Kiddie Lit

Those of A Certain Age, I think, have memorized the best vacations we ever took; top places we’ve called home, and favorite jobs of all time. Foodies like me can even wax nostalgic about the finest meals we’ve had the pleasure
of experiencing.
 
But for other folks, also like me, who grew up around books and can’t imagine our lives without them, there’s another inventory that comes to mind — one that goes back to our very early years. 
 
I’m talking about the children’s books (also called kiddie literature or “kiddie lit” for short) that were read to us by parents and nursery school teachers; as well as the ones we later sat down with on our own, and those that we then passed on to our children and even grandchildren. Given that I got my first library card at five years old, that’s a whole lot of pages to ponder.
 
I was reminded of my very favorite children’s stories a couple of weeks ago, when a librarian chum posted an article last month during Children’s Literature Week. The 14-page piece is courtesy of Atlas Obscura, a web site that bills itself as “the definitive guide to the world’s hidden wonders.” The site asked its followers to recount those little-known books that have stuck with them, but ones that also hardly anyone else seems to remember.
 
Nine hundred people answered, and from those responses, the editors compiled their favorite two dozen titles. And, although I think of myself as a big fan — and collector — of kiddie lit, I wasn’t familiar with any of them. 
 
Included are The Summer Birds, about a group of children in rural England who learn to fly one summer; Time Windows, a ghost story involving a little girl and her doll house, and The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, all about a school that’s grimly serious about turning out perfect children, and the eventual rebellion of its students.
 
Clearly, I’ve missed a lot of terrific books.
 
Still, I wished I had seen the original clarion call, because I absolutely would have responded. 
 
But wait.
 
Because I’m the sole proprietor of my very own blog —Girl Clown Dancing, at hilaryrobertsgrant.weebly.com — I still get the chance to name my favorites right here, right now. Happily, I have copies of most of them. And because only one is a book that most don’t know about, I’m hoping that not only are these books still remembered, but that they’re still being read by millions of kids — and adults, too.

  • Me Too is a big, grey-covered picture book published in 1945, and would be my entry into the little-known category. It’s the enchanting story of a very smart, very curious and very mischievous duckling. “Me Too’s name wasn’t Me Too at all,” the book begins. “It was Herbert. But everybody called him Me Too because every time his mother said, ‘I am going to take the older children to the pond,’ he said, “Me too, Me too!”
  • Then there’s The Little House. Written in 1942, I still remember, as a very little girl, sitting in an itty-bitty library chair and turning its pages over and over again. Told exclusively from the house’s point of view, the tiny pink house with big shutters lives a quiet and uneventful life, with birds and flowers and children for company. Still, she wonders what life would be like in the city, which boasts fast moving cars, busy people and twinkling lights. Eventually, she finds out. Perhaps this book might also be considered obscure; not even the owner of our town’s indie bookstore was familiar with this title when I placed a special order for it last year.
  • Next up is a book from Dr. Suess, who I like but don’t love… except for Happy Birthday to You. Coming out in 1959, it’s tells the magical Technicolor tale of one very lucky birthday boy who lives in the land of Katroo. After flying through his bedroom window early one morning, The Great Birthday Bird whisks the child from adventure to adventure over the course of one very long day, including a stop at The Birthday Flower Jungle and the famous Mustard-Off Pools (which I imagined diving into one day myself). I love this book so much that I’ve bought it for more than a few friends.
  • Released in 1941, Make Way for Ducklings has been in continuous print since that time, selling more than two million copies. With its gorgeous charcoal illustrations rendered in sepia tones, the book tells the story of ducks Mr. and Mrs. Mallard (is anyone seeing a theme here?). After more than a few (mis)adventures, the couple decide to raise their eight little ones — Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack — on an island in the Boston Public Garden. I bought Ducklings for my daughter before I even brought her home.
  • I’m hardly adverse to chapter books either, which is where Mary Poppins, first published in 1933, and the Doctor Doolittle series come in. For those who know Poppins only through the movie and play, it’s worth noting that the original nanny character was anything but saccharine sweet. She’s much more dimensional and much more human: while her magical powers are very much in play, Poppins’ behavior toward her charges (Jane and Michael Banks, then later, twins John and Barbara) could sometimes be downright mean. Also, I learned one of my first big words from the first book: perambulator, better known today as a baby stroller.
  • The initial Doctor Dolittle book came out in 1920; 11 more followed, with the final one released in 1952. All penned by Hugh Lofting, the stories about a physician who shuns human patients in favor of animals (he can talk to them!) made their premiere in Lofting’s illustrated letters to his own children. They were literally written from the trenches of World War I when actual news, the author later said, was either too horrible or too dull. I don’t know that I got to every single book, but I did read every one my town library had on the shelf.

That’s it for now, but frankly, I could list a dozen more kiddie lit favorites and still be far from finished. If you haven’t read a grand children’s book lately, the list above — if this Girl Clown does say so herself — is A Very Good Start.

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