An Ode to the Books of My Childhood . . . And to the Ones I Missed by Maggie Bokelman
In the box of things my mother saved from my childhood is an “about me” book written and illustrated by my third-grade self. On one page, a stick figure with a creepy grin and no nose is stretched out on a couch holding a book; nearby is an enthusiastically polka-dotted window. The text reads, “I like when it rains because my mom doesn’t make me go outside to play.”
As a white child growing up in a college town during the 1970s, it was easy for me to indulge in my favorite pastime. I had access to both school and public libraries, and I had parents who valued books. My father regularly recited poetry (whether anyone wanted to hear it or not). My mother, despite her conviction that children should spend most of their time playing in the “fresh air,” let me buy as many books as I could carry from the annual library book sale. Occasionally I got books through Scholastic orders or as gifts. Even then, I was always running out of new reading material. It didn’t matter. I was happy to reread my favorites, and they made indelible impressions. I remember scenes from the books of my childhood in almost the same way I remember the chapters of my life—viscerally, sensually, emotionally. I also remember the girl I was when I read them, and those memories are inextricably entwined with my memories of the books themselves.
Many of the books I read repeatedly are heralded as classics: Little Women, The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time. Others are slightly less well-known, but easily available in libraries and bookstores: Betsy-Tacy, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Watership Down. But I also loved many largely forgotten books, including Frieda Friedman’s A Sundae with Judy, Patricia Clapp’s Jane-Emily, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Velvet Room, and Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language. Regardless of canonical status, every book I had on heavy rotation is part of who I am. Instead of old friends, they are more like old diaries. It takes both author and audience to make a story, and the white spaces in these books are filled with the invisible marginalia of my younger selves. I walked along the Yellow Brick Road and the White Way of Delight; I bathed in the fountain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; I witnessed a miracle woven into a spider’s web; I opened a door and found a magical garden. I lived it all. I was there.
But there was so much I missed. Very few books by authors outside of white, middle-class, Christian (especially Protestant) Anglo culture were available, and I was not aware of most of the ones that were. Those books, along with those that should have been published (talent lost to the ages), would have made my world richer, and me a more empathetic human. Sydney Taylor’s All-of-A-Kind-Family books, the original three of which I read many times, were an exception. To be offered a view of the world through the eyes of five bright, curious girls growing up in a poor but vibrant community of Jewish immigrants in New York City’s lower East Side was a gift. Sarah, a self-conscious bookworm, was so much like me! And brave, impulsive Henny reminded me of my best friend. But in Sarah’s and Henny’s world, “gentiles” were the outsiders. It was through reading this series that I first understood that whether you are an insider or an outsider is largely a matter of perspective.
I am especially sorry I didn’t find Virginia Hamilton until I was in my twenties. Her M.C. Higgins, The Great, is one of my favorite children’s books ever, and it saddens me that it was published (and won the Newbery) when I was a child, and I missed it. One reason I did not connect with the diverse books available in the 1970s is that much of what I read was already quite dated. This wasn’t intentional on my part. Perhaps the adults around me steered me toward the favorites of their youth (I see this happen a lot today); perhaps it was because I depended heavily on used, borrowed, and hand-me-down books; perhaps it was because Scholastic re-released many older titles. It is complicated contending with the hard truth that most of the books I adored were imbued to varying degrees with racist stereotypes, although a few were surprisingly, sometimes subversively, progressive for their time (check out Frieda Friedman’s books, if you can find them). For more about the history of racism in children’s literature, I recommend Philip Nel’s 2017 release, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books.
I still read a lot—not as much as I did when I was a child—but my reading is much more diverse. I rarely reread books, which I miss, but it’s hard to do with a TBR pile stacked monumentally high. When I was a child, the long, lazy days stretching out before me with little to do besides getting “fresh air” sometimes seemed impossibly hard to fill, and I was grateful for the company of books. Now, hours go by like milliseconds. There are emails to answer, lessons to plan, family to care for, social media sites to keep up with, and it’s hard to forget any of it for long. I’m not trying to glamorize childhood. I’m sorry I missed out on learning more about the lives children different from me were leading. My own childhood was atypically carefree, but even for me, the world often felt confusing, frightening, and overwhelming. I don’t miss those feelings. But the total, utter, completely immersive way that I experienced books as a child: that, I miss.
Maggie Bokelman is a librarian and digital literacy instructor at Eagle View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She enjoys reading, talking about books, and writing about books, and is lucky enough to work at a school filled with book-loving kids and staff members. She’s also a poetry enthusiast. Maggie has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Hollins University, and enjoys attending and presenting at children’s literature and library conferences. When she’s not curled up with a book or at her keyboard, Maggie enjoys pilates and visiting far-flung family and friends. Find Maggie on Twitter @mbokelman, or visit her blog at https://librarianwithaview.wordpress.com.