Category Archives: Four on Friday

Four NECESSITIES FOR A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

mysteries

I think by now it is pretty clear that I love a good mystery series.  It probably started back in my Trixie Belden days, although I did read a fair amount of Nancy Drew as well.  When I was in college, I worked at a small bookstore in Geneva, Illinois.  There I got hooked on the Anne Perry mysteries.  I read a lot of different things in college for fun, but Anne Perry’s books truly solidified my love of series mysteries.  I branched out and read other authors, and the rest, as they say is history.

I currently have about fifty mystery series that I follow regularly; over the years, there have been some I have let go for a variety of reasons and I am always on the lookout for a new series.  For me, there are certain details that keep me engaged in a mystery series.  So for my completely biased opinion, these are my necessities of a good mystery series.

Four NECESSITIES OF A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

Interesting, plausible protagonist
Although I have read a lot of true crime novels, a good mystery for me is rooted in the characters.  I think that any good series must maintain strong, consistent characters to stabilize the continuity of the series.  It is what ties each book to the previous one and it is what the reader follows from book to book.  When a new release of a favorite author comes out, it feels like catching up with an old friend and visiting about what has happened since the last time we met.

I am not picky about the gender of my protagonist.  I love the female Lady Darby in Anna Lee Huber’s books and Amory Ames in Ashley Weaver’s series, but I find Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston and C. S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr just as engaging.  The key, and I know I have said it before, is that context in which the protagonist encounters a crime must be believable, it must be consistent, and it must be evolving.  I love a good cozy mystery but after a while, multiple deaths in a small town or at a certain ski resort; well, I don’t think I would put that on a place to visit!

Inquiry agents like Charles Lenox in Charles’ Finch’s series or Derek Stone in Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries, police detectives like Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James in Deborah Crombie Scotland Yard series, or even judges and attorneys like Verlaque and Bonnet in M. L. Longworth’s Provencal mysteries all have realistic reasons to encounter, and more importantly, be involved in, solving crimes.

Cozy mysteries are very entertaining and enjoyable, but they don’t have the same sustainability as something that is more grounded.  A good cozy writer should know when to quit and move on to a new series.

Historical setting
Not everything I read has a historical setting but it is definitely a huge plus in what makes a series my favorite.  Yes, I love the simpler time, the fascinating couture, the social customs and limitations, but honestly, the very best part is the lack of technology, specifically the internet.  Historical crime solvers must rely on their ingenuity and inquiry skills.  Now I am not discrediting modern detectives, but I truly love watching characters fit different pieces together.  I know that much of the detecting work could be completed a lot faster with modern tools, but what’s the point of a 50-page mystery!  I often think “why don’t they just look it up online” when I am reading a historical mystery before I remember that isn’t an option.

With characters spending days traveling by horseback or coach or waiting for letters to arrive, the tension of the story builds.  The reader often is sidetracked by the minutia of daily life and seemingly unimportant details; this adds depth and personality to the story and enables the reader to have a stronger grasp on the setting and characters and how they are woven together.

There is also something exotic and mystical about a historical setting; the grittiness seems darker and more threatening while the society and lifestyle creates a more glamorous and opulent feel.  I’ve always felt I that I was born in the wrong decade; reading historical mysteries helps me to channel my inner dreams.

Fun, quirky secondary characters
Remember, it is all about the characters for me.  Mystery books provide great opportunities for secondary characters to pop up over the course of a series.  These characters provide rich ambiance for the time period or foils for the different personalities of a protagonist.  They have the feel of that “crazy Aunt Edna” or “cousin Steve” that we all have in our families; the topic of holiday table conversations with details of their grand adventures, disasters, or both.  I think these characters add a dimension to the story to remind the readers that crime doesn’t occur in a bubble; life still goes on all around which is often what both helps and interferes with the solving of a crime.

Some of my favorite secondary characters are Bonnie Brock in the Lady Darby series, Sid and Gus in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries, and Oscar in the Witchcraft mysteries by Juliet Blackwell.  Sometimes these characters are integral to the development of the plot, sometimes they create obstacles that interfere with the progression of the inquiry, and sometimes they just add a diversion of spice and humor to a darker theme.

