Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Re-Reading Project: Sammy the Seal and Danny and the Dinosaur

It was feeding time at the zoo.

All the animals

were getting their food.

– Sammy the Seal

One day Danny went

to the museum.

He wanted to see what was inside.

-Danny and the Dinosaur

I’m pretty sure that Sammy the Seal by Syd Hoff was the first book I ever read myself, followed quickly by Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur. But, I keep changing my mind about which one was actually my first book, so they stand together as my first books. They’re probably a lot of kids’ first reads, as they’re both Level 1 books in the I Can Read! series, the first of which was 1957’s Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. So the I Can Read! series was already 30 years old by the time I was reading.

Danny and the Dinosaur was published first, in 1958 and then Sammy the Seal in 1959. Each book is 64 pages of simple text and represents one day of freedom and fun. Danny meets the dinosaur at the museum and they hang out in the city together, most often helping out its citizens (kinda like a Superman version of Godzilla), then the dinosaur goes back to the museum rather than be Danny’s pet. They have further adventures together in later books. Sammy the Seal is given a day pass of sorts from the zoo, because he asks the seal feeder, Mr. Johnson, nicely. He also explores the city (one of my favorite pages shows a local man saying, “That seal must be from out of town.”), though he spends about half the day hanging out in a classroom with a bunch of schoolchildren and a redheaded teacher. He takes a cab back to the zoo just in time for dinner.

I was inspired to re-read these earliest of books when I mentioned them in my Charlotte’s Web post and Hoff’s niece Carol responded. I still have my original copies, but they’re in storage at my parents’ house, so I checked them out from my local library, where I’m a well-known patron. One of the librarians joked with me when I picked them up, saying the librarians were speculating on whether I’d meant to request them, since they varied a bit from my usual reading tastes. “Well,” she conceded, “All of your reading is a bit odd, so I told them this was actually pretty normal for you.” I told her about the Re-Reading Project and she told me about her favorite Syd Hoff book, Lengthy. I’d never even heard of it before and I was engrossed for several minutes while she narrated it for me. It’s apparently out of print, which is unfortunate because it sounds like a sweet story.

Sammy the SealDanny and the DinosaurIt just takes me about 5 minutes to read these books now, since there’s only a line of text on each page and the language is very easy, which is what makes them great Level 1 books and the reason why they were the first books I was able to read myself, every word. What struck me most re-reading them now is how absolutely dated the books are, and already were in the 80s when I first read them. Which strangely makes them feel timeless. Kinda like Indiana Jones. And they were utterly familiar: I must’ve read these books so many times as a kid that I all but memorized them.

Syd Hoff did more than write some of the most influential kid’s books ever, which would be a lot on its own. He sold almost 600 cartoons to The New Yorker, had two long-running syndicated comic strips and wrote books for adults as well. He was even the host of a t.v. show, called Tales of Hoff. Which, from the description on Wikipedia, kinda sounds like Bob Ross’s show combined with Roald Dahl’s. Here’s a clip of Hoff drawing and narrating, but I’m not sure if it’s a clip from Tales of Hoff.

I think it’s fitting to end this first month of re-reading where I began my reading odyssey. I didn’t originally intend to re-read so many books this month. I thought I’d maybe re-read four, but I had so much trouble narrowing it down that I re-read eight instead! I had a lot of fun, but moving forward, I’ll only be re-reading one title each month (August is ambitious, with three).

However, a nice side effect of this first month of re-reading has been the conversations I’ve had about great reading experiences, here on the blog and with friends and family off the internet. I’ve invited some of them to re-read an influential title from their life and write a guest post for the blog. February will kick off with one of these guest blogs. Some of you may also like to join me in the Re-Reading Project, so send me a message and let me know.

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The Re-Reading Project: Matilda

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.

Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, “Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick!”

