Catherine Urdahl

Catherine Urdahl's Self on the Shelf selections

As a child, I was shy and scared — of oth­er kids, dogs, almost any­thing out­side my fence. My par­ents enrolled me in preschool, hop­ing I’d blos­som. I refused to get out of the car. I had every­thing I need­ed at home, includ­ing a mom who loved read­ing to me. My first book mem­o­ry is Three Bed­time Sto­ries: The Three Lit­tle Kit­tens, The Three Lit­tle Pigs, The Three Bears, illus­trat­ed by Garth Williams. Even today, when I page through this book, I’m scrunched up on my child­hood couch with my mom and my sis­ters. It’s emo­tion­al time trav­el to my warmest mem­o­ries — despite lines like: Then the big bad wolf huffed and he puffed, and he blew the house in. He ate up the fat lit­tle pig. And that was the end of the first lit­tle pig. For some rea­son, that didn’t scare me.

As you’d imag­ine, I had a rocky start in school. But I loved the library. I’d hide in a cor­ner with a book, and every­thing else would fade. Once, I didn’t notice my class had lined up and left. I was with my “safe” friends — the char­ac­ters in my favorite books. I loved the Frances series by Rus­sell Hoban, illus­trat­ed by Lil­lian Hoban. Frances wasn’t afraid to speak up, she made up the best rhymes, and she found sly ways to delay bed­time. In a strange way, Bed­time for Frances was my first expe­ri­ence of the inter­sec­tion of grief and laugh­ter. My mom read us the book one sum­mer night, when we were liv­ing in a camper by a lake. Lat­er that night, my grand­pa sud­den­ly died. The next morn­ing, on the dri­ve to my grand­par­ents’ farm, one of my sis­ters and I replayed our favorite lines from the book:

There is a tiger in my room,” said Frances.
“Did he bite you?” said Father.
“No,” said Frances.
“Did he scratch you?” said Moth­er.
“No,” said Frances.
“Then he is a friend­ly tiger,” said Father.

Hilar­i­ous! Did the par­ents real­ly believe there was a tiger in the room? In the mid­dle of the sad­ness my sis­ter and I got the gig­gles. It felt wrong — but also so good.

Frances also showed me girl-pow­er. In Best Friends for Frances, when Albert says his ball game is a “no-girls game,” Frances cre­ates a no-boys pic­nic to teach him a les­son. Of course, Albert begs to join in. 

Well, I’m not sure,” said Frances. “Maybe you’ll be best friends when it is good­ies-in-the-ham­per time, but how about when it is no-girls-base­ball time?”

Frances was no pushover.

While Frances was aspi­ra­tional, Bet­sy (from Car­olyn Haywood’s Bet­sy series) was a kin­dred spir­it. This line from B is for Bet­sy expressed my feel­ings exactly:

She thought of Moth­er who was get­ting far­ther and far­ther away every moment. “If I got up now and ran out the door,” thought Bet­sy. “I could catch Moth­er. I could be out in the sun­shine again with Moth­er and take hold of her hand. I could tell Moth­er that I don’t want to go to school, that I know it is a ter­ri­ble place…

There! I wasn’t the only one! Of course, Bet­sy learns to like school in the first few chap­ters. It took me much longer; still, the book gave me hope.

Giv­en my timid­i­ty, I often need­ed lit­tle pep talks. For this, I had The Lit­tle Engine that Could by Wat­ty Piper, illus­trat­ed by George and Doris Hau­man. I loved the hes­i­tant but ulti­mate­ly deter­mined Lit­tle Blue Engine (and she was my favorite col­or!) My heart beat a lit­tle faster as the tiny engine tugged and pulled and pulled and tugged, and I chant­ed along as she puffed I think I can — I think I can — I think I can… Of all my child­hood books, this is the most worn. Appar­ent­ly, I need­ed it often.

SamAnoth­er child­hood favorite was Sam by Ann Her­bert Scott, illus­trat­ed by Syme­on Shimin. I loved the soft illus­tra­tions and the expres­sive face of main char­ac­ter Sam, who goes from room to room ask­ing his par­ents and old­er sib­lings to play. Sam gets sad­der and sad­der as every­one push­es him away. Final­ly, he drops to the floor, cry­ing. The whole fam­i­ly gath­ers around, com­fort­ing and encour­ag­ing him as he rolls out dough for a tart.