Just a hint of romance
Okay, call me a hopeless romantic but I like a bit of a love story in my mysteries.  I like the tension between two characters when they aren’t sure who they can trust, and then how it builds to when they discover that must trust one another.  Relationships often cloud judgement and perception and this added depth creates more conflict in a story and therefore makes it more suspenseful for the reader.  I don’t ever want a relationship in a mystery book to take away from the mystery itself, but a good author with meld the two with thought and purpose.

I like how some relationships grow over the course of the series, like C.S. Harris’ Sebastian and Hero, Tasha Alexander’s Emily and Colin, or Julie Spencer-Fleming’s Russ and Clare.  In contrast, I enjoy how Ashley Weaver’s Amory and Milo stories jump right into an established marriage.  Then of course there is Brad Parks’ Carter Ross and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; who knows if they will ever settle down!  What does Keanu Reeves’ character say in the movie Speed:  I have to warn you; I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work.  Ah, love . . .

Any other mystery buffs out there?  What are the “must-haves” for your favorite series?

Four ALTERNATIVES TO A TRADITIONAL BOOK CLUB on Friday

keep-calm-and-join-book-club

Book Clubs are denizens of our current society.  They are places for wine-drinking, socializing, and sometimes even talking about books.  I have been fortunate to be part of a number of book clubs, but I have found that participation can be very tricky.  The key to a successful book club is that all members need to have the same purpose in mind; clubs can be very disjointed when some people want to use the time for socializing and others want an in-depth dissection of a book.  Don’t get me wrong; both are fine purposes but conflict and dissatisfaction can arise when everyone is not . . . so to speak . . . on the same page.

As an alternative to the traditional book club, I have put together four different perspectives on what a gathering of book readers, book lovers, and people who just need to get their nose out of a book and socialize more . . . eh, me . . . might look like.

Four ALTERNATIVES TO A TRADITIONAL BOOK CLUB on Friday

Bring two, get two
The premise of this is very simple.  Each guest brings two copies of a book that they enjoyed, made them think, or touched their heart.  One by one, each guest shares a little about herself: the kind of books she likes to read, her favorite authors, her reading inspirations.  Then, she describes the book she has brought to share.  After everyone has shared, each guest picks two different books and now has two brand new stories to read.

I had a party like this a few years ago and it was a great success.  With a group of guests who had varied reading styles and interests, the variety of books that were presented was diverse.  I liked having two books to choose.  The first book I chose was one that I thought I would like; it was a genre that I enjoy and something similar to my normal reading routine.  The second book was a reach for me; I picked something I wouldn’t normally have even looked at.  I chose it as a challenge and based on my friend’s description of her own reading interests, I took a chance and enjoyed it.  This presented an opportunity to read something new without the pressure of having to analyze it in a group setting.  We had a great evening.

“Mystery” book
I must admit that I stole this basic idea from Pinterest . . . that evil, time-sucking website.  It is described as a “blind date with a book.”  I adapted the idea for a Halloween “mystery” theme.  Each guest brought a book wrapped in craft paper.  On the outside, the guests wrote clues about the book plot, characters, genre, and/or themes.  Once again we all shared our reading interests and then read our clues.  After everyone made a grab for a new book, we re-read the clues and then opened the paper and read the back-cover summary.

Once again I was astounded at how creative people were.  Some clues were lists, some were riddles, one had a symbolic bookmark attached, and one creative friend made a three-dimensional piece of artwork on the cover as her clue.  We had such a variety of genres!  Everyone was taking notes about books that sounded interesting to them so we really went away with even more future reading ideas.

Holiday two for one
I haven’t had this book party yet . . . but invitations will be going out soon!  Friends!  Put on your thinking caps!  I think that books and food go together well . . . okay, just about everything and food goes well together.  For this gathering, guests will bring a favorite holiday book – a novel, a cookbook, a children’s book; just something special that represents the season.   AND, they will bring a food item that represents that book.  I had originally thought that a cookie exchange – book party combination would be a great idea, but really it could be anything.  Mulled wine, homemade fudge, fruitcake!  Anything that might either represent or compliment the book.

We will celebrate the season, I will clean my house and have the motivation to get it decorated, and everyone will go home with a new book and a treat to share!  It’s a win-win situation!

Spring Cleaning purge
I think I might need to start another blog.  I absolutely love spring cleaning . . . yes, I am weird.  I love the purge of getting rid of things that clutter my space and my life.  I love the fresh, clean, simplicity of spring cleaning.  My family always gets a little nervous this time of year; they aren’t sure what . . . or who . . . might get put out on the curb!!

