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Two Remarks on Children’s Books

Two Remarks on Children’s Books:

1. I have been collecting, enjoying and at times studying, children’s books all my life. Well, from age three, thanks to my mother who taught me to read. I have 3000 of them (now - I gave about 900 to the library before we left Los Angeles). I love them with a fierce proprietariness that approximates a parent’s love for a child. Of all these books, I will only name a very few. I cannot – it would not be reasonable or reflective of the truth – to name just one.


I am a complete lunatic about Beverly Cleary’s books. I have read them since I was about 7 or 8 and now know them practically by heart. Beezus and Ramona, Ellen Tebbits, Otis Spofford, The Luckiest Girl, and Fifteen are among my favourites. I regularly buy copies of them even though I have them all. “In case,” I tell myself.

In case what? In case the multiple copies and reprints on my shelves from the 50, 60s, 70s and 80s evaporate in the night? In case the collections in the libraries of America suddenly disappear and I am charged with the sole responsibility of supplying them with Clearys? In case I am visited by a horde (several hordes) of unfortunate children who do not own a copy of their own? In case these colossally beloved books are banned by the next administration and I have to start a black market trade in Henry and Ribsy?

I don’t know. This is not normal behaviour, but whenever I see one on a bookshelf I buy it and send it to a child. Now even the recipients of my benevolence (or affliction) have multiple copies. I just think these books are the absolute best reflection of children’s hearts and minds (that although set in a certain era, culture, and place, transcends all of them) and I think what I want these children to know is that somebody understands them. “Really. Look. She even wrote books about you…”

Also at the top of the general “Favourite” category are the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace; The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder; Eloise, by Kay Thompson; The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, by Betty MacDonald and Blue Willow and Sensible Kate, by Doris Gates. A Candle in Her Room, Requiem for a Princess – all Ruth M. Arthur’s books, really; all of Noel Streatfield’s books, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Wizard of Oz, all the Mary Poppins books by PL Travers, Anne of Green Gables and all the Anne and other books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

In very early childhood, The Bobbsey Twins were favourites, but that didn’t last long. Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and the Buttered Bread; Susie’s New Stove (A Golden Book) Winnie the Pooh, Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine.

Other books – wonderful books – mostly out of print books that I hope someone on the Red Room has read because I don’t know anyone who has (except my cousin Marsha, who used to read everything with me) include: Susan’s Safe Harbor, Somebody Else’s Shoes, Adopted Jane, Susan, Here I Stay, Erasmus and the Vagabond, Danny Dunn and The Homework Machine, Homer Price, Impunity Jane, My Father’s Dragon, Twig, Stephanie, by Joan Austen-Leigh (Jane Austen’s descendant); The Pink Maple House. The Wide Wide World (That is a trip.)I also loved The Baltimore Catechism. Not so much the content as the questions. Not so much the questions as the great rolling words...

Books I absolutely hate are rare but top of the short list is Elsie Dinsmore – whom I would cheerfully see drowned along with her mad, sadistic, barely-contained-pedophiliac-Papa. Elsie, you may or may not remember, is the plucky, white, saccharine blond little girl (whose father continually caresses and kisses her on her “cherry red lips”) who is in charge of teaching Christianity to the slave children on their plantation. In her munificent goodness, she reminds the children that if they are very good, God will turn them into white people when they get to heaven. I don’t know why that book isn’t banned, though I am not in favour of banning books. But if I were, that would be the first on the list.

These are a minute number of the many many books I love and do not include the YA books I also collect, though Ruth M Arthur’s and some of Beverly Cleary’s books fall into that category. I also collect children’s textbooks from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, both American and English in almost all subjects.

I wish I could have gone to my shelves to peruse them all before writing this, but they are all packed up in storage awaiting the move to their new home. I have looked at these boxes sometimes over the last five years on our visits back to California from Wales, with great longing - and now, at last, it seems that I will see these beloved treasures soon.

Of course I didn’t go for five whole years without buying a copy of Beezus and Ramona. We had a new baby in the family just before we returned to America. She was probably the only baby in California with an entire set of Beverly Cleary’s works at age three (weeks).


2. An excerpt from Felicity and Barbara Pym:

“…Which reminds me, don’t neglect children’s books as an infinitely valuable source of information about a culture. You can tell a lot about a nation by reading what it writes for its own children. Along that line try Noel Streatfield, Milne of course, E. Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, and of course P.L. Travers ― think of Mary Poppin’s values!