Say, that’s a good job for Sam,” said his father.

He’s not too lit­tle,” said his sister.

And he’s not too big,” said his brother.

It’s a book about a typ­i­cal, lov­ing fam­i­ly (albeit with the tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles of its time). But it was one of the few books I’d seen with char­ac­ters of col­or. Here was a fam­i­ly of real, imper­fect peo­ple who loved each oth­er deeply, a lot like mine. This book felt impor­tant. And it was. 

I also was drawn to books about orphans. My favorite (even more than The Box­car Chil­dren) was James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. It starts with my worst night­mare — los­ing both my parents.

Then, one day, James’s moth­er and father went to Lon­don to do some shop­ping, and there a ter­ri­ble thing hap­pened. Both of them sud­den­ly got eat­en up (in full day­light, mind you, and on a crowd­ed street) by an enor­mous angry rhi­noc­er­os which had escaped from the Lon­don Zoo…

Luck­i­ly, my par­ents nev­er went to Lon­don. Plus, James’ evil guardians Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spik­er are as hilar­i­ous as they are scary. My favorite child­hood poem comes from them:

I look and smell,” Aunt Sponge declared, “as love­ly as a rose!
Just feast your eyes upon my face, observe my
shape­ly nose!
Behold my heav­en­ly silky locks!
And if I take off both my socks
You’ll see my dain­ty toes.”
“But don’t for­get,” Aunt Spik­er cried, “how much
your tum­my shows!”

The worst thing in the world hap­pens to James. But he pre­vails. He climbs into the giant peach; dis­cov­ers a bunch of over­sized, talk­ing insects; and they all roll off on a grand adven­ture, crush­ing the two aunts as flat and thin and life­less as a cou­ple of paper dolls cut out of a pic­ture book. Dark, but so satisfying.

I hes­i­tate to include the next book because it’s in a whole dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry (though it, too, con­tains both dark­ness and light, tragedy, inspi­ra­tion, and even girl-pow­er.) I remem­ber the first time I read the Holy Bible on my own. I was 12 years old, flopped on my grandma’s bed, look­ing for some­thing to do. I’d chal­lenge myself — see how much I could read! I don’t remem­ber what I read. I just remem­ber feel­ing proud.

I still read the Bible—though not as fast. I don’t always get it. I puz­zle over the seem­ing con­tra­dic­tions, won­der about the his­tor­i­cal con­text, hold onto the parts that speak to me and chal­lenge me the most. Like this one:

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act just­ly and to love mer­cy
And to walk humbly with your God.

My favorite books — the ones I read as a child and the ones I’m read­ing now — are part of me. They inspire and inform my writ­ing — the per­fect start to Because of Winn Dix­ie by the mas­ter­ful Kate DiCamil­lo. They make me cry — the scene in Send For Me by Lau­ren Fox, where the grand­moth­er clings to her 2‑year-old grand­daugh­ter who is flee­ing WWII Ger­many with her par­ents. They make me laugh — the entire cast of quirky char­ac­ters from Fredrik Backman’s Anx­ious People.

And all of them — the many books over the many years — make me think and make me feel. For that, I am grateful.

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David LaRochelle
2 years ago

What a great list of books, Cather­ine! I was a big “Bet­sy” fan as well when I was in ele­men­tary school, and James and the Giant Peach was a sto­ry I always read to my fourth graders when I was a teacher. Thank you for the hap­py memories.

2 years ago

I love your descrip­tion of these books and how they fit your life. Can’t tell you how pleased I was to also see Anx­ious Peo­ple on your list! I adore that book (and basi­cal­ly every­thing writ­ten by Fredrik Backman).

Robert Letich
Robert Letich
2 years ago

Must be awe­some to recall such won­der­ful mem­o­ries and thanks for shar­ing them with every­one. You are a true bless­ing to the young that you have influ­enced and the ancient, that you have befriended!