Writing for Kids

by Sherwood Smith

Every so often discussions rise about writing for kids, sometimes after yet another celebrity who has never written anything, and doesn’t seem familiar with children’s literature, can’t resist trying their hand–and more often than not, bombing totally. We will skip past the observation that most of them get stunning advances just on their names, whereas the rest of us are lucky to get a thousandth of that, and past the many reasons why their effort has crash-landed. It’s obvious why their story bombed, kids didn’t want to read it. Accusations I’ve heard the most often: preachy, talking down, boring.

So then the discussion shifts to, well how do you write for kids?

Every year during my twenty years in the classroom, I asked kids what they liked. Here is a quick summary of the most common answers, purposed for the writer:

* Short chapters read faster

* Stakes can be high, but see them through the kid’s eye view

* Open with a  narrow-focus. Things can get as complicated as one wants later, but open linear, pref. with an emotional hook that kids can relate to, and widen the focus an item at a time.

* Remember how kid socializing works.

* When in doubt, read kid writing, NOT writing for kids. Talk to kids. Reread old diaries or school papers.

* Kid humor is as obvious as farts. But they also like weird contrasts, and surprise–and tumbledown justice.

* Remember what adults looked like and sounded like through kids’ eyes—resist the impulse to make the adults the center of attention.

When I say that I think those considering writing for kids should resist the temptation to bend their tale around a message, I’m not saying that one should avoid sharing hard-won experience with young readers through characters’ actions. One thing I remember as a kid reader, and noticed during my years as a teacher, is that kid reading patterns show that they are eager to get experience through book form: most kids (but not all!) do read about kids just a little older than they are, or even a lot older, some taking down adult novels for a test drive.

If you have to preach, then tell the kids up front. Kids do read Aesop’s Fables, for example–have for how many centuries? But fair’s fair, you know going in that there is going to be a moral. Starting a story off with an exciting premise and switching to earnest lecture can spark mutiny.

Too many people approach a project meant for the young reader in a way they wouldn’t for adults, wrapping the teeth-grittingly sugary or threadbarest of plots around some favorite aphorism—which from the kids’ view feels like they are being talked down to.

Writers who share their experience through stories will weave in hard-won truths and  painful discoveries. The most successful share those experiences through the sort of adventure we craved when we were small enough to believe that we could one day become pirates—“You know, the sort of pirates that only kill bad guys, who don’t go around killing like your gramma or baby brother”—or could fly if we found the right amulet. The sort of adventure that we read to pieces when we were young, and maybe even reread the harder as, slowly, we began to realize that no, we would never be good-guy pirates. We’re not going to grow wings.

Those who write for kids I believe are participating in the gradual creation of civilization, just as surely as our ancestors Grunt and Ogg did around the campfire back a few glacier ages ago. Story is a form of play, and play is one of the primary ways we learn. And in turn their readership, if they are successful, rewards their stories with a clear-burning passion that is rare in the sophisticated adult.

Sometimes I think it can be fruitful for writers to shift to the other side of the book, and remember themselves as readers. Most of us here have been passionate readers since we were young. What is the book that turned you into a hardcore reader?

I was always a reader, but when I look back, the hunger to escape into the book was balanced out by the message, or the grim setting. I had little access to books, so pretty much had to take what I could get. For my seventh birthday I was given Black Beauty which I did enjoy, though I was full of questions about aspects of Victorian life that no one could answer, and they got impatient with me for being a pest. I was also given an exquisitely illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen, which I dutifully read, but I remember deciding early on to read one story a day. Each day I’d brace myself for the next horrible or confusing story to come. No question but I had to read them all–the book was there, so it must be read, but my foremost emotion was obligation, undertoned by anxiety because I could sense yet another horrible ending for the little girl in that story.

Then my babysitter brought over Enid Blyton’s Castle of Adventure, when I was nine. It surprised me, as she was so dedicated a teen of her period–squealed over Fabian, begged her mother for lipstick and starched petticoats, talked about rock’n’roll and boys. Changed her name from Judy to Judi, writing the i with a big heart over it. I never once heard her talking about books, only boyfriends and teen stuff. Yet she brought this book! She said she had to take it back to the library the next day, so I had to read it that night.

