My favorite anecdote from Beverly Cleary's autobiography A Girl from Yamhill is about the time a teacher asked her grade school class to write about a favorite book character. She had so many beloved characters that she couldn't choose just one and ended up writing a story where all her favorite characters figured.
I always wished I would get the same assignment in school so I could do the same thing. I never did. But now, trying to blog about my favorite children's book, I feel the same way. How do I decide which is my favorite? I remember so many wonderful books from my childhood and I am constantly discovering more now that I am shopping for my young daughter. Right now the rhythms of Sandra Boynton and Dr. Seuss books are constantly heard at our house. My husband and I collect books by bestselling children's authors like Eric Carle and Leo Lionni, which weren't around when we were kids. We are also rediscovering old favorites. Books for children of all ages already fill our house. But then, they never really left us.
There are books that have constantly stayed by my bedside, which I dip into when I need a laugh or something to lull me into a peaceful sleep. Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Her Father was one, being the only Ramona book I grew up with. As an adult I've been collecting the other Ramona books, delighting in more exploits about one of my favorite characters. I don't think I ever saw Ramona in my school library--maybe she wasn't considered a good role model for Catholic schoolgirls. But I loved her spunk and imagination and I delighted in other characters with similar traits, including Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
I delighted in reading about naughty little kids and was pleased to find pesky little Ramona in my brother's Henry Huggins books. This humor was more than just entertainment for me. I think I loved the naughty little Ramona precisely because she was small but terrible, and a girl, an alter ego of sorts, for I was a girl between two boys who had trouble getting herslef heard and was constantly put down and teased. Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing helped me see my irritating little brother in a humorous light and I've returned to it and its sequels now that I have a daughter in the terrible two's. I've also recently discovered Sam, the brother of Anastasia Krupnik. Anastasia, with her wild imagination and secret schemes reminds me of my adolescent self, but precocious Sam suggests the future of my own clever little one. Maybe it's because I read All About Sam aloud to her when she was in the womb.
But the kinds of books I read most when I was a child were adventure stories. I devoured books about adventures among close friends and siblings, first the Bobbsey Twins and Enid Blyton books, and later Joan Aiken's fantasy tales, the Narnia Books, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Changeling, The Egypt Game, and The Velvet Room. I loved mystery and adventure, but I was drawn to these books as much by the warm relationships and respect for the intelligence and resourcefulness of kids portrayed, something I missed in my own life. These books kept in me a spark of hope that I had it in me to say or do something worthwhile, even if nobody around me ever paid much attention.
This is perhaps the quality that marks the best children's fiction and explains the success of Harry Potter. Magic, fantasy, and suspense draw children to books, but what is more important is the magic reading these books creates in them, the magic of hope and self-esteem.
This is something I think about when I choose books to read to my toddler. I seek out strong female characters-- there are many even in books for very young children . There is the brave Madeline, of course, and mischievous Olivia the Pig. There is even the confident and nurturing Mrs. Mallard in Make Way for the Ducklings, a current favorite. My daughter's favorite characters of this kind include Olivier Dunrea's Gossie and Gertie, who tease their friend Ollie out of his egg, Babar's daughter Isabelle, who defies convention by playing with a rhino and joining the circus, and Frances the Badger, who seeks her own solutions to her problems with imagination and a song. Right now the main draw of the Gossie, Babar and Olivia books seems to be the illustrations, and she constantly asks me to read Best Friends for Frances because it mentions frogs.But I expect in the future she will also come to have an appreciation for the strenght, independence, and imagination shown by these female characters. I feel privileged to introduce them to her at an early age.