It didn’t have to be Matilda, you know. I think I was an adult before I finally read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (23 years old, in 2005), but I could’ve re-read Danny, the Champion of the World, instead. It’s funny that the two Roald Dahl books I know that I read as a child are Matilda and Danny, the Champion of the World, which have remained my favorite Roald Dahl books. They’re similar in a way, in that they feature a girl and a boy, respectively, who conquer bullying adults through their intelligence and imagination. Danny was published first, in 1975 and Matilda over a decade later, in 1988 (when I was 6 years old). The main difference would have to be that Matilda’s parents are not supportive at all and Danny and his father William are partners in their adventures.

I re-read Matilda, because I was most curious about how my memory of the book and my current reading of it would match up. I can see why this was a book that lived large in my imagination. The hero is a small, intelligent girl who reads as much as she can! She spends all of her time at the library and then in her room, reading books. That may well have been me. I read most of the books in my school library, on my teacher’s shelves and around the house. I started reading adult books very early (as you’ll start seeing soon when I re-read some of those). Matilda is misunderstood and underestimated by almost all of the adults around her, which most kids can identify with as well, even if the reality isn’t as extreme as in Matilda’s story.

matilda-roald-dahl-hardcover-cover-artQuentin Blake‘s illustrations really help the story to come alive, partly because they are imbedded into the text in many cases, working together with the story. Their genius is that they are so perfectly suited to children’s imaginations and also to Dahl’s wry and dark stories.

Except for reading (re-reading?) the two Charlie books in 2005, I haven’t read any of Dahl’s books since I started recording my reading at age 13. Yet, as an adult, I have been collecting copies of his kids’ books (which I didn’t own as a kid, apparently) and two story collections, Kiss Kiss and Over to You. I’ve become fascinated, as an adult, by Roald Dahl in general. He was a fighter pilot during WWII and his first published story was about his plane crashing during the war. He wrote scripts for Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and one Bond film, You Only Live Twice, as well as his own Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but they were all finished or re-written by others. His school days were hugely influential in his writing for children: most notably that Cadbury used to send tester candy to his school, leading to his love of chocolate and arguably his most famous story, as well as in the behavior of the adults around his child protagonists, which is often very brutal and ignorant-minded. Without coddling or being sentimental, Dahl stories regularly deal with the injustice and powerlessness that children feel, which may be one of the biggest reasons for their longevity.

In addition to Dahl’s books, his family is his lasting legacy. His daughter and two of his grandchildren write. His grandson Luke Kelly’s Blanket and Bear, a Remarkable Pair was published last year.

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The Re-Reading Project: Snot Stew

Our mama was the best mama in the whole wide world. She did all sorts of stuff for us. She gave us milk so we would grow up to be big and strong. And she gave us baths with her tongue, which was dry and rough, but it felt good anyway.

You can probably guess that the narrator of Bill Wallace’s Snot Stew is not human, but is instead Kikki the kitten, who is left alone with her brother Toby when first mama cat abandons them and the rest of their siblings leave the barn where they were born. Kikki and Toby are adopted by a family of “people things” and Snot Stew is the story of how they adjust to domestic life. Toby is more adventurous and adapts easily, while Kikki spends a lot of time cowering underneath The Couch.

But they both love the stew that The Mother feeds them, so they feel tricked with their people things Ben and Sarah start playing what they come to recognize as the Snot Stew game. But Toby is also playing a game with Butch the outside dog, which becomes treacherous and allows Kikki to be brave and save the day.

Snot Stew coverSnot Stew is a silly book that, as an adult, I flew through. Like Charlotte’s Web, it has really clever and amusing illustrations that enhance the book. I don’t know how many times I read this book as a kid – my book fair copy is battered and worn – but I know I haven’t read it once since I started recording my reading at thirteen. It’s funny that it’s impossible for the adult in me not to see the clear takeaway message that Wallace, a former schoolteacher, built into the book (it’s better to share, especially with siblings), but as a kid, I think I was way too distracted by the silliness and the adventure to consciously realize it was there.

