On Books

This orig­i­nally appeared on mis​ter​agye​man​.blogspot​.com on October 14, 2014.

For a while now I’ve been having spells of nos­tal­gia for child­hood. It’s been made worse by all the old school-mates I’ve been run­ning into recently. (Sorry I could­n’t remem­ber your names in time, all of you. Without fail, it struck me as soon as you went away.) So I’ve been trying to remem­ber all the books which stand out in my memory. Perhaps they impacted my life, per­haps they were just really good reads. I can’t tell, because it’s really hard to psy­cho­an­a­lyze your­self. As soon as you unlock those mem­o­ries, you become a kid again, and all work goes out the window.

I share these with a self­ish aim. There are books which have faded from my memory which I am hoping some­one will ran­domly remem­ber having read after this, so they can ran­domly men­tion them to me. So here we go.

The Lion Boy: The Chase (Zizou Corder)

The second book in a tril­ogy. One never seems to get the first book in a series. You jump in and muddle through as best you can, then you go back and read the ear­lier books with a mild air of omniscience.

I don’t know why I liked this book. To be truth­ful, I’m open to any­thing; any so-called pref­er­ence, in my case is mere self-cen­sor­ing. Still, I’m not sure I’d have gone look­ing for this book if it hadn’t sneaked up and tick­led my addic­tion. However, having read it, I must say I was enor­mously impressed by the world described in it. Perhaps this is because I could­n’t finish it before my sister had to return it, so the sus­pense was never resolved.

What has stayed with me: this book put a very glam­orous fan­tasy spin on Ashanti cul­ture, and sparked my inter­est in Adinkra. I wonder if the Welsh and the Gaelic feel the same about fan­tasy books in general.


This book keeps slip­ping in and out of my memory. It came back today after I read about the reg­u­lar kid who got to play drums for The Who. In the book, the pro­tag­o­nist and his band- the epony­mous Popcorn) gets to play to a sta­dium crowd when the head­line act has a minor melt­down. It pops into my head when I think of Tracy Chapman, or the The Who kid (gram­mat­i­cally sound!), or the Jonas Brothers. (This last one does­n’t happen often.)

I liked the book; there was a casual flow to the story, and the author felt no pres­sure to do the whole Young Adult author thing and ‘chal­lenge per­cep­tions’. It was a kid trying to get by, who just hap­pened to have a band and be good at mar­tial arts and not be as socially inept as the real-life kid seems to be. I actu­ally tried to rip off this book, in a dark phase when I had pre­ten­sions at com­mer­cial suc­cess as a writer. ‘Popcorn’ is impor­tant to my child­hood because it explained the con­cept of the ‘demo’ to me, taught me mar­tial art wisdom, and made me want to go and hang out back­stage at sta­dium con­certs. You never know, after all.

Mr Tucket (Gary Paulsen)

Oh, this one. It’s a coming-of-age story, set in the Wild West. The young Francis Tucket falls off a pio­neer­ing wagon train in the middle of a Pawnee raid, and gets cap­tured. He gets res­cued by an old, cun­ning fron­tier man with few prin­ci­ples and fewer friends. Of course, in the wilder­ness, there’s no sta­tion for miss­ing chil­dren, so Francis becomes a man, and gets a ‘Mister’ in front of his name. He learns to wres­tle, cook and shoot, and becomes the cal­loused old her­mit’s saving grace.

Typical sen­sa­tion­al­ist fron­tier stuff, and it went just fine with me. I won’t be sur­prised to learn that this book still shapes my phi­los­o­phy; it tinted most things I held to be true. I think I had to stran­gle a tear, a little.

Mr Tucket taught me to pre­tend I was inde­pen­dent. Wisely, I decided out that actual wilder­ness life was prob­a­bly dan­ger­ous, so I didn’t run off into the bush- I could have found some if I tried- and I didn’t try to fight any sav­ages. I didn’t even drink black coffee. But I walked around as though I did these things on a reg­u­lar basis, and thought noth­ing of it. If this atti­tude helped or dam­aged me, I cannot tell.

Pollyanna (Eleanor Potter)

This book made me cry for real. I am sure the author meant it in the way our par­ents do when they point to that excep­tional child whose white shirt is always white, but I wor­shipped Pollyanna for quite a while. In tricky sit­u­a­tions, I would often ask myself what Pollyanna would have done; really I would.

It’s one of those hard books that keep the happy ending until it does­n’t matter, until you break into a sort of tran­scen­dent sorrow and start smil­ing through your tears. Those old-school writ­ers didn’t spare chil­dren very much- starv­ing chil­dren with chronic dis­eases, drug abuse, cor­rup­tion in state insti­tu­tions, theft, affairs of con­ve­nience, murder- and that’s from Dickens’ work alone. ‘Pollyanna’ made us deal with the chronic dis­ease one, and tan­ta­liz­ingly dan­gled the murder one in front of us. Tough book to get through as a kid, but I’m glad I did.

