My sainted mother taught me to read even before she sent me away to kindergarten. She used to say that teaching me to read was a matter of self-defense; she could never get anything done when I was following her around the house, pleading that she would read me just one more book.
I remember loving a lot of early readers, such as the story about the boy who overfed his goldfish. Most of my reading memories, though, are of the classic chapter books which I liked to read over and over. I think I may have read each of these nine books once a year from the time I received them until I finished high school. Later, I also read these books to my children.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1876. Twain combines several adventures, based on events of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to create an endearing story of a mischievous boy coming of age in the mid-nineteenth century. From whitewashing a fence (and enticing his friends into doing the work for him, and even paying him for the privilege) to exploring a system of caves, Tom Sawyer leads an active life. Inspired by books about pirates and medieval adventures, Tom Sawyer enlivens the existence of nearly everyone in town, giving the adults more excitement than they know how to handle. When he and his friends run away from home and camp on an island in the Mississippi, the town fears that the boys have died. Learning of this, Tom Sawyer and his friends wait until the funeral is underway before revealing that they are alive. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, and I definitely envied him his Becky Thatcher.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885. In this sequel to Tom Sawyer, Tom’s homeless friend Huck Finn has been adopted by a wealthy widow. Feeling constrained by her pressure to conform to social norms, and feeling threatened by his father, Huck Finn travels down the Mississippi River by raft, accompanied by an escaping slave named Jim. Traveling from town to town, the pair encounter a number of odd characters and strange situations, from a feuding family reminiscent of the Montagues and Capulets to a pair of scoundrels who claim to be the Duke of Buckingham and the King of France. When Jim is captured, Tom Sawyer appears on the scene and prepares an elaborate plot to rescue him. This book is one of the strong candidates for the title of “The Great American Novel.”
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), 1865 and 1871. Mathematician Charles Dodgson knew a girl named Alice and told her stories to entertain her. These stories became the basis for his two books, usually packaged as one volume. In the first set of episodes, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and meets various creatures, finally dealing with a living deck of playing cards. In the second set, Alice travels through a mirror to a different world in which most of the people she meets are pieces in a chess game. Both accounts feature parodies of serious poetry combined with charming nonsense. Elements of the stories about Alice are among the most recognizable of all those derived from children’s literature.
Bambi by Felix Salten, 1923. I was lucky enough to have read this book several times before I first saw the Disney cartoon based upon it. The animals in the book are far more complex and interesting, although the theme of environmentalism is as strong in the book as in the film. Most stories starring talking animals fail to be convincing, but this story of a fawn growing up to be a stag is as real as any coming-of-age tale of a human child.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, 1964. This book describes a charming and well-mannered boy living in dire poverty with his parents and grandparents, a boy who wins the chance to visit Willy Wonka’s candy factory. Four other children also win the chance to visit the factory, but each of them is wealthy and spoiled. In some places the book risks becoming preachy about the manners children should have, while in others it fails the most basic tests of political correctness. In spite of its failings, the book succeeds because of its strong characters: Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and of course Willy Wonka.
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney, 1881. Long before I encountered the writings of Charles Dickens, this book taught me about poverty and perseverance. Five children are being raised by their widowed mother with occasional help from their good-hearted and generous neighbors. At first the book relates a series of adventures that the children face (including a bout with the measles), but then the youngest of them is befriended by a wealthy boy and his grandfather. This wealthy family sponsors the Pepper family’s first real Christmas and then continues to help the Peppers, all the while learning valuable lessons from the cheerful way this poor family faces the challenges of life. Several sequels were written, but the first book is far and away the best of the series.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri, 1881. An orphaned girl is taken by her aunt to live with her grandfather, a gloomy recluse who inhabits a cabin high in the Swiss Alps. She charms him and his neighbors, but then is snatched away by the aunt to be a companion to a rich but crippled girl in the city of Frankfort. Heidi pines for the beauty of the mountains, but before she returns, she brings excitement and happiness to the wealthy Frankfort family. After sending Heidi back to her grandfather, this family manages to visit Heidi in the Alps and to draw even more strength from her. Although this book is a touch heavy-handed with its lessons about Christian living, it remains a treasured classic for its believable title character and for the changes she brings into all the lives that intersect with her life.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883. A young boy takes a job aboard a ship, only to fall under the power of pirates. They are seeking treasure, but violence threatens between the pirates and the rightful crew of the ship. The boy becomes an unlikely hero who helps to resolve the conflict. This is one of the more violent books I read growing up, with gunfire and deaths, but it was an action story of which I never tired.
The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum, 1900. Although it inspired the famous movie of the same name, this book contains far more adventure than could fit into the movie. Characters and monsters even stranger than those in the movie challenge Dorothy and her friends as they move through the land of Oz. Dorothy interacts with all four witches (two good and two wicked) as well as the wizard, who is indeed a humbug, but who is able to give the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion exactly what they want. In the book, the land of Oz and its inhabitants are more than just a dream.
Several of these books were written more about children than for children. For this reason, they remain enjoyable even when read by adults. I remember many summer afternoons when I was curled up on the couch with one of these books, reliving the familiar adventures and seeing ideas I had been too young to consider the previous time I read the book. In my opinion, all these stories are classic tales that belong in every family library. J.