As I look back, I strongly suspect she asked around in desperation for recommendations. We were awful brats, as are kids who have at least one parent into discipline through violence. Being the oldest, I was the most steeped in sin, because if I wasn’t acting like a monster, I was slyly getting the younger  sibs to act out, whenever we were away from dad’s eye.

Wow, did Judi’s ruse work! I smacked into that book, crouched on the very edge of my bed like an owl, toes hung over the mattress, chin grinding into my bony knees. (I suspect my rotten eyesight was kicking in around then, and I had to get the pages closer to my face.) Anyway I ripped through that book thinking at last here was my kind of story! No parents, no heavy-handed message, girls getting to adventure as well as boys, funny stuff as well as action and bad guys getting defeated–what joy! What bliss! After that there was no stopping me, and even if those books don’t read the same, I do remember the passion, which has given me a lifelong gratitude to Blyton.

How about you? What was your passion book, the one that made you a reader?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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Writing for Kids — 51 Comments

  1. I also had the requisite book of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales as a child and found them incomprehensible and terribly depressing. Giving Hans Christian Andersen to a child is a very bad idea IMO, because his stories are most definitely not for children. I might actually have appreciated him more, had I been a bit older when I encountered him. As it was, I never revisited the stories due to my bad childhood experiences.

    For all her weaknesses as a writer, Enid Blyton knew how to grab young readers, which is probably why her work endured for so long. The books were already thirty years old and more than a bit dated by the time I read them in the early 1980s, but I adored them anyway.

    “No preachiness” is an important aspect, because I inevitably rejected books that I suspected of trying to teach me some important lesson, while I happily read other books with equally difficult themes, if the adventure and the experiences of the child protagonists were paramount. Interestingly, one of the books I rejected due to its preachiness as a child has lately experienced a renaissance of sorts due to a new film adaption. And today’s young readers don’t consider it preachy at all. I suspect my problem with the book was that it was school assigned reading and that the cover and packaging all suggested preachy to me. But for the kids of today it’s the book that inspired that really cool movie with all those cool young actors they just saw.

  2. It’s a vexing thing, how much joy is squeezed out of a book by its being assigned in class. Yet certain skills must be taught. This might be a potential other topic–how to teach literature and not ruin the subject for students?

  3. What I was looking for as a kid reader is what I look for as an adult reader, but I’m struggling to articulate it. Difference. You used the word escape, and I mean that, too.
    But I needed to know that circumstances and people could be different from what I knew, and that goodness might be real after all. I want beauty. I want justice. I want resolution. Isn’t that what fiction means because the hunger won’t be satisfied in real life.

  4. I think I really enjoyed dialogue as a kid–I think I still do, but as a kid, I think I **really ** did. I don’t think I would have ever said that, though, if you asked me what I liked, as a kid, in a book. I probably would have talked about a plot element or a type of world or a type of heroine or hero. (Probably. I don’t know. Or maybe I would have told you about my favorite book du jour and why I liked it. Actually, I’m still likely to do that.)

    The reason I think of dialogue now is that, when I think of memorable scenes or lines that have stuck with me from my early favorites, many of them involve lines of dialogue.

    … Though, of course, now that I’ve said that, I’m thinking about the ones that **didn’t** involve dialogue.

  5. I remember the seeking-of-knowledge too. The best books wer like cheap travel — you could go to someplace different and learn how they did things there, and you could travel back just by closing the volume. The LITTLE HOUSE books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are as good as a time machine.

  6. Brenda: that is so true about Little House.

    Asakiyume: I remember one of my tests for a possible library book was to flip through to see if the kids were talking a lot. (Dialogue.) I figured if there was plenty of dialogue, it would be interesting, but if there were big blocks, then the writer was sure to be stopping the story to give you a long lesson.

    I realized some time later that this was wrong, but having been given Victorian kids’ books when young, with their many long interpolations to make absolutely certain the child reader Got The Point, I distrusted blocks of text. In fact, it seems to me that one of Jack London’s books was the one to make me realize that blocks of text could be lots of intense action. But that was fourth grade.