For this book party, my thought is that everyone brings a few books that they have on the shelf that they enjoyed but don’t need to keep.  We will swap out our old books and recycle them by having others enjoy them.  And, we won’t spend any money purchasing new books!  Granted, the book collection at home won’t be any smaller, but at least the books there will provide fresh, new reading options when the spring cleaning is done!

Anyone out there have any other alternative book party suggestions?

Four NECESSITIES FOR AN IDEAL BOOKSTORE on Friday

perfect-bookstore

A friend of mine and I were discussing my blog post from last Friday – Four THINGS I LOVE AND THINGS I HATE ABOUT BARNES & NOBLE – and we bantered around some thoughts about what makes a bookstore, a good bookstore, and what necessities must an ideal bookstore have.  So I present to you my dream bookstore and the necessities to make it such.

Four NECESSITIES FOR AN IDEAL BOOKSTORE on Friday

Books
It seems silly but a good bookstore needs to have books, lots of them!  I want a variety of books both in depth and breadth.  There is no way to have every book, but there should be enough variety that readers can find both the latest new release and books that sometimes fly under the radar.  I love to discover the newest book by a favorite author, but I also get excited to discover a new, hidden gem.  It might be a new or new-to-me mystery series or something outside my usual reading parameters.  There is something magical about finding a hidden treasure of a new book while perusing the store shelves.

One definite requirement though would be if a new release is sold and it is part of a series, the first book in the series must be available.  I know that there are other anal retentive readers like myself who must read books in order.

Places to read, relax, and revel in books
This is one thing that independent bookstores do so much better than the big chain stores.  They are full of nooks and corners to curl up and read in.  My dream bookstore would be full of couches and chairs, window seats and benches, stools and ladders.  Readers want places to sit and enjoy books.  As my friend noted, books are expensive.  Readers need places to read first chapters to see if they want to purchase the book, and places to spread out potential purchases so the reader can weigh options and negotiate what to take home and what to return to the shelves.

The quirky bookstores that are cramped and crowded are perfect for discovering a hidden gem or secret treasure, but those aren’t my every day bookstores.  I want a store with space to read, to think, and to dream.

A café . . . or bar
To me books and a cup of tea with a sweet treat go hand in hand.   I love to curl up on the couch at home with a cup of tea and a good book.  There is something soothing and relaxing about the combination and I think it reminds us to slow down and enjoy the moment.  You can’t slam down a cup of a hot beverage, just as you can’t race through a book.  Both need to be savored and enjoyed.

I recently read an article about a bookstore-bar combination.  I would also enjoy that but since alcohol tends to put me to sleep, I might not make it through my books as quickly.  My husband however thought this was a great idea!

A community feel
I think bookstores should be a place where people can gather and learn new things.  I love to attend author signings; it is wonderful to meet an admired author but I find their discussions and reading interpretations add so much more to my appreciation of the book.  Bookstores should provide book clubs and discussion groups, children’s enrichment programs, and story times for all ages.  Bookstores can do even more.  Game nights, writers’ workshops, and even study groups can all find a home in a bookstore; it is a place that can be a gathering spot for those who love the written word and have a passion for what it says.

I think there is a very real dearth in our society for people of all ages to come together and learn, have intelligent and lively discussions, and share a love and appreciation for literature.

 

So let’s get rid of the toys, the fluorescent lighting, the hard wooden chairs, and the extraneous space fillers.  Bring back the bookstores.

Four THINGS I LOVE AND THINGS I HATE ABOUT BARNES & NOBLE on Friday

barnes-and-noble-logo

I love bookstores.  I love the smell, I love the soothing music, and I love the books!!  Sadly, many great bookstores – Borders, Crown Books, Waldenbooks, and so on – are no longer around.  Independent bookstores are the best . . . if there is one local in your area.  Half-Price Books also has its merits but it just doesn’t have the “bookstore” feel I am looking for.  What’s left?  Barnes & Noble. 

I admit that I have a love/hate relationship with Barnes & Noble.  To their credit, a lot of these stores are located in a mall which creates a completely different ambiance.  There are a few, large two-story Barnes & Nobles; one of my favorites is in Burlington, Massachusetts, ACROSS the street from the Burlington Mall.  And so not to be a pessimist, I give you four things I LOVE about Barnes & Noble, and four things I HATE!

