risk and excitement induce him to join a danger-fraught expedition to conquer a terrifying, evil-doing dragon. Once this feat has been accomplished, human nature–in this case represented largely by dwarf, goblin, troll, and elf nature–being what it is, politics and greed rear their familiar heads, until you think Tolkien is talking either about today or the whole, more often than not dismal, story of the human race. Entertainment shifts to philosophy, without entirely losing the attributes we expect when we’re merely being regaled.
Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting. You might call this a Bildungsroman but for its disarming lack of self-conscious significance. A ten-year-old suffocatingly protected girlchild, naturally yearning for independence, adventure, and “the chance to do something that would make some kind of difference in the world” is initiated into life on a broader scale. The means contains elements of fantasy that are entirely believable because of the matter-of-fact way in which her tale is told.
Through an accidental encounter with the Tuck family, Winnie Forster discovers the secret of the hidden spring from which the Tucks, decades ago, had accidentally drunk and become immortal. She also meets sheer evil in the form of a sly operator–the man in the yellow suit–who wants to possess this secret Fountain of Life solely for pecuniary reasons. The Tucks consist of paterfamilias Angus Tuck; his wife, Mae; their elder son, Miles, whose wife and children had abandoned him once they decided that never aging is a sure sign of witchcraft, and his kid brother, the 17-year-old Jesse, who still thinks immortality can be a joyous adventure and who begs Winnie to wait until she is 17 too and then drink from the spring so that they can enjoy life together forever.
As the dramatic plot unfolds–leavened with near-palpable description of weather and place–our slip-of-a-girl heroine slowly but surely comes to understand the horrors as well as the privileges of a life that goes on without end, and, in the process, demonstrates extraordinary courage and loyalty to the family she has come to love. In the end, after the full life suggested by the inscription on her gravestone, it’s clear that she chose life’s final blessing: death.
The truth about all these books–and at least a dozen favorites I haven’t mentioned as well as the ones that primarily engage boys–is that, if you’re susceptible to them, they make you feel as if they were written for you alone. Which is why, almost by definition, you consider the author your friend.
POSTSCRIPT: On finishing this essay, I felt so remiss in underappreciating books especially enjoyed by boys, I wrote to a number of male friends (and people connected to them) asking about their favorites, from childhood through adolescence. I received a slew of replies. Here they are, with the writers’ permission and the slightest bit of editing.
CHRISTOPHER CAINES (dancer, choreographer, writer, editor):
As someone who has worked for eight years in children’s books, I can tell you the boys’ books vs. girls’ books divide is alive and well in every sales and marketing and editorial department in every publisher in this land. The PC police should get real jobs and live in reality!
Most important to me were: “The Chronicles of Narnia” (C. S. Lewis); the series by Sonia Bleeker on Native Americans (maybe not “politically correct” today); and “The Egypt Game” (Zilpha Keatley Snyder).
By the time I was about 11 or 12, I read adult books.
DEBORAH JOWITT (dance writer, teacher, mother and grandmother of boys):
Thinking back to my son’s preferences, I don’t remember any books specifically for boys. Toby liked books that I think many girls would have liked too (not the all-pink variety, though).
BEN KATCHOR (writer/cartoonist):
My favorite reading material as a child was comic books. Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Tintin. All approved children’s literature found in the library and bookstore was suspect and boring at some deep level.
MARK MORRIS (dancer, choreographer, opera director):
The books that meant the most to me as a boy were: all of the Curious George books (H. A. and Margret Rey), from which I learned to read, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder [Little House] books, which were first read to me in elementary school.
I loved the Pippi Longstocking books (Astrid Lindgren), “Island of the Blue Dolphins” (Scott O’Dell), “Alice in Wonderland” (Lewis Carroll), “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (C. S. Lewis), no comic books. I still worship Dr. Seuss.
“Half Magic” (Edward Eager) was a big one. There was a series of them eventually and they were all very good. “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle). “Bridge to Terabithia” (Katherine Paterson), which they made into a horrible movie. I also remember loving the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series.