  7. Our grade four teacher in Ottawa, Canada read a few pages HEIDI aloud to the class every day following afternoon recess. This was our ‘quiet time’. She read slowly and with great emphasis. She even used different voices for each character. Looking back on it now, this was quite ingenious on her part.

  8. I agree with Asakiyume about the then-unnoticed importance of dialogue. (I think I just assumed *everyone* preferred dialogue.)

    I was always a sit-on-the-edge-of-the-bed reader, back as far as I can remember (at 3, reading Mercer Mayer’s “Just Me and” series over and over) and as others remember (I apparently was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables at 4), but there were five books (or in two cases a set of books) that really cemented me as a reader, all of which I started reading between the ages of six and seven, and remained obsessed with until I was at least eleven. They are so intertwined in my memories that I really couldn’t tell you which came first.

    One was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; one was the Narnia books; one was Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen; one was The Once and Future King; and one was Johnson, Sickles, and Sayers’ Anthology of Children’s Literature. The first four of those are sort of obvious and I’ve written about them before anyway.

    The anthology was an old textbook of my mom’s (you can read the same edition she had at http://www.archive.org/details/anthologyofchild00horoarch ), and it had more than a thousand pages of short excerpts of mythology and fairy tales and classic short novels and nursery rhymes and poetry and picture books (!) and even science writing and pieces of epic (eg The Cid). When I was a kid, it felt like the whole world of kids’ books bound up in a single blue volume with onionskin pages. Paradoxically, I think it turned me into a desperately engaged reader not just because I loved so much of what I found between its pages, but also because there was occasionally a deadly boring excerpt with introductory text by someone who obviously loved the deadly boring excerpt in question. So I learned early that stuff I hated was just a small part of a wonderful whole, and also that it was probably wonderful to someone else – but it was okay to skip it and move on.

    Oddly, that book was also what made me fall in love with Hans Christian Anderson. Even so young, I loved how weird and sad the stories were, and I didn’t find them confusing. I remember getting supergrumpy at the “happified” versions I came across in picture books at the school library.

    Ach, enough about what a weird kid I was:)

  9. I was a late reader (which is to say, I probably could read, but it was a huge effort for me–until I stopped doing phonics and just read, at which point the gates of Heaven swung open). The book I was reading when that happened was The Boxcar Children, but I don’t know that it was the text that transformed me. Rather it was the sudden realization that the only thing standing between me and story was my difficulty in decoding–at which point I stopped trying to decode and just read. I didn’t have to be convinced of the necessity of story; I just needed to have my own roadblocks removed. At which point I read everything in my path…

  10. Marianne: I think every kid is weird! (Just weird in different ways.)

    Madeleine: that switchover moment is probably more important than we think. For many of us, it happened way early, so we grew up reading and thought nothing of it. (My mother says I read my first words independently at eighteen months. I certainly don’t remember not knowing how to read, and I can remember back to my first birthday.)

    But for some it happens later–and for some it never happens. Reading is always going to be a labor in conscious decoding. My personal theory is that the film industry is filled with dyslexics.

  11. I went through phases of liking to read and not. I have pleasant memories of loving books as a young child up through grade school, but then something happened and I found myself a “reluctant reader” of sorts through Jr. High School.

    I loved Witch of Blackbird Pond, and the A Wrinkle in Time series, and Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdian Chronicles, to name a few that come to mind, but by the time I reached Jr. HIgh, I think all I was reading were the things that were assigned.

    I remember a particular experience that “changed my life” in about 9th grade. i was enrolled in a “Creative Reading and Writing class in school and one day my teacher said to me, “It looks like your reading hours are on the low side, what’s up?” As we talked, my teacher discovered that I wasn’t loving to read so she did something no one had ever done before–she gave me permission to not finish a book. Her suggestion–“Here just take a few books from my library and start one. If you don’t like it, put it down and pick up another one until you find one that holds your interest.”

    That did the trick! Now with my own kids, I do the same thing and when they find books that they love, they devour them within just a few hours and can hardly wait for the next trip to the library.