Four THINGS I LOVE AND HATE ABOUT BARNES & NOBLE on Friday

I love that Barnes & Noble is a bookstore!
As I mentioned, physical bookstores are few and far-between.  I am happy that I have a store that is relatively close, about 20 minutes, where I can get current new release books.

I hate the NOOK.
Now I am not going to get into an argument about eBooks versus physical books; to each their own.  My complaint is the amount of square footage of store space devoted to the Nook and its accessories and samples to play with and a special desk just for the Nook.  Have your display, but make it reasonably sized and provide space for the actual books.

I love the Member Rewards!
I’ve been a Barnes & Noble rewards member for almost 20 years; I love the added discounts, the bonus coupons, and the special member perks.  When I bring out my member card, the store clerks almost always comment that they haven’t seen a card that old in a long time!

I hate that they never have book 1 in a series.
Looking through the new releases, I love to discover a series that I have never read before.  If it isn’t the first in the series and the story looks promising, I search the shelves to find the first in the series and invariably the first one is never there.  Now I understand that they can’t have every book on the shelf, but shouldn’t the first one be there?

I love bargain books!
I consider the bargain books a “not included in the total number of books” I allow myself to purchase.  They are bonuses just asking to be taken home.  I pick up hardbacks that I wouldn’t usually purchase in hardcover, fluff stories that look like they might be a quick fun read, and quirky collections of facts about an English monarch or the Civil War.  Rarely more than $5-$10, these are books that may sit on my to-be-read pile for a while, but they are there just in case.

I hate the moving mysteries.
Now I know that mysteries aren’t everyone’s favorite genre, but it seems like this section always seems to get the short end of the location.  My local Barnes & Noble has shrunk down this section to a single side of a row.  I know that Young Adult Fiction is important, but seriously.  Take some of that Nook space!

I love Starbucks!
Ironically, I am not a coffee drinker; however, a cup of tea, a cinnamon coffee cake, and a good book . . . heaven.  I like to have a spot to peruse my pile, negotiate with myself about the purchases I will make and the books that will have to be returned to the shelves, and console my sadness of the lost books with something sweet.  Having a Starbucks, or any kind of refreshment area, helps to make a trip to the bookstore an experienckse.

I hate the extra “stuff.”
In the past, I have spent many an hour sitting in Barnes & Noble while my little ones played at the Thomas the Tank Engine table.  They would play, I would read.  When they got tired or the table got crowded, we would find a little corner to read together.  I love the complimentary book items; the cute journals, the stuffed Olivia pigs, the Harry Potter games and wands.  It’s the unrelated toys and extras that annoy me; it’s a book store, not a toy store.

And so if Barnes & Noble ever wanted my opinion, I would just ask that they focus on what they do best – books!

Four FAVORITE INAPPROPRIATE CHILDREN’S BOOKS on Friday

Okay, okay.  I don’t actually mean “inappropriate;” perhaps more questionable.  Nothing offensive but some words that you might not want your four-year-old repeating . . . like fart and poop and bottom.  Now that I think about it, four-year-olds . . . fourteen-year-olds . . . heck, forty-year-olds . . . can’t help but giggle at the mildly inappropriate themes and language of these books. 

Of course, I had no problem coming up with this list and giggled quite a bit as I reread them.  What does that say about me?  One final note should be that three of these four books were gifts from my then-childless sister.  She is also the favorite aunt who introduced my son to Captain Underpants.  Now that she has children of her own, I strive to get even!  So, for your adolescent snickering pleasure, I present to you four of my favorite inappropriate children’s books.

vesuvius-poovius

Vesuvius Poovius by Kes Gray
There is a big, smelly problem in Ancient Rome.  Poo was everywhere and no one knew what to do with it.  What was worse was that the word “poo” was a forbidden word so as not to embarrass the Emperor’s wife.  Roman inventor Vesuvius worked for years trying to figure out a way to deal with the unmentionables, and he finally discovers the flushing system.  To present it to the Emperor, Vesuvius invites him and his wife to a party where he serves such an abundance of food that they are about to explode.  At which point, Vesuvius leads them to two marble thrones and Vesuvius becomes a national hero.

