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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Old Novels on Your Children's Shelves?

Did you ever do something so incredibly foolish, so obviously antithetical to your very nature that you have to ask yourself, "Self? Do you really know me at all?"

Like, say, for example, going away for a long weekend to a cottage in the woods without a single good book packed in your bag to read?

I know, I can't believe me either. I plead desperation and packing flurry. I looked for Aurora Leigh, my next planned read, but when I couldn't find the book quickly enough I gave up the search. Foolish woman.

On a good uninterrupted evening of reading, when I don't have any work to do, don't have any TV to watch, am not online, do not have anything to vacuum or fold or scrub or dust, I can read several hundred pages between the kids' bedtime and my own. Easily. That is, if I'm reading something good. Something good could be a biography, short stories, a novel, Virginia Woolf's essays, Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, or the story of the week in London in the 1850s when a horrifying cholera epidemic led to the ground-breaking discovery that the disease is water-borne, not airborne. I have a lot of interests.

Also, if I do not have books waiting for me, I will hunt and hunt until I find something to read. And there is a direct inverse relationship between my desperation for something -- anything! -- to read and my level of pickiness about what I will read. I have been known to read the backs of shampoo bottles for lack of anything better. They are, however, extraordinarily dull.

This past weekend, bereft of Aurora Leigh, I turned to the Bobbsey Twins mystery books, a small collection of which is tucked into the pigeonholes of the desk at my cousin's cottage. These books have an immediate appeal for me on two counts. First, these would appear to be quite possibly first editions, with charming 1930s and 1940s illustrations in the end papers, and old green leather covers -- and anyone who knows me knows that old books hold a special place in my heart.

And second, as a very small child (around ages 6-7), I was utterly fascinated with the Bobbsey Twins who were twins! and detectives! and solved mysteries! and found treasures! all the while being twins! *deep childish sigh* "I want to be a twin," I would think wistfully, as if having a twin would suddenly make me a detective (which I also very much wanted to be) and endow me with a lumber baron father who could afford to take me on all sorts of dramatic and exciting vacation adventures in exotic locations. Exotic for me included anything with a romantic-sounding name. Hence, their trip to "Mexico" was not as exciting as their one to "Lighthouse Point" which carried with it all the romance of the sea.

The imagination of children is a wonderful thing, and it is perhaps easy to forget that the images carried in the simple name of a place may evoke untold quantities of ideas. To wit: I envied my elementary-school chum, Kim, almost endlessly because every year at Christmas, she and her brothers and parents went to visit her grandparents who lived in the most romantic sounding place in the world: The Great North Woods in the faraway and magical state of Wisconsin. I didn't know what happened in The Great North Woods, at least, not until 3rd grade when I began to devour the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and learned that she, too, had lived in the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin -- whereupon, I am sure, I was convinced that when Kim went up there she was transformed into a girl who wore high button boots and took a horse sleigh everywhere she wanted to go and had all manner of fabulous and quaint adventures involving homemade quilts, pies with unexpected ingredients, and astonishing blizzards.

So I'm sure it surprised no one that I wanted to read all the Bobbsey Twins books about their adventures at Meadowbrook Farm and other evocative places. It didn't hurt, either, that even as a child, there was something romantically "foreign" seeming about this family. They were children like me, and yet so unlike me. Not just because they were twins, but for other reasons too that I doubt I could have put my finger on at the time.

Having read several of these novels while rained in last weekend, I am sure I know now what fascinated me. Even at that early age, it was obvious that these were not children from my own time. They were not "old-fashioned" exactly, since their Daddy drove a car, and they went places on airplanes, but they were not my contemporaries either. In retrospect, I can tell you this: those Bobbseys are almost preternaturally polite. They always eat their vegetables and qualify for dessert and have excruciatingly good table manners. The boy of the elder pair of twins, Bert, takes recourse to his fists on a regular basis to defend the honor of his sisters or ward off bullies picking on his small brother. And all the adults nod approvingly and call Bert a "brave lad" because he never starts fights himself, only finishes them deftly and with justice. The Bobbsey girls always wear dresses and "frocks" that are custom-made, and the boys are very good with tools, and all of them (although only about 5 and 8 years old) are allowed to run around town having unsupervised adventures, doing errands for their mother, or hiking in the woods without a grown-up present. It's only when they don't come home for dinner that people get really worried. Frankly, the Bobbsey Twins mysteries (in addition to the fascination of twins! who were detectives!) could not have described a way of life any more different than my own if they'd been set in medieval France.

