The only “real” books we had in our house was a small selection of adult novels from the Doubleday Book Club. Mid-century titles such as Panther’s Moon, Lost Horizon, and Wake of the Red Witch piqued my eight-year-old interest until I opened them, dismayed by the tiny print and lackluster dialog. I had a shelf of Golden Books which I’d outgrown. The only chapter books and nonfiction I had access to came from our school library.
One day in sixth grade, we received a four-page brochure featuring inexpensive paperbacks from Scholastic Book Services. Priced between 35 to 50 cents, we could buy teen novels, middle-grade fiction, and nonfiction. I scoured every syllable of the brochure. After much deliberating, I chose what I call a “strange old lady” book (sort of a sub-category popular in the 1950s): Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars (35 cents). I think every boomer kid in America had that book.
“Strange old lady” books fell into two groups: feisty, nosy old ladies, and old ladies who dabbled in magic. Miss Pickerell Goes to the Moon, Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter, Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians, While Mrs. Coverlet Was Away, The Peculiar Miss Pickett, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic, Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm … you get the idea.
When our teacher delivered our books a few weeks later, I could hardly stand it. I wasn’t worth a flit the rest of the day, sneak-reading my new book instead of doing arithmetic. New brochures arrived the beginning of the month. I pored over them as if trying to pass the bar exam. I’d check off an alarming number of books, then try to add the total, not easy since I was usually reading during arithmetic lessons. My mother told me we couldn’t afford $8.50 worth of books. I could buy one, that was all. Book-ordering day became an approach-avoidance event. When the books were delivered, I shot the stink eye at kids who’d ordered four or five books.
In a recent interview in the New York Times Book Review, Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, admitted that her experience with books from her childhood was “one of longing.” She too received SBS brochures in elementary school. “I’d study those catalogs for hours and meticulously filled out the order form on the back, as if I could buy then. But I couldn’t, I never turned in the form because my family was too poor to pay for the books. It’s such a visceral memory, aching for those books!” I can identify with her. It was so hard to choose a single book when I wanted so many.
Aside from Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars, three other SBS books stand out in my mind. I read print off my copy of Betty Cavanna’s The Black Spaniel Mystery, enticed by the back cover tags: “Two lost thoroughbred COCKERS, Determined TEEN-AGERS, A faded old SNAPSHOT, A mysterious LETTER, A daring RESCUE, a surprise WINNER.” Who could resist?
Not long ago, I found Clarence the TV Dog in a used bookstore. I’d forgotten I once had this book, but instantly recognized the orange and blue cover. An SBS book I’ve never forgotten is The House of the Seven Gables. The brochure described a gloomy haunted mansion, witchcraft, and murder. I thought the seven gables were towers or hidden rooms. When the book came, I tore the cover back … and realized Nathaniel Hawthorne was a crook. I couldn’t read a single page of that musty story. And I’ve never read a word by Hawthorne since.
Years passed. I grew up to be a children’s book writer. My first books were published by Scholastic as original paperbacks. They were sold in Waldenbooks and B. Dalton bookstores and they were offered in Scholastic Book Clubs. My proudest moment came holding a club edition of my first book, The Silvery Past, a YA mystery that should have blared on the back cover: A town with a SECRET, An ancient, deserted CAROUSEL, three teenagers at ODDS, A hidden TREASURE, An amazing DISCOVERY.
People online say they remembered some of their old books. Most were given away or thrown away. I rescue all the SBS books from my era at tag sales, used bookstores, and antique shops. Inexpensive treasures back then. Priceless now.