Sunday, October 25, 2015

Childhood and Adolescent Reading

I’ve been going through a book called The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them edited by Antonia Fraser. I love these kinds of books because I’m always curious about what other people read.

This is a wonderful collection of lovely essays. I don’t think I have a lovely essay in me right now but let me offer brief thoughts on some of the books I read as a child and adolescent.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew— Poor children are happy. Rich children are miserable. Rich children are made happier by getting to know poor children. My mother told me that I once came to her and asked if we were rich. She assured me that we were not. She swears I responded, “That’s good. Rich people are so lonely.”

Little House on the Prairie— I loved these books as a child but as an adult I couldn’t help noticing how paranoid Pa Ingalls was about the U.S. government. He also kept moving the family because there were just too many damn people around. No way was this guy Michael Landon.

“Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field— When every line of more sophisticated poetry that I have committed to memory has left my brain I will still be able to recite this poem. I was a morbid child at times. I had a similar fascination with The Bird’s Christmas Carol. In this Kate Douglas Wiggins’ novel, a wealthy but sickly girl is befriended by poor children (see Five Little Peppers above, also by Kate Douglas Wiggins).

In case you don’t know the Eugene Field poem, here it is:

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
    But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
    And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
    And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
    Kissed them and put them there.

"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
    "And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
    He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
    Awakened our Little Boy Blue—
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
    But the little toy friends are true!

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
    Each in the same old place—
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
    The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
    In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
    Since he kissed them and put them there.

Saint Thomas’ Eve— This is a novel about Sir Thomas More. Alas, I became totally distracted by the references to More wearing a “hair shirt.” No adult could tell me what it was. Hillary Mantel has a somewhat different take on More than the one you’ll find here. She makes sure to remind you that he burned heretics at the stake.

Two books from my adolescent years stand out:

Look Homeward, Angel— I loved this book when I first read it. Eugene Gant wanted to know everything and so did I. Alas, I read it a few years ago and wondered what I ever saw in it. The great Maxwell Perkins was Thomas Wolfe’s editor but he didn’t cut enough.

Advise and Consent— I knew nothing about homosexuality when I read this book as a teenager. No one I knew talked of such things. So when I read that a senator was in trouble because someone had a picture of him “with a man,” I was pretty puzzled. I re-read it just a few years and the matter still seemed to me to be dealt with obliquely. However, I did still find it quite entertaining.

Stephanie Patterson


  1. It is so important for children to read... I used to win the class prizes for the number of books I read during the school year!!! As i recall I loved most the fairy tales of Europe... maybe that is what led me to crime, as so many were of horrible crimes... I also recall when the movie Gone with the Wind was forbidden, as it had a curse word!!! o tempora, o mores!!! tjs

  2. …Curse you, Stephanie! That wretched poem always made me cry! And it still does!