  12. I just wanted to read. I didn’t care what, just to read. Seriously, the old cliche, I read all the cereal boxes at the breakfast table, I read the newspaper when my dad was done with it, I read the instructions on cleaning products. I know what made me an sf fan, but reading itself just had to happen.

    My parents read to us from the time I can remember, one book or chapter for each of three children, every evening unless some catastrophe intervened, and sometimes even then, so maybe that was what did it.

    Pamela

  13. Greta: I remember the intensely empowering feeling that accompanied realizing that I could put down something I didn’t enjoy. As always, I was last on the clue bus: though I too read extremely early, I always had that sense that I must finish whatever I started, which gave me this sense of anxiety that ran directly parallel to pleasure. Until I gained the power of putting aside something I did not enjoy.

    Pamela: reading to your kids does not guarantee readers, but it certainly can help.

  14. Nothing in particular made me a reader. I was a reader from the moment I could.

    So, was it my parents and grandparents reading to us? My mom teaching me the alphabet, to print my name and other words, and having me memorize not only the age appropriate requisite bible verses, but what we call nursery rhymes, all before I started school? Which latter, btw, isn’t as advanced it might sound, since in our rural world we began school with grade one. There was no kindergarden even, or pre-schools.

    Love, C.

  15. Puuh, what a question for my awful memory…

    I don’t rightly know. I know my mum told me one fairy-tale every night before bed-time at a fairly early age – and I demanded them if I didn’t get the offer. When she told them by heart, I corrected her telling to be exactly the way I remembered it from the first time.

    I didn’t write or read all that early – I could write my own name when I started school but no more, but I do know that I wanted books because my mum couldn’t keep up with my demands for new stories. So the traditional fairy-tales with all the gruesomeness of the original German version at least (if not as gruesome as the Perrault versions) showed up. Even then it was fantasy for me and I don’t believe I ever thought these things could happen to me – I was fairly self-confident as a small child.

    I think I believed these stories to be real in their own world, like all the stuff on TV… which I also watched a lot of.

    Soon I got real children’s books, eventually whole series, because people could be certain I’d like them – stuff that is in print still and stuff not many people may remember: Die Pünkelchen – Bücher, Latte Igel, all the Max Kruse I could get (die Urmel – Bücher, die Löwe – Bücher – probably because the Augsburger Puppenkiste had majorly featured his stories as the background for their puppet theatre that was shown on TV. Isn’t it odd that I now work and live in the town he was born in, and that he is the son of Käthe Kruse the doll-maker?) and in our library (town and church) lots of Enid Blyton, too, and translated Edith Nesbit, and those good girl series like Pucki and der Trotzkopf and Johanna Spyri’s books (yes, she has others than Heidi).

    There was one particular publisher, Schneider Buch Verlag, who released most of my teenage books ^^ – whether horsey or romancy (preferably both).

  16. Oh and I should say that while I might have wished the magic to be real and known it wasn’t – I DID believe the stories that were set supposedly in our reality or past to be realistic and I kept others to that standard of honesty and if-you-only-be-true-to-the-goals-you-will-get-there and the-bad-people-will-get-their-come-uppance etc., etc.

  17. I think–and this is an awkward confession–that a lot of my childhood tastes have not changed. I like grand destinies and interesting powers and rich backgrounds and groups of friends and seeing Girls Be Awesome and a faint undercurrent of romantic tension. (I don’t think I knew it was romantic tension when I was younger, but I was always really happy when I thought Eilonway and Taran would get married, for example. It’s strange, because I get told over and over that kids don’t like/need/want romance, but I think–yeah, they do.)

    If my tastes have changed at all, it’s because I just want MORE and MORE INTENSE versions of all of that.

  18. Merrie: I suspect that kids, or mostly girls? I haven’t yet encountered boys who showed an interest at a young age–like a hint of romance, as you say.

    Estara: I think I read once that Spyri wrote other books–I should track some of those down. That would be a fun way to keep up my German.

  19. Actually I just reailsed that Familie Pfäffling is by Agnes Sapper not Johanna Spyri – but she still has some nice other books ^^.

