This originally appeared on misteragyeman.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.
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.
- The Indian in the Cupboard
- The Farthest Shore
- The Westing Game
- The House of Dies Drear
- 21 Balloons
- Doctor Doolittle
- Anastasia Krupnik
- Free Gold
- Out of My League
- Wayside School is Falling Down