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Children’s and Young Adult Books, Part 1

Here is my first blog post of 2015. Books are drawing me now to write about them. So this will be my first post about books that have been important to my life.

I’ve always been passionately drawn to children’s books, ever since I was a child. One of my most treasured possessions was a copy of Little Women, awarded to me by my fourth grade teacher for winning a spelling contest. I read it, I guess, about 16 times. I longed to have a family like the Marches, where everything seemed so calm and reasonable, and parents talked about being good and doing right. We were Southern, less genteel, more emotional, our roots in plowed earth and fervent prayer, and everything seemed more confusing than it was inside the covers of that book. I didn’t realize that the Marches – the Alcotts in real life – were at least as conflicted and confused as we were, and far more odd.

Getting older, I loved Young Adult books long before they were called by that name (Actually, Alcott’s books are YA books, since their protagonists grow up during the course of the narratives). But the book didn’t have to be for young readers. Any book with a young protagonist drew me. At around nine, I loved The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. The narrator was my age, and everything was from her point of view. She was far wiser than I, and I envied her that. How observant she was about money and her parents’ impracticality! How well she knew their weaknesses as well as strengths. Her prejudice against her elder sister was most understandable. I would have not liked Cordelia either, I was convinced then. Now, I’m not so sure. I loved the complicity that Rose had with her twin, Mary, and how they both tried to protect their parents.

I also loved the hint of the supernatural, and their mother Claire’s attitude towards it, which can be summed up as: it’s there, it’s foolish to deny it, but it’s more than foolish to seek it out or encourage it, because you never know how powerful or bad something might be. And the worst part is your own vanity in trying to make such a connection.

I sympathized with Claire’s contempt for people who were not talented but thought they were, or people who could not tell “good” music from “bad.” I adopted her views uncritically. Now, I see her attitudes as elitism. Yet, though she was a classically trained pianist, I don’t think she would reject good jazz, gospel, or blues, for she understood music at its core as something that is not only discipline but that comes from the heart.

I discovered Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at about the age of eleven – the age of the protagonist, Francie. It was a revelation of another world. I soaked up the life of Brooklyn, of new immigrants from Ireland, Austria, Italy who clashed and fought and bought and sold in the streets and lived in tenement buildings with fire escapes. I envied Francie for her street smarts, wisdom, craftiness, and sense of responsibility. As the overprotected only child of old parents who themselves were from rural areas and distrusted cities and much of the modern world, I longed to break free and live in the great world of classical music, foreign languages, foods and customs from other cultures.

Now, I delight in the range of children’s and young adult books available to me. I collect books I couldn’t have when I was growing up, that I read in the library of my little rural high school: it was called a library, but was only a room with bookshelves around three sides of its back half. I strained against my parents’ well-meaning prohibitions: I was not allowed to read many books because I would ruin my eyes. The bookmobile came to our small rural community once a week for a while, and I would check out the limit. My mother also checked out books from the bookmobile. One of her picks was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I discovered it only when its time in our house was almost up. I was frantically trying to finish it when my mother snatched it up to turn back in. For years I wondered how it ended, and only discovered it again after I had graduated from college.

During most of my adult life, I kept a tight rein on myself, reading books for school and pleasure, but somehow not allowing my thoughts to stray back to those books that my younger self had reveled in and longed for. When I did pick up Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, I read it with a sense of astonished delight. I think I must have been in my twenties. A feminist by then, I was filled with wonder that a Victorian Englishman had written a book with a female divinity. Then I discovered George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and was again astounded for the same reason.

I also discovered Tolkien in my twenties. For years after, I would read Lord of the Rings about every two years. I loved the roads and journeys, the inns, the magical people like Tom Bombadil, the Elves and their poetic language.

Rudyard Kipling became one of my favorites for a while. His appalling politics ran off me like water off a duck; I soaked up his sense of the magic of place, the way his stories seem to draw you into strictest confidence about far-off, secret, terrifying things. His sense of the supernatural, his matter-of-fact descriptions of it, worked on me like a drug. I never went in for true horror, though; that drug was too strong for me. I felt I might be taken to a place I could not come back from.

It has only been in the last ten years or so, since I became the partner of an book collector whose home is filled with books, floor to ceiling, stacked on every available surface, who gives books for presents as though they were candy, that I have finally let go of the tight rein I have kept on myself. Now I splurge: I order books online that I had longed to read but had despaired of ever finding (thank goodness for online booksellers!), books that had slipped through my fingers, seen by chance in a bookstore and not bought for false economic reasons (do I really need it?). I never ask that question any more. Who really needs a book? Who does not really need one?

So now I give myself, and am given, as many children’s and young adult books that I could ever imagine wanting. In the last year, I’ve read nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books, as well as just-written ones. I’ve even discovered graphic novels. I’ll be selling some of my finds and favorites this March at the St. Petersburg Antiquarian Book Fair, with my partner, who has been setting up there for over a dozen years.

And I’m so glad that one favorite, beloved part of my life, one that for so long was secret (like many others), can now be openly loved and shared, that I can now indulge myself to my heart’s content.

I still feel guilty sometimes, feel that I’m spending too much money on something not as essential as, say, a mortgage payment or a box of laundry detergent. I feel I’m giving in to a craving for something that, to me, is the equivalent of a box of chocolate-covered toffees. That I’m being a hopelessly self-indulgent layabout.

But I remind the voice that says those things – it sometimes sounds like my frugal, farm-raised parents and sometimes like my ex-partner – that not only do I give myself books, but that I just finished writing, a few months ago, a novel that, while not for children or young adults, does have a female protagonist whose childhood and young adulthood takes up a good part of the narrative. And she, too, is a girl who loves books with a craving like my own. And I’ve started another novel about yet another girl whose love of reading is a passion.

I’m in good company.

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