Monday, August 27, 2012
August 27, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, Childhood
[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On one of the books that most powerfully sparked my young imagination.
In my experience, there are a couple of fundamental truths about young kids and books: all young kids like listening to books (says something about the power of words, images, and stories, I’d say); and young kids don’t tend to be very picky about the quality of those books (ditto, I suppose; but also something about how taste evolves). I won’t name names, as this is supposed to be a positive series, but I have found that in these early years my boys have enjoyed the worst books I’ve ever read them nearly as much as they have Frog and Toad, Dr. Seuss, the Elephant and Piggie series, and so on. Which makes me that much more excited to see which books start to speak to them more individually and meaningfully, which ones begin to take hold of their imaginations not just because they create stories out of words and pictures on a page (again, a magical thing no matter what), but because of some of the specific effects and meanings contained within their particular words (and possibly images, although I’m thinking especially of slightly older, non-picture books).
I think Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix (1957) might have been the first book to do that for me, but since I’ve blogged about it before, I’ll focus here on another, even more lastingly influential (for me) work. Or rather many such works—because when my Dad and I had finished reading more or less all of the 30-odd books in “Franklin W. Dixon’s” (a pseudonym for multiple ghost-writers) Hardy Boys series, I was old enough to move on by myself to the late 1980s series reboot and tackle most of those numerous contemporary, teen-oriented updates as well. All told, I must have spent tens of thousands of pages solving mysteries alongside Frank and Joe Hardy (as well as their parents, peppery Aunt Gertrude, food-loving Chet, and the other recurring characters). But while most of those pages have blurred together rather thoroughly (partly because of the similarly recurring phrases and tropes, such Gertrude’s peppery nature; partly because I’m getting old), I can still remember quite vividly how taken I was by the first volume in the original series, The Tower Treasure.
There are lots of reasons why the Hardy’s first adventure spoke to me so vividly: it was one of the first mystery stories I had encountered, with all the pleasures of uncertainty and fear and yet detection and resolution that the genre presents; it featured likeable young boys acting like, well, recognizable young boys yet having wondrous and meaningful adventures; the cover picture was just plain amazing (the image thing never entirely goes away). But I would say that one particularly potent reason aligns the Hardy series with David and the Phoenix very interestingly: both are clearly set in the world of reality, with both communities and villainous forces that are very much of that world; yet both suggest the possibility that their heroes can step outside of the norms of that world in order to make it better. They do so of course in dramatically different ways—David by befriending and helping preserve a host of mythological creatures, the Hardy Boys by solving a seemingly supernatural yet ultimately all-too-real mystery and saving the day—but nonetheless, in each case the protagonists both confront the realities around them and refuse to be limited by them, creating and living their own stories within those worlds. Pretty evocative and enduring lesson for this American Studier.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!