24 June 2014

All Mine for the Summer

Some people have neighborhood library stories—there are even some fictional ones, like Francie's experience in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But we lived between city libraries, a distance over a mile to both, so I visited them infrequently. The Auburn Library was near the high school, a mile and half distant, at that time in an old storefront on Rolfe Street, next to a shoe store. They generally had more up-to-date books (this being the late 1960s and early 1970s, those from the 1940s forward), but still not the ones I was looking for: I was wild about animals as a kid and wanted to read Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley and Jim Kjelgaard and Grosset and Dunlap's line of true dog stories. Alas, not there.

The Arlington Library, in the other direction up Cranston Street, past Taco and the old wooden Hamilton Building (which went up in spectacular flames in my teen years; the original building, once a school, was where I had received my polio boosters), was a more venerable place. The present library is concrete and glass and metal; the old building had more charm, in rectangular brick with the heavy wooden doors and dark wooden shelves. The adult section, upstairs, seemed always gloomy and the volumes looked as dry as they seemed to me. Downstairs was the children's library, a truly antiquarian area with heavy dark tables and chairs, filled with none of the bright colors and shiny objects one now associates with children's sections in libraries. Today I would very much like to take a trip back in time and pore over the books on the shelves, since many of them dated back to the turn of the twentieth century. But back then, looking for modern children's books, all those dark volumes just made me grumpy. I once complained bitterly to my mother that the newest book they had there featured a young woman driving a car with a running board (yes, I knew what that was). My only favorite books there were the Thorton W. Burgess books about forest animals—The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse, The Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk, The Adventures of Lightfoot the Deer, etc.—and a book translated from the German about a police dog, Flax.

The school library gave me much more satisfaction. It was in Stadium School that I fell in love with some of my earliest literary favorites: Kate Seredy's The Good Master and The Singing Tree, the Miss Pickerel (a spinster teacher) and Danny Dunn (a precocious boy inventor) series, the books about Henry Reed and his friend Midge Glass, Anne H. White's delightfully offbeat animal tales of The Story of Serapina (a cat with a prehensile tail), Junket the Dog Who Liked Everything Just So (an Airedale), and A Dog Called Scholar (a rambunctious Golden Retriever), Johnny Tremain, Clarence the TV Dog, and the book that drove my mother crazy trying to find it since it was out of print (she never did, but I did, years later), Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles, about a Texas family that open their hearts to an orphaned English cousin and her pet poodle. (I didn't realize until I purchased the book as an adult that this was the book that sparked my interest in obedience competitions; Juliet, the poodle, had a CDX and was working on her UD.)

But it was at Hugh B. Bain Junior High School (now Middle School), that I met the "famous ten." Bain had a policy that, if you were a responsible child who brought back your library books on time, and if you had your parents' consent, you could take ten books out of the library and keep them for the entire summer! This was richness to me. I had a good collection of books, but only paperbacks and cheap cellophane-covered Whitman books, which were all that we could afford. To have real hardback books in the house was a fabulous treat. Both summers, that of 1969 and 1970, I took the same ten books out, and for ten weeks they were mine, to read in my room at night, or at dinner (Mom never did enforce the "no books at dinner" rule most of the time; she was happy that I wanted to read and was never forced to do so), or in the parlor while watching television (since sometimes it would be on something I couldn't care a fig about, like Huntley and Brinkley (unless they were talking about the moon missions) or the local news.

Here are the ten. Have you read or heard of any of them?
  • The Story of Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss
  • What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge (one volume)
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy
  • Wyoming Summer by Mary O'Hara
  • The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee
  • Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow by Gladys Taber
  • The Morning of Mankind by Robert Silverberg
The Miller book was the only one out about Disney in those days; as a dedicated watcher of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday evenings on NBC, this was a natural for me. Now I have many more biographies of Disney, but this still brings back pleasant memories. The Family Nobody Wanted was Doss' story of her and her husband's adoption of multicultural children in the 1940s, when it Just Wasn't Done for blonde white people to adopt children of Hispanic, Native American, and Polynesian extraction. A sad commentary on the times was that the Dosses tried to adopt a half-German, half-African American war orphan in the late 1940s, and even a member of their own family responded with racial epithets.

The Katy books reminded me of Little Women and Alcott's other stories; headstrong Katy Carr wants to do great things, but is sidelined by an injury. The second book was especially entertaining because who could forget the mischievous "Rose Red," Katy and her sister Clover's classmate, and her pranks? I was amazed at the games the girls played during their club meetings, involving writing poetry "on demand"! And of course there was my very first Heinlein novel, one that of course involved another type of cleverness, including a precocious twelve-year-old girl. I must admit I had a crush on Spacesuit's hero, brainy and resourceful Kip Russell.

Till the day I die I will thank Judy Martini for recommending Wrinkle to me, opening a wonderful world of Madeleine L'Engle books in my future, including her adult novels and her religious nonfiction. What would I have done without the Crosswicks books to sustain me through my mom's cancer surgery? And here forty-five years later I still cry at the end of Wrinkle. Chestry, too, is a heartbreaker: the story of a privileged Hungarian boy growing up under the thumb of invading Nazis, keeping his father's most precious secrets, and in the end too loyal to give up the horse he loves.

Edge was a revelation of a book; I had never before read prose which had the rhythm and imagery of poetry. It was as if I were there at the Lee cottage, surrounded by Laurie's constantly working mother and sisters, participating in country fetes and reveling in the fragrantly blooming countryside. I loved the title, too: such expectation! What could that new day bring? It was only as an adult that I discovered the original title was Cider With Rosie, which seems much less imaginative and lyrical. O'Hara, too, made poetry with her words. She took a collection of her diaries, kept when she and her husband raised horses, ran a dairy, and had a summer camp for boys on a ranch in Wyoming; she later used those experiences to write My Friend Flicka and its sequels, but there is such beauty in her original writings, images burned on my brain to this day.

Especially Dogs was my first introduction to Gladys Taber, but as a young adult I resisted her other Stillmeadow books; I had nothing in common with that woman who kept house and cooked meals in Connecticut. It was only many years later, spotting two reprints in the Mystic Seaport Museum store, that I was to fall in love with all of Taber, a joyful affair.

The last book was my concession to one of my favorite sciences: biology left me cold and chemistry foiled me with too many formulas. But all those aspects of Earth Science (as it was called in eighth grade) I reveled in: astronomy, fossils, continental drift, uplift, brachiopods, the aurora, the tilt of the earth and the seasons, and my favorite of all, anthropology. There were other books I collected as I grew older, including the "Lucy" books, and the mention of Olduvai Gorge and/or the Leakeys or Lascaux on any program could make my ears prick up in interest, but this was my first anthropology book and it has a special meaning to me. Clovis points, middens, mammoth bones turned into tools—I was hooked. (Didn't realize until much later that this was the Robert Silverberg, the science fiction writer.)

Did anyone else have a school library that did this? If so, what were your books, all yours for the summer?

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