This is most notably the case in terms of their "colored" cook/housekeeper who is married to the "colored" handyman/gardener, both of whom speak in dialect and are alternately obliging to the whims of "the chillin" and good-naturedly grumbly about the amount of work this requires. This was a completely shocking discovery for me, as it was an element of these stories that I had utterly forgotten. And then, because I'm me, I did a little research just now, and I found out that after 1950, the Stratemeyer Syndicate which published the books started undertaking rewrites of earlier volumes to update in terms of technology and social customs, with the biggest character changes happening to the depictions of the family servants. So the volumes I read as a child probably did not have these disturbingly obsequious servants at all. (What a relief!)

I was also surprised to learn that the first book in this series was published in 1904, and the last in 1979, with 72 volumes comprising the set. Some were completely rewritten, others abandoned, when they undertook to modernize the series. The books I read this past weekend, though, were originals, all with dates prior to 1943. And they were fascinating. Not, this time around, because of the "romance" of the place names but because of the slice of Americana they provide in revealing what popular children's books looked like in the early decades of the twentieth century. The expectations, behaviors, freedoms and restrictions placed on the Bobbseys were a sometimes-stunning reminder of how very much has changed in our ideas about child-raising. And, sadly, in the level of safety in our communities.

I'm not suggesting that you run out and start reading big stacks of 70-year-old children's novels. Or that you begin allowing your little ones to run to the bakery alone or praise their fist-fights with bullies. But I am interested in knowing what you think about the fascination of such books. Is it just the reading version of being a tourist, feeling nostalgia for a time and place in which we never lived? Or are there valuable reasons to resurrect, to read to our own children, for example, books like these? Would you hand your first-grader The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge or not? And why?


Lisa said...

I've never read a Bobbsey Twins book, but your description makes me want to. The serial novels I read when I was 8 were the Babysitters' Club. They didn't have any boys fighting or racist stereotypes, but neither did they have any redeeming literary qualities.

Sometimes old books get a pass to portray things modern books would never be allowed to, just because they are classics and so people assume they are perfect. Some examples from my own bookshelf that didn't get edited are Curious George and Babar. The original Curious George, which I ordered, new, 2 years ago, from bn.com, has George (a childlike character) smoking a pipe. And the set of the 6 original Babar stories that I ordered, new, a few years ago, includes illustrations of cannibals that are those horrible old caricatures of black people. No book written today with these things in it would get so widely sold or loved.

But they are classics, and deservedly so, for the most part. They are really good books.

For things like this I take my husband's advice. We can't shield our children forever from bad habits, bad words, and bad attitudes. So, it is better, when we happen upon them, not to look the other way and pretend they don't exist, but to say, "This is bad, and this is why it is bad." Then when they are away from our watchful eye and they come across these bad habits, words or attitudes, they will be equipped to reject them.

So, if the child is old enough to distinguish the good from the bad in the book (with some help from you) why not let them experience that good, be it the fascination of a tourist, a small history lesson, or the thrill of a good plot.

Juli said...

I can't wait to read Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew to my girls. :) I don't remember any racial or gender stereotypes, but those two girls were MAVERICKS, lol!! I think that nowadays people (authors and publishers) are so scared of being attacked or accused of being "politically incorrect" that they have to really censor themselves. ITA with Lisa in that you can't shield them from these things forever, so the best bet, once your kids can understand the concepts of "right and wrong" is to talk about why things are appropriate or not (or as we say "ugly talk")

calicobebop said...

First off - I devoured the Bobbsey Twins when I was young girl. In fact, I can probably trace my love of cozy mysteries to the Bobbseys, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

Secondly, I would (and will) read any of those stories to my little lady when she is old enough to get the gist of the story. I can't wait to share this world with her.

Finally, I think that nostalgia for the best part of our past and heritage is what makes my family values what they are. True, there are some major differences but I will educate my daughter as we go along and hope to inspire a lifetime of loving books.

Kimmylyn said...

I have never read the Bobbsey Twins books.. They sound like something I would have loved as well too because I was very found of the Nancy Drew series..

I loved and adored the Ann of Green Gables collection. I still have the original set given to me as a girl.

I truly hope my boys enjoy reading as I do.. though it appears these days I rarely get a chance to read anything outside their age bracket..

Kate Coveny Hood said...

I loved everything "old fashioned" growing up (even wrote a post about that a month or two ago) and my favorite series were Betsy Tacy, Laura Ingalls, All of a Kind Family, Anne of Green Gables...I could go on - but those are the top few that come to mind. I think one of the most exciting things about having a daughter is that I can pass my old favorites on to her (and new favorites, like The Golden Compass - I really do like a series...)

For my boys - there are other books that would appeal to them: Narnia books, Five Children & It, etc. and the Edward Eager books (my favorite is Half Magic).

i think that books are a huge source of nostalgia for most of us since as children we really did have long stretches of time to read and get lost in a story. Children's novels are truly escapism at its best.

And when we pass these books down to our own children, we suddenly have a whole world in common. While our childhood was very different from theirs (mine did not involved cell phones and ipods), we can share a fantasy world where time stands still.