The only other book of Wallace’s that I read was Buffalo Gal, a Western adventure with a female protagonist, that I also must’ve read before I was thirteen, because it’s not on my reading record. I was pretty sad when I saw during my research that January 30th will be the two-year anniversary of Bill Wallace’s death. Though it’s been about twenty years since I read either one of these books, they were integral to making me the person and reader that I am today.

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The Re-Reading Project: Sixth Grade Secrets

It all started with a hat.

Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar was published in 1987, when I was five years old, and I must’ve read it a dozen times by the time I was actually in sixth grade. I even read it out loud to my older cousin once, at a slumber party – yeah, I was that kind of kid. I remember buying my copy from the Scholastic book sales at school. Selecting books from the book sale catalogue was always the most exciting and agonizing experience, knowing the book sale was coming but that I had to limit my book purchases to whatever amount of money I was allowed to spend. I read Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School too, because we all passed it around at school and I later read Holes, but not until I was twenty-two.

I remember feeling awed and a little scared, as a kid, at the hijinks that sixth graders could get up to. Reading it now as an adult, it strikes me as both utterly ridiculous and completely realistic. That’s how we acted in middle school! Everything was dramatic and one small mistake snowballed into grudges that lasted forever. Or at least till the end of the year, which felt like forever at the time.

Laura, the main character, is so completely stubborn, but she’s also brave. Several times, she double downs when the stakes get high – continuing to sneak into school to write on the board even when it’s likely that she’ll get caught. She’s smart, mostly honest and believes in fairness. She’s complex because she’s both a good kid and a troublemaker.

There are some aspects of the story that are dated all these years later, mostly the technology related to making telephone calls and recording. Today’s kids would probably operate a grudge war very differently and schools have probably changed a lot since I was a kid. But, the emotions and psychology behind their behavior is still very, very true. So I’d say that the most dated thing about the books is the original cover:

6th Grade Secrets…which always makes me feel really nostalgic because Laura’s blue Hawaiian print sweater and pink corduroy pants are totally something we would’ve worn as middle school kids in the 80s and early 90s. And Gabriel’s blue shirt with the red block and white collar? I bet all the boys had one of those in their closet. Look at the newer version of the cover:

sixth-grade-secrets-louis-sachar-hardcover-cover-artIt just shows Laura and Gabriel and while their clothes are more modern, I’d say it’s a bit boring. The original cover shows an active moment from the story and I can imagine many kids picked up the book because they were thinking, “What is going on here?” Plus, on the new one Laura’s Pig City cap is allll wrong. Regardless, from the Amazon reviews, it looks like kids are still reading and enjoying Sixth Grade Secrets, which is really cool.

Re-reading this book in particular has made me glad I’m doing this project. This was one of my favorite books growing up and I can totally see why. Because Laura is a girl very much like the girl I was, but with some traits I wished I’d had more of when I was her age. If Laura was 11 in 1987, she’d be 38 now and well on her way to being the first female American president. Laura was worried some other woman might be the first one and I’d say it’s a little sad that that honor could still be hers. But what a president she’d be!

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The Re-Reading Project: The Great Gilly Hopkins

“Gilly,” said Miss Ellis with a shake of her long blonde hair toward the passenger in the back seat. “I need to feel that you are willing to make some effort.”

Galadriel Hopkins shifted her bubble gum to the front of her mouth and began to blow gently. She blew until she could barely see the shape of the social worker’s head through the pink bubble.

The copy of Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins that I’ve just finished re-reading (a first edition paperback from 1978 that I bought in one of my favorite used bookstores) has an illustration of this pink bubble obscuring Gilly’s face, but I think the version I would’ve read as a kid was the one on the right:

Gilly 1978gilly-hopkins

I’m kind of fascinated with all of the different covers there are for this book. Pig-tailed or with short-boyish hair, after the first edition, she always seems to be standing defiantly, staring down the reader who would dare to pick up the book. The first cover is more childish, playful, while in the later poses, she has an aura of real menace and strength about her. Usually, she’s blonde, although in two teacher’s guides I found from 2000 and 2004, she’s brunette.

