Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Bounty: Alternative Middle School Library

Honestly, what did people do in the old days when they hit middle age and nostalgia kicked in? They had to rely on fickle memories that grow dimmer every year, on whatever chance scraps of their childhood had escaped oblivion, or on the haphazard treasures that garage sales, second-hand bookshops, or flea markets would occasionally cast ashore. Now-a-days, of course, you can find just about anything that you care to search for on the internet, and buy it on eBay or similar sites. But a side effect or added bonus of this bountiful provision is the discovery of what my brother John and I have come to call alternative childhood memories: toys or books of equivalent style or age to those that you fondly cherish, but which due to availability or chance you never saw. These combine to form an unusual mix of nostalgia and novelty. The Book Bounty I want to talk about in this post are all books I could have read when I was in Middle School (Grades 6-8) but somehow never did.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Libico Maraja (Grosset & Dunlap, 1952). I have spoken elsewhere in this blog about the Italian artist Libico Maraja and shown some of his illustrations for this edition. I will only add that this volume has some line drawings as well as the gloriously solid color characterizations by Maraja that I love so well.

The Story of Dragons and other monsters, by Thomas G. Aylesworth (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980). Now, the good reason I never read this in middle school is that it wasn't published until I was in high school. But Thomas G. Aylesworth was a great producer of books on monsters and magic, their history and cultural impact, throughout my childhood years. Volumes of significance include Werewolves and Other Monsters (1971), Vampires and Other Ghosts (1972), and The Alchemists: Magic Into Science (1973). I love the subject of dragons; I had thought that The Story of Dragons would be a book of similar quality to these others. Unfortunately, the writing became scantier and more jocular in tone, the illustrations of poorer quality and badly displayed (often recycled from his earlier work) and sometimes of doubtful relevance. I do not know if this had anything to do with Aylesworth's switch from Addisonian Press to McGraw-Hill, or was simply changing times both for the author and the publishing world. But I had to get this book, to take a look.

Hubble's Bubble, by Elaine Horseman, illustrated by John Sergeant (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1964). This book was actually in our middle school library, and I was pretty interested in it, but I could never check it out. This is because my last name is Babel, and anything with the word bubble or bobble in it was grist for the mocker's mills (and if you think no-one would have noticed me getting this book, you have forgotten how intensely public life in middle school is). Instead, I browsed it on the shelves, and was interested in the general set-up: five British children have a magical summer adventure in a cathedral court. The character I liked was Alaric Hubble, aged 12, a science enthusiast who buys an old book (from a disappearing shop, no less!) of what he thinks are chemistry experiments, but which turns out to be full of magical recipes. A lab in a secret room, animal transformations, and flying adventures ensue, along with the intrigue of keeping the adults from finding out. I am still in the process of reading this, so forbear to give a final opinion, but it is certainly redolent of period airs, from John Sergeant's line drawings to the advertisement for P. L. Travers "new" book, The Fox at the Manger, on the back.

Nathaniel's Witch, by Katherine Gibson, illustrated by Vera Bock (Longman's, Green and Co., 1941). This book was brought out by the same team that produced Cinders, the lost childhood book I've written about before; the existence of Nathaniel's Witch was even pointed out by Peter Sieruta on the same site that helped me find Cinders. It is the story of Nathaniel Endicott, 11 years old, who is that rarest of characters in children's literature, an orphan. It is 1785 in the United States of America, and among his other troubles, Nathaniel finds he must help a reluctant witch escape the power of the evil Witchmaster (highly hinted to be the Devil himself). The Witchmaster has scornfully declared the witch can escape "only when you are St. Nick!" Nathaniel decides they can make this come true if the Witch delivers toys on Christmas Eve, and the adventure of the book is them trying to accomplish this against all odds and the Witchmaster's opposition. While I was reading the tale I began to feel it was designed to be a perfect 1940's film: I even cast it using period actors in my mind, with Jackie Cooper as Nathaniel, Veronica Lake as Jacquett the Witch, Basil Rathbone as the Witchmaster, and S. Z. Sakall as the Toymaker. It was a highly enjoyable tale and one I am glad to add to my library.

The illusion of an alternate past is greatly added to by the fact that most of these volumes are ex-library, and though they are from as far afield as Spokane, Washington or Bedford, Virginia, they are exactly in the form I would have read them, once upon a time.

1 comment:

Babel said...

I wonder if the Hubble kid later used his scientific knowledge to create a telescope?