A few weeks ago, I mentioned a series of books from my childhood on the Retro Network VIP Slack channel and asked if anyone had heard of the series. Somewhat surprisingly, nobody had heard of the books. That got me to thinking about all the books I enjoyed reading as a child, adolescent and teen and if anyone had heard or read any of those as well. That’s where the idea for this series of articles came from. Not only to reminisce over books I enjoyed in my youth but to look at them now with adult eyes.
Hopefully, some of you will remember summer reading programs from your childhood. Before Pizza Hut took over summer reading in 1985 with their “Book It” program (encouraging literacy and reading in exchange for free pizza) my local library, my schools and and another pizza joint in my hometown, Ken’s Pizza, had similar type programs where they would give away prizes to kids who read a certain amount over the summer. That’s where our title comes from. I won’t be giving you any prizes for having read any of the books I’ll be talking about this week but I would love to hear from you if you happened to have read some of the more obscure or lesser known books I list off. Are you ready? Here we go…
I wasn’t what you would call an avid reader when I was a child but I read quite a bit. Some of the first books I remember reading and enjoying were by the late, great Beverly Clearly. By her own admission, Ms. Cleary wanted her books to focus on and depict the everyday lives of children. Leonard S. Marcus, a children’s literature historian, said of Cleary’s work:
“When you’re the right age to read Cleary’s books you’re likely at your most impressionable time in life as a reader. Her books both entertain children and give them courage and insight into what to expect from their lives.
I would agree with all of that. I found most of her characters very related but no more so that Henry Huggins. Ms. Cleary, a librarian before she started writing full time, wrote the first Henry Huggins book in 1950, in response to the boys in her library searching for books “about boys like us.” I remember identifying with the way Henry thought at times and with the way he acted. When someone didn’t like his dog he took that as a personal offense because, in his view, if you didn’t like his dog you didn’t like Henry. There are five books in the Henry Huggins series but my three favorites are: Henry Huggins, Henry and the Clubhouse (because several of my friends had clubhouses either in their backyards or near their houses) and Henry and Ribsy.
The other two Cleary books that I loved as a child were The Mouse and The Motorcycle and Runaway Ralph. The two books tell the story of Ralph S. Mouse, a house mouse that is able to speak to children and goes on adventures riding his miniature toy motorcycle. Like most boys my age, I had an abundant collection of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. While it was usually the sports cars that got the most play, I had two matchbox motorcycles that I loved. One happened to be a little roadster much like the one on the cover of The Mouse and The Motorcycle. When Keith (the boy in the book) and Ralph first speak, Ms. Cleary writes, “Neither the mouse nor the boy was the least bit surprised that each could understand the other. Two creatures who shared a love for motorcycles naturally spoke the same language.” I had the joy of re-reading Motorcycle when I was in my 30’s and this line hit me in an entirely different way as an adult.
Another set of books I started reading around this same age was the Choose Your Own Adventure series. If you’ve never seen these, the stories are formatted so that, after a few pages of reading, the reader faces two or three options, each of which leads to further pages and further options, and so on until they arrive at one of the many story endings. According to an article written by Christian Swinehart:
The number of endings varies from as many as 44 in the early titles to as few as 7 in later adventures. Also, there is no clear pattern among the various titles regarding the number of pages per ending, the ratio of good to bad endings, or the reader’s progression backwards and forwards through the pages of the book. This allows for a realistic sense of unpredictability, and leads to the possibility of repeat readings, which is one of the distinguishing features of the books.
For the most part, I remember them being mindless but extremely entertaining reads. They were big hits at the Scholastic Book Fairs that happened quarterly at my school. My favorite title would have to be The Lost Jewels of Nabooti, wouldn’t you agree?
So, did you read any of the books I mentioned? Were you a fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Tomorrow we’ll talk about A lion, a witch and several investigators…
See all the books in the Summer Reading Program