While I know I read The Bridge to Terabithia as a kid, and liked it, The Great Gilly Hopkins had more resonance in my memories. Once again, like with Maniac Magee, what I remembered most was a general tone or mood and not a lot of specific details. I remembered that Gilly was a foster kid, a tough cookie, someone who I admired as a kid because I was shy and she was bold. I didn’t remember that she’s a manipulative bully and pretty racist (at least at first), willing to prey on the weaknesses of everyone around her, much like the kid in Problem Child. Now that I’m an adult, it’s easy to see through Gilly’s swagger to the damaged girl who is, most of all, incredibly smart and ambivalent about people, especially adults. She’s essentially Kanye West for the middle school set, hyping herself up till she believes her own legend. She’s fronting.

Re-reading as an adult, this is obvious from the second page when Gilly thinks “Cripes….The woman was getting sincere. What a pain.” But, it must have unfolded slowly for me as a kid until that last page, the gut-wrenching phone call with Trotter. Gilly has a journey and kids get to go on it with her, realizing that their perceptions of people and events are not always accurate and that life is tough, with mixed blessings and lots of pain. It’s weird because while that seems like a grim lesson for Gilly and the kid reader to learn, while the end isn’t a pat and easy happy ending, Gilly’s growth is beautiful.

It feels raw and real in a way that children’s literature so often doesn’t, maybe because Paterson grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries, and moved thirteen times in thirteen years growing up. Maybe this background helped her imagine and understand the isolation and defensiveness of a foster child.

Considering that it’s four years older than I am, The Great Gilly Hopkins has actually aged pretty well, (except maybe those bits about flower children). I think it must still speak to kids and that it wouldn’t take much to make a movie adaptation feel current. So while I wasn’t surprised, I was pleased to discover that there is a film adaptation due soon, with Kathy Bates and Danny Glover. Even more happily, it’s directed by Stephen Herek, who directed some of my favorite movies in the 90s and who I got to work with a few years ago on The Chaperone. The story’s in good hands.

One last interesting thing is that the area where Gilly lives with Trotter, William Ernest and Mr. Randolph is very close to the part of the country where Alice McKinley from Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series (first published in 1985) grows up. I was already grown when I first started reading the Alice books and while they’re special to me, they tend to feel unrealistic and very dated, which might speak more to where I was in life when I started reading them. Regardless, you couldn’t find two more different girls than Gilly and Alice, but it’d be interesting to imagine a world in which they interacted, since they have no doubt both been influential to generations of girls.

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The Re-Reading Project: Maniac Magee

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring.

They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.

They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.

They say.

What’s true, what’s myth? It’s hard to know.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli was published in 1990, when I was 8 years old, 24 years ago. I have a foggy memory of reading a copy from my classroom library (not the actual school library, but the books the teachers kept for kids to read) and I know I never owned a copy growing up. This was the kind of book that I could’ve read pretty easily in a class period or two. Part of the danger of my lifelong habit of reading books quickly is that I’ll remember one overall impression of a book, or a mood, but might be fuzzy on the details. I remembered this book fondly as I grew up, so fondly that I later read Spinelli’s book Stargirl and bought a copy of Maniac Magee as an adult. But if you’d asked me yesterday what it was about, I probably would’ve said, “a kid who runs very fast and lives on his own.”

I’d forgotten most of the details, that while Maniac Magee does sometimes live on his own, the book is mostly about the people who help him and his search for a home and a family. It’s a story about a town divided by race, by the misconceptions people have about each other.