    It is one of those family sagas, like Der Trotzkopf, for example, which follows a family across the kids childhood into adulthood – I guess you’d compare them in English to the Anne of Green Gables stories in scope.

    There is some nice stuff out there indeed ^^.

  20. I remember one of my tests for a possible library book was to flip through to see if the kids were talking a lot. (Dialogue.) I figured if there was plenty of dialogue, it would be interesting, but if there were big blocks, then the writer was sure to be stopping the story to give you a long lesson.

    Pictures and conversation! And Stephen King in ON WRITING said the same thing: paragraph shape and white space is a map of intent.

    My parents were teachers, so I grew up being read to. Andersen gave me the concept of ‘author’ tho not the word: “Pls don’t read me any more from that big pretty book, they’re all sad and nasty.” Lang’s color fairy books weren’t so … strongly and consistently flavored. (And anything with a Newberry medal on it would be dull at best.) My father read me what HE liked, ie James Oliver Curwood (and possibly Perry Mason 😉 ).

    The books I remember devouring for myself were the Oz series, Tarzan, less Nancy Drew (that magic or picturesque thing always turned out to be a hoax), various semi-mystery adventures such as one about a black opal or a lost city of the Incas or Romans. And Swallows & Amazons! And Maristan Chapman. No mushy stuff, thanks! Later L.M. Montgomery (at least her mushy stuff wasn’t mushy). Didn’t see Narnia till high school, when I thought he kept running out of ideas and stealing from Christianity.

    Freddy the Pig and Edward Eager were pretty good too, tho Eager went fakish dull in the later ones.

    I thought the only thing really worthwhile was long series: Oz, Tarzan, etc.

  21. I read “The Little Blue Brontosaurus” to Rose so many times, she had it memorized by age 4. Tricked us all into thinking she could read it herself.

    I vividly remember that switch-over point, the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade. I had an old discarded reading text (4th grade level, I think) with gorgeous bright pictures, and somewhere between “The Mountain of Glass,” with its splendid war horses, and excerpts from “Understood Betsy,” ignition took place.

    What did I love as a kid? Anything with a horse in it, although dogs were a close second, and cats, deer, dinosaurs, eagles, etc., would do in a pinch. Human characters were optional plot devices.

  22. I also devoured the Trotzkopf and Nesthäkchen and Pucki and Goldköpfchen series as a child. In retrospect, I suspect that they were preachy, too. But by the time I read those books they were fifty to eighty years old, so they were basically historical fiction.

    Magda Trott, who wrote the Pucki and Goldköpfchen books, was actually my first favourite author. I vividly remember checking the copyright date for the Pucki books (which continued to be published in facsimile editions of the original 1930s editions complete with illustrations, so they looked old) and then calculating when Pucki was born and in what year every successive book had to be set. I was mightily confused when I got to the books which should have been set in the middle of WWII and yet didn’t mention bombs or men going of to war. Of course, the books couldn’t mention WWII, because the entire series had been written in the 1930s. Magda Trott herself was killed at the end of WWII. She was an early feminist and even wrote some proto-SF.

    I had Heidi as well as some of the other Johanna Spyri books, too (Rosen-Resli and Gritli, as far as I recall). I read them, but I never particularly cared about Spyri, because I considered her “preachy”. Though that may have been due to the fact that I was given the books by an aunt I didn’t like, because she was the very definition of a preachy hypocrite. Although Swiss, Johanna Spyri actually started writing in Bremen, my hometown, encouraged by a local pastor. Her very first stories, Christian fiction that was genuinely preachy, were also published in Bremen, because we had a flourishing Christian publishing industry in the 19th century.

    I remember the Schneider books, too. Schneider published lots of horse books, boarding school books, YA mysteries and romances and even fantasy and SF in affordable paperback editions in the 1970s and 1980s. The first SF book I read, “Keeper of the Isis Light” by Monica Hughes, was a Schneider book. Their books were generally entertaining, though there was the occasional bad preachy surprise. I vividly remember a book called “Ist das wirklich Isabel?” (Is that truly Isabel?) by Marie Louise Fischer, a well known writer at the time, which was preachy beyond belief.

