Friday, June 12, 2009

A Little Mental Comfort Food

When I think of "books I loved as a child", I don't have to think hard, because they are right here on my bookshelves. I am a big believer in re-reading. The ultimate book experience is when you literally "fall into" a story world that seems as real or more real, than the one you live in. As an adult, I can see that I coped with a pretty stressful childhood by escaping through books. I read everything that came down the pike...magazines, adult books, pamphlets in the doctor's office...but there were those special books that I read again and again and again (and still do.)

My parents never understand how I could read the same book over and over. "Not A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN again?" they would groan. Or THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. Or CHARLOTTE'S WEB. "Does it come out differently this time?" they would tease.

I couldn't explain that no, this time the Nazis don't discover the Franks or that Charlotte doesn't die. Re-reading was like visiting old friends who were always happy to see me. It was like snuggling into my favorite quilt, When I first heard the term "comfort food", I immediately thought of my beloved book friends. Time spent with Francie Nolan or Anne Frank was exactly like a good bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Most of these books are middle grade or adult novels. I don't ever remember reading picture books or Dr. Seuss until I was an adult in library school. What follows is an oddball assortment, some of which are out of print (alas).

CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E.B White--This is the book that I would take to a desert island; it has everything. Humor (Templeton the rat is my all time favorite fictional character), suspense (Will Charlotte's plan succeed?) and the reassuring notion of no matter what, life goes on. I also learned the beauty of description, something I nearly always skipped in reading. But White's humorous descriptions, and lists of items (such as the contents of Wilbur's pig slops) serve as both scene setter and insight into the characters.

HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh--This was the first book I encountered where the adult weren't founts of wisdom (with the exception of Ole Golly). In fact, as viewed through the lensless glasses of Harriet M. Welsch, most adults were foolish or clueless or both. Harriet, as the title implies, was an unapologetic eleven-year-old snoop, and so was I. Harriet taught me how to listen to people through walls, via a water glass! Harriet also taught me that there was a time for the unvarnished truth, and a time to keep it to yourself.

THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank--Anne was the first person who told me I could be a writer. Well, not personally, of course, but as I read her diary I was enthralled by how she made what could have been a deadly dull reciting of daily events (even if they did happen during WWII while hiding from the Nazis) a fascinating narrative. I was even more impressed when I learned that she revised the journal at least twice before her discovery, with the thought of publishing it after the war. I found comfort with Anne. While the Nazis might not have forced my family into an attic, I did live in daily fear of the Ku Klux Klan. Anne became my junior high equivalent of the imaginary friend.

THE FAIRY DOLL by Rumer Godden; TIME FOR LISSA by Rebecca Caudill; THE CHINESE DAUGHTER by Frances Lattimore What do these three books have in common? Certainly not the settings (England, the U.S. and pre-Communist China, respectively). The common thread is that the main character has a special relationship with a doll. I was never much of doll girl, as far as playing with them. But the girls in these books treated their dolls as surrogate siblings. As an only child, I desperately wanted a sibling, or since that was not in my power, a special doll to bond with. These books represented to me that unattainable ideal. Word of warning if you search these books out, THE CHINESE DAUGHTER has some politically incorrect notions of Asians, by today's standards.

THE BEANY MALONE/KATIE ROSE AND STACY BELFORD BOOKS by Leonora Mattingly Weber. Once I ditched Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins (cringe!) I discovered the World of Beany and Katie Rose and Stacy...specifically Denver, from the 1940's to the late 60's. Between the Beany books and the Katie Rose/Stacy books, there were 23 volumes, following the same characters as they moved through adolescence, college, marriage and parenthood. After Beany finally married The Boy Next Door, she turned up as a cameo character in the Katie Rose books, so I could still keep up with the Malone family. It was an insular little world where people dated and married their classmates, and no one ever seemed to leave Denver. This was comforting to someone like me, who attended 10 different schools before I graduated from high school. I loved the idea of people who were lifelong friends, a phenomena I had never encountered, Then I met my husband who went through elementary to graduate school with the same cast of characters. How I envy the continuity of his life. Just like fiction!

THE MELENDY TRILOGY by Elizabeth Enright. Since these books were published during WWII, I always considered them "historical fiction". I was adult before I realized that the Melendys could have been the contemporaries of my parents...and may have been the beginning of my interest in life on the Home Front (the origins of JIMMY'S STARS, perhaps) At any rate, like the Malones and Belfords, the Melendys were a large, single parent family, whose lives and adventures seemed blissfully unencumbered by adult interference. Ah!!!!

