When Eric announced his idea for this series, I was very excited. Books have always been a big part of my life. My mom always read and the library was a frequent errand for us.
Just before summer vacation would start, the library set up a small table with a printed fold out list and stickers. Anytime adults were giving away stickers for something, it was a kid magnet.
One of my favorite features of the Goodreads app is their Reading Challenge, which allows a reader to pick a goal of a certain amount of books to read before the end of the year. I like to start with a low number and keep moving the goal post throughout the year.
Anything I read on my Kindle or the Kindle app on my iPad automatically gets counted in my tally of books read. However, any hardcover or paperback books I read, I have to remember to manually enter into Goodreads.
The list from the library was handy though. I don’t remember actually getting a prize from the library. It was more like we received a paper certificate. This was even before Book It started with their free personal pan pizzas once I hit ten books.
I remember my mom stapling paper to my list because I would always end up running out of room on the pre-printed sheets.
I had favorite characters and favorite authors I would always look for. These are some of my favorite books to read:
Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
This was my first favorite book. It was also my aunt’s favorite book, so by the time my nieces were born my mom had it memorized. We have a family joke where we refer to trucks with cherry pickers as “Snorts” from the truck that returns the baby bird to his nest at the end of the book.
Chameleon Was a Spy– Diane Redfield Massie and I Am Better Than You by Robert Lopshire
These were two of my favorite books while we were staying in Florida. There were chameleons all over the yard of our rental house and I was absolutely fascinated with them.
I had help from the retro community on Twitter with finding Chameleon Was a Spy. There were a few occasions when someone would share a vague memory in a Tweet and then wait to see if it rang a bell with someone else in the retro community. I had seen Jay from Sludge Central employ this technique and I decided I would give it a try as well.
I sent out a Tweet asking if anyone remembered a book about a chameleon in a pickle factory somehow getting stuck in a jar and @jrwells82 came back with Chameleon Was a Spy. I was able to find a copy online.
What’s weird is that somehow I managed to mentally combine the plots of Chameleon was a Spy and I Am Better Than You, so for a while, (until I received Chameleon Was a Spy) I thought they were the same book.
I don’t know how but eventually I remembered that I Am Better Than You Was an I Can Read book. It didn’t bother me that I was reading the same books over and over again because I loved them so much. Several of the books on this list are also I Can Read books. See if you can remember which ones they are.
Arthur’s Christmas Cookies– by Lillian and Russell Hoban
Most 1990’s kids know about Marc Brown’s Arthur the Aardvark and I loved those books too, especially Arthur’s Glasses. However, there was another Arthur in the I Can Read line who was a chimpanzee.
I remember reading a book where (Chimpanzee) Arthur tried to make cookies for Christmas gifts for his family but accidentally puts in something that made the cookies too hard to be edible. I think he put salt in the dough instead of sugar. Arthur and his little sister end up painting the cookies to be tree ornaments instead.
I wasn’t particular about keeping seasonal content to the present season at that time. I was perfectly happy to read Christmas books and watch our VHS taped Christmas specials in the middle of the summer. Especially anything that had snow in it.
Bread and Jam For Frances and a Bargain For Frances (also by Lillian and Russell Hoban)
Frances was a badger and a very picky eater who only wanted to eat bread and jam in the first title and in the second, her best friend tricks her into buying her tea set.
There was another book where Frances tried to run away from home, but ended up hiding under her own kitchen table.
By the way, if the names Russell and Lillian Hoban sound familiar, it’s because they also wrote the book the holiday classic Muppet special Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas came from. We didn’t have Emmett Otter on VHS at that time. Because we didn’t have HBO anymore by the time we finally got our VCR.
Judy Blume- I’m listing the author here because there were several Blume books I loved. My favorites were the following: Tales oof a Fourth Grade Nothing, SuperFudge, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret, and my all-time favorite, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.
Sally J. Freedman was a pre-teen Jewish girl whose family had to move to Florida. Whenever Sally was bored or uncomfortable, she would make up elaborate daydreams in the style of old Hollywood movies. I was absolutely fascinated that I had so much in common with a girl from a previous generation who was also of a different religious/ethnic background.
I tended to prefer the more comedic younger kid centered Blume books. By the time I was old enough to read her more controversial books, I was already into things like Sweet Valley High and the V.C. Andrews novels.
A Circle in the Sea by Steve Senn
I wasn’t sure whether I should include this one or not as this was a book I took out of my elementary school’s “Media Center”. A girl named Robin (whose father is a marine scientist) receives a ring as a gift from her father.
The easiest way to explain the plot is that the ring telepathically connects Robin to a dolphin named Breee. Breee is trying to help whales and it has a very timely ecological plot. I’m surprised a Kindle version hasn’t been made available. We recently gave my older niece a plush dolphin and she would love this book.
I found this edition online.
Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene, The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West, Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
If I absolutely had to pick a favorite book genre, it would be cozy mysteries. I love trying to figure out puzzles, but I don’t like a lot of gore.
My mom had some Nancy Drew and Happy Hollisters books and she gave those to me. Encyclopedia Brown probably came from a CBS Storybreak Special.
