Growing up, I was fortunate to be surrounded by books. I can still remember the incredible feeling of losing myself in a book, traveling to a new place, another time, and inviting wonderful characters into my head.
Here is the short –er long — list of my all-time favorites:
The Tall Book of Mother Goose is one of the first books I can remember reading. Unlike some of my favorite books, I still own the original. Others I’ve had to reacquire via e-Bay.
Published by Harper & Row in 1942, don’t expect any ‘politically correct’ or glossed over nursery rhymes in here. Back in the day, kids read about Little Johnny Green who tried to drown poor pussy cat in the well, the Old Woman in the Shoe who whipped her kids soundly before sending them to bed, and some nameless kid in Goosey, Goosey Gander who grabbed an old man by the left leg and threw him down the stairs. Despite this exposure to early violence, I grew into a semi-normal, responsible adult. And perhaps because of it, I write mystery books about murder and mayhem.
What is the very first book you can remember reading? Do you still own it? What did you love most about it?
I managed to keep my original copy of The Contented Little Pussy Cat by Frances Ruth Keller, published by an obscure NY publishing company called Platt & Munk in 1949.
Because I loved it, the book is in rough shape, as you can see by the photo. The spine is gone, the end papers are torn, and I’m afraid somebody — probably me, but maybe my sister, I’ll blame it on her — scribbled on the back pages with a ball point pen.
This book runs as high as $60 at AbeBooks.com in good condition.
Nurse Nancy, a Little Golden Book (Simon & Schuster 1958) was a favorite because the heroine was named Nancy, and she loved to ‘fix’ people — a harbinger of things to come — and the book came with a box of cool decorated Band-aids in different shapes. The book is torn and scribbled on, but that wasn’t my fault, since it belonged to my first cousin Barbara.
Miraculously, my Aunt Bev kept the book, and years later when I mentioned how much I loved it, she very kindly gave it to me.
The Saggy Baggy Elephant is another Little Golden Book (Random House 1947) which was reissued in 1974. I bought this copy for my daughters. They were never book crazy like me — I know, shocking — so this book is still in excellent condition.
It’s about a little elephant named Sookie who lives alone in the jungle, not sure where he belongs. The other animals make fun of his saggy skin and wrinkles. He’s about to be eaten by a hungry lion when he’s saved by a herd of his long-lost relatives. Yeah, a happy ending!
Arty the Smarty by Faith McNulty (Grosset & Dunlap) was first published in 1964, but I bought this copy for my daughters in the early 80’s. I loved the title, the funny drawings and the humorous, upbeat story.
The hero, Arty, is a smart a**. He doesn’t swim in the same direction as the other fish. As a geeky bookworm with coke-bottle glasses and an attitude, I could totally relate.
In good condition, this book can fetch as high as $50 on vintage book sites.
Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban was published by Harper Collins in 1960. Frances the badger has trouble falling asleep. What kid can’t relate to that?
Loved this book, and bought it for my daughters. The illustrations by Garth Williams are delightful. My paperback copy is in rough shape. A signed, hardcover copy of this book is currently available on eBay for $250. I’m seriously considering it. Don’t try to talk me out of it.
Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and The Red Shoes by Maj Lindman, Albert Whitman & Co., was one of a series first published in the 1930’s and reprinted in 1994, about fictional blonde triplets who live in Sweden and get up to all kinds of mischief.
My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and had an inside track on the latest, most popular children’s books. I believe I received my original copy for Christmas, but let it go later in life. I recently bought this reprinted copy on Amazon for $8 plus shipping.
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1960) is a classic, and one of the few Dr. Seuss stories that don’t annoy me with the constant repetition and weird words. I think my mother insisted I read this because I wouldn’t try new foods. She hoped I would at least take a bite, and maybe discover I actually liked whatever it was.
Not sure if it worked, but I remember enjoying this story. I can’t remember where I picked up this book, I don’t think it’s my childhood original.
Moving into older childhood books, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (Jonathan Cape, 1962) is probably my all time favorite. I still remember getting it for Christmas, and the look on my mother’s face when I first clapped eyes on the book. She knew I would love it, and she was right. It is spooky and haunting, in a ‘not-too-scary’ way.
I misplaced my original copy — a crime, I know. So I recently acquired this original, first edition hardcover copy from a British bookseller on eBay. The book is still available in a revised format on Amazon for next to nothing, but I wanted the book jacket I remembered as a child. I won’t tell you how much it cost unless you ply me with wine, then I might be persuaded to spill.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams (Dell, 1952). Okay, I lied. This is my all-time favorite book, tied with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I loved everything about this book, and it contains my favorite first line of all time: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Sheer genius.
I acquired this copy in college when I took a course in Children’s Literature. I was lucky, since it contains Garth Williams illustrations; not every edition does. I also have a hard-copy collector’s edition I bought a few years back. Every kid should read this book. They’ll never kill another spider again.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (Penquin, 1959). This was my first foray into fantasy, and the reason I subsequently read The Lord of the Rings in high school, decades before it became a movie.
This is my original copy, given to me for my birthday (maybe my 10th?) by a kid named Jennifer M. The only reason I know this is she had to foresight to sign the copy. The book is not in great shape (I’m hard on the books I love). The front cover is off, I need to tape it back on, and the pages are now yellowed.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (Dell, 1964). I also acquired this in university for my Children’s Literature course because I liked the story as a kid. Any heroine who wore glasses was okay in my book.
This book was a precursor for my love of Nancy Drew mysteries, about a kid who writes in a secret notebook, making observations and taking notes on anything or anyone of interest. A writer in the making. Naturally, her notebook is found and mayhem ensues.
Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder