This morning I applied for a Marketing and Communications (MarCom) position with a private school, which I won’t name in order to protect the innocent -- namely me. That’s neither here nor there as far as you folks in InternetLand are concerned, but here’s the interesting thing: instead of the usual request for samples of my previous work, I was asked to compose a short essay about a favorite childhood story and the values expressed by it. This assignment presented an interesting challenge. To be frank, I really don’t have a favorite childhood story, at least not one that immediately came to mind. So what the hell was I going to write about?
I spent a couple of days wracking my brain, trying to remember some classic of children’s literature that meant something to me as a boy. I simply couldn’t think of any. I remembered that when I was very young my mother read to me from Disney-fied versions of the classic fairy tales, but I didn’t think any of those were substantial enough (or unique enough) to frame an entire essay around, especially an essay intended to make me stand out from a hundred or more job applicants. (A brief sidenote: unlike many people my age, I can’t say that Dr. Seuss was an early favorite. My mom detested his sing-songy rhyming style and the general oddness of his art, and so there were never any Seuss books in our home. I didn’t encounter them until much, much later, and while I’ve grown to appreciate them through my adult eyes, I still think the Whos are grotesque little creatures. **Shudder**)
Thinking about my later childhood, it seemed like I made a quantum leap from Disney right into full-blown adult material, bypassing the usual children’s and young-adult type books altogether. My true favorites, the ones that have stayed with me, were actually old pulp fiction, the sort of thing a lot of well-meaning (but dull-minded) moms would have called trash: the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the Doc Savage series, the “juveniles” of Robert Heinlein. All of these were grand adventure stories written decades before I was even born and, if not exactly “grown-up” in nature, they were at least intended for older eyes than mine. I also read a lot of “novelizations,” books adapted from the screenplays of popular movies. Looking back, most of these books were very bad from a literary perspective, but they served to reinforce my memory of the movies I loved in a time before VCRs, when it seemed highly unlikely that you’d ever see these movies again. (Another sidenote: the first book I clearly remember being given was the novelization of Star Wars. I can still recall the exact circumstances under which my mom gave it to me as well as the actual experience of reading it for the first time. I devoured it, reveling in the reminder of those wonderful images I’d seen on the Big Screen, and then I continued to re-read it so many times that I can still remember passages of it. I read it so many times that it eventually came apart; the spine split right down the middle, right in the center of the specially inserted section of full-color photographs from “the year’s best movie.” I kept those tattered fragments for years, even though I’d quickly found a replacement copy…)
Getting back to my essay, I considered writing about The Hobbit. It’s on everyone’s mind right now, with the success of the LOTR films and the rumors that director Peter Jackson would like to film this Rings prequel. I seem to recall knowing the story from childhood, as opposed to just picking it up from the flashback at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring film. However, I can’t recall if I ever actually read the thing or if I just saw the 1970s cartoon version of it, and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to fake it. So that choice was out and I was back at square one.
In the end, it was Anne who made the winning suggestion: what about A Wrinkle in Time? Yes! It was perfect: an honored children’s book (or at least young adult’s book, which is close enough for government work) that I actually could recall reading once I’d been reminded of it. In fact, I even remembered that I had a copy of it somewhere in the basement. So yesterday I went prospecting through my Uncanny Archives of Stuff until I came up with a slim paperback that features a winged centaur and an eerie green face with red eyes on the cover. I remembered that cover, remembered how the green guy had given me the willies when I was a kid.
Cracking open the book for the first time in years, I found a stamp inside the front cover, indicating that this book had been given to me as part of the Oquirrh Hills Middle School PTA-RIF Project. RIF! Reading is Fundamental! I suddenly remembered the RIF giveaway days, when the school library was filled with long tables that were piled with books and every student in the school was allowed to choose one. It was a young bibliophile’s dream…
Cutting to the chase, I found an on-line synopsis of the story to help get me started, then went down to my local coffee shop and tucked myself into a corner with a latte mocha and a book I’ve not read since before puberty. I skimmed through most of it in a single afternoon. I was mostly just searching for passages to support my essay ideas, but I found that I was also really enjoying the story on its own terms, and that I remembered quite a bit more than I’d first realized. I wrote what I think is a pretty good essay, and I’m thinking that maybe I want to re-read this wonderful old book for real.
In fact, I’m suddenly remembering a lot of children’s books that I did, in fact, read and enjoy all those years, but for some reason didn’t file near the top of my mental cabinet. There was The Trumpet of the Swan and The Mad Scientists’ Club, Homer Price and one whose title escapes me about a pig named Freddy. There was a really silly series about Matthew Looney, a little boy who lives on the Moon, and The Witch’s Buttons, which featured the really creepy notion that people had been turned into little people-shaped button on a coat. There was a mystery series that I loved starring a trio of boys who called themselves The Three Investigators (they were assisted in some of their adventures by Alfred Hitchcock, a name that meant nothing to me when I first encountered these stories). I remember the Box-Car Children and the kids who lived on a sailboat in The Lion’s Paw and the kids who lived in a museum in The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (for weeks after reading that one, I thought that living in a museum would be the greatest).
I also remember a book by Judy Blume called Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, a book that has provoked a lot of controversy over the years because of its frank depiction of an adolescent boy's sexual awakening. That one meant a lot to me because I happened to read it the same summer that I myself was starting to “see things in a different light,” and the book helped explain a lot of things that I was too chicken to ask my parents about.
Suddenly, I find myself wanting to re-read books that until yesterday afternoon I couldn’t even remember. And I find myself wondering if anyone else remembers these, if any of them are even in print anymore. Strange, isn’t it, the things that can stir up old memories, old feelings? It doesn’t take much to tip me into the Pit of Nostalgia. This time, all it took was a “Help Wanted” ad.