by Vicki Palmquist
When I was in my twenties, I worked at an architecture firm. Several of the architects were fascinated by my deep connection to children’s books. One day, one of them asked me, “Which books, being published now, will become classics?” That question has stuck with me, holding up a signpost every now and then. How does one predict a classic?
Whenever someone asks which books were favorites from my own childhood (#booksthathooked), several books push themselves to the forefront—A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, and Loretta Mason Potts. That last title always causes a “huh?” People, generally, are unfamiliar with this book.
The next question is always, “what’s it about?” Here’s the thing: I couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t remember a thing about the book except its title. What I remembered was the circumstances surrounding the reading of that book, the way it made me feel.
In sixth grade, I had a teacher, Gordon Rausch, who changed my life. He showed me possibilities. He believed in me. He made learning and research fun. I was often bored in school, but never in his class. Every day was a new adventure. What I remember most is that he read books out loud to the whole class. I remember Pippi Longstocking. I remember A Wrinkle in Time. But he also read Loretta Mason Potts to us.
As far as I can recall, he was the only teacher I had who ever read books out loud. Our class had its share of bullies and attention-getters. No one interrupted his reading of a book. His choices were good, his reading skills were exemplary, and he always knew where to end, leaving us craving more.
Loretta Mason Potts was written by Mary Chase and published in 1958. Thanks to The New York Review Children’s Collection, you can read this fine book, too. They reprinted it in 2014. I’ve just re-read it and once again I understand why it springs to mind as my favorite.
Mary Chase lived in Denver. She died in 1981. You may know her because of another one of her books, Harvey, which won a Pulitzer Prize and became a movie starring Jimmy Stewart. If you know Harvey, you will understand that the writer has a fantastical imagination and a good wit. Both of those are evident in Loretta Mason Potts.
It’s a charming mixture of a Tam Lin story and a Snow Queen story, centering on a family of children, their mother, and their long-lost eldest sister, told in a way that will reach into the heart and mind of a child. It has naughty children, ensorcelled children, a caring but somewhat clueless mother, a mysterious bridge, and a castle occupied by the bored Countess and General, who hover on the precipice of danger.
I am so glad that this book is illustrated. It was the first book published with Harold Berson’s black-and-white line drawings. He would go on to illustrate another 90 books.
There are a growing number of titles in the New York Review Children’s Collection. I have several of them and would put every one of them on my bookshelves if I could. The selection of these books is enchanting. Do you remember reading Esther Averill’s Jenny and the Cat Club? How about Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily? Or Lucretia P. Hale’s The Peterkin Papers? (I had forgotten all about this book until I saw it on their booklist — I loved that book.) Or Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson?
Are these books classics? This, I think, is the interesting question. What is a classic? These books are being published once again … so they’ve withstood the test of time. Although the writing is somewhat quaint, they still hold up as stories that will interest a modern reader. Loretta Mason Potts is a book that has lived on in my mind for decades. I wonder if the other students in my sixth grade class remember it in the same way.
Which books published today will become classics? It’s a question worth discussing, isn’t it?