I casually asked some boy friends of mine and here are their cut and pasted replies: The Boxcar Children books (Gertrude Chandler Warner and her successors); “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Roald Dahl); “The Education of Little Tree” (Forrest Carter); “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (E. L. Konigsburg); “Goodnight Moon” (Margaret Wise Brown); “James and the Giant Peach” (Roald Dahl); “Katy and the Big Snow” (Virginia Lee Burton); “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (C. S. Lewis); “Little House on the Prairie” (Laura Ingalls Wilder); “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” (Virginia Lee Burton); “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” (Louis Sacher); “Tuck Everlasting” (Natalie Babbitt); “Where the Wild Things Are” (Maurice Sendak); everything by Lloyd Alexander.
GEORGE DORRIS (dance writer) & JACK ANDERSON (poet, dance writer):
Jack and I spent a few minutes after dinner to think of books we enjoyed as boys. It depends a bit on how you define that term, but since you go up to 18, all of these apply, although by 16 I was reading so-called adult books, on the Times’ best-seller list. So here we go, in no particular order, but starting with several younger ones. I’ve put an initial after those only one of us delighted in.
“Freddy the Detective” (Walter Brooks) / J says some of the follow-up books too
The Oz books (L. Frank Baum)
The Hardy Boys series (Franklin W. Dixon et al.) / G
Books by E. Nesbit: “Five Children and It” / J’s favorite; “The Story of the Amulet” /
G’s favorite; “The Railway Children” / G’s sister’s favorite
“The Good Master” and “The Singing Tree” (Kate Seredy)
Albert Payson Terhune’s books about dogs / G
Books by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Treasure Island” / G; “Kidnapped” / J
Historical novels for boys by Edward B. Hungerford / J
“Ivanhoe” and “Quentin Durward” (Walter Scott) / G
“The Last Days of Pompeii” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton) / G
“Quo Vadis” (Henryk Sienkiewicz) / G
“George Washington’s World” (Genevieve Foster) / J liked several other books in the series as well
Books by Richard Halliburton: “The Royal Road to Romance,” “Richard
Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: the Occident,” and “Richard Halliburton’s Second
Book of Marvels: the Orient”
Books by Howard Pyle / J
“Van Loon’s Lives” and “The Arts” (Hendrik Wilhelm van Loon)
Books by Nathaniel Hawthorne: “A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys” and
“Tanglewood Tales” / J; “The House of Seven Gables” / G
“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (Jules Verne)
“The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers” (Alexandre Dumas, père) / G
Enough for a start?
DAVID VAUGHAN (dance writer, archivist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, performer);
I don’t know if I can be of much help, since for one thing my childhood reading was all done in England. My absolute favorite of course was Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows,” which I used to read about three times a year, as well as another of his books, “The Golden Age.” The Doctor Dolittle books. I suppose the Andrew Lang Fairy Books wouldn’t count. Maybe the Biggles books (W. E. Johns) and “Just William” by Richmal Crompton and all its sequels. And I used to devour The Gem and The Magnet, two weeklies with stories about boys in public schools–see George Orwell’s essay “Boys’ Weeklies.”
NANCY DALVA (book critic for the New York Observer, producer and writer for “Mondays with Merce,” a website series for the Cunningham Dance Foundation):
My boys liked anything to do with dinosaurs, the Boxcar Children series (Gertrude Chandler Warner and her successors), the Redwall series (Brian Jacques), “The Hobbit” (J. R. R. Tolkein), “The Once and Future King” (T. H. White), Star Trek novels, Roald Dahl, and Kurt Vonnegut, the earlier in the list primarily read by the elder son (himself now a writer), and the latter two being favorites of the younger (who had and has a mordant sense of humor and a philosophical bent).