The theme of the story is obviously hilarious but what my kids loved to laugh at were the different terms – pongy, sugar lumps, and budgerigars — used for “poo.”  I know that most kids go through that “potty talk” age and this book would definitely encourage them!

cinderellas-bum-nicholas-allan

Cinderella’s Bum by Nicholas Allan
A little girl is sad because her sister won’t go swimming with her because she thinks her bum is too big and she can’t fit into her swimsuit.  The younger sister goes on to describe how all the bums of the world are different – there are posh ones, short ones, big ones, and noisy ones.  She continues to describe different famous bums:  if Cinderella had a big bum and had lost her knickers instead of her shoe, that story would have turned out quite different; Santa has a big bum to cushion his fall; and even Queen Victoria had a big bum to help her sit on the throne for sixty years.

My son’s first preschool teacher was from the UK and always used the word “bum.”  It has such a nicer ring that “butt” that we adopted it in our house.  I’m curious about different words for “bum” in other countries; any readers out there care to share on this topic?

farley-farts

Farley Farts by Birte Muller
Farley the frog has a problem:  he can’t stop farting.  His family and teachers aren’t amused.  He decided to “hold it in” with some disastrous consequences – his stomach fills up with so much gas that he floats up in the air like a balloon!  How ever will he get down!?

You knew that there had to be a farting book.  Seriously, when you are under the age of ten, is anything funnier!?  It reminds me of a book by Robert Munsch, Good Families Don’t.  Aside from being very silly, the author actually personifies the fart.  If one could keep the class on task, it would be a great way to show a unique take on literary devices!

its-a-book

It’s a Book by Lane Smith
Pointing to the book that the monkey is reading, a donkey asks him what it is.  The monkey says, “it’s a book.”  The donkey continues to attempt to figure out what it does – do you blog with it, can it tweet, does it need a screen name?  The monkey continues to get more and more aggravated when finally, the donkey starts to read it.  He becomes so engrossed that the monkey leaves him with the book and heads to the library.  When he returns, the donkey says that he will take care of charging it, to which the monkey responds, “It’s a book, Jackass.”

This one really hits my funny bone in a rather painful way.  The only thing that is truly inappropriate for children is the final word, but the story tells so much about our modern technological generation.  I know that my own children often get frustrated and annoyed with people being shocked that they are reading a book . . . remember the dentist . . . and this story reminds us of how we fell in love with reading in the first place.

So, did I shock you!?  I am so wild and crazy . . . not!  What other great “inappropriate” books are there out there for children that are so much fun for adults?

Four THINGS I LOVE ABOUT GOLDEN BOOKS on Friday

LittleGoldenBooks-logo

If you were a child after 1942, there is a very good chance that you had a (or many) Golden Book(s) in your home.  The high quality, affordable, and well-illustrated books started by Simon and Schuster Publishing originally cost 25 cents each.  A little history lesson here:  the first release was for 12 books and included favorites like Three Little Kittens, The Little Red Hen, and Prayers for ChildrenThe Poky Little Puppy is the all-time best-selling children’s book and its illustrations have changed little since it is original publication.  Little Golden Books have included cultural icons such as the Muppets, Lassie, Mister Rogers, and even Donny and Marie Osmond.

Golden Books were a staple in my house and my mother was generous enough to let me take most of our collection (okay, okay, I stuffed them in a suitcase) when I had my own children.  Although my kids are obviously past the picture book stage, I am just not ready to let them go. The beautiful illustrations, the straightforward and honest messages, and the classic representation of Americana all appeal to my sense of nostalgia of a simpler time and place.

Four THINGS I LOVE ABOUT GOLDEN BOOKS on Friday

Illustrations
Eloise Wilkins is probably my favorite children’s book illustrator of all time, and I am sure that a lot of this has to do with my own mother’s love of her drawings.  The colored pencil illustrations portray chubby infants, wide-eyed toddlers, and inquisitive children.  The memories of her childhood summers spent in upstate New York are evident in the serene pictures of nature and the quintessential New England feel of the story settings.  The details of colonial wallpaper, rustic kitchens, and classic clothing make me homesick for the East Coast.