Sweet Valley Twins/Sweet Valley High– Francine Pascal
One of the first friends I made in Georgia was my next door neighbor Elizabeth. Elizabeth had an older sister and there were two other teenage girls on the other side of our cul-de-sac, but Elizabeth was the one who was most willing to hang out with us younger kids. I looked up to Elizabeth and if she liked something, I was willing to try it out.
I also got a particular Barbie for my birthday because Elizabeth had her first. I probably looked up to Elizabeth and the two older girls from my church, Amy (the Duran Duran fan) and Jennifer (Junior prom chaperone/chauffeur) the same way my nieces look up to me.
When Sweet Valley Twins came out, Elizabeth loaned me her copies of the first couple of books in the series. After reading those, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to get to the bookstore to buy them.
While I was writing my Girl Scout article, I found this pair of my Sweet Valley Twins shoelaces that were plastic wrapped as a “Free Gift” with the first two books in the series.
Sweet Valley Twins eventually led to Sweet Valley High. The following Christmas, I received a set of the first five Sweet Valley High books. I was a very quick reader and it would only take me a couple of days to get through each book.
I finished the entire Little House on the Prairie series one of my aunts gave me and then I read all of the books in the initial five SVH set a few days after Christmas. I was all out of books to read well before the end of that holiday break and begging my mom to take me to the bookstore and/or library.
Christopher Pike/R.L. Stine
During middle school, I either succumbed to peer pressure or was feeling more adventurous with my reading. Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books were like training wheels for reading authors like Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
My favorite Pike book was The Immortal about a girl who buys a statue of a deity in Greece and the subject of the statue tries to take over the girl’s life.
V.C. Andrews (Dollenganger, Cutler, and Landry)
When I was a freshman in high school, I had trouble with girl bullies in my class and my aunt gave me her copies of Flowers in the Attic (Dollanganger) Dawn (Cutler), and Ruby (Landry). I never made it to Casteel (Heaven) because by the time I finished Ruby’s story, I figured out the Andrews pattern and became bored with them.
Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
When I told my mother about this article series, she reminded me of my efforts to try to read her hardcover copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, so that one needs at least a mention.
Growing up in Georgia, (the home of Turner Classic Movies) , it seemed like Gone With the Wind was on at least twice a year. Anytime you went to some kind of touristy place in Georgia, the gift shops either had Gone With the Wind decor as part of their aesthetic or merchandise to sell. An image of the movie poster is burned into my brain right next to the Coca-Cola logo.
When I did finally get to read Gone With the Wind during my sophomore year of high school, I actually had a line in my book report about it being about “Scarlett and her boyfriends”. I think at least some of that impression came from those commercials for the commemorative plates, especially the one depicting Scarlett seated between the Tarleton twins at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks.
Whenever my mom tells me about when my grandfather read it, she says he was very impatient with the pre-barbecue preparations. “Get dressed and get to the d- party already!”
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
As quick a reader as I was and even with my high level of comprehension, I wasn’t allowed to take the AP Literature courses in high school because of my difficulty with math. There were two books the AP kids read that I was curious about and really wanted to read: Hugo’s Les Miserables and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I remember seeing the commercials for the Les Miserables musical on television when their touring company would be coming to the Fox theater in Atlanta.
There was something about the music in the commercials that always left me spellbound, especially the rousing “When tomorrow comes” line. I had no idea what the story was about (other than references in other media to Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child) but I really wanted to see it. I also remember several of the teen magazines of the time covering Debbie Gibson’s Broadway debut as Eponine.
During my break between my first and second years of college at Kennesaw State, I received tickets to see Les Miserables at the Fox. It turned out our church’s social director was a former employee at the Fox and he was able to get us great seats as a package. There was also a bus ride to the Fox complete with snacks and show tune sing alongs. I went with my friends Jennifer and Curt (from the prom article) and several other people from our church.
I do wish someone told me about Fantine’s tooth extraction before I decided to read the book and see the musical right after I had my wisdom teeth removed. I could empathize with Fantine on that level, but my favorite character did end up being Eponine.
I loved the story and bought the soundtrack (not at the show) we went to MediaPlay to buy the original cast soundtrack. I did get a T-shirt and program at the show though.
As for Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, that was more of a “Be careful what you wish for” situation. I wound up reading that book three times in college for the same instructor but for three different courses. I did enjoy the book, but that third time around, finding a topic for the paper was especially tricky.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (etc.) by J.K. Rowling
This is kind of a sore spot for me to be honest. When these books hit the U.S. in 1997, I was already two years into college. I will never have the childhood experience of sitting in bed with a flashlight reading the latest book in the series. Oddly, reading these books as an adult has made me nostalgic for the books I read when I was younger.
I still love reading, both print books and also books I have on my Kindle. It’s been wonderful revisiting my favorite childhood and adolescent reads and my nieces have also introduced me to some of their books and the new characters who occupy their world.
In addition to that, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know more writers through social media, particularly right here at (and in some cases through) The Retro Network. It’s so wonderful sharing my memories with all of you and one of my favorite parts is reading an article from one of my fellow writers that sparks a memory for me. The other is when one of you lets me know that one of my memories resonated with you.
See all the books in the Summer Reading Program
Judy Blume here as well. Had to read many of them in grade school.
From your list, Karen, the only ones that resonated with me are the Judy Blume books. Really enjoyed them when I was in early grade school along with Beverly Cleary and it was very special getting to share them with my own daughter when she was growing up.