Both read comic books, and Calvin and Hobbes collections (Bill Waterson), though these are not technically books. Neither liked any of the books I loved as a girl, by the way. Well, my younger son, did like the Eloise stories, come to think of it. The mischief factor. When they were very little they liked Margaret Wise Brown–”Goodnight Moon” for Adam and “The Runaway Bunny” for Robert, who also was keen on a book I just loved called “Fritz and the Mess Fairy” (Rosemary Wells). My own favorite book as a little girl was Marie Hall Ets’s “Mr. T. W. Anthony Woo, The Story of a Cat, a Dog, and a Mouse.”
P.S. My father used to read Rudyard Kipling to my brother. I was not as keen as he was.
JOAN HSIAO BROMLEY (former investment banker, former public policy analyst, former Ph.D candidate, currently a teacher of fifth graders and mother of two boys and a girl):
Here are a few quick thoughts. Our sons, Jimmy and Peter, both really enjoyed “Where the Red Fern Grows” (Wilson Rawls) although Jimmy refused to listen to the end, because he guessed where it was headed and “Little House in the Big Woods” (Laura Ingalls Wilder), although neither was crazy enough about for me to read them the whole series. Peter wasn’t crazy about “The Phantom Tollbooth” (Norton Juster) either.
OK, you know my Jimmy well enough for me to divulge what he might keep secret now. There were fully two years, I believe, during which we chased around branch to branch within the Seattle library system for ALL the (old) Nancy Drew mystery stories (various authors; Mildred Wirt Benson wrote 23 of the first 30). He knew exactly where they were kept in each library. I still remember his joy and hope there’d be “new ones” when he spotted a clump of yellow spines. Similarly, he LOVED “Anne of Green Gables” (Lucy Maud Montgomery)–but then didn’t continue with the series, not sure why.
My husband, Jim, remembers that, as a boy, he greatly enjoyed Betty Macdonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books; Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books and especially her Henry Huggins series; all of the Hardy Boys series, and “The Phantom Tollbooth.” But our sons really DIDN’T like any of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggles and think it’s AWFUL that I might have considered naming one of them “Ramona” before we knew they were to be boys. They didn’t make it through even one Hardy Boys mystery, despite receiving many over the years as gifts. Still, lots of the boys I am currently teaching can’t stop reading these things. I do have very fond memories of all three males in our family enjoying much of Roald Dahl’s work together every evening.
ROBERT GRESKOVIC (dance writer, teacher):
I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a reader as a child, nor was my brother, nor any other male relative in my family. I’m not proud of this but ’tis so. So I can’t really help.
My friend Curtis has recently acquired a number of Horatio Alger books as vintage items. I’ll pass this along to him and he may have something real to tell you.
CURTIS ROBERTSON (General Aesthetic):
When I was a kid, my teachers periodically placed orders on our behalf with Scholastic Books, and there was a series of books I liked about a bespectacled boy genius named “Encyclopedia Brown.” Each book had a half-dozen or so mini-mysteries that were all fairly benign. They had nothing to do with murders or anything, but were more along the lines of stolen baseballs and the like. I enjoyed them, because as a fairly precocious kid, I appreciated any celebration of brains I could get my hands on, considering the fact that the real-life kids I knew tended to discount that in favor of sporty skills.
A couple of years ago I came across some old editions of books by the 19th-century writer Horatio Alger. My grandfather had told me about these books when I was young, because they came out about the time he was a kid.
Even today people are probably somewhat familiar with them, since the phrase “it’s like a Horatio Alger story” has long been used to characterize the lives of great men who rose from humble beginnings. The typical hero of Alger’s books is a poor boy whose wastrel father has left him and his mother to fend for themselves, and who has to defend her from abuse and and/or financial ruin.
In one of the handful of these that I have a copy of, the boy has his own small private ferry in which he transports people for a modest sum. One day a rich man from the city boards it with his baby; the baby falls into the water and the boy saves its life. Then the rich man hires him to work at his bank and the boy falls in love with and marries the rich man’s daughter and rises in the bank and lives happily ever after as a direct result of hard work, devotion to his mother, and the courage to dive into the treacherous water to rescue a baby.