It reminds me of Stargirl in that way. Stargirl is a nonconformist who teaches her classmates how to be accepting and compassionate. Both Stargirl (Susan) and Maniac (Jeffrey) are outsiders who become legendary within a community of people, though Stargirl names herself and Maniac Magee is named by others. Stargirl is older, in high school, and I was older too, 19, when I read the book the year after it was published, in 2000, ten years after Maniac Magee was published.

Maniac MageeI have to admit that I like this version of the cover best. Most of them show running feet at various close-up angles, but I think this is the only one that shows Maniac Magee in his entirety, running toward us. I’m pretty sure this is the cover that I would’ve held in my hands when I read it in elementary school.

While aspects of Maniac Magee seem a bit quaint after all of these years, it’s easy to remember that it was a highly unusual story for middle readers when it was published, speaking bluntly about racism, poverty and death. It won a Newbery Medal in 1991 and in 2012 it was voted amongst the Top 100 Chapter Books of all time by the School Library Journal (similar to Charlotte’s Web).

Some reviewers disliked Spinelli framing the story as a legend, as if that somehow invalidated the reality of the story and the issues that it discusses. I find myself a bit perplexed by it, too. I love it, on the one hand, because of the element of group or community consciousness used to tell the story. And it’s used throughout the book. Except at the end. It doesn’t end as a legend would, but instead ends on a very personal note. I watched a few minutes of the 2003 t.v. movie and I thought it was interesting that it starts off with visible narrator (probably an adult version of Amanda Beale, played by Jada Pinkett Smith) telling the legend of Maniac Magee.

Above, the selection from the opening is a bit longer than usual because I really wanted to include that last line. While poking around for details about Maniac Magee, I found a recording of Spinelli talking about his inspirations for the book and he reads a short section, almost the exact same passage that I selected. Enjoy.

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The Re-Reading Project: Charlotte’s Web

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

And so begins Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, a children’s book that is both surprisingly brutal and extremely sentimental. The big brutal moments (for the child audience) are in Chapter 5, when Wilbur meets Charlotte trapping and eating a fly, Chapter 6 when one of the goose eggs doesn’t hatch and is given to Templeton the rat, and in Chapter 7, appropriately titled “Bad News,” when the oldest sheep tells Wilbur he is being fattened up so that he may be consumed for Christmas dinner. Yet, the descriptions of life on the farm and the passing seasons are bucolic and flowery, and the main premise of the book, Charlotte’s mission to save Wilbur, is emotional, hopeful and a bit naive.

Weaving together the hard practicality of farm life and the tenderhearted, empathetic nature of children, White’s second children’s novel, originally published in 1952, is a contradictory doozy of a little book. Some book, as Charlotte might write in her web.

At times, I felt like I was wading through product placement: Shredded Wheat, Ford, Chevy, Buick, GMC, Plymouth, Studebaker, Packard, De Soto, Frigidaire and Pontiac all get a shout-out. I feel like I missed some. It’s a little annoying that Fern is only 8, but first she’s setting the table for breakfast while her brother is sleeping late and then later, she’s being encouraged to spend more time with the boy Henry Fussy rather than with animals in the barn. During the section when Fern’s mother visits the family doctor to ask if there’s something wrong with her daughter, I really wanted him to say: hey, she might want to be a vet one day. While Charlotte saves Wilbur from becoming Christmas ham, nothing is said about Uncle’s fate after he wins the blue ribbon at the fair, or whether the Zuckermans had goose for Christmas or another ham entirely. But all of that is my cynical adult self’s impression of the book, struggling with the patronizing and slightly inconsistent tone and the moral ambiguity of animal slaughter verses personification of animals for children’s books. I think what my child self latched onto is that both Fern and Charlotte are the heroes of the story. Fern saves the day by speaking up against what she perceives as injustice. Charlotte uses her ability to write to save her friend’s life. Sure, Charlotte dies (spoiler?) and Fern goes off to play with Henry Fussy instead of the animals, but their actions did save Wilbur.

