Susan Vaughan here. Wednesday, March 2, was Read Across America Day in honor of the birthday of Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The school where I taught as a reading specialist usually stretched related activities into an entire week and one parent-child evening to celebrate Dr. Seuss and his books and reading in general. Now that I’m no longer teaching, I thought I’d discuss the books that were my childhood favorites.
I loved books from the very beginning, and once I learned to read, I devoured books. I don’t recall reading Dr. Seuss books, I’m afraid, although his first, And to Think That I saw it on Mulberry Street, was published before I was born.
As an author, I found it interesting how the book got published. Geisel was about to give up after rejection by twenty publishers when he met a friend on a New York street. The friend worked for Vanguard Press, and the rest is history. Geisel said afterward that if he’d been walking on the other side of the street, he’d have given up and gone into the dry cleaning business.
When I was young, most of the books my family read came from the library, but the ones that were my favorites, to be read and reread were purchased and given to me. The bookshelf in my bedroom contained series as well as stand-alone novels. My very favorite stand-alone novel is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1911.
I read it over and over. As I reflect on it now, part of the reason was that I related to Mary, not because she’s a neglected wealthy child, but because she’s an only child, like me, who had to amuse herself. I was and still am intrigued, like Mary, with the boy Colin hidden away in a secret room and the secret garden, where the two children heal each other. Yes, secrets and a mystery. Apparently the author was inspired by Christian Science theories and used the garden motif to explore the healing power in living things. The Secret Garden is beautifully written, emotional, and uplifting. No wonder it has stood the test of time.
I wasn’t a fan of fantasy usually, but loved the Oz series. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W.W. Denslow, was first published in 1900.
The movie version, retitled The Wizard of Oz, was released before I was born and wasn’t a television staple until the 1960’s, so my love of the stories was due to the books. The Library of Congress declared The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “America’s greatest and best-loved fairy tale.” Its success led Baum to publish thirteen sequels. I remember reading the first and a few others—Ozma of Oz, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz. My bookshelf held at least three more, but the titles are lost to me, and the books disappeared on one of my family’s moves.
Another series I loved wasn’t great literature, but my first introduction to mystery novels (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?). Yes, Nancy Drew. I believe this is the cover on the book I had.
As a child and preteen, I believed there was a Carolyn Keene who wrote all the books. In fact, the series concept was created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who had previously created the Hardy Boys series. From the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock in 1930 onward, the books were a hit. For the uninitiated, Nancy Drew is a teenage amateur sleuth, often assisted in solving mysteries by her closest girlfriends, Bess and George, and her boyfriend Ned.
Stratemeyer created the character and many of the book outlines. He hired Mildred Wirt Benson to ghostwrite the first volumes in the series—The Secret in the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, and The Secret of Shadow Ranch.
As an adult author, I found Mildred Benson as fascinating as I’d found her stories. Not only was she a ghostwriter, she was a reporter, even until she died at age 96. She earned a pilot’s license and went to the Amazon on an archeological expedition that became lost for a time. In my novel Primal Obsession, Mildred Benson is an inspiration to my heroine Annie. Others joined Benson in ghostwriting as Carolyn Keene after 1932, possibly because it was hard to keep up with the eager readers wanting more of Nancy Drew.
Over the decades, the character has evolved in response to changes in U.S. culture and tastes, and the original books were revised and shortened both to lower printing costs and to eliminate racist stereotypes. Given the films, TV shows, and new book series, Nancy Drew has enduring appeal.
In case you need a book for a child or grandchild, you can find online several lists of the best. The National Education Association list is here.
Would anyone else like to share a memory of a favorite childhood book?