Never Too Old

Never Too Old

By Nell Minow

Nell lives in Virginia with her husband and two children, Ben and Rachel. This article was published as a special to the Tribune on July 26, 2005 and is used with permission, all rights reserved. Copyright 2005 Nell Minow.

Charlie Bucket is still finding the golden ticket for a tour of Willie Wonka’s candy factory, 40 years after Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was originally published. A new anniversary edition of the book is out in time for the release of the second movie version. It holds up very well, though the movie understandably updates Mike Teevee’s obsession from television shows to video games and the Oompa Loompas are not African (as in the book) or dark orange (as in the first movie), but computer-generated duplicates of one actor.

The book first came out just as I was proudly using my brand-new adult library card and thinking of myself as much too old to check out books from the children’s room. But my younger sister’s copy proved as impossible to resist as a Wonka bar, and it taught me a lesson I have been grateful for ever since — that no one is ever too old for children’s books.

For the good ones, anyway. My friend Kristie Miller, a biographer and historian, says revisiting the books she loved as a child is like going to a high school re-union. Some old friends have grown along with you and are more meaningful than ever, but others suddenly look immature, superficial and sugary.

When I read “The Secret Garden” and “Little Women” aloud to my children, I had the combined pleasure of remembering reading them myself, sharing them with another generation and seeing a depth and subtlety and structure I had never appreciated before.

As a child, when I loved a book, I went down the library shelves and read everything else I could find by the author. “The Secret Garden” led me to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Little Princess” (has there ever been a sweeter moment of vindication than when Miss Minchin finds out about the diamond mines?), and “Little Women” led me to its sequels and also to Lousia May Alcott’s “Eight Cousins,” “Jack and Jill” and “An Old-fashioned Girl.” Now that the statute of limitations on elementary school truancy has expired, I can admit that the one time I ever pretended to be sick so I could stay home from school was to finish reading “The Phantom Tollbooth,” by Norton Juster. Any judge would find me innocent by reason of necessity, especially if, like me, he or she had read only the first half and was dying to know whether Milo would find Rhyme and Reason and solve the disputes between the kingdom of words and the kingdom of numbers.

I find something new to love in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” with every reading. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum, and several of the sequels, the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Shoes” series by Noel Streatfield, “A Wrinkle In Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, all are every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and then some. So are the books by E. Nesbit (especially “Five Children and It”) that delightfully combine practical-minded children and magical adventures, and those she inspired by Edward Eager (especially “Half Magic” and “Knight’s Castle”).

I read all of those to my children along with some childhood favorites now forgotten, including “The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear,” by Oliver Butterworth (a girl who can read minds goes on a quiz show to win money to save a beloved playground), “Nobody’s Boy,” by Hector H. Malot (a foundling sold to a traveling performer has many adventures before finding his real family), and “Beginner’s Luck,” by Oriel Malet(three orphans run away from a mean guardian to find a sweet-natured aunt and end up on stage).

Recommended by kids

And there were books my children brought to me — the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, Philip Pullman’s series that starts with “The Golden Compass,” the books of Lloyd Alexander, especially “The Arkadians” and “The Iron Ring,” and of course J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, all as endlessly inventive and as enthralling for me as they were to my children.

On the other hand, I adored the “Anne of Green Gables” books by L.M. Montgomery as a child but can’t read through two pages now without feeling my fillings ache from the undiluted syrup. “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri and “Pollyanna” by Eleanor H. Porter are also too saintly to appeal to me now. I’m glad to say that the film versions of all three hold up much better.

Some of those older books I remembered with affection have more serious problems than sugar shock. At a used book sale, I excitedly grabbed a book my mother had read aloud to me, a favorite from her own childhood called “A Dixie Doll,” by Katherine Verdery. I had not seen or even thought of the book in decades, but I immediately turned to a page that, in our copy of the book, had been torn out. I remembered very well how curious I had been to find out what was on it.

Apparently, someone had torn out that page because it included the casual use of a racial epithet that is shocking nearly 100 years after the story was written. It reminded me that when I went to New Trier in the late 1960s, I brought one of my old Nancy Drew books to a little girl I was tutoring but ended up putting it back in my bag when I looked ahead as she was reading and saw an insensitively stereotyped character.

The Nancy Drew books have all been updated and reissued — the blue roadster is long gone — but the books are still just pluck and puzzles and do not have a single memorable character, description or line of dialogue.

Neither does the current best-selling Gossip Girl series which, even worse, also manages to be simultaneously slack and vile. The neurasthenic rich-girl characters have less depth than paper dolls. All they do is get loaded, spend money, have sex and betray one another.

The books are poorly written (“Nate had come over after a party with a half-drunk flask of brandy in his pocket and had lain down on her bed and whispered, `I want you, Blair.'”), with more attention to the brand names than the plot lines. But they are wildly popular.

Resisting trash

Teaching kids to resist the appeal of trash books is not a new problem. Alcott’s “Eight Cousins” has a wise mother tell her sons: “It does seem to me that some one might write stories that should be lively, natural and helpful tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have. I can’t bear to see such crowds of eager little fellows at the libraries reading such trash; weak, when it is not wicked, and totally unfit to feed the hungry minds that feast on it for want of something better.” At least the relentlessly wholesome Heidi and Pollyanna meet that standard.

Bridging the gaps

On this summer’s vacation with my extended family, each of us was asked to bring a book we loved and share it with the group. One night, all eleven of us — ranging in age from 13 to 79 — sat down together to describe our books and swap them around. The enthusiasm was so infectious that my serious lawyer father who can’t tell Mick Jagger from Steven Tyler ended up reading my college senior son’s selection — Frank Zappa’s autobiography.

I loved my daughter’s description of Natalie Babbitt’s wonderful “The Search for Delicious” so much, I am on the list to reread it as soon as my sister is finished with it. My daughter borrowed her uncle’s copy of the new Jonathan Safran Foer book, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and her uncle took my copy of Connie Willis’ book, “Bellwether.”

I can’t wait to begin my niece’s “The Gammage Cup,” by Carol Kendall, which she read because it was her much older cousin’s favorite childhood book. She promises me it is completely engrossing.
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Favorites from childhood
Media Mom’s list of childhood favorites:

“Little Women,” “Eight Cousins,” “Jack and Jill,” “An Old-fashioned Girl,” by Louisa May Alcott

“The Arkadians” and “The Iron Ring” by Lloyd Alexander

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum

“The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear” by Oliver Butterworth

“Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl

“Half Magic” and “Knight’s Castle” by Edgar Eager

“Redwall” series by Brian Jacques

“The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster

“Beginner’s Luck” by Oriel Malet

“Nobody’s Boy” by Hector H. Malot

“Anne of Green Gables” and others in the series by L.M. Montgomery

“Five Children and It” by E. Nesbit

“Pollyanna” by Eleanor H. Porter

“Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

“Shoes” series by Noel Streatfield

“A Dixie Doll” by Katherine Verdery

“Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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