With all the descriptions of communal living among the animals in the barn, I’ll be interested to see how Charlotte’s Web compares to a book I’ll re-read later in this project: Animal Farm.

Unlike with the previous two installments of The Re-Reading Project, I re-read my childhood copy of Charlotte’s Web. It’s a 1980 reprint, covered in smudges and stains. The edges are battered and worn. Inside the cover, one of my early bookplates mostly covers up where I’d originally written my name and address.

Notice the first 'n' in my middle name looks more like an 'm.' I was still practicing my handwriting.

Notice the first ‘n’ in my middle name looks more like an ‘m.’ I was still practicing my handwriting.

I don’t remember any single experience of reading Charlotte’s Web, but like with Sarah, Plain and Tall, every bit of the story was familiar to me and from the worn condition of my book, I can only conclude that I re-read Charlotte’s Web obsessively between the ages of maybe 5 and 10. I’ve had it on my bookshelves since I moved out of the dorms, but I never read it in any of the years I’ve been documenting my reading (since the age of 13). I know it wasn’t the first book I ever read (that was either Sammy the Seal or Danny and the Dinosaur, both by Syd Hoff), but I must’ve read it pretty young.

In the years I wasn’t re-reading Charlotte’s Web, I was rediscovering White through Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (also still on my bookshelf, along with notecards stuck in pages and highlighting). I remember realizing that the tiny textbook was written by the same guy who’d written one of the first books I read as a child. In fact, doing a little research on White for this review, I’m reminded of what a multi-genre writer he was: he published poetry, essays, children’s books, adult novels, letters and textbooks on writing. He was considered one of the most important contributors to The New Yorker during his lifetime and Charlotte’s Web was considered the top children’s novel (for readers 9-12) in a 2012 School Library Journal poll. Well-rounded and long-lasting.

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The Re-Reading Project: Sarah, Plain and Tall

“Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb. “Every-single-day?” He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones.

I’m not sure when I first read Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, but I think I must have read a school copy, because I didn’t have a copy of my own until I bought one at the library book sale a while back. Why was I compelled to buy a copy, I wonder?

sarah, plain and tallSetting out to write this review of my re-reading of Sarah, Plain and Tall, I realized I didn’t have any specific memories attached to reading it, like I have with The Boxcar Children. I honestly couldn’t tell you how it influenced me growing up. Maybe I liked how alien the landscape and the time period was to me. I was three when it was published (1985), so while it takes place in an earlier time, the book itself wouldn’t have been very old when I read it. I can only tell you that I did read it, because as I was re-reading it, everything about the story was familiar to me. I’m fairly sure I saw the 1991 movie with Glenn Close and Christopher Walken (!), as well.

Until now, I didn’t know that this is the first of five books about the Anna, Caleb and Jacob Witting, as well as Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton. And I didn’t know that there were three movies, each written by MacLachlan and with the original cast members.

I was surprised by how short it is (58 pages), yet how fully realized the story and characters are considering its brevity. Within the first two pages, you have a very strong sense of the personalities, the situation and the place and they are all responsible for making this novella such a lasting tale.

Reading it now, as an adult, I am struck by how eager Jacob and his kids are to make Sarah feel at home, to convince her to love them and make the rather unforgiving landscape her home. Her love of the sea seems like too large an obstacle, but each of the Witting family members uses it to connect with Sarah and to link her to their home.

My copy of the book has a short author’s note that ends: “Sarah, Plain and Tall is based on a true event in [MacLachlan’s] family history.” The bio on the back says that she was born in Wyoming and went to college in Connecticut, later making her home in Massachusetts. It seems like she had the reverse of Sarah’s experience, beginning in the prairie and ending up by the sea. In another interesting biographical detail, MacLachlan later wrote several books with her daughter Emily.

I suspect that many of the aspects that I liked about Sarah, Plain and Tall, were those that later drew me to Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I read for the first time at 18 years old and which remains one of my favorite novels.