What stayed with me? The whole book is a moral. It was a preachy book, and I took it all.

Behind The Attic Wall (Sylvia Cassedy)

I’m not sure what was this book’s deal. The author had issues. That book made me start won­der­ing how I would know if I had gone insane, an intrigu­ing dis­cus­sion which con­tin­ues to this day. Maggie, the pro­tag­o­nist, was def­i­nitely insane. Her saving grace comes through a funkier mad­ness which is kindly given to her by Timothy John and Miss Cristabel, who are dolls. They fix her atti­tude by destroy­ing what­ever rem­nant of sanity she pos­sessed. Lovely stuff.

This book fright­ened me in a very respectable way. The author works on the prin­ci­ple of qual­ity, not quan­tity. She made sure it never got so bad that I’d con­sider look­ing away, and it was often mor­bidly funny. The best bits came from the dolls, who dis­pensed great wisdom with tea. Imagine Alice in Wonderland if she had spent all day with the Hatter.

Lovely skin-crawl­ing stuff.

Roald Dahl: Boy (Roald Dahl)

I wor­shipped Roald Dahl fer­vently. I fever­ishly down­loaded absolutely every­thing that had his name on it.

I fear Roald Dahl now.

No, not the erot­ica, actu­ally. (Cue screams of dying child­hood.) No, it’s his short story col­lec­tion that I fear, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. It’s curi­ous how some of the best sto­ries I have ever seen, I would be afraid to read again. Darkness is a uniquely pow­er­ful theme that truly great writ­ers thrive on. There’s also ‘The Finest Story In The World’ by Rudyard Kipling, and ‘The Night Face Up’ by Julio Cortazar and ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck. I have seen few exam­ples out­side the dark vein that can beat these, but I won’t read them again. Once was quite enough, thank you.

Back to Dahl’s ‘Boy’. It’s his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, and it has all of his irrev­er­ence and mis­chief. People say Dahl was unique because he took time to under­stand chil­dren; I do wonder. What if Roald Dahl never both­ered what others thought if the thing was funny to him? I see him as one of those prac­ti­cal jokers, if the ‘Goat Tobacco’ story is any­thing to go by. Did I laugh though? I nearly spit my lungs out.

This book made me for­ever sus­pi­cious of tooth­brushes, and gave me a reason to mon­i­tor my thoughts and feel­ings, so I could write my own autobiography.

A Wrinkle In Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

I remem­ber very little about this book. Even the demon­stra­tion with the ant and the fabric went over my head, for some reason. I just waded through with intense enjoy­ment, hardly stop­ping to take in the details. The ending was pow­er­ful, I remem­ber- all the love stuff. For a while I con­vinced myself that I was going to write like Madeleine L’Engle.

I should read it again.

Sarah Bishop (Scott O’Dell)

The two Scott O’Dell books I read had one thing in common: they took the Independent Woman theme to a whole new level. His pro­tag­o­nists pos­i­tively thrive in the wilder­ness; some­times, they actively avoid people, pre­fer­ring the com­pany of impres­sively weird or men­ac­ing pets. There are few book char­ac­ters more Rambo-like than Sarah Bishop or Karana, and appar­ently they are both based on true stories.

Sarah Bishop made me want to give women an alter­na­tive descrip­tion of the male race, a mis­sion which has proven quite inter­est­ing. It’s hard for a guy not to make a woman want to knock him to the ground with a rifle butt; the only thing that saves us is firearms leg­is­la­tion. But Sarah Bishop keeps remind­ing me when I forget; with a start I remem­ber the advances in rifle tech­nol­ogy, and I wonder if her albino bat still roams the night.

Great book. Powerful, nat­ural read.

Rifles For Watie (Harold Keith); Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)

I have sunken to the low of throw­ing these books together just because they share the same theme: the Civil War. Apart from that, these are quite dif­fer­ent books, each stand­ing out dis­tinctly in my childhood.

Rifles for Watie was about a young man who lies about his age and goes to help win the War. You know the type. He was a good sol­dier, both in self-con­scious brav­ery and in com­pas­sion for the enemy. He also helped stop a pretty large con­spir­acy which would have given the South a strate­gic advan­tage. Typical hero stuff, but it was well writ­ten, and the author had a healthy mix of good and evil char­ac­ters on both sides.

Red Badge of Courage was a deep book for a young reader. It was typ­i­cal hero stuff too, but with a twist: the hero starts out as a wannabe hero, dis­cov­ers he’s a coward, becomes a hero to cover his shame, then becomes a hero for real. I don’t remem­ber if my chest stuck out more or less after read­ing this book. It’s that sort. Great read.