I love all her book illustrations but the one that most tickles my fancy is that of The New Baby.  We actually own two copies: the 1948 copy from my mom’s childhood (sorry Mom, did I just give away your age) and the 1975 copy from my own childhood (yep, there’s my age too).  In the 1948 version, the illustrations depict a pregnant mother with a flat belly, an old spinster aunt, and a father never without his hat or pipe.  The 1975 version updates the illustrations but they are very indicative of the time:  Mom is visibly pregnant and wears smocked tent shirts, the aunt is younger with a hip hairstyle, and dad sports the most colorful leisure suit.  Still, the essence of the story – the excitement of a new family edition, the wonder of the new baby accessories, and the pure love of a big brother for a younger sister (remember, a bit of idealistic nostalgia) shows through the beautiful pictures and the timeless quality of a classic family story.

Educational without being preachy
The Golden Books also told stories that educated its readers.  One of my favorites as a child was Goodbye, Tonsils.  Told from the child’s perspective, the story provides enough details for knowledge of the procedure but infuses calm and comfort as so to eliminate fear.  I was always a little jealous that I never got to have my tonsils out:  I mean Mary ate ice cream for dinner, received a singing Happy Panda from her Grandma, and met two cousins in her room that were also getting their tonsils out.  I truly felt I had missed out on something.

Other books, such as Four Puppies, explained the seasons in nature, and We Like Kindergarten helped to alleviate fears of starting up school.  A favorite of my daughters was Where Did the Baby Go? in which a young girl finds a picture of a baby and searches the house to discover the whereabouts of the infant.  As she looks at favorite hiding places of the child and clothing the child used to play dress-up with, she soon discovers that SHE is the baby . . . all grown up!  My daughters enjoyed the similarities of what they enjoyed doing as a child and how that was similar to the girl in the story.

Straightforward values from a humorous modern perspective
I love the straight-forward honest values that are seen in so many Golden Books.  Children helping their parents, people caring for animals, community members working together for the common good.  There is a sense of wholesomeness that hearkens back to a time when life seemed simpler.  Now, I am not naïve to think that the past was simpler but it was different; the struggles, the obligations, and code of conduct evident in the Golden Books sought out what was truly good and right in the world.

Two of our favorites are We Help Mommy and We Help Daddy.  In both cases, the children work around the house helping with daily tasks and chores.  Now, I know that a lot of this seems like a fantasy world; there is no bickering, no complaining, and everyone is smiling.  But in our dreams, isn’t that how we would like life to be . . . at least every once in a while.

My husband argues about the pure fiction of We Help Daddy.  In the span of one day, the Dad in the story fixes the attic door, weeds the garden, waters the lawn, trims the hedge, washes the dog, paints the fence, hangs a picture, makes a bird feeder, chops firewood, washes and polishes the car, fixes a dresser, and pulls out a loose nail . . . all done with his pipe clenched firmly in his mouth. My husband complains of the high standards this dad sets for the “honey do” list and the fact that there are no emergency trips to Home Depot!

The sing-song quality of the prose
I find that Golden Books are perfect books to read aloud because of a natural cadence set by the pattern of prose.  Even those that don’t have a rhyming pattern, have an accepted and easy-to-follow flow of words and sounds.  I will admit though that I am quite partial to the rhyming books.  Seven Little Postman is one of my favorites to read aloud –

The letter with the secret
Was dumped on a table
With big and small letters
That all needed the label
Of the big Post Office.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t finish this with my all-time favorite Golden Book:  Little Mommy.  The story is simple; a little girl plays mommy with her dolls and does all the things that mommies do.   The best part of this story is the mesmerizing rhyme.  It was a favorite of mine and both mom (from reading it to me so many times) and I can still recite it.

This is my house and I am the Mommy,
My children are Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonnie.
They are good little children and do as I say,
I put on their coats and they go out to play.

Any other Golden Book favorites out there?

Four FAVORITE BOOKS FROM MY SON’S CHILDHOOD on Friday

IMG_2760

Four FAVORITE BOOKS FROM MY SON’S CHILDHOOD on Friday
Last Sunday, we took my oldest, my son, off for his first year of college.  He had a week of orientation and then will start classes this Monday.  I am sure that I feel what all parents feel at this grand juncture of life: excited for his new opportunities, nervous for his academic challenges, hopeful that he meets new friends, anxious about his new situations and encounters, but most of all, reminiscent of the past 17 years that he was home with me.  I have been doing a deep clean of his room so it will be ready when he returns home for visits . . . or to convert into a private reading room for me . . . and as I have been looking at the memories, I am reminded of books that he loved as a young child. 