Along the way, the local spoiled brat (jealous of our hero’s general ability to make friends and have the girls swoon) frames the boy for a crime, possibly in concert with our hero’s freshly-sprung-from-jail drunken father, and the goldbrick spoiled brat’s action is found out and his family’s entire fortune compromised.
Back to what I read when I was young: Two books by Robert McCloskey about an affable boy called Homer Price, which took place in a tiny rural town. I don’t remember anything about his adventures, except a few weird details, but they stay with me even now.
I also enjoyed reading the Wizard of Oz books. There was a set of hardcover editions of them in the library of one particular classroom of one particular teacher I had in 6th Grade.
In 7th Grade, I read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” “Little Men,” and “Jo’s Boys,” as well as several Edna Ferber novels, including “So Big,” “Show Boat,” and “Cimarron.” I also read “Cheaper by the Dozen,” written by a couple of the children (Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey) of an efficiency expert who decided that it was actually more economical to have more children than to have fewer.
When I was a tiny tot, my mother read Raggedy Ann and Andy books to my sister and me. We enjoyed them immensely, but they weren’t particularly gender-specific.
Other than that? The Doctor Dolittle books (Hugh Lofting), “Charlotte’s Web” (E. B. White), the whole Seuss oeuvre, and, when I was very little, a book about seven blind men who were all shown an elephant, each one touching a different part of it. Therefore each had an entirely different impression of what an elephant was; one thought it was a tree, because he had felt only one of the legs. The one who had felt the side thought the elephant was a wall. It made a great impression on me.
DAVID GORDON (co-director with his son, Ain Gordon, of the Pick Up Performance Company[s]):
Very favorite three children’s books in young Ain’s life: Eugène Ionesco’s “Story Number 1,” “Story Number 2,” and “Story Number 3.”
After that he was into British Goons records. We would hear him laughing in his room.
DAVID GRAY (consultant to non-profit organizations):
Oh boy…yeah, I was a huge fan of Dr. Seuss books, still am! I read them to our two sons. I’m amused to see what catches their eye. For me it’s the design of the spaces, the crazy architecture, and the flamboyant colors. The closest I’ve seen in real life is Venice where the Byzantine mixes with Western styles and the mooring poles for gondolas are each painted in their own crazy-quilt style to indicate who owns the pole–very Seussian. My younger boy just loved the Sneetches and the machines by which Sneetches added and removed belly stars. He would make machine-like noises and trace the path of the Sneetches with his finger as they “raced round and about again.”
Another book that really resonated for me as a child was Robert McCloskey’s “Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man.” I’m not sure what was so appealing–maybe the colors and the care and detail of the old guy taking care of his boat. Then there were the whales and their apparent upset, only to find that they were, in their way, fashion victims (though I don’t think that’s the way I would have worded it at the time!).
We were also fans of the C. S. Lewis Narnia books. We’re way too irreligious to have noticed the Christian philosophy, but we sure liked swords and battles and being King and being transported to alternate worlds.
NICHOLAS STRAUSS-KLEIN (Feldenkrais Practitioner, musician);
My wife Jen’s brother loved Matt Christopher books. I was a huge Richard Scarry fan, and my three-year-old son, Henry, is too!
I’m sure you’ve been pondering Harry Potter and Thomas the Tank Engine stuff.
ED SULTAN (former banker, currently arts volunteer):
I’m pleased to respond to your request for the titles of childhood book favorites of the Sultans (the group reporting includes me; my sons, David and Peter; and David’s sons, Harry and Isaac).
