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Favorite Children's Books, Then and Now

  Athena and Sherry reading “The Brave Princesses.”

Athena and Sherry reading “The Brave Princesses.”

I accept that there are contemporary trends that have left me behind. I don’t know the latest musical artists, and don’t follow the current clothing fads, but I never considered that I’d be eating dust when it came to children’s literature.

That was always “my area” in our lives when we raised our children. David could be counted on to play with the them and teach them about classic movies and fabulous music, and I would expose them to fine children’s literature. I loved reading to the kids, and did so a lot. When they were little, I had the liberty of selecting the books and choose favorites from my own childhood, including:

“Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey

“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein

“Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Suess

“How Fletcher Was Hatched” by Wende and Harry Devlin

 

When our children were older and became readers, they chose books by Roald Dahl, the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine and J. Lussier, the Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant, and Choose Your Own Adventure books by Edward Packard.

On occasion, I would read novels to them, of which my favorite was “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” from the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and “Cold Sassy Tree” by Olive Ann Burns. I cringe to admit that I read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck to my 8-year-old son, which we both felt was maybe too dark for that age. But when compared with “Sounder,” by William H. Armstrong, “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls and “Huckleberry Fin” by Mark Twain, it was maybe not too bad.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS TODAY

I loved the time spent reading to my children, and now it is one of the added bonuses as a grandparent that I’m able to read to grandchildren. Snuggling and reading together is pure magic, and I know enough to treasure it because it won’t last.

I’m fortunate to spend afternoons with my six-year-old granddaughter Athena after school every day, and so we head to the library frequently. We’ve learned a few things about borrowing books:

  • · There is a 50-count limit per checkout

  • Some books chime when you exit through the detectors, even when you check them out

  • And the fines can add up if we don’t get the books back in time

We’ve also struck a deal where she selects half the allotment each visit, and I get to pick the other half. Then, when we settle in at home to read, we take turns reading one of “her” books along with one of “mine.”

Our different tastes have become apparent. Athena will select a pile of the easy reader books that include stories about superheroes, Lego characters, Barbie and her gang of friends, and My Little Pony. Perhaps it is because they were written for early readers, but I find these books so dull. Plus, I can’t pronounce the names of characters. Athena is always able to correct my pronunciation, because she frequently watches the television shows affiliated with the stories and even recognizes the thin plots, which are repeated from episodes of the shows.  

The heavy overlay of branding that sells multiple products across books, TV programming and movies is one of the things that separates my children’s literature selections from what Athena prefers today. There were no dolls or figurines and no TV shows for most of my favorite books.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t loads of wonderful children’s books being written today. It is a treat to pull a myriad of selections each week at the library and bring them home to share with Athena. And secretly, I always feel it’s a bit of a win when she asks me to read one or two of “my” selections more than once.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION

Also, this time around as I’m reading to a child, I feel the weight of responsibility to disseminate age-appropriate information more carefully. I think when I raised my own children, I believed that most information was “good” and didn’t consider that, perhaps, the message should be softened to be better understood for younger minds.

These days I’m cognizant of the fragile world of a child, which we try to carefully enlarge with time. This made one of the books I pulled at the library a bit of a quandary. “The Cat Who Loved Anne Frank” by David Lee Miller and Steven Jay Rubin is a beautiful piece, and at first it seemed like a fine idea, until Athena pelted me with questions. I stumbled over how to explain the darker side of humanity worried it was too much for her to hear.

While I struggled to explain the Holocaust, Athena countered by talking about the comparison of racism and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. She already knows of the human plight of those bad forces within, and as a girl who is both black and white she ponders which drinking fountain she would have been permitted to use in the days of Jim Crow.

THROUGH THE EYES OF THE OLD AND YOUNG

No matter how many books we bring home, Athena never tires of the Curious George series. They weren’t favorites for me, but my husband remembers them fondly. I can’t understand her adoration for this little monkey who was abducted from his home by a strange man with a yellow hat. In each story, poor George is thrust into trouble for simply being curious, and gets injured, arrested, lost and nearly killed on a few occasions.

I mulled over Athena’s love for the books with my son who pointed out that, from a kid’s point of view, George’s circumstances make sense. After all, children are confused by much of what they see, and are invariably corralled to yield their natural tendencies of curiosity. The comparison makes sense, so I’ve given myself over the stories of Curious George when I read them for the umpteenth time.

Thankfully, I get to pull out my favorites often as well, and Athena obliges me. Through the eyes of a 50-something, these books of my childhood take on fresh meaning. I either love them or wonder why they were favorites in the first place. It turns out there are some therapeutic benefits to re-reading the books of our childhood as Emma Court explores in her piece, “What Rereading Childhood Books Teaches Adults About Themselves” over at The Atlantic. It’s an added perk while sharing the experience with Athena as she discovers the stories for the first time. Recently, for example, I read “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams, and we shared in the sadness when the little bunny was tossed on the rubbish pile to be burned.

One of the many things I’ve learned in revisiting these stories is that my exposure to diversity during my youth was limited. This time around I plan to expand the reading with Athena with help from lists such as this one over at the New York Library’s “100 Great Children’s Books/100 Years” as a starting point.

THE PRINCESS SYNDROME—WITH WONDERFUL READING AHEAD

Athena loves stories of princesses, and although I’m sort of conflicted by the notion I get that children adore fairy tales involving royalty and kingdoms and all the fantasy of these worlds.  That said, “Barbie Princess Charm School” made me gag. However, I was thrilled to read “The Truly Brave Princesses” by Dolores Brown and Sonja Wimmer. It turns out women of all ages, sizes, ethnicities, religions, shapes and professions are princesses, which I found totally charming.  

Even though some of the books I’m reading to Athena leave me wondering what we’re marketing to children these days, there are plenty of beautiful books waiting to be discovered together. And best of all, I’ve been able to slip in some of the classics from my childhood to share with her and even visit classics I’d not read when I was small.

As C.S. Lewis suggests, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” I think being a grandmother has made that time possible. And in particularly wistful moments as I sneak through the Krispy Kream drive-through for that ONE donut, I still think about how Edmund must have felt when the White Which gave him the first bite of Turkish Delight in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which reminds me that the residue of children’s stories never leave us.

Alex and Sherry Borzo.jpg

Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.

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