So, in honor of my college freshman, here are four of his favorite stories from childhood.

Thomas the Tank Engine by the Rev. W. Awdry
There must be very few young boys who didn’t go through the “Thomas” phase at one point in their childhood.  My son loved everything Thomas and, in true fashion of all his interests, went through a Thomas only phase.  He wore Thomas t-shirts, played with Thomas toys, watched Thomas videos, and of course, read Thomas stories.  We had picture books and learn-to-read books and sight word books and the complete collection of all the Thomas stories.

As a former English teacher, I love the personification of the Thomas trains at conveying educational messages, teaching about friendships, showing how to learn from mistakes; all done completely in a non-preachy manner through the characters of the train engines. They are trains!!  How fun is that!  Especially for a boy, the stories blended good messages with fun actions and adventures.  I loved how my son would act out the stories we read with his own trains and then create new stories and adventures through his own imagination.  Perhaps in some small way, that inspired him to be the writer he is today.

I admit that sometimes I get a little misty-eyed as I walk past the train table at Barnes and Noble or see the collection of Thomas books on the shelf.  I might also have kept all the Thomas trains and books in the attic in the hopes that some future grandchild might enjoy them with me.

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
I loved Mike Mulligan from my own childhood and was delighted to share the story with my children.  The story focuses on two of the most important parts of a young boy’s life – trucks and digging in the dirt.  Although my son loved trains, there is something mesmerizing about trucks working.  We would be driving down the road and spot a construction site; my son loved to seek out the modern day equivalent to Mary Anne.  And what young boy wouldn’t enjoy the part where the dirt was flying all around and covering everything and everyone.

Again, the story creates human emotions and feelings with the steam shovel, and it teaches lessons about responsibility and loyalty, the importance of being a good friend, and the power and fault of preconceived notions.  It also is a great book to read aloud; there is lots of emotion and strength in the “Bing! Bang! Crash! Slam!”  Another interesting aspect of the story is the illustrations.  The unsophisticated crayon-like drawings help to convey a simpler time and place.  I always felt that picture of Mary Anne, that is the steam shovel, eating the dirt was a little terrifying, but my son loved it!

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash by Trinka Hakes Noble
What child doesn’t love the silliness of a boa constrictor going on a field trip!  The storytelling style really shows how each step in the process becomes both a cause and effect and one builds upon another.   The stream of consciousness storytelling is so representative of a child telling a story; as any parent, I have often been the listener to a story in which each part seems more and more unrelated as I wonder where the story will end up.  My children and I used to play games to show how one thought or idea might lead to another.  As my son got older and became a real movie buff, we would do the same to link two actors based on the films they had been in.  You know, like George Clooney to Jeremy Renner:  George Clooney was in Ocean’s Eleven with Matt Damon, Matt Damon was in The Talented Mr. Ripley with Jude Law, Jude Law was in Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Downey, Jr. was in The Avengers with Jeremy Renner.

The other wonderful aspect of this story is the fantastic illustrations by Steven Kellogg.  The detail and humor of the pictures gives so much more depth to the story itself.  We enjoyed embellishing on the story by adding in details and extensions based on the illustrations.  It also opened up more favorite stories that were also illustrated by Steven Kellogg.  And of course, any grade school field trip description had to include the disappointing fact that no boa constrictor got loose.

The Daylight Limited by Lin Oliver
This is a wonderful story about Tuck and Billie Holden and their grand adventure across the country on their way to the New York World’s Fair.  The Daylight Limited was the first of three parts to the story, followed by The President Express and The Torpedo Run.  Each of the books focused on a different train as it took them on their adventure.  The stories were full of adventure and humor, and I loved the bond between the two siblings.

What made the stories come alive though was that the books came with a die-cast battery powered engine that fit on the Thomas tracks and a tape with the story read-aloud by LeVar Burton.  Although the reading level was more advanced than my son’s at the time, he really learned how to follow along with the story by listening to the tape.  Each tape also included famous railway songs, like I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, Wabash Cannonball, and Rock Island Line.  My son enjoyed listening to and learning the new songs.  The author wrote two additional stand-alone stories that also became favorites and included a train and a tape.

And now you have my memories.  I am curious to see if my son’s are the same as mine; maybe he’ll comment?  How about you?  Do your favorite books from your child’s early years match their memories?