  23. how to teach literature and not ruin the subject for students?

    That’s such an important thought, and I have no answer. Except for reading aloud to the children at the Toddler Group that I help at, when every day i read a story eg Spot the Dog or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. What worries me is that most very small children don’t go to Toddler Clubs, and don’t hear stories. I believe strongly that listening to stories teaches chidren so much about how to cope with life, and I feel strongly that the littlest children should be involved with stories because it’s a way to encourage imagination. What do you think, Sherwood? How should people who deal with very small children get them to enjoy /stories

  24. Maggie: I agree. What’s more, whenever I had to sub, I always pulled out a vivid picture book. If one reads dramatically, and move around showing them the pictures, they really, really get into it. In fact it’s like they suck every molecule of air out of the room, they get so intense.

  25. Trotzkopf and sequels was pretty much the prototype of the particularly German genre of YA novels which follow a girl from childhood and/or adolescence to marriage, motherhood and sometimes even beyond, similar to Anne of Green Gables or Little Women and sequels. There were many of those series and as a young girl I devoured them all.

    As a child, I liked Trotzkopf, because the heroine Ilse was an independent spirit who did as she pleased and talked back to adults. Alas, this being a Victorian YA novel, defiance against social norms is not a good thing and so Ilse gets sent to a boarding school to be tamed. Ilse still fights back at first, then a classmate dies graphically of meningitis (which along with a cousin of my mom being left permanently disabled due to childhood meningitis caused a lifelong fear of meningitis) and eventually the “nice” teacher convinces Ilse that she must change her ways and become more feminine, because otherwise Ilse won’t find a husband and will be forced to become a teacher or governess. I know that a lot of girls of my generation felt bitterly betrayed when Ilse decides to conform because otherwise some fellow with grey eyes won’t like her. Future books follow Ilse and her classmates through their marriages around the turn of the 20th century and later follow their children. Ilse eventually has two daughters, one becomes the perfect housewife, the other at least gets to have a career as a singer or actress.

    Looking back as an adult at Trotzkopf, Nesthäkchen, Pucki, Goldköpfchen and other books like that, I see certain patterns, namely that even though all the girls got to experience higher education of some kind, often with a stint at boarding school, and a few also got to have a job, they all eventually got married to a man who is considerably older and afterwards they only get to play wife and mother. The husband often dies fairly young – Goldköpfchen’s husband dies trying to capture a runaway horse (really) and I think Trotzköpfchen’s husband dies early, too.

    In short, the early volumes with our heroine as a mischievous kid and rebellious teenager were always a lot more interesting than the latter volumes of our heroine as wife and mother. They’re all interesting for purely historical reasons of course.

    As for Agnes Sapper, I don’t think I read her. At any rate, I don’t remember reading her, though I got a lot of books from the library as a child and may have forgotten.

  26. Series that carried through several ages were the Pollyana books and a mid-20th century one about a military family, which iirc went at least as far as the youngest girl growing up, marrying a military youth, and “feeling the heat in Panama.” Penny, Tippi?

    Another series that goes though quite a few generations is Xanth. 😉

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  28. I was a very early and eclectic reader. My parents have always had lots of books, and they quickly introduced me to libraries (or, in the earliest instance, the local library’s bookmobile — it was the size and shape of a large school bus, but painted in green and white and stuffed absolutely full of bookshelves).

    Two sets of books stand out in my memory. One was a sixteen-volume “Children’s Hour” compilation of stories (and some nonfiction) for young readers, arranged roughly by subject matter. There was a broad mix of material, ranging from self-contained short fiction to excerpts from novels to poetry, and I eventually looked up a fair number of the authors I found represented in those pages. That was where I met Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Miss Pickerell, first encountered the Jabberwock and Dr. Dolittle, and was introduced to Poe and Wells and Conan Doyle.

    There was also a dozen-volume set of “classics”, oversized volumes that I liked immensely because the type was crisp and clean and there were vocabulary notes in the margins. Among those were Kingsley (“The Heroes”), Pyle (Robin Hood) and Sherlock Holmes again (also Wister’s “The Virginian”, the only one of the twelve we had that I never managed to finish). As much as I enjoyed those books, I became severely annoyed with the publisher in the course of devouring them. The thing was, the back covers all said COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED in tidy bold print. Except that when I got to the scene in “A Study in Scarlet” in which Holmes captures the murderer, there was a line in small bold print at the bottom of the page that read “An account of the early life of Jefferson Hope has been omitted at this point.” I might have been seven or eight years old at the time, but I knew what “unabridged” meant…and I knew that it meant the publisher wasn’t supposed to leave out part of the story. [Mind, when I got hold of a complete version of “Study in Scarlet” and tried to read that section, I understood why they’d left it out. But I was still adamant that the “unabridged” claim was thereby rendered a fraud.]

  29. I don’t think I learned to read until 1st grade, but it snowballed fairly quickly. I know I considered myself a “grown-up reader” from the day when, at age 6, I pilfered The Secret of Camp Pioneer from my mother’s laundry basket and read it all the way through. It was 252 pages long, had no pictures except the one in front, and left me with a burning desire to become a Girl Scout. So, I read everything I could reach on the children’s shelves of the bookmobile, which was organized with “older” books on higher shelves, plus Nancy Drew and everything that survived my mother’s childhood. The only other “breakthrough” book for me was A Wrinkle in Time, written by that trusted author of Meet the Austins, which let me see that the Science Fiction section wasn’t impossibly weird. In retrospect, I had enjoyed Space Cat at a very early age, read The Magic Ball from Mars umpteen times, and glued spaceship “controls” to the interior of a child-sized cardboard box in response to The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, but those books weren’t shelved with that impenetrable Science Fiction. I’m not sure what I’d tried from the shelf that made me reject it for so long.

    I’m afraid that the main thing that could destroy a book for me other than graphic violence, especially toward cats or dogs, was having it assigned at school. I should have been happy that we’d gotten beyond the excruciatingly boring readers (where I always got in trouble for reading ahead), but it was difficult even to retain enjoyment of books I’d loved before they were assigned; those I hadn’t pre-read were forever doomed. (I except poetry when we were still allowed to recite it, and Shakespeare, where we spent more time talking about history and interesting new vocabulary than dissecting characters and memorizing imaginary symbolism & subtext.) On the other hand, reading aloud invariably made me hunt down the book.

  30. Oh yes, Trotzkopf, Heid, Urmel and the whole merry gang of childhood friends. The Moomins, Pippi Longstocking, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Romans … and my father’s old Pucki books which taught me to read Antiqua letters. I had been through the better part of Lindgren and Blyton when I started school. The first year I had a great teacher who gave me cool books (like Jack London) to read in the corner while the others spelled their way through ‘Hans kauft ein Brot.’ But then we moved and I got a teacher who could not deal with a kid who at that time quoted from the Illiad and sang Italian arias, and school started to get boring.

    The Illiad was the result of Gustav Schawb’s retelling of the Classical sagas. I loved those and wanted the original. And I’m eternally glad for my parents not to have discouraged me because of the hexametres in the old Voss translation; they turned out to be fun to read. Then there was no stopping me, I read everything I got my hands on, from Karl May to Walter Scott, from Histories of Medicine to the usual girl horse stories, from Storm’s novellas to War and Peace and Balzac. My father had to tell the ladies in the library that I was allowed to check out any book I wanted, no matter how adult, and yes that included Lady Chatterley and Chandler’s thrillers. :P.

    At 12, I discovered the joy of reading English books. Brave New World was my first, follwed by Ivanhoe and whatever English stuff I could find in a small town library.

  31. Oh yes, Gustav Schwab’s retellings of classical mythology. I devoured those when I was on my mythology kick along with any other books on mythology I could find.

    Alas, most of my teachers never appreciated all the things I had learned from mythology, classical history at school meant mostly comparing the lot of antique slaves to that of modern workers. And the lot of medieval serfs to modern workers. You get the idea. Once the teacher ran out of slaves and serfs to compare to modern workers, we had to compare various constitutions to the modern West German one. And heaven help you if you actually found one or two aspects in a vintage constitution that were better than the current version.

