Each Sunday, The New York Times Book Review has a column, By the Book, in which famous authors are interviewed about their reading habits, past and present. The chosen authors are asked a variety of questions, which can differ from week to week, and include ones about what is on their nightstand, what would they recommend, what’s overrated, couldn’t get finished, or which famous authors you would have to dinner if you could pick three. Every now and again, they pose my favorites: “what kind of reader were you as a child?” and “what were your favorite childhood books/authors?”
Their responses never cease to amaze me. Most of the time I don’t really believe what they say. I think there is a real disconnect between what they probably actually read and what they report to the public they read. It’s no surprise when they offer up “Winnie the Pooh”, “Charlotte’s Web”, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and other award-winning authors and books, but it’s a rare author who owns up to loving children’s fare at the opposite end of the spectrum (did no one read comic books or Big Little Books?), though Nancy Drew does make the cut.
Occasionally they will mention reading more adult fare: Dumas, Conrad, Poe, Fitzgerald. I do have to question the one who waxed poetic about discovering the Russian authors at around age 10, falling in love with “Anna Karenina”. Really? We’re talking about 4th grade here. I too, was an avid reader, but at that age was reading Lloyd Alexander, Edward Eager, and Elizabeth Enright, Freddy the Detective, and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. But I guess that’s why they ended up as famous writers and I’m just a librarian.
What would I say if someone were to ask me what my favorite childhood book was? What criteria could I use to winnow the list to just a handful and then, ultimately, just one? How could I choose?
For me, liking a book or not, doesn’t always have to do with the writing or the plot even, but more about the moment or the manner in which it was discovered. Finding a book no one you know has ever read or one you never knew existed until that second looms large as a background theme on my list of favorites. It’s just as much about the discovery of the book as it is about the content of the book itself. When I put all of this together, my favorite book is an obvious choice.
My grandparents lived in the end house of a long row of classic Baltimore brick rowhouses on a street lined with ancient sycamore trees. From the sunny, light-filled third floor attic to the dark and mysterious cellar, it was chock-full of wonderfully weird and odd trinkets because my grandfather was an avid antique collector and dealer.
The best stuff was in the cellar. Pulling on a string that was attached to a chain hanging from the socket in the middle of the ceiling turned on the rather dim light bulb that would then light the way down the ladder-like stairs. Once at the bottom, a vast array of miscellaneous collections were in view on the rows of neat shelves filling the space: baby food jars filled with nails and screws of every shape and size, jars of marbles, antique tools and gadgets, stone crocks, old bottles and tins, and books. Lots and lots of books. Some arranged on shelves, others packed loosely in boxes.
Being a nosy child, I routinely and methodically worked my way through these stacks, checking to see if there was anything of interest. Mind you, these were not pretty books. Often they were old, smelly and crumbly, by authors no one had heard of, missing dust jackets so you couldn’t figure out what they were about. And one day there was this one little blue book, squashed in amongst the dull green and brown ones, that caught my eye. I liked its smallness. Embossed on its cover was a doll. A little wooden doll, for that was the name of the book, “The Little Wooden Doll” by Margery Williams Bianco. Its thick pages were yellowed with age, the edges uneven, illustrated with full color plates and black and white line drawings. I plopped right down on the dusty floor, hidden by the tall shelves and settled down to read, immediately engrossed with my find, not stopping until I was finished. I knew at that moment I needed to keep this magical little book. Forever. I’m sure my grandfather would have given it to me had I asked but I didn’t want to risk it. So I stole it! Raced up two flights of stairs and hid it in my little1960s flowered overnight bag and took it home.
I still have this little gem, which has pride of place on my current shelves. Whenever I hold it, the memories of that time and place wash over me in ways that no other book does.
So now you know my favorite book. What’s yours?
Photo courtesy of the author.
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