I was called out by a fellow writer and blogger, Teresa Cypher, over at my other blog (History Sleuth’s Writing) to choose my top five all time favorite books. Since I do my book reviews over here, I thought it was a better place for the post on the subject. In choosing my top five, I thought to myself, wouldn’t these books have to be the ones that most inspired my joy of reading, my taste in what I read—and maybe even my life? If that was the case, they would have to be books from my childhood. The ones I haven’t retained through the years I have been trying to repurchase.
LITTLE RED HEN
I’ve been an avid reader since I was first read The Little Red Hen when I was four. It is a Russian folktale and has been redone many times. My version, which I still have, is by the Whitman Publishing Company (1953) illustrated by Beth Wilson. I’ll just say I started reading in the 1960s and leave it at that.
The Little Red Hen was always my choice when picking a book to have read to me. I have no idea why this book so mesmerized me, but it did and after a while I had it memorized. I annoyed everyone in my family with my constant desire to repeat it to them. Then it clicked. I realized the very same words I repeated so often matched the page and were in other books too. How cool is that. Why I could learn to read anything! It was this little story that set of the light bulb that letters strung together made words and those words told a story. And with a story I could go anywhere my imagination would take me.
This book, without my knowing it, left a seed to live by. The little red hen finds some grains of wheat and decides she will plant them so she can later make bread. She asks the cat, the duck, and the pig to help her plant, water, harvest, grind and each time the animals say no. When it is time to turn the flour into bread, the little red hen asks, “Who will help me?” Again the other animals say, “Not I.” You can imagine what happens when the bread is done and the hen asks who will help to eat it. You got it. All the barn yard animals who are too lazy to help and expect a free hand out say, “I will!” Good luck with that. The little red hen and her chicks ate the bread. Lesson learned.
The Cowboy Sam series by Edna Walker Chandler, was originally published in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, I only own one of these. I believe they got new life in the 1970s reprinted with color covers. This is what opened me up to book series–about sixteen of them—my favorite being Cowboy Sam and Porkey (about him and his horse), Cowboy Sam at the Rodeo, and Cowboy Sam and the Indians. Each story was a little harder than the last to read, as I remember it anyway. It was the 1960s so there were a lot of westerns on TV. I grew up in the city of Buffalo so my appeal for these I think was the outdoors, horses, cows and space. It opened up my interest in Native Americans different from the TV image of them and is one of my biggest focuses of my non-fiction research and writing. I live in a rural village where the county’s claim to fame is having more cows then people and I see horses on every drive–not a cattle drive, silly, I meant in my car.
THE LITTLE LAME PRINCE
I went to Art Park back in the 80s, an outdoor theater-on-the-grass, to see a musical of The Little Prince. I was like, “Wait a minute, this isn’t the story! What’s with all the planets?” Silly me. It was an adaptation of the Little Prince called The Little Prince and the Aviator, and not what I was thinking at all. The book I loved was The Little Lame Prince by Miss Mulock (Dinah Maria Mulock Craik). My copy is by M. A. Donohue & Co. and has no copyright date. I had no idea when I read it that it was originally published in 1875.
A bumbling nurse drops the baby prince on his christening day and cripples him. His fairy godmother sees it happen. The Queen dies, then the King dies, and his Uncle locks him in the tower where he stays for 15 years. A depressing story, now that I think of it, until his godmother brings him a magic cloak. With it he is able to travel all over the world. As he grows he is told that he is the true King. When the wicked Uncle dies the people find out that the Prince is not dead as they had been told and becomes the King. Anyway, typical Victorian gloom and doom writing. I did love the idea of a magic traveling cloak, but I think what I got out of it was the handicap child’s ability to overcome adversity, although most likely not the intention of the author. This was the first read alone chapter book I read as a child that had tragedy and death so it had quite the effect on me.
DIAMOND IN THE WINDOW
You may not have heard of The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton. I recently bought a used paperback on Amazon , but the first edition to the left (1962) is the one that caught my attention when I pulled it from the shelf at the library when I was about 12. It had a profound influence on my imagination as a child. Eddy and Eleanor lived in a cool old house in Concord, MA. Their family was a bit odd. One day they notice the diamond shaped attic window and realized they’d never been up there so off they go. Weirder than their family is the scattered toys around the room and empty beds as if two children had been there. Their aunt tells them her brother and sister, Ned and Nora, had vanished from the room and no trace was ever found. Eddy and Eleanor move into the attic to try and solve the mystery and start to have shared dreams in which they see Ned and Nora. Did I say there was magic and treasure? I loved this book and never realized, aside from being an awesome story, it was about Transcendentalism. Who knew? I think it subconsciously opened my mind to other possibilities for the unexplained as ever since then I’ve loved mysteries, ghosts and the like. I never knew there are more in the series so I will have to try and get copies of those.
My edition (Doubleday & Co. Inc., Garden City, NY.) says copyright 1938 by Daphne du Mauier Browning. (It has a plain green cover, missing the dust jacket, so I’ll skip it.) Who can dispute this is one of the greatest stories of all time with a well known classic opening hook in the first line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It is first book I ever read written in first person and is from the viewpoint of the 2nd Mrs. de Winter. What makes this first person narrator unique is throughout the entire book we never find out her first name or her maiden name before she married Maxim de Winter. Mrs. de Winter #2, is less refined than #1 (Rebecca) was, and #2 thinks she can’t measure up to Rebecca in Maxim’s eyes. Everything around Manderley has Rebecca’s imprint on it and the crazy housekeeper makes sure nothing is touched. Mrs. de Winter #2 finds out Maxim’s first wife dies in what we believe is a boating accident, until #1 literally resurfaces. I won’t tell you what happens next. You will have to read it. It is by far my all time favorite adult book. And if you don’t have time to read it, Alfred Hitchcock did an excellent (1940) film version.
So there you have it—the top five books that have influenced my life.