Children’s Books (Not)

Hello, all, it’s Sarah Graves again, here. Yesterday’s collection of holiday favorites got me thinking about other faves from the days when Christmas vacation meant lots of time spent either ice-skating or, when my feet were so frozen I couldn’t feel them, indoors reading. That led me to recalling some of the books that made the biggest impression on me in any season, back when I was a kid.

And that led to the realization that the phrase ‘children’s books’ wasn’t in my parents vocabulary. Oh, I read the Bobbsey Twins, the Borrower books, and the Little House series, all right. But our house was also full of other literature. Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines, for instance, and the National Geographic. We had Reader’s Digest and the Condensed Books, McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, as harmless and mainstream as could be, of course, but we also had True magazine, which was pretty racy, and on account of my dad’s interest (and just possibly a teensy bit of experience), quite a few pulpy numbers about crime, crime scenes, crime victims, and so on, some with photographs.

The thing is, no one ever stopped little me from reading any of this stuff, not even the racy or gory parts. Perhaps as a result, quite early on I got the impression that real life consisted of huntin-‘n’-fishin, bodies lying on linoleum with dark pools of blood around their heads, and the best way to frost a layer cake while not mussing up the heels-shirtwaist dress-and-pearls outfit you wore for your housework duties. And maybe they really shouldn’t have let me read such material, because I have spent years trying to sort out the early imprinting I got from it, with only mixed results.

But the three adult books that made the biggest impression on me, whose pleasures I can recall even now, weren’t even in my own home. They were in my grandparents’, and I recall them so clearly that even today I know exactly where they were on the bookshelf. Green Mansions, by W. H. Hudson, was a jungle fantasy starring a man named Abel and Rima, the bird girl, and featured some of the most gorgeous naturalist writing I’ve ever read. For a kid from Wisconsin it was exotic, even mind-bending stuff — the setting and the romance Hudson created in it — and ever since I’ve recalled the feeling of being transported that the book gave me, and tried to re-create that sense for my own readers.

Next was a little gem of science fiction called A Scent of New Mown Hay, which deals with a man-made plague of…well, read it for yourself. It’s from 1958, but it stands up well now, and from it I got the first real fright I’d ever received from the printed page. I hadn’t known before that a writer could do that to a person, and once I started pushing a pencil around on my own, I wanted to do it to persons, too.

But the books that made the biggest impression on me were the collections of Alfred Hitchcock. One story after another, this twist and that one, motive upon motive, sly implication upon wry comment — the writing was crispy, the styles were varied, and the outlook was…well, adult. I used to be able to read through anything — the phone, dogs barking, a knock at the door, my mother calling me to come finish up drying the dishes — but in the midst of a Hitchcock collection I could’ve gone on reading through the nuclear explosion they were always drilling us to duck and cover for, back then. I read them for entertainment, but what I gleaned from them was ambition: to capture people the way I’d been captured, to seize their attention and hold it…to make them turn that page, and the next one, no matter what.

So there you have it, just a handful of my literary influences. There were others, too, but so many that I think I’ll save them for another column.

I mean, don’t even get me going on the subject of Mad Magazine.



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7 Responses to Children’s Books (Not)

  1. Vicki Doudera says:

    Sarah, we had very similar childhoods! I, too, read anything I got my little hands on. As a very young teen who babysat, that meant reading some truly X-rated material found in one neighbor’s house. I don’t think I’ve ever read so quickly!

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Add me to the list of “could and did read everything in the house.” Of course, all our houses yielded different reading material … mine did include Green Mansions .. a collection of 1930s soft porn I found in a pile of antique paper dolls my grandmother had bought for her business … Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post, and ARAMCO World …. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, also courtesy of my grandmother … and shelves of 19th century books written for children and adults. Unfortunately, only my grandfather read mysteries, and they were all borrowed from the library and quickly returned. No one in my family read science fiction. Comics were the only banned literature in our house!

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Do you remember Can this Marriage be Saved? in the Ladies Home Journal? I must have read 100 or more of those growing up. Only once do I remember that the marriage couldn’t be saved.

    I was also one who read everything. My grandparents had a collection of those Perry Mason books with the sexy covers (though sadly, never any sex inside) that i tore through.

    I never read comic books, mostly because I don’t like them and still don’t read graphic novels. My son did, however and still collects a few small press ones. My attitude was as long as they were reading…

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Barb…I also read Can This Marriage Be Saved quite religiously.

    I’m not sure we were “allowed” to read anything, but our parents were so busy that we DID read everything. I remember the thrill of reading a forbidden book like Forever Amber. And those bodice busting, sadistic novels of Frank Yerby. And, like the pulpy fem jep and cop adventure mags that Sarah writes about, I got to read those, and…hold your breath here…True Confessions because my mother got the discarded magazines with the covers torn off to mulch her rhubarb bed. We would unearth the raciest onces and bring them back to the house to read. That much more shocking because they had a slightly earthy, musty scent and those had to be brought in under cover of something less inappropriate.

    Lucky Sarah…she thinks of sly twists and adult voices. I think of women in bondage and handcuffs and tragic stories of innocence gone wrong.

  5. Sarah Graves says:

    Another ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved’ addict checking in, here. What was it about that thing, anyway?

  6. lil Gluckstern says:

    Re: Can this marriage be saved? A whole lot of curiosity about the human condition, I think. The marriage was either worse than the reader’s or better than the reader’s. I think it’s like the addiction to soaps. Lots of excitement that we didn’t see in our young lives. I read everything, even if I didn’t get what I was reading. I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels because they weren’t “realistic.” Ha, I found a way. Of course, they were tame compared to the sexual primers of today 🙂 I read all the girl detective series I could get my hands on, and never stopped reading mysteries which is why I read you all.

  7. Brenda W. says:

    There is a story from Alfred Hitchcock’s collection, “Stories to Stay Awake By” that I read at about age 10 and still remember vividly — it was an execution.

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