Monday, October 06, 2008

Lauren Abramo on books remembered

Not long ago I had a conversation with an author at a writer’s conference about the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which I mention in my essay on our website were much beloved by me as a child. In spite of her otherwise completely sensible attitude, this woman had the nerve to suggest that Farmer Boy was a valuable part of the series, rather than just a distraction to be skipped over. I was distressed to discover my mother also counted it as a favorite. That I could be related to one so foolish is simply shocking!

A month or so later, I attended a baby shower at which fantastic books—including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; Caps for Sale; and The Giving Tree—were put in baskets as centerpieces. The baby-to-be also received two Dr. Seuss collections, featuring some star-bellied Sneetches; poor little Bart Cubbins; and a pair of stubborn Zaks, who I believed as a child had stopped in their tracks near Yankee Stadium, where you can find the sort of circular ramp-like roads that the story’s final illustration shows built above their heads.

These events set me off thinking of remembered treasures from childhood, including Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee which I borrowed from the classroom library of the fifth graders I tutored my freshman year of college, just to see if the magic had held up. It had.

Another book that made a huge impression was Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, which even as a kid I recognized was heartbreaking, powerful stuff. The title often pops into my mind out of nowhere, but it’s only just now that I realized that it was written by the same author as the phenomenal Bridge to Terabithia. The latter is one of my all-time favorite books, which prompted me and my friend Meredith to create our own secret world.

Then there was Little Women, which took me a long time to come around on. I was so angered when Jo spurned Laurie and ended up with the old German guy, and then to make matters worse, Laurie pretended to love the insufferable Amy. I used to hate the book (and Louisa May Alcott for ruining it), but in retrospect, I’ve decided that I love the book except for the minor issue of the abysmal ending. When I last re-read, I just stopped reading at the point where everything goes downhill. That said, if any of my friends or family members disagree that things went horribly awry, then I don’t want to know about it, because I’d hate to have to cut them out of my life.

I also couldn’t get enough of Lurlene McDaniel’s various tales of terminally ill children coming to grips with life and loss. I finished reading a particularly heartbreaking one at field day in the sixth grade and cried through the end as the friends who’d already read it gathered around to rehash it. A similar book, though even more sad for being a true story, was Robyn’s Book: A True Diary by a young woman named Robyn Miller who died from cystic fibrosis at 21. It saddens me to discover that this appears to now be out of print, but I’m glad to have stumbled across a secondhand copy of it in my early teens.

And just as my mind began to wander from these memories, guess whose name keeps coming up! Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret taught me what a period was before that 5th grade girls-only puberty lecture got around to it. Deenie made me realize that posture was important and helped me remember to sit up straight.

And then there’s Forever. In the sixth grade, a friend sat in the cafeteria reading a book covered in brown paper, so naturally I harassed her till she told me what it was and promised to let me borrow it. (I can’t help wondering if that sort of secrecy about reading risqué books is a relic of the past, now that so many young girls are reading the “aspirational” tales of the Gossip Girl crowd.) I also clearly remember a year later sharing the “dirtiest” parts of the book (did it take me a year to work up the courage?) with a bunch of friends who hadn’t read it. Oh how we laughed! And yet, the book made an impression, and I think secretly everyone read it after I did and didn’t laugh quite so hard on their own. Years later, when I worked at Barnes & Noble, concerned fathers would come into the store looking for copies for their daughters, asking in hushed tones if it was age appropriate.

If it hadn’t been for books like the above, I probably wouldn’t love reading as I do today, so I owe some big thank yous to all of the above. (Even Louisa, but don’t get me started on what she did to poor Beth!)

Which books do you remember from childhood that made a lasting impression? Are there books that you use as a test to see if someone’s really worth knowing? And most important, are any of you among those loathsome folks who actually like the ending of Little Women? On second thought, don’t answer that last one!


  1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle. Probably one of my all time favorite books. I re-read it recently, when my youngest discovered it and to my relief and delight, the book completely holds up to my memory of it.

    The Judy Blume books made me feel less alone as an awkward teenager. Haven't re-read any of those, as I have boys. :)

  2. Well, I loved the Betsy-Tacy books (and still consider them my favorite books of all time), but Betsy and The Great World is what made me want to travel and experience Europe after college. FOREVER was a big deal to me too. When someone brought it to school to read the dirty bits (fourth grade) and I told my mum, she went out and bought me a copy and said I could read it as long as I read the whole thing and I didn't lend it out. There was a book called HONEY which I really liked...about a poor girl and her rich friends...I think I still have it. And I liked a YA called CINDY about a girl whose family moves to a small town in Mexico for a year. To me, travel, being an exchange student, all that was very enticing. I loved LIW, and have to admit that I also loved FARMER BOY. The truth is that I love food and what I remember most is the descriptions of their huge suppers. The other books that spoke to me a lot are The Melendy Quartet books...Spiderweb For Two...Four Story Mistake... I recently read all four for the first time in thirty years and I am totally and completely in love with those books still. Oh, and Trixie Belden was a favorite too. Okay...I better stop now and go back to writing...

