The Last Word
Generations of readers' hand-me-downs rediscovered
We've been clearing out lately. Emptying crawl spaces and closets in the delusional hope that when our kids have to move us into Windemere, they won't be faced with making decisions about three or four generations of stuff held on to for no obvious reason. In the process we've unearthed boxes and boxes of books. Yearbooks, journals, first editions, novels, travel books, and, most of all, children's books. Not just the books we've collected over the years, but books that have come to us through earlier generations of book collectors.
We spent a lot of time reading to our kids, and our parents spent a lot of time reading to us and so there are books from multiple generations of children, from the classic fairy tales in illustrated volumes, dime store Little Golden Books, and the Berenstain Bears in slick crayon-proof covers. Surviving into the 21st century were The Bobbsey Twins, children's hardcover books printed on paper so cheap that it's turned brown and shatters if touched, kept because my father brought them to me when I was sick with the chicken pox. Then there are the Sweet Valley High and V.C. Andrews paperbacks that appealed to our daughters as they matured into independent readers. We gave them Little Women; they preferred Stephen King.
On a shelf in one room is a short collection of what were deemed appropriate reading for kids in my grandmother's childhood, a hundred years ago now, little jacket-less hardcover books published at the beginning of the last century, Dottie Dimple and Little Prudy. These kids got sick, fell down stairs, died, and otherwise observed their manners in what are essentially a series of cautionary tales. Back then kids were made to look out for themselves and if you didn't, dreadful things happened. My grandmother saved them for her daughter, who gave them to me. I handed them to the fourth generation who, to the best of my knowledge, never read them. But they are a connection to an earlier America, a time when life was more tenuous and children were meant to be seen but not heard.
Grimm's stories, in the original, are horrific. You get eaten if you stray; if you're greedy you might end up in the oven. The world is inhabited by witches and wolves, or stepparents willing to leave you in the woods. Today the cautionary tales of what happens if you're a bad girl have morphed into cautionary tales about others. Maybe the Brothers Grimm were right; after all, we teach our children about stranger danger, or never take candy from strangers and maybe have a family code word. How is that different from the Grimm's reminder that Grandma may not be as trustworthy as she appears?
More cheerful and memorable are the sweet little kids' book collections that appeal across the years, such as the Little Golden Books with their metallic gold and black binding edges. When we dug A Pony for Tony out of the crawl space, my heart leaped. Here was the seminal work in my young life, which set me on my way toward a lifelong passion for horses. The book in short text and color photographs tells the story of little Tony and his rancher uncle whom he wants to emulate-in simpler terms, of course. When the uncle shows up with the eponymous pony, Tony is faced with his fears. That pony looks awful big. It ends with the little boy figuring it out for himself and off they ride. Ahhh. I wanted to be Tony. I still want that pony. The visceral return to the desires of long ago was so powerful that the book is now securely between the first editions we have in a glass library case.
Looking at my favorite Golden Book from my kids' childhood, Where Did the Baby Go?, gives me the same swooping return to a bygone time. Like the smell of an old school, or home cooking, the sight of a beloved book is capable of sending me back in time. Nostalgia for the bygone times of bedtime stories, when a sufficient reward for good behavior was a new book. Moo Baa La La La. Tactile books, Pat the Bunny, rhyming books, Good Night Moon. Nursery rhyme books with verses that remain lodged in the brain for a lifetime. Illustrated books with details that are as luscious to look at as to read. That emotional transition from reading to a child, to listening to that child read out loud, to listening at the half closed door to the sound of pages being turned by a sleepless child. All part of the warp and weave of a family surrounded by books.
The books were boxed and labeled and are stored against that day when a fifth generation will read the little hardcover books beloved by a great-great- grandmother. Those stories may not travel well across time, but the love of books will.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.