AN OLD FASHIONED GIRL by Louisa May Alcott--This was a book that turned up in my Easter basket one year, no doubt because it was next to the candy display at E.J. Korvette's. I believed that any book given as a gift should be read, no matter how deadly dull. I had read LITTLE WOMEN the year before, in third grade, and was unimpressed by the March girls. But Polly, the old-fashioned girl of the title, was much livelier and more naive than Jo et al, in this take on the " country mouse/city mouse." After a year or two with Polly, I was ready to re-read and enjoy LITTLE WOMEN...but OLD FASHIONED GIRL is the book I still return to.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith. I read this only because 1) I had already read all the books I had brought with me to my grandmother's house and 2) it was the only book in her house that didn't have the word "arthritis" in the title. I was ten, and so was Francie Nolan, the main character. I was totally hooked by the first chapter's description of Francie's weekly visit to the library to choose books. Going to the library was the high point of my week, which occurred right after my weekly trip to the allergist. Francie might have been living in the slums of 1910 Brooklyn, but we were total soulmates on the subject of reading. My grandmother gave me her copy to take home. Although this book now resides in YA departments, when it was published in 1943, it was an adult bestseller. This was my first book that even MENTIONED the possibility of human reproduction. I thoughtfully dog-eared the "dirty" pages for my friends to view and share in the back seats of the school bus. I read everything else Betty Smith wrote (I had to have a note from my mother to check out books from the adult section of the library) and while I enjoyed them, nothing equaled the Nolans.

AUNTIE MAME and THE JOYOUS SEASON by Patrick Dennis. I discovered these two in a junk store bin on a trip to Florida. I had, once again, read everything I had brought with me, and would have read WAR AND PEACE if it had been in my motel room. These two books were never meant for children, even though the narrators are both young boys (in the first case, an adult looking back at his childhood). I thought they were hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like THE JOYOUS SEASON, a child's eye view of "jet set" New York of the '60's and divorce. (I told you they weren't really for kids!) I was twelve when I read them, and the combination of innocence and snarkiness in the voices of the fictional "Patrick" of AUNTIE MAME, and Kerry, in THE JOYOUS SEASON (which I think is out of print.)

As an adult, I no longer have the luxury of sprawling in the back seat of a car on a ten hour road trip with a stack of books and a bag of lemon drops to suck. Now I'm the one driving, and my daughter gets carsick if she tries to do anything that involves a printed page. Enter...the Recorded Book! Now, my Inner Child and my actual child enjoy those long drives with some of my old favorites (such as Beverly Cleary's HENRRY HUGGINS and RAMONA, THE PEST...both excellent readings by Neil Patrick Harris and Stockard Channing, respectively) and new ones (Carl Hiaasen's HOOT and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series come to mind.)

I'm taking off for the beach in a couple of weeks, and I think I'll take a few old Patrick and Polly and of course, Wilbur and Templeton. Time to reconnect with my real inner child again!

What I've been reading: I've been recovering from eye surgery, so I haven't been doing as much reading. But since we last talked, I've read NEW YEAR AT THE PIER by fellow blogger April Halprin Wayland (picture book), GEORGIA RISE: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O'KEEFE by Katherine Lasky (Non-fiction picture book);UNDER THE BRIDGE by Rebecca Godfrey, BANGKOK DAYS by Lawrence Osborne, HUNGRY by Allen Zadoff, ANNIE'S GHOSTS by Steven Luxemburg (Adult non-fiction)


Cynthia Cotten said...

Ah, comfort books. Mine included--and still include--all the Oz books, NATIONAL VELVET, E. Nesbit's FIVE CHILDREN trilogy (FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, THE PHOENIX AND THE CARPET, THE STORY OF THE AMULET)and Louisa May Alcott's JACK AND JILL.

mary ann rodman said...

Cynthia..You are the only other person I know who has read JACK AND JILL! It's one my perennials too...but there is only so much room in a many great books, so little space!

Unknown said...

Most of the books I read in elementary school were from the library. I read Nancy Drew and biographies in fifth and sixth grade. When I visited my Grandma, she'd buy me Archie comic books.In high school, I read adult books. My favorite book was "Great Expectations." I felt sorry for Pip because he loved Estella, but she was so cruel towards him. I also liked the eccentric Miss Havisham.

Madelene Towne said...

Happy to report that THE JOYOUS SEASON by Patrick Dennis is not out of print. Check the listing on Amazon.