It may seem unnecessary, but it is not. There is an unconscious cultural code in these books that upholds certain standards, believes in certain values, and incorporates certain attitudes and prejudices of the time -sometimes blatant, more often than not extremely subtle. They teach the young the subtext of their language - they instil that almost universal sense of superiority, however misguided, that infects - or graces - Albion’s fair shore. They create (or did, in the era that we are examining) Englishness:

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow

Little Frosty Eskimo

Little Turk or Japanee

O! Don’t you wish that you were me?

You have seen the scarlet trees

And the lions over seas

You have eaten ostrich eggs

And turned the turtles off their legs

Such a life is very fine

But it’s not so nice as mine

You must often as you trod

Wearied not to be abroad

You have curious things to eat

I am fed on proper meat

You must dwell beyond the foam

But I am safe and live at home

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow

Little Frosty Eskimo

Little Turk or Japanee

O! Don’t you wish that you were me?

(Robert Louis Stevenson A Child’s Garden of Verses)

Now, (apart from the appalling xenophobia ) this could be regarded simply as any well-fed, secure and happy child’s view of the world, and it does have a certain universal innocent and myopic charm, but in this case it also represents an attitude of smugness that you will find over and over in English literature. That tone is apparent in one of the first publications written specifically for children, (possibly by Oliver Goldsmith) The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.

It was published by bookseller John Newbery, in (approximately) 1765. Newbery, you will recall, is the enlightened man in whose honour the Newbery medal for excellence in children’s literature was established in 1921. He was the first English bookseller/publisher to regard children as a separate reader market. There are earlier works.

Pride of place probably goes to Mary Cooper’s Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, the earliest known collection of nursery rhymes, published in 1744. This was quickly followed by the now more familiar Mother Goose’s Melody in 1760. For the next hundred years or so, nothing of note was produced for children except ‘moral tales’, rather gruesome accounts of the dire consequences of disobedience, pride, gluttony, etc.

The children featured in these stories nearly always died (or at least were horribly disfigured) in the wayward pursuit of their own (mostly innocuous) desires. A kind of instant Kiddie Karma imposed by a benevolent Supreme Being. (‘God is Love’ as they say.)

Dickens is particularly adroit at portraying this repugnant hypocrisy. As is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which you will read if you haven’t already. Of course you must have. It is still a standard requirement in secondary schools today, isn’t it?

Around 1860, a truly significant children’s literature began to take shape. England initiated a body of work that endures to this day ― work that was read by Barbara Pym, and almost certainly read (or seen in Disney form) by you. Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865) for example.

So you see, Felicity, were you and Miss Pym ever to have met, you would have had a good deal to say to each other, at least on one subject. Though I suspect there may be others. ‘England could be reconstructed entirely from its children’s books,’ said Paul Hazard in his Books, Children and Men, and I think it is true. "

End Excerpt



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That was good. Highly informational. I'm also seeing what I missed in my misguided eagerness to grow up. In most cases, I try to shrug off any reactionary un-P.C. attitudes I come across in any literature even when it hurts(except for extreme cases like "Little Adolf's Happy Day").

Thomas Burchfield

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Thank you, Thomas~

I so enjoyed your post on Winnie the Pooh. And up to a point, I agree with you - but only up to a point. Past that point, all those un-pc books should be kept and archived and available, but not readily available. Not to children who are just beginning to form their characters. I tend to put myself in the place of African American children who have to sit in a classroom and hear that if they are good, God will make them white, and in the place of white children who quickly learn that the grown ups around them think that it's okay to write, read and pass on to their children, this contemptible prose. But a little English snobbishness never bothers me. The characters in the children's books I discuss basically look down on everyone - and reading First Term at Mallory Towers and all the Enid Blyton books and their ilk is just hilarious.  Pythonesque. Thank you for posting!


