Reading Childhood Favorites… As A Grown Up.

Snuggled in my daughter’s bed for our evening read aloud, I tripped once again over a clumsy sentence. Pippi Longstocking–how could you? As a child, I idolized your spunky independence and raucous mess-making! How could one of my all-time favorite books disappoint me?

I had delighted in sharing Charlotte’s Web with my daughters. I loved exploring Charlie’s chocolate factory again, laughing about how my mother used to call me Veruca Salt–a surname so close to my own–when I misbehaved. Stuart Little was a little bit more bizarre than I’d remembered… And that got me thinking about how my other childhood favorites would stack up to my adult sensibilities.

Recently, thanks to the Internet, I figured out the title of one of my all time favorite stories, The Genie Of Sutton Place by George Selden.

11-year-old me: I discovered the book in the public library on a hot Palm Springs, California summer day–that delicious blast of air conditioning turned the book-filled shelves into an oasis. I remember loving the magic and the humor. I’ve been wanting to reread the book for years and years.

Now: I laughed loud enough and often enough to make my teenager express concern for my sanity. I delighted in the clever dialogue and admired the superb writing. The story is peopled almost entirely with adults, reminding me how children used to fit into adult lives, whereas now families tend to be more child-centric. I found myself wondering if the hilarious cocktail party scene would be eliminated if the book were published today (a dog transformed into a man imbibes too much). I relished my time spent with these characters–and I’m thrilled to finally own a copy. Returning this book to the library back in 5th grade might have turned me into the book collector I am today.

Wanting to laugh some more, I turned to How To Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell.

11-year-old me: I remember twisting with squeamish delight, wondering if Billy would really eat all those disgusting worms. And it was a short, easy read. Good for a last-minute book report for a procrastinator like me.

Now: I didn’t laugh as much as I expected, and that surprised me. But I was also impressed with Rockwell’s concise language and brief, yet apt characterization. The theme of peer pressure and manipulation reminded me of darker books like this year’s Printz honoree Nothing by Janne Teller, as well as all those stupid eating bets–bowls of gravy, trays of lemon bars–made by my husband’s fraternity brothers in college. Again, the parents were quite involved in the story. The boys’ parents communicated with each other regarding discipline, and the kids suffered consequences for misbehavior. At one point two of the boys go around to apologize to neighbors for making late-night noise. Would we ask our kids–or our characters–to do that now, I wondered? Mid-way through the book, I ran to the grocery store. I overheard a middle grade child reprimanding her mother. Things have really changed since 1973.

Finally, I opened my tattered copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.

11-year-old me: Finally somebody understands me! I remember how much I loved reading about girls who weren’t so perfect or so nice. The relationships and problems felt so REAL!

Now: WOW! With the exception of a feminine-hygiene anachronism, the book reads incredibly modern. I couldn’t help but think about my 11-year-old daughter and the things we’ve been talking about recently. And, oh how it brought back memories! My friends and I snuck into one father’s laundry hamper to peek at his copy of Playboy–just like Margaret. But would that scene be included in a middle-grade story published today? I thought about the list of unmentionables that prevent novels from being accepted into school book clubs. Sometimes I worry that we try too hard to protect children from the difficult questions, experimentation, and curiosity Margaret and her friends experience, even though kids are still dealing with those same issues today. I’m not sure if my copy will survive many more readings, so I ordered a brand new book for my daughter. Mine cost me $1.25. My daughter’s cost $8.99. Sharing Margaret with my 6th grader? Priceless!

Rereading these books inspired thought-provoking conversations with my children, husband, and my own mother. And I’m thinking harder about the kinds of stories I hope to write. I encourage all of you to give your childhood favorites a grown-up read.

Sydney Salter, author of Jungle Crossing, hopes that her writing will also delight future grown ups.

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