I was actually thinking of writing a what if post about what you would do if you could be 9 years old for an afternoon - with no kids and now immediate responsibilities like homework and chores. Me? I would climb into a tree or a hammock and read for four hours straight.

MIQuilter said...

I have to agree with lisa - I think that if the kids are old enough to have a discussion about what is no longer "appropriate" in them that they are old enough to be read the book.. and that discussion SHOULD happen along with the book reading.

LceeL said...

When I was a boy, in the late forties and early fifties, I could go anywhere I wanted or needed to go without fear of some 'stranger'. but. My neighbors all sat out on porches. My friends and I all played on the street and in the alley and in all the various yards in our neighborhood. In CHICAGO. On the southwest side. But everybody in our neighborhood knew everybody else. And everybody else's kid. They knew when somebody's kid was doing something he shouldn't - and they would either smack him and send him home or, at least, tell his folks. Today our houses are all shut up tight and kids play video games and the only interaction with other kids is in school. Not exactly a breeding ground for love, caring and/or understanding among differing peoples.

Mrs F with 4 said...

For me it was Enid Blyton's The Famous Five series (all twenty-one of them!). I started reading them to No 1 Son (7) just after Christmas, and I'm THRILLED that he likes them as much as I did. Written in the early 1950's they are just SO exciting - for a seven year old! I LOVE it that his eyes bug right out and he can hardly BREATHE for the exciting-ness of it.

Sure, the characters are quite stereotypical - Julian, the eldest, is strong, manly and in charge; Dick is a bright spark, full of ideas; George is a girl-who-wants-to-be-boy; Anne is "quite the little homemaker"; Timmy is the dog! From an adult perspective, of COURSE the stories are somewhat unlikely (what chance an international kidnapping ring against four children?), but none the worse for that.

I, too, loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (as do my 7 and 4 year olds); E Nesbitt (The Railway Children, The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet); and the Arthur Ransome series, Swallows and Amazons.

Thank heaven my grandparents had a love of books (wonder where I get it from?) and kept all of my childrens books, so I even get to read from the very same books, complete with bits of digestive biscuit between the pages.

I think my children love them for the same reasons I did: a jolly good story; well written; and still having the innocence of childhood that you can imagine this actually BEING you. A whole world opening up, that can be visited any time, and this time I can hold my childrens' hands, take them with me on an incredible journey of discovery into the world of fiction.

The wonder of words. It's such a blessing.

foolery said...

I have examples from my own "literary" history: my grandmother's writings, the Mormor stories that I am serializing. Curiously, she never told these stories to her own children, but told them to her grandchildren over and over. When I look back at some of the things she told us, I have to laugh about how un-PC some of them were. Bootleggers at public dances, going to the store for snuff for her father, uncomfortably quaint (or downright insulting) language and stereotypes for Native Americans, etc. I can't change it, I can't hide from it -- that's the way it was, and we work to keep doing better.

Yes, I share these things with my kids, for all of the occasional discomfort.

Oh, to curl up with a good book right now!

Aimeepalooza said...

I've never read the books either. However, I believe it would be an opportunity to discuss themes like racism. I also think your son, in first grade, will be able to understand the difference between real and fiction. In fiction we run to the store by ourselves, not in real life.
I think avoiding some of our ugly past is a mistake. And I think showing your children what it was like is a way to show them why it was wrong.

Jaina said...

I for some reason never got into the Bobbsey Twins when I was younger. And I think I'd have loved those types of books. I loved my Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew though. Now I really want to go get the original Bobbsey Twins books. :) I love old books, they're the best!

Marilyn said...

I so totally relate. I was a child in the 70s and my dad was quite a bit older so I remember reading some of these old classics from the 30s to 50s as a child.

My favourite series was Trixie Beldon. I didn't have a lot of friends as a child so I used to pretend the characters inthe books were my friends and I was part of a club.

I was so upset when I found out my mom gave away the books. So I went out to several used book stores and bought all the ones I could find. I think I am still missing a few, but it was such a pleasure reading them again. They brought back great memories and I remember the feelings of innocence and kinship I felt spending time with these characters.

lattemommy said...

First off, I want to say "Amen" to Lceel's comment - I think it's sad what's become of our neighbourhoods today. No one knows their neighbours, and they don't care to. I wish it were different.

I loved, loved, loved the Bobbsey Twins when I was a kid. I don't know how many of them I read, but it was a lot. Several times over, most of them. PC or not, I will be sharing them with my kids, just because they were so important to me as a child. One of the beauties of those books is that they ARE NOT about people "who are just like you" and times that "are just like your own". They are an opportunity to expand your imagination and explore differences.

I remember experiencing the same "romance" when reading these books as a child, and my own fervent desire to be a twin. Who knew that my very own twin (now residing in MI) was feeling the same way. Must be our twin connection. ;)


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