I was always a bookish kid. Much like Peanut today, I loved books even before I could read – although I only have very foggy memories of a time before reading. My mom, an elementary school teacher, taught me to read before kindergarten, so it’s hard for me to remember lacking at least rudimentary reading skills. As I grew older, I devoured pretty much anything and everything printed. My tastes were pretty indiscriminate – obviously, the back of a cereal box wasn’t as great as, say, a Baby-Sitters Club book, but if it had words, I was here for it.
Despite my own tendency to read anything that crossed my path, my mom and grandmothers tried to steer me toward the better children’s literature. Think more “Lake of Shining Waters” and less “Claudia Kishi’s room” – although I definitely still read the prevalent middle grade fiction of the day, too – a.k.a. Sweet Valley Twins and later Sweet Valley High in addition to The Baby-Sitters Club. But my best reading memories from childhood are the books that have endured. I have fond recollections of curling up in my grandmother’s armchair, in a sunny spot right in the window, and not looking up from Anne of Green Gables for several hours. (She had a blue and white hardcover edition with a picture of Anne, braids blazing, sitting on the bench at White Sands Station waiting for Matthew Cuthbert to pick her up. That was my first encounter with L.M. Montgomery, who would become the best-loved and most-read author of my growing-up years.)
The Anne books. Later, the Emily trilogy, which was the defining reading experience of my childhood – maybe of my life. (Wondering about my daughter’s name? It’s not a coincidence.) Jane of Lantern Hill, which I read so many times that my paperback copy – I still have it – is almost as tattered as my Emily books. And the lesser-known Montgomery works – The Story Girl, The Golden Road, Kilmeny of the Orchard, The Chronicles of Avonlea, and so many more.
From time to time, I ventured off of Prince Edward Island and read other children’s and youth classics. I spent nearly as much time in a covered wagon with Laura Ingalls as I did roaming the shores of PEI with Anne and Emily. Little Women was a favorite, as was The Secret Garden – which was, perhaps, the only book that captured my imagination as much as the L.M. Montgomery books. (I liked A Little Princess, as well, and read it many times. But it couldn’t compete with The Secret Garden.) Of course, I was a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle and read both the Time books and the Austin Family series over and over. And The Chronicles of Narnia until I had it practically memorized. And of course, Winnie-the-Pooh. Less frequent re-reads included Redwall, Heidi and Hans Brinker. But looming over all others were Anne Shirley, Emily Starr, Jane Stuart and Sara Stanley.
I always felt good about my childhood reading. My mom made sure that I had plenty of books at my disposal – both through birthday and Christmas gifts and through regular trips to the library. As I got older, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Frances Hodgson Burnett gave way to Jane Austen, Eudora Welty and Agatha Christie. I think I’ve read lots of good books in my time here (and hopefully, I’ll have time for lots more). Yet as an adult, thinking down the road to my own daughter’s middle school library, I am realizing that there were thousands of pages of children’s and youth classics that I somehow missed as I was gobbling up every Avonlea story I could get my hands on. Most of them, I still have not read.
- The Betsy-Tacy books, by Maud Hart Lovelace. Somehow, as I devoured one Maud (Montgomery), I missed another (Lovelace). I had no idea these books existed until my friend Katie mentioned them on her blog. Since then, I’ve read the entire Betsy-Tacy series – all ten – and my only regret is that I never knew about the books as a child. They would have been a perfect place to jump after exhausting Avonlea.
- The Shoe books, by Noel Streatfield. Although I loved the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” and must have watched it dozens of times (it’s still a favorite) for some reason I never picked up on Kathleen Kelly’s recommendation of “the Shoe books,” and particularly Ballet Shoes. I still haven’t read them – must fix that.
- I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. I so regret missing out on I Capture the Castle in high school; I’d have loved it. I first read it as an adult, after a work friend urged her copy into my tote bag. What a delight. It’s a favorite now, although I’ve yet to read anything else by Dodie Smith. I hope to correct that omission in 2017.
- The Swallows and Amazons books, by Arthur Ransome. I have absolutely no excuse for missing out on Swallows and Amazons and its progeny, since my camp BFF, Sarah, loved them. (We went to a sailing program at our camp, and these are books in which the characters have adventures on their sailboats. How on earth did I not read them?) They’re very high on my list for 2017.
- The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge. I never even heard of Elizabeth Goudge until I grew up. My first awareness of her came after reading that The Little White Horse was one of J.K. Rowling’s favorite books. (I’ve acquired a gorgeous edition from The Folio Society, and read it last month – what a joy.) I’ve since discovered that Goudge also wrote books for adults, that have been described as an ideal next step after finishing all of L.M. Montgomery. Again – how did I miss that?
- The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. How many bookish kids count The Hobbit as one of their childhood reading influences? Lots, but not me. This is another one I never read until adulthood. Although I loved the Narnia books, I never touched Tolkien until my thirties. I was really missing out, wasn’t I? (I’ve since read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, once each, and I really need to re-read them and delve further into Tolkien’s worlds.)
- The Railway Children and Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit. I didn’t read E. Nesbit until adulthood. Even now, I’ve read The Railway Children (and I would have loved that book as a kid) but have yet to pick up Five Children and It, or anything else, by E. Nesbit. I know she’s beloved by many – must get to her soon.
I’m sure there are more. It constantly amazes me that – even as a bookish kid who constantly had my nose stuck between the covers of a book, and whose mom made a point of putting good books in my path – I somehow missed so many classics.
What childhood classics did you discover as an adult?