Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bookshelf nostalgia

In the last month or so I've been thinking a lot more about kids' books that I usually do. Firstly, a good friend of ours became an uncle and has been talking about wanting to prioritize giving books to his adorable new niece; secondly, my cousin's son turned 1 a couple of weeks ago; and thirdly, I spent the weekend at home in Nova Scotia (hence no post last week) and it's pretty much impossible to sleep in my childhood bedroom without being reminded of all the books I enjoyed there – especially the bedtime stories my parents read to me as a kid.

On top of all that, I've been knitting like crazy, which means that my Aunt Pat is constantly on my mind. She was an incredible knitter and sewer, but she was also a wonderful book-giver, and worked as a librarian when my mum was a kid (she is, technically, my Great Aunt Pat, but we never called her that). Aunt Pat had a list of books she felt it was important for her nieces and nephews to read and so, each Christmas, along with a gorgeous piece of handiwork (always accompanied by an identical, Barbie-sized article) came books. I can't remember all the books Aunt Pat gave me over the years, but I do remember getting classics like The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden and somewhere I have a scanned copy of the handwritten list she kept that let her know she was on track. 

Anyhow, all of this has combined to make me start thinking about what I would consider my essential childhood reads. I loved, for example, the Anne of Green Gables books and the Little House on the Prairie books – both series my parents read me – and I gobbled up the original yellow hardcover Nancy Drew books, but before that, when I was reading picture books, there were some definite household classics. 

Beatrix Potter's books, for example, were a staple. Both my parents have an English background, and so knew about her world of talking mice and frogs in waistcoats, so when the gas station had a promotion (something like: fill your tank and pay $1 for a hardcover Beatrix Potter book – don't you wish that still happened?) they took advantage and eventually amassed the entire set. I still love those books. The Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer were also a big family favourite, and although I remember liking the Berenstain Bears books by Stan and Jan Berenstain ("no space grizzlies at the table" remains a Hickman saying to this day), I also remember my dad not liking them so much, but still.

Here are some more of my favourites (although I'm sure to miss a few):

  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (sometimes referred to as "The Lupin Lady") is a book I remember reading and rereading, and one I still refer to when I see certain houses by the sea; kids' books often have messages or morals in them that can feel a little iffy, but I don't think you can go wrong with the idea that everyone should work to make the world a more beautiful place.
  • Miss Fanshawe & the Great Dragon Adventure by Sue Scullard is a book I can still pore over. The illustrations are incredibly detailed and rich – sometimes opening up to the following/preceding pages through holes in their centre that change their perspective – and the story of a Victorian adventurer and dragon enthusiast is exciting, beautiful, and inspiring. 
  • Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas is, supposedly, a series of 11 books, but I only ever knew about the first in the series. It is a hilarious book about Winnie the Witch and her cat Wilbur that was given to me on my fifth or sixth birthday and then read for many years after by both myself and my sisters.
  • The Lost Toys by Irinia Hale is maybe a little obscure, but I can still picture its illustrations and the way my dad used to draw out the line "and a big arm came out and snatched up Pink Ted" – it made me jump every time. Anyway, it's a story about a bag of toys left on a train platform who then must make their way home on their own. Their adventures are many (including a run in with the robber cats and the necessity of building a house for the winter) but it all ends well, with, if I remember correctly, everyone eating a trifle in the bathtub. How can you go wrong with that?
  • The Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood is an absolute classic about a mouse trying to protect his red, ripe strawberry from the titular big, hungry bear. I swear we read this book on loop.
  • The Mitten by Jan Brett was what I ended up giving my cousin's daughter on the occasion of her brother's first birthday (as the eldest in my family, I feel like the first anniversary of becoming a big sister deserves some recognition). In addition to gorgeous illustrations (each page has an illustrated border and a main, full-page illustration), the story of a lost mitten that is adopted by every animal that walks by is lovely and wintry and all around delightful.
  • The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base is a mystery within a story and one of the cleverest ways to help a book age with its young reader. Initially, the story is that of Horace's 11th birthday party and the mysterious disappearance of the enormous feast he prepared for his friends. As you get older, though, you can take advantage of the book's other half, which is the solving of the mystery: Base has cleverly hidden clues within all the illustrations (and in some cases the details are minute) so that, when you go page by page, you can decode the case and figure out which of Horace's friends stole the feast – and how. It's a mind-boggling feat of illustration and means this book remains intriguing for a long time.

In no way is this list exhaustive – I'm almost guaranteed to remember another favourite in an hour or so – but it is a start. What would consider must-haves for a child's bookshelf? What books do you still vividly remember reading/being read/flipping through as a child?


  1. I received a copy of that Graeme Base book as a gift a few years ago as an adult, but I just spent a chunk of this weekend reading it (and puzzling through it) with my own 11-year-old, marvelling at its gorgeous illustrations and its oh-so-supreme cleverness; it's such an amazing work! (There are even more details in it that I hadn't noticed, too!)

    As a child I read and loved a lot of series, and had my favourite volumes in each. Sometimes the usual culprits (Anne, Emily, Arrietty) and sometimes less-classic and more-commercial series, that I loved just because they were familiar and comfortable, like good friends.

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