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The Re-Reading Project: The Boxcar Children

One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.

Originally published by Gertrude Chandler Warner in 1924, The Boxcar Children is 90 years old this year! A significantly edited version of the book, with new illustrations, was re-published in 1942, and this is the version of the book that most people know and that I originally read, probably before I was 10 years old.

My sister Aimee had a copy and I was bored in her room one day and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. I was strong reader from a very early age and the book is known for its simple language and is often used to teach reading and English to young students. Thereafter, I often wanted to incorporate the idea of being independent children creating civilized lives in the wildness as part of our playtime fantasies. The fact that the four children in the book are independent of parents and make their own way is probably a big factor in its continued success.

The version I read now, as an adult in 2014, was a 60th anniversary edition (of the 1942 publication), published in 2002,with a short essay by Mary Ellen Ellsworth, who wrote a biography of Warner, pictures of Warner, and an open letter from Warner to children about what inspired the book.

Boxcar Children

Warner wrote 19 books in the Boxcar Children series. After the first one, they became mysteries, with the four children something like the Scooby Doo gang (they even have a dog named Watch), or younger versions of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. There are more than 150 titles now, the newest ones taking place in more recent years and the children somehow reverting back in age (though Warner wrote the oldest, Henry, going off to college). I don’t think I read any of the later books, just the first one.

It remained large in my imagination, though I don’t think I ever re-read it until now. I think the aspects that I liked about The Boxcar Children were probably very close to what I later liked about The Swiss Family Robinson (I loved the movie and had a Disney compendium with an abridged version, but didn’t read the full version of Swiss Family Robinson till 2004, when I was 22). The book was a quick read, taking only about an hour. While I found it a bit sanctimonious and dated in tone, I still found it charming and appealing. I can see what struck me about it as a young child and why children still read and love the series.

One last note of possible interest – Gertrude Chandler Warner’s sister Frances was also a writer and was on the staff of The Atlantic Monthly. Like Aimee and I, they wrote stories together as girls and later in their lives, they published two joint collections of their essays.

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The Re-Reading Project

As I hinted at in my 4th Quarter Reading Report, I’ll be working on a reading project this year, which I’m calling The Re-Reading Project.

For a long time, I’ve been debating with friends (and strangers on the bus) whether or not we’re as literate a society as we used to be. Whether we read as much as we used to or not, I’ve come to realize that we’ve definitely become a culture that doesn’t really re-read books anymore. I’m definitely guilty of that, especially as a book reviewer. There’s so many new books to read – and new movies, new t.v. shows, new articles and new experiences. We’re a culture of content providers and content consumers. But I’m starting to think that part of true literacy (the comprehension part, the part where you engage with ideas and stories over the span of your entire life), is re-reading. We’re lucky if we have one favorite book that we read several times in our lives. It’s hard to do, unless you set aside time and do it consciously.

So, I’m setting aside time and doing it consciously this year. And maybe I’ll start a new practice for myself. In planning the titles I’m re-reading this year, I realized that there are tons of books I’d love to engage with again.

For the Re-Reading Project of 2014, I decided to re-read books that I read before I was 16, each of which I remember impacting me greatly. There were a few years that yielded a high number of these titles (1995-1997 in particular, when I was 13-15).

Generally speaking, I’ll re-read one title a month and write a post about the book and my newest experience with it. During January, however, I’m going to re-read several titles that are all very short, each of which I read very young. I’ve been faithfully documenting what I read for almost twenty years, so I have a record to turn to, but all of January’s titles were originally read in my childhood and pre-teens, before I recorded my reading.

I hope y’all will join me: tell me your own experiences with these books, or with other titles you’ve loved or reacted strongly to in the past. I hope it inspires you to re-read the books you remember impacting you. Let’s start a re-reading conversation, a re-reading revolution.

First up: The Boxcar Children.

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Filed under books, literature, pop culture, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading