Sunday, March 20, 2011

Silly Jenny! Children's books are for kids!

Dear Reader -  Yesterday saw a striking number of adults - young and old'uns alike - buying children's books at biblion.

Now, part of the attraction, I'm sure, is that Miss C intentionally prices our kids' books very accessibly, making sure that when a kid comes in, he or she can walk out with a book without their mom or dad having to think twice about it. And we've seen that scenario play out time and time again. We've also had our own fair share of grandmothers and teachers who've stopped in and cherry-picked our stacks. But yesterday had a different air to it, as many of these folks were just buying the kid's books for themselves.

And I can relate.

You see, dear Reader, I adore children's books. I love the depth of story-telling that one can find - storytelling that so transcends the trite, syrupy fare that so many adults produce for kids, thinking that's all they're up for. And I love the art.

It was my mother who first taught me about the power of children's stories for all ages.

As I mentioned in my Grandma Moses post, theater and the arts were at the center of Mom's life in little Augusta, Kansas (I'll tell you all about mom and her family some other day - there's some juicy bits there that it'd be more fun to linger over when we're not in the midst of talkin' 'bout kids' books). And one of the things that Mom did on a regular basis was readings.

Mom had a spectacular reading voice. Something magic just seemed to happen whenever she read aloud.

And one of the sometimes traditions at the little Methodist church where we settled for most of my growing up years was for Mom to read The Littlest Angel as the sermon on the Sunday before Christmas:

Now the original building that housed the August United Methodist Church was this big (to my little eye), square-ish brick thing down on the corner of 6th and School. Its shape was relevant, 'cause the sanctuary mirrored it as well, and the two-storey seating was arranged in a horse-shoe shape. We always sat upstairs on the southwest side, which turned out to be a perfect vantage point for me to entertain myself with people-watching for the hour or so that we sat in services each week.

This is all germain 'cause I remember the first time I ever watched my Mom read this story and how the faces of my neighbors - all of them, young and old alike - responded to the tale. I remember seeing folks start to choke up when Mom got to the part where the littlest angel adds his own, simple gift to pile of splendid offerings for baby Jesus:

And then how some folks'd just up and cry when the humble gift became the star.

I saw first hand how the books that I thought were for just me and my kind held power and wonder for  grown-ups, too.

Years later, in 1989, my mom and dad visited one fall when I lived in New Canaan, Connecticut - we did the obligatory leaf peeping, and we made our way into New York for a day of sight-seeing and shopping. One of our finds that day was a just-published English translation of of Ophelia's Shadow Theatre by Michael Ende (some of you may remember him as the author of The Neverending Story):

Mom and I were initially attracted by Friedrich Hechelmann's stunning illustrations:

But when we pulled it out after dinner at home and Mom set to reading it out loud, Ende's gorgeously-written, tender story left us both verklemmt. It was one of those wonderful, emotionally-connected moments that has stayed with me for life. And every time I pick up the story to read it for my own child or for the kids who escape to the graveyard with me to read during the sermons in the summer at our little church, I feel her there with us.

Some years after that night, I went to find a copy of Ophelia for a friend and learned that the book was out of print. It had never occurred to me that something so wonderful would ever not be printed. But, alas, that is the fate of many books. And I came to find out, once  the Internet became a tool for locating titles, that procuring another was possible but would run me considerably more than my little $14.95 volume.

In fact, as I've been researching biblion's books, I've found that out-of-print children's books in particular tend to be valued disproportionally high. And I think there are two reasons for this. First, it's really hard to find children's books in good condition. They simply often get loved to death. And second, the emotional connections that people experience with children's stories - whether due to the emotional impact of the stories themselves or those with whom they've shared them - serve as powerful ties.

So while all of these adults were enjoying our children's books, it was a fun coincidence that I'd been busying myself with children's books the last couple of days as well, culling out the collectible ones from the boxes that Sue (Queen o' Goo Gone) had de-stickered for me. And, man, did I find some doozies.

I'm afraid that I've gone on here for quite long enough without launching into a series of lengthy expositions of my finds, but let me just give you a little taste. Here on this first day of Spring, let's take a quick peek at Kit Williams' book without a title, where the four seasons engage in a surreal battle amidst their changes, while Ambrose the beekeeper unwittingly participates:

Here, mid-story, Ambrose wakes to Summer:

"A thin shaft of sunlight stood absolutely still as it pierced the silent dimness of a cottage bedroom.
"As the earth revolved, the cottage moved and so too the bedroom until the thin white beam lit up the edge of a wooden bed. Slowly, imperceptibly, the world rotated and inch by inch the many contours of the counterpane were illuminated. Tiny specks of dust sparkled in the sunbeam as it gently penetrated the dreams of the sleeping man. Ambrose woke up, yawned and stretched, then, swinging his legs out of bed, he sat up and slipped his feet into a pair of worn carpet slippers. He slowly crossed the room, half knelt on a chair and opened the curtains.
 " The first day of Summer flooded into the room all ablaze with glorious colour and heavy with the scent of countless blooms. Ripples of birdsong broke the silence and Ambrose, filling his lungs with the eager breath of the morning, all but burst with excitement. He flung on his clothes and clattered down the stairs."
As must I, dear Reader. Blissfully content as a seller of out-of-print books  - Jenny


  1. Today's Washington Post 'Book World' all about Children's Books (current) and other interesting comentary.
    We have one shelf in our library holding many of Art's and my childhood books. I also have all of the GrandKids favorites kept loveingly on the shelf! A couple of them bring a sweet tear to my eye. Treasured were those minutes spent reading to them. Have no idea if they are attainable still, but, as you stated, they remain on our shelf and in our memories.
    Nice blog Jen. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, NJ - for the kind words and for the WPBW note! What an awesome legacy to have preserved for your family - and it gives you that inroad to an immediate emotional connection to boot - love that! - J


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