Great Animals

I forgot how many books I read as a kid. This was sup­posed to be easy. In des­per­a­tion I’m lump­ing them in cat­e­gories now. The above head­ing was sup­posed to read ‘Strong Felines’. Turns out, cats don’t fea­ture that strongly in my menagerie.

I do feel bad. Each of these deserves due recog­ni­tion. Call of the Wild defined 2004 for me. Old Yeller and Sounder are both unique and pow­er­ful books with strong plots and char­ac­ters; I happen to mix them up because I read them in the same month, which resulted in a very strong temp­ta­tion to lure unsus­pect­ing strays to my home.

Then there’s Summer and Shiner, which gave me all the fun of a whole vaca­tion on a single school night. Then there’s Houdini, and Charlotte’s Web, and prob­a­bly five others which I can’t think of because I need to pack up and go home.

And that’s just the other species. There’s The Borrowers, which was a crazy trip; I didn’t regain ‘normal’ per­spec­tive for at least a week. That book is fright­en­ing to a child; the con­cepts of equal­ity and democ­racy aren’t sup­ported by the young human brain. But every muscle gets stronger with usage. Also, there is that mas­sive book I found, I don’t remem­ber how, with the screen­play and movie stills from Time Bandits. That did more for my curios­ity than all the con­sci­en­tious ency­clo­pe­dia reading.

Then there’s The Incident at Hawk’s Hill which was about a boy who is adopted by a badger who is griev­ing for her lost pups. There is mud, and spit­tle, and biting, and raw eggs to sati­ate the grow­ing boy’s crav­ing for vio­lence, then there’s loss and more loss and the upturn­ing of con­ven­tions to make him feel small. This one is obvi­ously not a typ­i­cal Great Animals book, but it is in here because the humans were treated a bit like the Harry Potter uni­verse treats Muggles.

Yes, Harry Potter isn’t in here. It didn’t touch my life in any sig­nif­i­cant way, for some reason, until the final book, by which time I wasn’t a child any more. The Horse and His Boy, from the Chronicles of Narnia, rep­re­sents the fan­tasy genre in this list. That was a fun book.

But wait- I didn’t thank Dickens. Thank you, Mr Dickens. I thought Nicholas Nickleby was your best book. I wish you’d killed few chil­dren and had fewer rotten people in your books, but I sup­posed we would­n’t remem­ber you if you had. Such is life.

And thank you, Hudson Taylor. Yours is the only real-life story that stuck with me. I wish I could say the same for A Child Called It; I think my brain kept fading it out to pre­serve my rosy outlook.

And thank you, books. I won’t say ‘you’re all I had’, because it sounds a bit cheesy, and isn’t quite true. But if I’d only had you, books, I think I’d have sur­vived some­how. You taught me words, through which I have learned con­nec­tion. Thank you.


Weeks later, the books I forgot are still haunt­ing me. I simply have to acknowledge:

Understood Betsy: This was a won­der­ful read. I fell in love with Cousin Anne.

The Railway Children: The paper­back copy that landed in my house was incom­plete, so we never knew how this story ended. Tortured us like you would­n’t believe. I finally solved the mys­tery two years ago.

The Secret Garden: Very deep book. Lots of seri­ous moments with chil­dren think­ing seri­ous things, and even deal­ing with regrets. Tough book, if I remem­ber it right.

Little Women: I reread this one until the book fell to pieces. Jo was the first person I knew who suc­ceeded in the writ­ing busi­ness; her joy was my joy. I called Laurence a fool for not mar­ry­ing her, because this book too had the whole res­o­lu­tion miss­ing, so I thought Jo remained crazy and single. Wasn’t entirely pleased to learn otherwise.

Great Expectations: I had the unbridged ver­sion, and I loved Jagger’s assis­tant the most, him and his Aged Parent. A classy telen­ovella with love, betrayal, murder, insan­ity, and a lady to win. I remem­ber my sur­prise when Estella let him kiss her.

Anne of Green Gables: A book at the cross­roads of ‘Little Women’ and ‘Pollyanna’. I keep think­ing that Amy’s inci­dent with the pick­les in ‘Little Women’ is actu­ally from this book. Is it the ‘Carrots!’ which does this? I don’t know.

Then there’s The Old Man and the Sea. It just hap­pened to come my way, and I was very moved by it- as much as I didn’t skip over.

Am I done? I fear not. Good Lord, I have cre­ated a monster.

Appendix II

  • The Indian in the Cupboard
  • The Farthest Shore
  • The Westing Game
  • The House of Dies Drear
  • 21 Balloons
  • Doctor Doolittle
  • Wonder
  • Anastasia Krupnik
  • Free Gold
  • Out of My League
  • Wayside School is Falling Down
  • Oh-God-make-it-stop.