Tuesday, September 16, 2014

top ten Tuesday: childhood books.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. I spent much of my childhood with my nose buried in a book – I would even bring a book along when I went out to eat with my family. (Rude, I know. Shame on me.) I blew through every elementary reading assignment – I was up to my neck in free pizzas from Book-It, and I eventually needed a second plaque for all my Accelerated Reader gold bars. I read the elementary school library dry, and the day I got my Brookings Public Library card was one of the best days of my young life.

So it’s no big surprise, really, that I ended up with an English degree and working in a public library. For an avid reader like me, being in close proximity to thousands of books every day is basically heaven on earth. I read more now than ever, thanks not only to the sheer convenience, but I am constantly making mental reading lists as I’m out and about on the library floor. Ever since I started working here, not having anything to read (previously a very real concern of mine) has not been a problem.

But I’m not here to talk about the books I read now. My love of books began long ago, and I want to talk about the books I loved most as a child. These are books that I can read now – twenty-some years later – and the memories of the first time I read them are as clear as day. So allow me to present my top ten childhood books!

(Note: I did cheat a little bit in some – ok, most – cases by counting a series of books as one entry. But you’re just going to have to live with it.)

(Another note: with the exception of Goosebumps and the Welcome Inn series - sadly, I no longer own those books - all of the photos of these books are the books from my own collection. You can tell because there's a cat named Mona in several of these pictures.)

See how beat up this book is? Obviously well-loved.
My first pets were cats – cuddly farm cats who would rub up against your legs and occasionally fall victim to the school bus. These cats were strictly outdoor cats, so I lived vicariously by reading about lucky children who were allowed to have house pets – and these pets, I might add, had a much longer lifespan than any of mine. (See: school bus.) Peppermint is the first book I can remember truly loving. It’s a picture book about a runty white kitten who is born in a candy shop. The candy shop owner names all of the kittens after candy and sells them – but nobody wants Peppermint. (My heart broke for Peppermint – as an emotional three-year-old, I wanted so badly to take Peppermint home and give her all the warm cuddles and canned tuna that she could ever hope for, but as you know, it’s hard to take a fictional cartoon kitten home with you.) Peppermint lives in the candy shop for a while, and her white fur gets all dirty and dusty. Finally, a little girl – the special little girl that was MEANT to have Peppermint – comes into the shop, sees Peppermint, and is in love. Peppermint and the little girl live happily ever after. When it comes to stories about cats and dogs, I love a good happy ending.

Ramona series – Beverly Cleary
Ramona Forever was the first Ramona book I ever read - that copy
sitting on top was given to me by my grandma Lorraine.
Beverly Cleary has a way of writing that perfectly captured the thoughts and feelings of a young overly enthusiastic girl. I’m counting the entire series as one entry because I couldn’t possibly choose my favorite Ramona book. Each and every one of them had chapters that hit home with me in such a way that it felt like Beverly Cleary was living inside my head. Remember in Ramona Quimby, Age 8 where Ramona throws up in class and is completely mortified? That was (and still is) one of my worst nightmares. And it’s not just Ramona herself that makes the series so good. The dynamic between Beezus (the older sister) and Ramona (the younger sister) is spot-on, and while I liked Ramona better as a character, I felt an awful lot of sympathy for Beezus. As an older sister myself, I understood very well Beezus’s desire to just be left alone with her book. I reread the Ramona series not too long ago, and those books were just as good as I remember.

The Little Duckling
The Little Duckling is one of only two picture books to make my list. It’s about a boy who finds a duck egg and – with the help of an incubator – hatches it. He names the little duckling Henry and raises him – he even teaches Henry how to swim in a kiddie pool. Henry is happy as a pet duck (he even goes on walks and sits with you while you read), but he knows there’s something more out there. When Henry becomes too big for his pool, the boy knows it’s time to set him free. The book ends with Henry happily swimming off into the sunset, and – this is true – finds a lady duck almost immediately. I would’ve killed for a pet duck like Henry.

Roald Dahl
This is an action shot of Mona knocking over my copy of The Witches.
I’ve never met a Roald Dahl book I haven’t liked. Some, however, shone above the rest. My absolute favorites were (and still are) Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The BFG. Roald Dahl’s stories are equal parts wonder and sarcasm, magic and harsh reality. He creates the most wonderful characters – a friendly giant who collects dreams? A reclusive candy magnate who has no qualms with putting ill-behaved children through the ringer? Witches who have square toes and wear wigs? A principal who was a champion javelin thrower and hurls students as such? And of course, the wonderful characters have equally wonderful adventures, and the good guy always wins in the end.

