As we look back on our lives we often see the things that have converged to make us who we are now, or at least, who we are becoming. A lot of what we see seems, in the growing proximity of time, grander and more earth-shattering than it is. Simple idea. I’m not trying to dress it up in poetics because I don’t know that I’d be able to lift the hypothesis out of its dusty box of cliche.
But I like to ruminate anyway.
Perhaps one of the reasons why we tend to aggrandize the things in our past and give it stronger meaning is because the things that stick to the Velcro of our memory are already the extremes: embarrassing moments that make us cringe to recall, but everyone else has gone and forgotten; or the blissful days of kindergarden summers that have heightened in our subconscious to become sunny moments of heaven. Who knew cartoons and bad cereal on a Saturday morning could inspire such longing memories?
This seems to go for books as it does for cartoons and Lucky Charms (which are gross now. Don’t pretend as if you like blue and yellow sugar clumps in your milk). One of the earliest books that found me interested was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which my mother read to me each night before bed. I would have been about nine-years-old at the time, and until then I would not have considered reading a past-time worth perusing.
Harry Potter is a definite exception to this dubious rule of nostalgia blowing things out of proportion because the series (literally as well as figuratively) grew up with us – each progressing installment meeting the aging standards of its multiplying audience. In this respect, it’s a truly unique and magnificent addition to the world of books.
I came a little late to books. Most people who are, in our considerations, bookish claim to have loved them for as long as they can remember. I had cast a distrustful eye on the thought of holding my own book until fourth grade when I decided for some reason I can’t fathom that Brian Jacques would be my literary hero. And as I stood in my school’s library suddenly curious about this world that had been for me up until then grossly academic, I pulled The Outcast of Redwall off the shelf with what I’ve turned into a pose of reverence in my memory.
My reasons were admittedly more along the lines of wanting to impress my classmates, because Outcast was the biggest damn book I’d ever picked up. The biggest damn book I’d ever picked up with the intention to read, that is. 368 pages to be exact (not too shabby , I might add). It was also in the middle of the series, but that didn’t matter to me.
Through most of elementary and middle school I read almost nothing else. I still remember asking mom one day after school why Jacques hadn’t won a Newberry…I stand before you today confidant that I have learned a few things since then. Last year I read a portion of Redwall to my youngest brother in a scheme to get him obsessed with reading as I had been. Surely no one in their right minds could resist this series. That lasted about a page before I realized, I think for the first time, just how poorly they were written.
Not all of my childhood books were as bad at a second look. Apparently because the Redwall series had set me on an anthropomorphic craze, I read Watership Down somewhere around fifth or sixth grade. I think even at that age I knew instinctively that this was more than one echelon above Redwall – the avant-gard of animal-themed literature. I’ve never found another book like it, and somehow Richard Adam’s Plague Dogs didn’t hold the same appeal.
Re-reading the books that threw sparks of color into your childhood can sometimes be depressing, but it is enlightening. Harry Potter’s urban fantasy getaway became my own escape. And the host of field mice, moles, voles (whatever those are), hares, and badgers of Redwall Abby further endeared fantasy worlds to me. In fact, Brian Jacques’ books so thoroughly affected my imagination in my formative years that I sometimes still think of characters in other books as hares and rats, provided they have similar names and character traits.
That’s a little embarrassing to admit, but it just goes to show that what we remember of childhood continues to grow in our adult minds. The glimpses we see, regardless of how vivid we think they are, take on the more polarized hues of black and white. The good times were so achingly good, and the books we enjoyed were such rollorcoasters of joy that they’ve been elevated to a pantheon of five-star, recommend-to-anyone giants.
In many ways, irresponsibly regardless of whether or not those books are well-written, those are the very same ones that got us reading, and that’s as good a reason as any to place them on a pedestal. In such cases it might be better not to go back in time and read the childhood favorites, even to your kids. But just like the park you used to frequent as a youngster (Hey! Didn’t this place used to be bigger? I thought that slide was at least twice as tall), the early books that endear themselves to us still belong in the bows and ribbons we’ve wrapped them up in.
Because those are the books that finally led us to the favorites we have now.