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Excess, not

Ah, that mother love extending to books. Now I must apologize for my earlier flip comments on the Golden Books series, and yes, my own house groans from the weight of books and I once broke the springs in my van from the sheer weight of cartons bought at auction. So I do not see multiple copies and sharing your love to be a sickness at all. (When I went to live on the beach in the Yucatan, I brought numerous Phaidon and Abrams art books on the Maya along with me, and when I left, those books stayed behind with Mayan families who struggled through English but who had never seen such books on their own heritage.) It truly gives a glow to share things you love dearly.
But this post, Harrison, is a learning experience in itself. Except for the Bobbseys, the only book I had from your list was (what a laugh) Susie’s New Stove. I am the least domestic of creatures --- cooking for me being a matter of chemistry --- but I still remember that damn red cover and cute little Susie pleasing everyone in the family. I think Susie’s recipe called “Pixie’s Delight” became the now infamous S’mores.
Actually, it is surprising that I never read so many of the classics you mention. Perhaps if I started reading aloud to the puppy it would have an effect…
More importantly of course, is your excerpt from Felicity and Barbara Pym. Much, much more there to digest when I read the whole book. And what an amazing quote at the end.
Thanks, Harrison, for the education. M x

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Drop everything...

... and rush to your nearest library for One Morning In Maine!! Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.00. When I was living in Nova Scotia I made a pilgrimage all the way to Bucks Harbor, Maine, just in case a little girl in jeans and a life jacket would show up, looking for her tooth. And while you're at the library, pick up Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings. By all means, read to the puppy. These books are meant to be read aloud.

I love that you broke your van with books! And how generous you were with your treasures. I see that on the strength of that I shall have to forgive you for certain flippancy regarding Susie, who was not all that cute, but just an ordinary girl. All kids are cute, anyway.

Yes, Pixie's Delight - now S'mores. And that damn red cover (you come perilously close to blasphemy here) gives me a complete thrill when I look at it. (As you might imagine, I have three copies - my original one, and two captured triumphantly in used bookstores. Would you like one?) I had that same metal stove that Susie had and I actually cooked things on it with my cousin, Marsha who now is Alice Waters' (Chez Panisse) right hand woman - works with her in Berkeley and around the country and runs the "farm in schools" programme where children plant and grow vegetables and eat them and learn about nutrition.

I loved the smell of that stove heating up (probably warm lead paint) and the smallest whiff of that same scent brings back memories long forgotten on the rare occasions I come across it. What I liked in the book was that Susie's brother also cooked and that their mother, like mine, didn't say "Be careful don't burn yourself" all the time and thought she was capable of responsible tasks. Odd how we look at books so differently.

That is a very telling quote from Paul Hazard, yes. I think about it a lot.


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The smell of hot lead

I had the same stove --- perhaps it was a set with the book? Whereas you looked upon it as a fun experience to be shared, I looked upon it as a challenge that I could never conquer.  I tried to bake a tiny blueberry pie in the cussed (as we say in Maine) thing and the pie didn’t properly bake of course, but got just hot enough to explode burning blueberries over me when I ‘checked’ it.  Although at the time the berries were probably organic, it was not exactly a Chez Panisse-inspiring incident.  I really can’t blame Susie, only my own misplaced ambition.

A further word on the van episode.  The rather geriatric heirs to the estate were thrilled that I wanted to purchase all their family’s books, since they themselves had taken such exquisite care of them.  Their parents had made them wear gloves when they handled books and had insisted on always placing them properly on a table, with no food or drink in the vicinity!  The books were indeed flawless, but how sad not to be able to actually fondle the pages.  Among the boxes was the most wonderful set (which I do still have) of Nouveau LaRousse Illustree, huge volumes with tooled art nouveau bindings, a.e.g. of course.  The van was an extra large model.  I believe there was mud involved that day.  And a number of heavyset men grunting to push the van out.  It was not pretty, but the books were safe.

 Puppy has a weekend of McCloskey reading to look forward to.  And thanks for the offer of Susie, but I probably do still have my copy, albeit a bit blueberry-stained if you should ever find yourself in want.   M x     

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From coast to coast

Now I can claim to have read McCloskey!  It’s amazing that the suggestion had to come from someone who grew up in California.  Ah, the things left unexamined!  Wonderful books that I appreciate as an adult (I enjoyed the progression of his illustrative style throughout the twenty years between Ducklings and Burt Dow) and I absolutely loved A Time Of Wonder.  And Buck’s Harbor --- excuse me, but why didn’t I know?   Sal is certainly my kind of kid.   Thanks for the introduction.

