Favorite Childhood Books

Mary and Eric selected their favorite childhood books for a Children's Book Week program conducted by the Kaubisch Memorial Public Library. Library's Director Doris Ann Norris explains:

"Letters from the Youth Services Department of the Kaubisch Memorial Public Library in Fostoria, OH were sent to dozens of local officials, celebrities including authors and others. This was for Children's Book Week which was celebrated from November 12 through the 18th. These people were asked to select a favorite book from childhood, why it was their favorite and how much reading has meant in their lives and careers. Approximately 40 letters were received including one from Mr. Rogers and a number of authors, both of children's and adult books."


For years I've named Kenneth Grahame's THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS as my favorite book. My grandmother read to me the adventures of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad and I remember those evenings spent sitting and listening beside the rocking chair in her living room as my introduction to the enchantment of the written word. Our circle of orange lamplight and the shadowy Victorian furniture beyond would dissolve into the Wild Wood or Badger's warren and my grandmother's voice might have been the sound of the River by which the animals lived. But while I recalled clearly the spell cast by the words, I recalled very little of the words themselves.

So I decided to read the story again -- or rather to read it for myself for the first time -- a perilous undertaking after nearly 45 years. I was not disappointed. My grandmother's comforting voice has been stilled for twenty years and her cozy living room long-since remodeled by strangers. But Grahame's words still held the magic that had touched me so long ago.

There are the gorgeous descriptions of river, fields and woods in all their changing aspects throughout the seasons, creating a vivid, irresistible world. And of course the appealing characters, all save for some nefarious denizens of the Wild Wood, as friendly and caring a group as any child could wish, but with enough quirks and peccadilloes, from Badger's anti-social tendencies to Toad's manic irresponsibility, to appear real, hardly a bunch of boring do-gooders.

Then too, the book is mostly about home, the thing best known and most important to a child. Ratty and Mole and the rest are always safe in some lovingly described home, or going home on a cold night, or thinking about being at home in their own warm beds. Which is probably why it is so horrifying when Toad arrives back from his adventures to find Toad Hall occupied by weasels and stoats.

This is one of many harrowing scenes. Losing one's home, or being lost in the dark woods on a cold night as happens to Mole, or having one's freedom taken, a fate suffered by Toad when he is thrown in prison for stealing a motorcar, are not trivial matters. The fears they stir are deep, so THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS makes for exciting reading.

Grahame's world is not only filled with real danger, but with mystery. The Wild Woods and the far off Wide World both harbor things unknown. In one chapter Mole and Ratty encounter the god Pan, who strikes the memory from their minds. As children, like Grahame's animals, we readily accept our strange and contradictory state, creatures seeking mundane physical comforts, some cozy den, in a limitless universe full of mysteries and wonders beyond our comprehension. But as we grow older we too often take the comforts for granted and forget that the wonders exist. I think it might be Grahame's mingling of domesticity and awe that makes THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS a classic. Then again, trying to explain the book like that makes me wonder if I haven't just caught some of Mr. Toad's overwhelming conceit.

Mary's Favorite: LITTLE WOMEN

When strings of street lights sprang up in yellowish necklaces dotting along the busy roads and another sooty night began to fall upon Newcastle-on-Tyne, my sister and I would go up to our attic bedroom and draw curtains patterned with castles, ships and jesters with curly-toed shoes to shut out a darkening urban landscape of slate-roofed dwellings marching down in regular lines to the river. Ungraced by gardens or trees or any growing thing except whatever took root in the cemetery at the top of our street or on bomb-sites left uncleared for years after the war, those long grey terraces of houses stretched away out of sight in all directions, sheltering the inhabitants of the northern English industrial city known proverbially for its coal, not to mention shipyards and factories that in those days rang with the noise of machinery around the clock.

As bed-time approached we'd read for a while before the light was put out -- and for a lot longer afterwards by torchlight under the covers. Books aplenty were available to us between the city's free libraries and Christmas or birthday gifts, for we always received a book to mark each occasion. So it was that at about l2 or l3 I discovered Louisa May Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN, and later on her other novels about the March sisters' adult lives.

One thing about LITTLE WOMEN was rather puzzling. Like us, they lived in financially straitened circumstances and yet had a servant, Hannah, who had been with them for years. As a daughter of the working class, this seemed very strange to me, the more so as my mother had been a parlour maid and the notion of us having a servant was so alien as to be unthinkable, despite the fact that I was always being told that I had too much imagination. One of my favourite scenes is Beth's reaction to the beautiful piano given to her by elderly Mr Laurence, for her expression upon seeing it must surely have been the same as that displayed by my musically gifted sister when our parents managed to get hold of a second-hand upright piano for her. This piano subsequently lived in our scullery next to the copper where the original tenants boiled up their washing, our street and those surrounding it having been built for industrial and pit workers when Queen Victoria still ruled. Graced with high ceilings, picture rails and ornate iron fireplaces, they are now sold for fabulous sums as artisans' dwellings. When we lived there, there was still a working gas light in our bedroom but the entire place was also extremely damp and the only plumbing was a cold tap in the scullery, the necessary offices being in the back yard -- about as far as you can get from the brown stone March house which, although old and a little shabby, had a garden with roses and vines and stood on a quiet street in the suburbs.

Yet as thousands of readers from numerous countries living in all sorts of housing have discovered, there is much emotional common ground with this delightful tale of a family's ups and downs and its tears and triumphs. I loved LITTLE WOMEN the first time I read it and every year or so I re-read it. The four March sisters -- gentle and ailing Beth, artistic but vain Amy, quiet, dependable Meg and the tomboy bookworm Jo -- have become old friends. We see them shepherded by Marmee while their father, not strong enough to soldier and too old to be drafted, serves as a chaplain in the Civil War. Then there's their dashing next door neighbour Laurie, his grandfather Mr Laurence, Laurie's tutor John Brooke, the girls' rich but demanding Aunt March with her huge library and disrespectful parrot, plus a bevy of supporting characters, most of them types familiar to us all. Time has made LITTLE WOMEN as familiar and comfortable as a favourite pair of slippers, while that strong sense of the March family's love and emotional support for each other remains as striking as the first time I opened the book and began reading.

It is Jo, generous and good hearted although hasty in her speech until she learns patience, who has always been my favourite of the four sisters. She is the only character with whom I have ever identified and as a youngster I firmly declared that like her I was going to be a writer and furthermore intended to live in a garret. In fact, I said it so many times that it became family legend, one of those humourous stories trotted out whenever we'd gather for celebrations, like the saga of when my brother-in-law lost me at a tender age in the London Tube system.

Now, years later, I live far away from Newcastle-on- Tyne. But I still have my battered old copy of LITTLE WOMEN and I did finally achieve that long-held ambition -- only I scriven in a basement rather than a garret!

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