  3. I know I read some of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, but not all. Not sure why I didn't read them all. They were my older sister's, so maybe she didn't "allow" me to :) I know I watched the TV series--that probably killed the books for me. To this day I hate watching a movie before I read the book. It just doesn't work.

    I remember reading a lot of Nancy Drew books as a kid, and Judy Blume, of course. Most of the CS Lewis books, also (I have a copy of them all now, and have been re-reading them occaisionally). I remember a series called the Dark is Rising that my school library had some of, but I never finished. I probably ought to hunt those down, because I think it's bothered me for 20 years that I didn't read them all.

    I had the same reaction to Little Women & the whole Laurie-Jo thing when I first read it, also. But when I read it again as an adult, though, it worked for me. Don't shoot me, please :)

  4. Long Live Alonzo!


  5. Wrinkle in Time (I love her all her other books too, including her non-fiction). Also Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. The Nancy Drew books were the beginning of my lifelong love of mysteries. Aother one of my favorites was Harriet the Spy. I re-read it recently and still love it. As for Little Women, the ending irritates me to this day!!!

  6. I have to admit, I always liked Farmer Boy. And it wasn't until a few years ago, after reading every other book in the series at least, and without exaggeration, six or seven times, and at least once each as an adult, that I finally managed to get through By the Shores of Silver Lake. Read a bunch of the extra books even, biography stuff, but not Silver Lake. (I liked it!)

    But back to Farmer Boy. A few years ago, someone described it as Laura's hungry fantasies of Almanzo's childhood. I mean, the poor woman was raised on cornmeal and fatback, and that was in the good times. Can you imagine what it must've been like, those early Roseless days of marriage, hearing about his childhood of food, food, and more food? Farmer Boy is basically a tribute to plenty. My kids drooled as we listened to it on CD, driving through southern Virginia this summer. And that was before we got to Lucy the pig and the candy.

    Oh, and a childhood favorite, over and over, and as an adult: Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth.

  7. Man, how did I forget Deenie?! Great list!

  8. I HATED the ending of Little Women. Jo belonged with Laurie. I can't even think about that book, it makes me mad. Maybe this has something to do with my own huge crush on my best friend, I don't know. :>

  9. The ending of Little Women makes perfect sense when you think of Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott, who was so busy being a deep thinker that he apparently left the details of raising the kids and making a living to his wife. You notice the father is completely absent in the book. No wonder Louisa had Jo marry such a perfect father figure.

  10. I liked the Professor.

  11. This is a great topic.

    Just last night I was talking to a friend about one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books that for some unknown reason does not seem to be known by many people. I absolutely adore Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book as a bedtime story. There are so many strange creatures getting ready for bed and ample opportunities to yawn while reading that it puts kids to sleep, while it puts the reader to sleep as well.

    The first book that I could not put down and I stayed up until four in the morning was D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. It is to this day may favorite book on Greek mythology.

    The illustrations are beautiful and I love how the stories are skillfully interwoven from one god or goddess to another so that they stand out clearly from one another like really good character sketches.

  12. I love all the Oz books, Salem's Lot, everything Poe wrote. I guess I had a dark side.

    ;-) Still do.

  13. MANIAC MAGEE! I remember that. We read it in my third grade class.

    I also seem to remember loving THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. And I was really into WALK TWO MOONS. I think that was my favorite from back then.

  14. Thank you Kristi for mentioning Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" series!!! I was straining my brain the other day trying to think of that title and author. I read the The Grey King in the eighth grade and really loved it.

    I also loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Where the Red Fern Grows, Summer of the Monkeys, and A Cricket in Times Square. I had a huge crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne all the way through high school. If you like Poe, you'll probably like him too.

    There's another series I really loved in elementary school, but can't think of the name currently. There were probably 15 books or more, and were folksy-type stories about how different animals got their names, how the wind got its name, etc. Anyone remember that?

  15. My friends and I all read THE OFFICIAL PREPPY HANDBOOK, but missed the whole tongue-in-cheek aspect of it. We were 9 and thought it was a real handbook for living even though it couldn't have been less like middle-class, midwestern lives.

    I was another huge Judy Blume fan and also remember loving HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS.

  16. I suppose it depends on what sort of lasting impression! I remember reading A Taste of Blackberries. That book left me with a bee phobia. As for Little Women, Beth's character still rattles my nerves. I mean, no one is supposed to be that good. I kept waiting for her to get mad, show some emotion - something! Ugh. I get mad just thinking about it.