(By the way, the puppy was mesmerized and especially enjoyed the ducks, since she considered she had already made their acquaintance via Yeats, http://www.redroom.com/blog/marabuck/yeats-and-bees-and-ducks-oh-my.) 

M x 

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Skills and Interests

I usually find that if I am not invested in a task - if I am doing it for any reason other than desire, it doesn't turn out well. Maybe you just didn't want to bake a blueberry pie in the "cussed thing"! I'm sure that if Marsha and I had thought of it as a "task" and a "cussed thing" we would not have so many many treasured memories of our collaborative and devoted childhood together.

The way you describe the collection (the collecting) of the books is very different - wonderful, flawless, glow, love dearly, sad not to be able to fondle pages, and worth breaking a van over. Sometimes kids just try to please parents who give them gifts they don't particularly like.

The Nouveau LaRousse Illustre sound wonderful. We have a few extraordinarily produced books of similar enchantment so I can readily share in your appreciation.

Time to make an apricot pie for a party this afternoon. Always delightful to read what you write.

~Harrison x

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A bit of an addendum and confession

My self-built library here in the woods is a modest-sized room 15-foot square at the corner of the house where the ceiling reaches to 14 feet in the center.  Books line the walls, including one short ‘false wall’ I built that extends into the room, making a pleasant jog.  In certain places the books go to the ceiling, are in cartons under the desk, folios under the sofa, all once catalogued, now in ‘what-the-hell-I’ll-find-it-someday’ order. (I do have a card catalogue, the drawers of which have been upended so many times that arranging the books themselves is far easier.)  Most of these are books on the arts, archaeology, natural sciences, antiques, with fiction (read and someday-to-read) consigned to the attic and stashes and teetering piles in every other room of the house. 

 Over a decade ago a teenager visited, a typical Mainer who read only when absolutely necessary --- road signage before GPS --- and she stood in the library and looked around and asked the most frightening question, “Have you read all these?”  Frightening because it dated my life, prompted the question were there enough years remaining to re-read everything, to reabsorb that which is now missing?  Then I shelved the question and bought more books.

I assume the apricot pie was not made in Susie’s oven.  Sounds sinful yet wholesome.~M x

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My Wife . . .

. . . occasionally makes jokes about the floor collapsing because of my collection. I try to restrict my purchases only to books I know I'm going to read (say those that are related to my WIP, (like P.D. James's recent book surveying mystery literature). . . but it ain't easy (i.e., I have collection of horror anthologies that I'm rather proud of, but have failed to add to for years.)

Even as a collector, I find it very strange to own a book I'm not able to read (though I can understand it with things like Shakespeare's First Folio, et. al). I know of collectors who buy *two* copies of every book--a reading copy and the collector's copy. But I'd wind up passing on even more books than I do already if I did that.

And desire, of course is everything in writing any piece, though there is also the business side of writing, which can be pretty dry sometimes (expense tracking, etc.)

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I wonder...

I wonder how many books Red Room authors have, collectively. Millions, I imagine. Yes, I am always going to restrict my purchases too. So far the restriction has consisted in virtuously not buying the 17th version of Pride and Prejudice - for a week or two.

It is strange to own a book which one does not read, I agree. I've read all those I have bought (or at least read into - I haven't yet read the entire dictionary of classical references or the 69 volumes of the Talmud (though I did once read the entire Summa Theologica but that was in my more ambitious days). But I have read all the fiction works and some of all the reference books.

My next big project is to read all the books I bought in Wales which are still sitting in the cartons that Pickford's shipped across the sea (and the country) in the Welsh language, which, since I haven't spoken it regularly for almost a year, is somewhat daunting. But I am looking forward to it and since I am doing a doctorate at a university in Wales, I have categorised these books in my mind, as you have, as related to my work in progress. A bit of a stretch, since I am writing the dissertation in the English language, but tenable. :)


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Children's Books

I was so happy to read your post! Besides myself and my mother, I have not known anyone who has read (and loved) Twig. I also loved the Betsy-Tacy books, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Little House on the Prairie, Snip Snap and Snur, Blueberries for Sal, and Blue Willow, as well as so many others. I could go on listing books, and do list a few more under my "Favorites." It was nice to know that we have many books in common.

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The Moffats!

How could I have forgotten The Moffats? I love this series.  There were just too many to mention. 

Thanks for sharing this!