A worn copy of The Boxcar Children dangled before me on the other side of a fingerprint-laden smartphone screen. “You want it?”
The question came from my sister Kristin, who had rescued our childhood book collection from our parents’ attic during a recent trip with her husband to see them. Now Kristin was with our other married sister Jane, and I was “there” too, via video. As they sifted through cardboard boxes of books, Kristin’s phone jerked upside-down in her hand, leaving me a not-so-compelling view of Jane’s garage ceiling. I resigned myself to being lodged in second place, firmly and justifiably behind the attention warranted by our books.
We three sisters were beginning a long-awaited, long-planned distribution of our beloved childhood library.
Years earlier we had scrawled “FOR THE GIRLS’ CHILDREN” and “GIRLS BOOK BOXES” in Sharpie along the walls of their temporary cardboard homes. But as I watched my sisters lift up a Nancy Drew mystery with its bright yellow hardcover and an Anne of Green Gables paperback in rich, hunter green, I wanted to look through them again myself. What lessons and role models were contained in the books that we had read and reread, I wondered.
When my portion of the library loot arrived, it was also a chance for me to peek into those pages past. I started cracking open books like a certain titian-haired sleuth cracked codes and solving mysteries. I hoped to rediscover the lessons and the lives that gave me my first window into so many of life’s joys, mysteries, and heartaches.
“Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave,” wrote American novelist Anne Lamott twenty-five years ago. Resting on this assumption, I cross-examined the forgotten yet familiar pages from my youth with an eye toward what must have been new, revealing, and formative to my ten-year-old self.
The complexity of the real world
One gift that my cross-examination produced was a renewed conviction that great writers—even children’s authors—articulate the subtlest of human experiences. As an adult, I marvel at this quality in great, classics like Mary Ann Evan’s (George Eliot’s) Middlemarch and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but the truth is that my favorite childhood books also do it masterfully.
More than one of them described how an adults’ facial expression masked how they really felt. It’s possible for a schoolteacher to smile with her mouth, while showing displeasure in her eyes, for example. This naming lays the groundwork for implicit social interactions to become explicit emotional and social intelligence.
Maybe I should have expected this, but I was surprised by how well our books captured complexity on a larger scale—in particular, the troubling experience of children seeing their parents’ mistakes and moral mishaps. In one of my favorite Roald Dahl books, Danny the Champion of the World, a boy named Danny is shocked to learn that his gypsy father and grandfather regularly poach birds from a wealthy neighbor’s land. The book shows Danny’s dawning awareness that dozens of other respectable figures in their town poach secretly too.
Dahl doesn’t explain the dynamics of subsistence hunting or economic inequality, but he shows a world where simple folk are ingenious, collaborative, and hospitable while the wealthy seem to value their fancy cars more than their neighbors. Suddenly stealing isn’t so black and white.
In the Dear America series—fictional diary entries from historical young girls—we children of the nineties walked in the shoes of Civil War and Great Depression-era youth. Through the eyes of teenage Amelia Martin, a young Delaware lighthouse-keeper in 1861, we watched youthful innocence slip away as Mr. Martin served divorce papers to Amelia’s mother. The ache and constancy of a daughter missing her mother is palpable in the book, even as Amelia sacrifices sleep and warmth to keep the light shining. The scenarios in our books did not gloss over real-life problems and pains. They instead gave us insight into both the good and the bad, the valiant and the vulnerable.
Capable kids with noble ideals
Many of the youth in our books worked hard, took risks, solved problems, and used their resources generously. The plethora of American girls, including many immigrants, came from a variety of economic backgrounds. But all of them channelled their efforts toward the good of their family and neighbors. As I read about these multifaceted girls, I developed a picture of the many ways of life, interests, and skill sets that young women could have. And I’m sure that their ideals and passions opened my mind to what I could value and pursue.
Laura Ingalls was a frontier-gal who enjoyed baking but also watching Pa do woodwork. She did chores in nearly every chapter, and fun, for Laura, was having a snowball fight. Young Samantha, a Victorian-era character in the American Girls Collection, taught her school lessons to her friend Nellie, a working-class girl whose family couldn’t afford school. Nancy Drew, the affluent daughter of an attorney, never accepted payment for her detective work. And Anne of Avonlea, when she headed off to college declared, “What I want to get out of my college course is some knowledge about the best way of living life . . . I want to learn to understand and help other people and myself.”
This ethos was also embedded in Magic or Not?, a believable fantasy set by the author Edward Eager in twentieth-century Connecticut. The book captures the excitement and resourcefulness of two children, James and Laura, settling into a new house.
What makes Eager’s novels so delicious for children is that he combines childhood experiences—bounding out of the house to play with neighbors; deciding what to wear for playtime adventures; making extremely consequential decisions while eating popsicles—with adult problems like mortgage foreclosure.
In Eager’s fantasy, an elderly woman’s pending home foreclosure is not only explained clearly to James and Laura, but they have the power to do something about it through a blend of magical wishing and good deeds. Eager knew that children understand more than we might give them credit for, and he wanted his own children, for whom he wrote, to channel their imaginations toward a common good.
Call me old-fashioned
Now that I have looked back through a sampling of my childhood books, I’m very satisfied with both the realism and the moral framework that they instilled in me and my sisters. There’s nothing wrong with full-on fantasy; I still love a good sci-fi space novel or dragon-slaying heroine! But I’m grateful for books that painted wholesomeness and character, everyday family life and work in all its forms as good and attractive.
I have no idea what “kids these days” are reading in middle school—nor do I want to disparage more recent children’s literature. But I know that my children, nieces, and nephews will inherit several boxes of dog-eared, slightly faded books that were inscribed with love to their mothers and aunts in the 1990s.
And while I do hope they read stories that speak to new realities and issues of the twenty-first century, I also want them to be shaped by the wisdom of the past.