Revisiting classic children’s books

Published 1:45 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2023

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Every now and then I will rummage through old books—correction, old children’s books that I have kept since pilfering them from my elementary school’s library and, more commonly, received as gifts from adored, overseas English aunts who always mailed them, as Julie Andrews would approve, in ‘brown paper packages, tied up with strings.’


This week, I made a specific point of glancing through them once again and, in truth, the glancing soon turned into absorbed reading as I found myself entranced with Ratty’s proclamation in Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” to the passionate Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” 

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In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” we are given the early description: ‘It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place anyone could imagine. The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless temps of climbing roses which were so thick they were matted together.’ 


And, as a child with a lifelong affliction of horse fever, I think I still retain every word of the discolored and well-thumbed pages of “National Velvet,” including ‘They cleared the wall together, wildly, ludicrously high, with savage effort and glory, and twice the power and the force that was needed. Velvet felt his hind-quarters drop when they should have hitched. But there was so much space to spare that the piebald could afford it. Nevertheless, it was an intemperate and outlandish jump…’


I felt compelled to revisit these old friends after reading a thought-provoking piece that pressed the point that these very books, amongst others, were so wildly popular in their time and remained classics because children were far more in touch with the natural world around them than they are now. And so each child could well imagine themselves building rafts along the river bank as did Ratty and Mole, or keenly envisage a secret garden to explore, and already knew the feeling of the warm, round back of a horse beneath them.


Surely not all children, I thought with hope, have locked themselves in their bedrooms with Snapchat. Surely there are kids who show up late for dinner and are hollered at for having soaked their best shoes in the creek while looking for arrowheads, or trying to hide a pronounced limp after climbing on the back of a neighbor’s cow. Surely there are kids that actually recognize a cow??


Looking through the list of top-selling children’s books of the last twenty years (besides, of course, the Harry Potter dynasty which finished 2nd to the classic, The Little Prince), I found relief. There listed was ’The Giving Tree,’ ‘Good Night, Moon,’ ’The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’…and scores more. Scores! 


Fear not, I now have access to Amazon if I want to keep a children’s book forever. And I’ve decided to pick up a couple. My first in the shopping cart is ’The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and exquisitely illustrated by Jackie Morris. ’Tyger Tale’ describes it best: ‘Nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris’s book is a true passion project, rhapsodizing about the disappearing words used to describe our natural world. This big, beautiful book inspired one reader to launch a crowdfunding campaign that put a copy in every Scottish primary school.’


I can’t guarantee every child will throw down their video games or put down their phone long enough to focus on an entire written page, but how glorious it is to know there are endless stacks of books that just might entice them to wonder that awaits them outside their very door…