Great Illustrated Classics
Mona swoons for the Great Illustrated Classics.
I don’t remember how old I was when these books showed up at our house, but they were a gift from my grandma Lorraine – a former elementary school teacher. I ate them up. They’re exactly what they sound like: classic novels with an illustration on each page. I read each and every one of them, but I had my favorites: I couldn’t get enough of Treasure Island, and I read Oliver Twist time and time again. This was my first introduction into what could actually be called literature, and it was much more palpable when you knew anything you didn’t understand would be explained in an impressively penned illustration.

The Fudge series – Judy Blume
Mona would like me to quit taking pictures of books and
feed her already.
Just like Beverly Cleary and the Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books were perfect renditions of young life. However, Judy Blume goes beyond Beverly Cleary – age-wise and issue-wise. Where the Ramona books end when Ramona is ten-ish, Peter and Sheila make it all the way to twelve – and if you remember being twelve, that’s when shit starts to get serious. Sure, the Fudge books have the classic sibling conflicts (Peter v Fudge), but there’s some deeper stuff, like self-acceptance and conquering fear. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could have a REAL childhood without reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.

the Welcome Inn series
For the life of me, I absolutely could not remember what these books are called. I could picture the covers, I knew the main characters' names (Molly and Gwen O'Brien), and I remembered some plot snippets... but none of the important stuff stuck with me. No titles, no author, no series name. Even Google couldn't help me. I wanted to reread them so badly, but that wasn't going to happen until I figured out what they were called. But then? Library to the rescue. My library JUST started subscribing to a database called NoveList, and you can enter vague search terms (related to the plot, characters, whatever) to see if you can find your book. I tried about a zillion search terms, but the one that finally got me there was "Molly inn" filtered into children's books. When I saw that familiar cover, there was much rejoicing. Anyway, there were four books in the Welcome Inn series, and I acquired them all via Scholastic book orders. (Remember those? Book order days wqere the best.) These books were about two sisters who live with their parents in an inn on the east coast somewhere (they’re not homeless; the parents run the inn). There are all sorts of spooky adventures – they help three ancient sisters find a skeleton key, they explore secret passageways under the island, they free a ghost, and they run into mystical creatures called kelpies. The books were certainly intriguing, and I read them over and over. And now that I FINALLY know what they're called, I feel an Amazon order coming on.

Harriet the Spy
Who doesn’t love Harriet the Spy? Every kid who has ever read that book immediately started carrying around a little notebook, writing down observations. But hopefully you learned enough from the book so that you didn’t write down ALL your observations – after all, that’s what got Harriet into trouble in the first place. It’s a good lesson for real life, as a matter of fact. I, too, hauled around a spy notebook and jotted down my youthful ponderances, but it was short-lived. When I discovered that my deep thoughts about the world around me weren’t actually that deep, I gave up. It’s probably just as well – as Harriet could tell you, no one likes a spy.

Goosebumps – R L Stine
One of many that I owned in the late 90s.
Ahh, Goosebumps. Remember the utter joy of a brand new Goosebumps book? You could run your fingers over the slime-inspired Goosebumps logo and feel those little raised goosebumps. I loved these books, but I had to keep them hidden in my room – my sister, a notorious chicken for most of her young life, thought the covers were too scary. There were SO many Goosebumps books, and I could occasionally persuade my parents to buy one from the book order. Alas, I don’t remember a whole lot of the Goosebumps books – there was one about a ventriloquist dummy that I liked, and I really enjoyed the Goosebumps short story collections, but my favorites were the books where you chose your own ending. (I realize that Goosebumps was far from the first to do this, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it.) The choose-your-own-ending book set at an abandoned carnival that I recall being especially thrilling.

Fear Street Saga
Mona questions my literary choices.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but every main character in every Goosebumps book is twelve years old. Every single book. The Fear Street books are basically Goosebumps for the slightly older reader: the kids are teenagers who live on a cursed street, and their adventures are a little more grim. I never read a whole lot of the Fear Street books… except for the one my mom picked up at a garage sale. It was book two of the Fear Street Saga: the epic and chilling tale of how Fear Street came to be cursed. I read book two, loved it, and wound up with books one and three. Basically, it boils down to a family feud during the witch trials: a judge named Fier burns a girl named Goode at the stake because he doesn’t want his son to marry her – and the Goodes curse the Fiers. Gruesome misadventures follow over two centuries. I recently found all of these books at a used book store and bought them in a nostalgic haze. They’re awfully cheesy as I reread them fifteen years later, but I still find myself intrigued. R L Stine sure knows how to hook his readers.


While there are so many books I loved as a child (don’t even get me started on Little Golden Books) and many more that I loved as I continued through school (Gone With the Wind! Flowers for Algernon!), these are the books that really stick in my mind. These books helped instill in me a lifelong love of reading, and what’s not to love about that? Reading them now is like revisiting an old friend, and I can still feel the same joy and excitement I felt when I was reading them twenty years (!!!) ago. 

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