Firsts

It’s first Monday again, and while I’m sure we’ve covered a lot of different ones here, somehow I got to thinking about what the first books we read by ourselves, rather than having it them read to us by our parents (at least I hope they read to us, way back when).

Part of this thread was inspired by my interminable sorting through four generations of saved things in my house, and those included books, of course. My grandmother and mother were devoted readers on their own (my great- and great-great-grandmothers, not so much), and I don’t remember what any of the men read (assuming they did). But what started me thinking was a box of books that were given to my husband when he was a child (yes, he knew how to read), which dated mostly from the 1950s, when he was younger than ten–and I had never heard of any of them. I grew up on the East Coast, and he grew up in Indiana. Was there a significant difference in children’s literary customs between the two areas?

cover

Two things stood out among his books, and one of them had me in stitches. It was a 1958 book called The Runaway Flea Circus by Patricia Lauber (published by Random House), and the star of the story was named (wait for it) Bimbo. The human protagonists were named Susie and Tom. They were friends of the same age (and you may not be surprised to learn that my husband had a sister two years younger than he was, so it didn’t seem odd that a boy and a girl would end up playing together, at least in the 1950s). Yes, there was a flea circus (anybody ever seen one of those?) And Tom and Susie decided to hold a flea circus (fleas provided by Bimbo) to raise funds to help out Susie’s parents, who were down on their luck. Much merriment ensues, when the fleas escape. And everything ends well.

chance to pretend

I had never heard of the book or the author, so of course I had to look her up. To my surprise, I found she had written over eighty books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. She received American Book Award nominations; one of her books was named one of Newbery Honors books, and she won a Lifetime Achievement Commendation from the National Forum on Children’s Science Books.

Bimbo

And I had never heard of her.

What’s more, she attended Wellesley College, as I did, and graduated with an English degree (see? they were worth something!) And she was given an Alumnae Achievement Award by the college in 1998.

I can name a wealth of stand-along books and series that I read as a child, and most of my friends (girls, since I went to girls’ schools until high school), and can name quite a few of them (heck, I still have quite a few of them!)

So all of this made me wonder: was the Midwest a different country? Were there regional variations of what books were distributed where? This was not the only example that crept out of that box of stored books, and most were unfamiliar to me.

With one exception: The Island Stallion, by Walter Farley. To the best of my recollection, every eight-year-old girl loved all the Walter Farley books, including me (girls of a certain age have a thing for horses). But what I wanted to add was the author’s dedication:

DEDICATED TO

ALL THE BOYS AND GIRLS WHO LOVE

HORSES BUT NEVER HAVE HAD

ONE OF THEIR OWN.

I think a lot of us felt that way back then.

What about you? What book did you pick to start your long road to reading? Did you enjoy series? Which book(s) made the most important impression on you? (Do I really need to mention Nancy Drew?)

20 Thoughts

  1. I remember mostly Golden books till I was about 8 and went to the library because we had no tv and my parents wanted books. I love ed the series of biographies that had orange covers and all the series.

    Like

  2. My mother was absolutely diabolical with me. She started our reading me The Wonderful Wizard of Oz each night at bedtime, a chapter per night. Then, after I was well and truly hooked, she “just didn’t have the time to read to me.” So I had to read it for myself. Since I was desperate to find out what was going to happen to Dorothy, I had to figure out how to read it for myself. My grandmother (who had been a teacher all her life) had already been teaching me phonics, so I already had a pretty good ability to sound out unfamiliar words.

    After that, there was no stopping me. I never read a single Nancy Drew, but I went mad for the boy’s equivalent – the Tom Swift series. I think I read a couple of Hardy Boys books, but I was never really particularly into them.

    One book I did read very early was Between Planets by Robert Heinlein. After that I had to read all the Heinlein juveniles (and I still reread them occasionally – they’re just as pleasurable as adult reading IMHO).

    The first mystery I ever read was What Mrs. McGuilicuddy Saw (which was the American title for 4:50 from Paddington) which still remains probably my favorite Agatha Christie. After I devoured all the Christie works, I discovered Rex Stout and fell in love with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I still fantasize about living in that Brownstone dining on fabulous meals prepared by Fritz and listening to Archie be witty and Wolfe be brilliant.

    You might have already figured out that I was a voracious reader. I would go through six or seven books a week. In fact I had a special dispensation at the Bookmobile (where kids were otherwise limited to checking out three books) allowing me to check out as many books as I wanted. I was really limited only by my upper body strength as regards the maximum number of books I could carry home.

