This stack is largely the Self-On-The-Shelf stack of my childhood. There would be stacks of others, as well, you understand. I was surprised how many were missing when I went to pull books for this column, actually. Where were all the Judy Blume books? Where was How To Eat Fried Worms? And, I suppose if I’m really honest, I would need to include a small stack of Guinness Book of World Records from the late seventies…I wore the covers off those books. Alas, some of my favorites from childhood were library books that I checked out again and again but never owned. And I suspect the world record books were thrown out by my mother who did not share my fascination. (The lady with the longest fingernails in the world is the one that sticks forty years on….)
But the books in this stack — these were deeply deeply loved by me as a child. The Pooh books are the ones I have very clear memories of my Mom reading to my brother and me. I know she read other things to us, but these are the stories and poems I remember. She gave me the leather bound editions when I had little ones of my own — our original copies, which were paperbacks, are a bit frail looking and might not have survived another generation’s love.
Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books — and the Henry Huggins and Ribsy books, too— were favorites when I was in second and third grade and diving into independent chapter book reading. I picked up Ramona The Brave off a RIF table when I was in second grade. Mrs. Perkins, my teacher, read several Cleary books to us and I was, and remain, a huge fan.
But Charlotte’s Web is the first chapter book I clearly remember reading on my own — same year, same teacher. I fell so completely into this story that I couldn’t bear to go out to recess. I couldn’t even extract myself from the story to close the book and get my boots and coat on—it felt physically impossible. I remember Mrs. Perkins saying that just once I might stay in during recess to read. I’m sure I didn’t even say thank you, just kept turning the pages, knowing I had to finish since I’d have to go out the next day.
From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was kept from much of my elementary school because I so consistently had it checked out from our school library. I was required to return it for a week every once in awhile “to see if someone else might want to read it,” but I volunteered to re-shelve it so I could hide it behind other books and be assured it’d be there for me the next week. (This autobiographical detail found its way into my novel Giant Pumpkin Suite—different book, but one also on this list!) The Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Award the year before I was born. It is brilliant, as are all of E.L. Konigsburg’s books, in my opinion. The bookends of the novel are important, but if you’d asked me when I was a kid about Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I would’ve said her name was simply in the title, for reasons I really didn’t understand…. For me, the book was entirely about sleeping at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have always had a fascination with what it would be like to be locked in after hours at a museum, or a library, or a grocery store — to just have run of the place and have it all to myself. I don’t know if I had the fascination before reading this book or if this book spawned it, but I remember taking notes on Claudia Kincaid’s brilliant plans of hiding in the bathrooms until security was gone, blending in with school groups during the day so as not to be noticed, fishing the coins out of the fountain to spend at the automat, etc. I never owned this book as a child, but I bought it as an adult at the Met the first time I went to New York City. I read it on the plane home…which was the first time I noticed Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!
Harriet The Spy was a favorite of mine around the same time as The Mixed-Up Files, and between the two of them, I fell in love with New York City decades before I ever set foot in the city. I loved Harriet because she was not nice — her blunt voice was often the tween voice in my head — and because she kept a notebook. I used to ask for notebooks and pens/pencils for Christmas and birthdays. I loved that Harriet did her spying and wrote down what she noticed in ALL CAPS. Sometimes I do that in my notebook, in homage. When Ole Golly gave Harriet advice, I considered it advice to me, as well. This book, maybe more than any other, gave me a yearning to be a writer.
And the best for last…. The Anne of Green Gables series. I received the first novel in this series for my tenth birthday. Over the next few years I received the next in the series each birthday and Christmas. I love this series so much it makes my heart ache. And, as I wrote here, I perpetually read them as an adult. I always have one going. It’s not great for my writing. L.M. Montgomery wrote in a different time, and style has changed considerably. I always have to cut my drafts by half — and I still use more words than many writing today. But for character study and emotional arc, I think I can still learn from Montgomery. In any event, there’s not a better way to end the day than reading a chapter of Anne, as far as I’m concerned. I commend the practice of “perpetual reading” to you — whatever series makes your heart glad.