Friday, January 04, 2013


under the influence

Two recent events have me mulling over strong childhood influences and how they continue to echo long into and throughout our adult lives.

First, at Christmas, my mother - who has been sorting through old family stuff at her house - returned to me the book she tells me I learned to read with.  Curious?  I was.  Here it is:

Peanuts.  A little softcover Peanuts collection I carried around with me like a security blanket.  Kind of beautiful, isn't it?  Front and back covers completely gone, corners peeled back like fruit rinds.  A first edition, published the year after I was born.  Sometimes I identify with Charlie Brown, sometimes with Linus.  I love Snoopy, and I understand Lucy.

I re-read it and you know, it really has it all - succinct story lines, great art, pathos and emotion, drollery, commentary on the human condition and the worlds of childhood - all in all a very satisfying book to revisit, containing many moments of self-recognition that left me sure I internalized a lot from it during my earliest years as a reader. 

Second, last weekend I caught the Edward Gorey exhibit at the Portland Public Library (the exhibit has been touring the country for several years now and is entitled Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey).  My stepfather gave me a copy of Amphigorey in 1977, when I was ten years old, and I still have that copy:

Deeply disturbing and bizarre and wonderful.  Seeing Gorey's original pen drawings for many of his books, plus several sketchbooks, one-off drawings, decorated envelopes, and such, was a mind-blowing experience.  They were so fabulous and reiterated to me (and the 30,000 other people who apparently visited the show during its stop here in Maine) the importance of truly being yourself, 100%, in life and in art.  I mean, the worlds he created were completely him, and when seen en mass so overwhelmingly masterful, in such a unique way.  Charles M. Schulz was not as explicit as Gorey in his pathos and the difficulties of childhood he portrays, but you know, after re-reading them both this week they are not as far apart as I might have thought.  Schulz is a Zen master and Gorey, well, he made his own religion.

Why not continue in this vein for a moment or two.  Other books from my childhood continue to bring me great pleasure today, and when I read them they reverberate with memories and feelings from my earliest days.  Isn't it true that great books encountered early help shape us as people?  Help furnish us with ideas of what beauty is (and isn't)?  For example, I think this is a very beautiful little work of art:

One tiny panel from Tintin in Tibet by HergĂ© (Georges Remi).  The adventures of Tintin and his dog Snowy enthralled me and this book remains my favorite of the lot.  We had all the Tintin books in our house and like the copy of Peanuts above, they are falling to bits due to reading and re-reading.  What else.  I will go back a little earlier in time and mention The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle.

This copy belonged to my great-grandparents and was rebound maybe sixty years ago, and now that binding is finally coming loose too.  Inside the front cover is an ancient gift inscription to my mother when she was a little girl, from her grandparents.  The copyright date is 1888.  The book contains twenty-four tales, one for each hour of the day.  The tales and illustrations fascinated me as a child and I think some of them still offer excellent advice regarding moral behavior (which is one of the purposes of children's books, isn't it, to teach moral behavior by example).  Such as:

Princess Goldenhair, do not follow the golden ball!  Excellent metaphor for so many things in life!  And yet, knowing it might not be a good idea, in one of my favorite books from childhood the young hero does just that, he follows the promise of adventure, gold, experience, all the way to Cathay and back.  And we love him for it.  Louise Andrews Kent's novel He Went With Marco Polo, from 1935:

This old copy is ex-library and was apparently read so much that the first signature of pages is missing:

I will find another copy someday with the beginning intact, I'm sure.  The tale of a young gondolier in Venice who ships out to the Far East with the Polo family, and returns, most satisfyingly, twenty years later with riches galore and a kitten for his childhood sweetheart, never forgotten despite all.  Even better, when asked what the finest thing he ever saw was, he first ponders: "He remembered the great cities in China with their scarlet bridges.  He thought of the Tartar tents swaying over the plains with the white oxen stamping ahead of them. He could shut his eyes and see Pietro galloping under the golden apples and shooting over his shoulder and the apple falling.  He thought of the Khan's great feasts where the sorcerers made the gold cups move and where the tiger came in and bowed at Kublai Khan's feet.  His mind seemed to touch snowy mountains on the roof of the world, and green, steaming islands in hot seas."  Then, after all that, he smiles and says that the finest sight in all the world is the sun shining over the rooftops of Venice, his own home.  Love of home aside, this book may be largely responsible for my lifelong attachment to exotic (to me at least, here in rural Maine) travel books.

One last book from childhood, how could I not mention it even though I know I have before, it is one of my very favorites.  The only copy I now own is a tiny paperback reprint.  The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter.  

An exquisite story with perfect artwork about the strengths and gifts of the very small.  So necessary for children to know, and, I find, for adults to look back and remember.  And then, carry forward.   

Having also done a little attic archiving into my 60-yr-old childhood faves over the holidays, it was great to see your treasures & reminiscences.
Diana Sudyka over at Tiny Aviary is a wonderful illustrator who often talks about changing fashions in kids illustrations, most recently remembering the Golden Books from the 40's and 50's. See if Rojankovsky's Papa Bear from her posts of 10/14/11 & 11/14/11 doesnt shiver your timbers.

Also Zoe Poster's accompanying comment, in which she quotes Maurice Sendak's classic response to the modern parents''too-scary-for-kids' argument : "Let them wet their pants."

best wishes for a great year ahead.

Whew, I think that Papa Bear would have given me nightmares! I loved "The Poky Little Puppy" however and still own a copy, though not my original one, which has long since vanished. Early on in my bookselling career I found a lovely group of Little Golden Books, all first editions. Sold them, long ago.

Sendak, now. How I loved "In the Night Kitchen." "Where the Wild Things Are," not so much (I must be one of the only ones - scary monsters, just not my thing).

I could write another post on the children's books that frightened me, and a few books I wish I'd never read at all, as an adult. Hmm. Thanks for the comment, Marcie - best to you in the new year as well.
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