Here’s the list in no particular order: The Alex Rider series (Anthony Horowitz); the On the Run series, the Everest series, and the Island Series (Gordon Korman); “Leon and the Champion Chip” and “Leon and the Spitting Image” (Allen Kurzweil); the Underland Chronicles series (Suzanne Collins); the Childhood of Famous Americans series (various authors); the Olympian series (Rick Riordan); the Humphrey series (Betty G. Birney); “The Enormous Egg” (Oliver Butterworth); the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series (Kathryn Lasky); “Arnie, the Doughnut” (Laurie Keller); “The Black Stallion” (Walter Farley); the Hardy Boys series (Franklin W. Dixon et al.); “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” (Virginia Lee Burton); “The Story of Ferdinand” (Munro Leaf); “Harry the Dirty Dog” (Gene Zion); “Where the Wild Things Are” (Maurice Sendak); “The Borrowers” (Mary Norton); the Curious George books (H. A. and Margret Rey); “Island of the Blue Dolphins” (Scott O’Dell); “James and the Giant Peach” (Roald Dahl); the Secrets of Droon series (Tony Abbott); “The Dangerous Book for Boys” (Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden); “The Big Book of Boy Stuff” (Bart King and Chris Sabatino); “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (Mark Twain); “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” (Robert Louis Stevenson); “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” (Thomas Hughes); “The Little Lame Prince” (Dinah Maria Mulock Craik).
ROBERT JOHNSON (dance critic):
Oh, I think I read the usual. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” and “The Black Arrow.” Arthur Ransome’s adventure/mystery series, starting with “Swallows and Amazons”; Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, maybe Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” and “Quentin Durward.” Perhaps “Two Years Before the Mast” (for the nautically inclined). The Hardy Boys??? What a jumble! Oh, and I suppose Kipling’s “Jungle Book” qualifies, too. “Robinson Crusoe” (Daniel Defoe) and “The Swiss Family Robinson” (Johann David Wyss). I was personally most fond of “The Three Musketeers” (Alexandre Dumas, père).
Hope this dog-eared list helps!
THOMAS PHILLIPS (writer and musician):
My personal favorites (not necessarily just for boys): “Winnie the Pooh” (A. A. Milne); “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” (Homer, in prose translations); “Stuart Little” (E. B. White); “Bambi” (Felix Salten); “The Jungle Book” (Rudyard Kipling); “The Catcher in the Rye” (J. D. Salinger); “My Name is Aram” and “The Human Comedy” (William Saroyan).
When I was young I read mostly sports novels and stories–nothing that’s still popular.
I didn’t read it until I was grown, but I think Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia” is a great frontier story, every chapter an adventure.
Melville isn’t really for kids, but I bet I would have been fascinated by “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.” “Billy Budd” is very dense but has enough adventure and mystery in it to hold a boy’s attention if he’s a fluent reader.
And speaking of adventure, I never read it but my 86-year-old cousin Dick says he and his teenage friends loved “Scaramouche” by Rafael Sabatini–a swashbuckling story of the French revolution.
JEFF WEINSTEIN (cultural critic):
I don’t recall reading really young children’s books. We had no books in the house except for library ones and those from a Doubleday Book Club for children, which I devoured: “The Swiss Family Robinson” (Johann David Wyss), Hawthorne’s “Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys” and “Tanglewood Tales,” anything I could find by Poe (yes, adult), Jules Verne. I saw the Hardy Boys on Walt Disney TV; why bother reading them? I read comics, all kinds. All my real children’s book “reading” was done on TV. (My spouse, John Perreault, says about the same, but radio for him.)
My mother read Shakespeare to me, she claims, as I sat on her lap and watched TV. (I was three, four.) I am not certain of that, because she often stretched the truth.
BEN ACHTENBERG (documentary filmmaker and distributor):
The books I remember most fondly (and still reread from time to time) are the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, written in the 1930s. I believe they’ve been republished in paperback, but I don’t know if anybody reads them. Wikipedia says yes, and that there’s a bit of a tourist industry to visit the sites in the English lake country where most of them take place. We visited the area when our son, Jesse, was maybe 12. We stayed in the summer house inhabited by some of the fictional children–very exciting for me; for Jesse, not so much, though he thought the books were OK.
Interestingly, in the context of your question, the books have very strong and adventurous female, as well as male, characters.
Another recollection for you: When my father was dying–fully competent and rational, but very tired of being sick, he had decided to refuse any further medical treatment–and my brothers and sister and I were sitting with him, he asked us to read him his all-time favorite book: “Treasure Island.”
© 2009 Tobi Tobias