    I know that authors (understandably) aren’t crazy about the Kindle phenomenon, but it has meant that I am never without that next book to read now that carrying ten or twelve books, is pretty much beyond my capabilities, so it now represents the 70-year old equivalent of my 7-year old privileges at the Bookmobile.

    Like

  3. Nancy Drew / Judy Bolton/ Beatrix Potter/ happy Hollesters/ stand alone mystery books for girls ( Pauline Gunther/ Beany Malone series ( Berkeley medallion publishers were awesome- twin sisters series too) /weekly reader books/ The Wrinkle in Time/ Old Bones. Ahhh
    Funny and not unexpected
    Pippi Longstocking author wrote mysteries too yet we cannot get it in the USA. Beano books- cannot get here
    Sorry for long list- you asked a true book nut
    Sue Farrell

    Like

    1. I had all the Beatrix Potters (until my mother gave them away)–such lovely illustrations! I was shocked to find I still have some of the china figurines for them, I thought my mother had given those away as well. A nice thing about the series was that the language was not condescending–you didn’t have to feel like you were reading a kiddy book.

      Like

  4. I loved all the horse books too. I also read the Phyllis Whitney children’s books, Carolyn Haywood, Betsy Tacy books and lots more. My mama was a librarian and I was as well. Anyone remember Betty Cavanna books? I really read anything I got my hands on! Dog stories were great too. I loved all the mysteries…

    Like

  5. I don’t remember the first books that I read on my own, but I read constantly as a child and since the library was only a block from my house, I had plenty to choose from. We had a small public library but a pretty good children’s section, and I remember reading all the Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, etc. , as well as the series of biographies of famous people – don’t remember the publisher or titles, but there were a lot of them. And of course The Black Stallion books. Did any of you read the Marguerite de Angeli books about the Quakers around Philadelphia? I loved those and bought them all for my daughter.

    Like

  6. The first series I remember reading was Tom Swift. I also read all of the Walter Farley books and pretty much any book featuring animals that I could get my hands on.

    Like

  7. I was into series from the beginning, bought all the Nancy Drew books with my babysitting money, remember reading in school a whole series of biographies, the one I remember most was about George Washington Carver, and the individual book I remember making an impression was Black Beauty, so your horse thing holds!

    Like

  8. My first memory of reading on my own is right after we moved to Maine–in January. I was seven. The library, housed in a wonderful old 1800s house, was at the bottom of our driveway. I remember walking down and checking out my first Nancy Drew. I also remember seeing a black cat and then, whoops, I fell on the ice. Until then had never experienced a real winter.

    Like

  9. Now I am wondering, too, if there we regional differences in children’s popular books. Sounds like a possible dissertation topic ( and a fun one). You can’t go by me – my favorite aunt was a children’s librarian and she was introducing me to everything. But yes, I DO remember the first book I read on my own. I wasn’t taught any reading until 1st grade ( the education approach of the time) but – even having missed half the school year due to illness- by early 2nd grade I could read anything. I found out because I was looking at the gorgeous illustrations of my favorite book, Mouse Manor, and realized I could read it. Earthshaking moment. Mouse Manor was an illustrated story by Edward Eager, who went on to write great longer books starting with Half Magic. This was his tribute to Beatrix Potter. A ladylike country mouse goes to London, has adventures and meets a handsome man-about-town-mouse in a checked suit…and Queen Victoria! Sadly I’ve never been able to find an affordable copy with the beautiful jacket. I’ve looked.

    Like

  10. My parents read to me all the time. Can’t think what book was the first I picked out to read on my own, however.

    The first book I was obsessed with was Little Pilgrims Progress, which I read back to back quite a bit in 2nd grade. Then, I’m 3rd grade, I found Narnia and obsessed over those.

    Like

  11. I don’t actually remember reading anything to myself before I read Nancy Drew, but I must have. I have a book called GUS AND THE BABY GHOST which is inscribed to me and dated 1977, so that must have been one of the first, but I don’t remember reading it to myself.

    Like

  12. I don’t recall my mother reading to me but she brought us all to the library once a week. I also don’t remember my first book but I remember LOVING Rumer Godden’s books: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, and Little Plum. I still have copies that are in delicate condition.

    Like

    1. Ramona, Did you ever read another of her doll stories, Impunity Jane? I remember really loving it. And she wrote a longer childrens’ book The Dolls House. It was actually more full of doll-size mayhem and treachery than most children’s books of the day….rather like her adult books ( I loved some of her adult books)

      Like

  13. One of my early favorites was Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, which I think was released in 1956. The original copy vanished thanks to my mother, but a couple of years ago I bought a replacement copy–yes, it’s still in print.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.