Ben and Me...Robert Lawson...Dell Yearling
Rabbit Hill...Robert Lawson...Puffin
Homer Price...Robert McCloskey...Scholastic
Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price...Robert McClosky...Scholastic
Hercules and Other Tales from Greek Myths...Olivia E. Coolidge...Scholastic
The Gorgon's Head...Ian Serrallier...Scholastic
Jason and the Golden Fleece...John Gunther...Scholastic
The Case of the Marble Monster and Other Stories...I. G. Edmonds...Scholastic
The Marvelous Land of Oz...L. Frank Baum...Scholastic
Mystery in the Night Woods...John Peterson...Scholastic
I was nine, it was the 1972-73 school year, and I was in fourth grade. Maybe it was the fresh, kind, encouraging presence of Mrs. Bratton after a rather arid and forbidding year in third grade. Maybe it was the air of change and uncertainty in the air. Or maybe it was just time, that time in my life, when a kid actively turns his mind seeking outward instead of just passively soaking any stuff in that comes his way. Whatever the reason, that was the year I really became a reader.
All of the books today come from that time. That's not to say they are the original copies I read; most of them were in the classroom library. But most of them, as you can see, are Scholastic editions, which were the majority of the kinds of books you could order through the Weekly Reader. I picked copies up at used book stores and sales, sometimes years later. And while I was making out today's list I noticed a peculiar thing. And that was how old some of these books were, even at the time I first read them.
Robert Lawson, the author/illustrator most famous for his story about the bull Ferdinand who only wanted to smell the flowers, first published Ben and Me in 1939! Rabbit Hill was published in 1944. Ben and Me has always been one of my favorite books; it is the story of a rather caustic mouse, Amos, who helps and befriends the famous statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin. It was made into a short animated Walt Disney film. Robert McCloskey, another author/illustrator most famous for his book Make Way For Ducklings, published the Homer price books in 1943 and 1951. Homer Price is an ordinary, down-to-earth, but clever young boy who encounters extraordinary adventures in his little town of Centerburg (think Mayberry, but more mid-America). Anyway, the observation I draw from all this (and it is fairly commonplace but little remarked) is that most of the literature provided for kids is from the generation before, or even the one before that. This is logical, since it is mainly parents and teachers who are providing it. Of all the books that are published every year, it is only a few that catch on and hold, sometimes down generations.
I really started reading myths here. I loved the Ray Harryhausen movie Jason and the Argonauts, and the illustrations in John Gunther's book (by Ernest Kurt Barth) were really engaging realistic for me. The Hercules and Perseus books were a little more stylized; The Gorgon's Head was particularly like the designs on Greek vases. The Case of the Marble Monster was my first exposure to Japanese stories, and the adventures of the kindly and wise Judge Ooka, who declares that the sound of money is adequate payment for the smell of food, and who may be the first person to use the old ruse of having every suspect touch an object, saying it will expose the guilty party, and by finding out who didn't touch it, knows that one is guilty...well, I've got to say I enormously enjoyed re-reading them again before writing this post.
The Mystery in the Night Woods (with illustrations by Cyndy Szekeres) was probably my most favoritest book that I got before fourth grade, but my copy was read to rags. This one is actually one my brother got when he was in second grade, the same year I was in fourth. It's the story of a flying Squirrel and his best friend Bat, the mistake he makes, and his redemption foiling the depradations of the villain Weasel. Animals living in the wild, but with clothes and some civilized artifacts like stoves and flashlights. Looking at it now I see some influence from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, but it has a charm all it's own. And that great title!