Children’s Lit Corner

I have been haunted most of my life by the memory of a book I read once when I was very young. It was most likely a library book, because it certainly wasn’t part of my life for very long, but in spite of its short stay, it made a lasting impression on me. Of course I couldn’t remember the title or anything concrete about it. If I could have recalled even a word of the title I’m sure I would have tracked it down long ago. No, the impression I had of the book was much more intangible. All I could recall was an image of lovebirds in a cage, of a pavilion in a garden with fountains and marble steps, and haunting, bittersweet strains of music I couldn’t quite identify. I also seemed to recall something about olden times and rustling silk and patient love waiting in hope, even if that hope is in vain. The image of the birds was the most vivid of this watery memory, that, and the feeling of old times gone. Over the years I tried again and again to recall more than these fleeting details, but if I tried too hard, the memory slipped away and I would find myself inventing details that seemed right but probably weren’t. Maybe there was something about a window. . . . I’ll leave it at that.

Losing that book has colored my life somehow. In part it may have been the wispy memory of those lovebirds in a cage that led me to become a librarian in the first place, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, I seem to be always on the lookout for a treasure of one kind or another. Maybe it’s not really that particular book I’m seeking anymore but something less substantial, the purpose of my life, maybe. I do know that I always have the hope that a new book, a new friend, a new bend in the road may hold a clue or a key I can use to finally comprehend life’s elusive meaning.

And then I found it. I really did! Just when I arrived at a spot where I felt maybe I didn’t need to ask the unanswerable question about the purpose of life anymore, I found it. Not the changing answer to the meaning of life, no, but the long-lost book! Some time ago I was listening to the radio and heard Daniel Pinkwater talking about an old favorite book that had been reissued by the New York Review company. That book, The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, is one I have loved for years and years. I grew up with its clever words and beautiful fairy tale, and I’ve read it more times than I can count — enough that the words resonate inside of me and I know when my favorite lines are coming. So I looked up the New York Review Children’s Collection and ordered one of almost all of the children’s books for my library’s collection. Two were books we already had, but they were so dog-eared and well-used that I knew a brand new book with a clean cover and crisp pages would be much more tantalizing for children to choose. Finally the stack of books arrived, and as usual I leafed through each of them and set aside a few to take home and read word by word.

I remember it was early in the morning. I had a library conference to attend so I came extra early to make a head start on the day. I took the first book off the pile and opened it to a page a little past the middle. I looked, then looked again. The story I had turned to was short, only about three pages long, but it was MY STORY, the one about the lovebirds! As I read it, I didn’t find the marble steps or the fountains or the striped pavilions (those might be waiting in different stories), but as I reread the words the memories and enchantment came flooding back. I hadn’t really forgotten after all, the story had been in my heart all along. Only then did I look to see which book of the many on my desk I had picked up. It was Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, one of the books I had reordered because the library’s original copy had been loved almost to pieces.

I’m still trying to figure out that experience. Was it just a coincidence? Or was there something deeper? All I know is that I thought the book was gone forever. But it was really not five steps from my desk these past years. Maybe many things are like that, waiting patiently until we stumble across them and realize they have been there all along. Is my life different now that I found the long-lost book? It’s probably not much changed. I still find myself wondering at times about the purpose of things, and longing for a clearer view of the overall plan. But I hope I will have a little more faith that what I seek really does exist. If I look carefully enough I will find it, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. And maybe like the words of my story, it will flow into me with the familiarity of an old friend’s voice or slip into my life like my feet into a comfortable pair of shoes. I do know I won’t stop looking, because after all, nothing is ever really lost.

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7 Responses to Children’s Lit Corner

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    The books we read become a part of us. It’s so very true.

    In Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, a member of the guild of curators — the librarians — talks to Severian about how children who are destined to become librarians all at a certain age encounter The Book of Gold on a shelf and are captured by it. “I wish I might find it again,” he says (or something to that effect). Later, at the end of his 4-book epic, Severian speculates that all he may have done with his lengthy narrative is to write someone else’s Book of Gold.

  2. C. M. Malm says:

    There is a similar book in my past, but I have never yet found it. It was about a spoiled princess who wanted a dress made of purple grape skins (why that particular detail stuck so clearly in my mind, I’ve no idea!), but she was going to have to learn to behave properly to get it. My 4th grade teacher began reading the book to us, but for some reason our reading time got derailed and she never finished. I remember her telling us that it was long out of print, so we wouldn’t be able to find it in the library. Every time I see a old book with a title that suggests it *might* contain such a plot line, I examine it eagerly to see if it might be the one. Perhaps, as Kathryn did with her story, I imagined some the details (the grape-skin dress?) and am looking for the wrong thing.

  3. Mine had a golden cat in it… I think.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Mine, I think, had a diamond statue of an alien found in a cave by the sea, and underground cities populated by nonhumans, and a “mole” machine that could dig tunnels through rock. It was a book in my third grade classroom, I believe. I think I managed to identify it again, once, but have since forgotten.

  5. Wm says:

    Mine has two boys who get sent to the principal’s office for fighting, get sucked into a fantasy world and have to figure out how to work together to complete a quest. There’s a wizard with a bathrobe (one of the things they are looking for turns out to be the sash on his bathrobe), a roc, two comma things that become a yin-yang symbol, and I can’t remember what else.

  6. Katya says:

    Mine is a picture book with an kingdom on an island where it’s always raining and three giant brothers—each one taller than the last—who come to help tow the raincloud away (or possibly tow the island out from under the raincloud).

    And I did grow up to be a librarian, so there’s that.

  7. Jessie says:

    There was a book that had something to do with a mystery and it was solved by realizing that some animal (a squirrel?) had hidden the missing objects in a hollow sycamore tree. I just really loved the word “sycamore”

    We also had a book where some kids went in a subway tunnel in New York and ended up back in New Amsterdam. I can still picture the illustrations but can’t remember the title.

    Interestingly, neither of my 2 older kids seem to have latched onto any particular book in the way I remember doing that. I don’t know if that is due to the fact that we have so many books in our house or because we visit the library frequently, where there are also a lot of books, but neither seems to have found much use for rereading.

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