    I loved history, hated history class.

  32. Cora: history at our end was patriotic America-is-perfect pulpit thumping, and killingly dull.

    Kathy: it’s a shame that so many good books are drained of any joy they could possibly impart by being dredged for details for tests.

  33. I had one history teacher like that. After three weeks, my parents went to the headmaster and demanded that I could shift to another class. “We did not flee from Thuringia and started over with bloody damn ZERO in 53 only to have our kids be forced to listen to the same Marxist bullshit.” Well, the headmaster originally was from Bavaria and no friend of Marxism, either, so I could move to another class with a better teacher.

  34. It’s hard to recall, really. I remember some books, but there may have been others that kindled fire when first read but since have been forgotten. (I was very surprised, for instance, to discover while re-reading a collection of Poul Anderson stories that I knew one of them, and how deeply it had shaped me, _and I had forgotten it until the re-read._)

    Non-fiction: Isaac Asimov, I think (mostly the Doubleday science essay collections, from which I think I moved to the SF). A Reader’s Digest book on the national parks… all those places I STILL want to go visit, though I’ve been to a lot of them.

    Patricia McKillip’s _Heir of Sea and Fire_ (riddles! archaeology! mysterious shapechangers! crazy stuff growing out of home-town farming land! a dead child speaking prophecy at the bottom of a mountain! and the ending, oh my, the ending!).

    Doc Smith’s _Galactic Patrol_ (I still love space opera, particularly with neat engineering geekery and a sense of honor.)

    Narnia, though I remember it, not so much. I think the bug had already bitten me by then.

  35. Funny that you mention Boxcar Children, because they were the some of the first chapter books I read that I wanted to read over and over. I was a little suspicious of them at first, because they looked rather old, but instead I realized I loved them for that. The world just isn’t that way any more (if it ever was), but it was very simple, kind and good for the most part. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t know what a telegram was — it seemed like a cross between a telephone and a post office, though I couldn’t imagine how it worked. Nor uranium, or what an FBI man was. Oh well. I understood later. I was very good at getting meaning out of new words through context, which threw my mom for a loop sometimes when I used them — like “queer,” which at the time the books were written meant strange, out of the ordinary, or eccentric. I think the taste for what I don’t understand, but am content to realize slowly, stayed with me, because I still tend to like to read books written by authors of a different culture or era. Along with a different worldview, the style of writing is often tangibly different.

    I can’t remember my breakout book—too old, unpopular, the title escapes me—but it was “complicated” (it was a mystery about two identical twins who shared one coat to school, and changed the days that they went) and then I realized that chapter books had much more to say than picture books, and thus more satisfying. They could convey more than one point at a time. After that I just made up my mind that I had to find the books that appealed to me, and I did.

    As for making literature fun — yes, reading out loud is good. I think letting the class have some choice in what they read is also helpful. For example, my 4th grade teacher had us choose what we would read next, Trumpet of the Swan or Island of Blue Dolphins (or something like that); it helped avoid books that everyone would hate, and took away some of the “required” stigma. I also liked the competition of having read the most that week or month, although that wouldn’t work for a lot of kids who are late bloomers.

  36. Given that several folk have mentioned The Boxcar Children, it’s probably worth observing that the series has had two distinct lives. The first nineteen books — what I (and most likely the other commenters) read as children — were written by Gertrude Chandler Warner over a period of several decades, and published in traditional hardcover editions. These were, for their times, traditional children’s mysteries, if skewed a bit to younger readers, and the 19th and last appeared in 1976 (three years before Ms. Warner’s passing). The original versions of these, if reread today, would likely seem dated in significant respects.

    Then in the 1990s, the series was resurrected by the publisher and has been trundling along in “packaged” style ever since. I’ve read very few of these, and have never been entirely clear as to whether Warner’s original books were done as work-for-hire or if her heirs sold the rights somewhere down the line, but either way, the newer books and the old probably ought to be viewed as separate but related subgroups.

  37. And a further aside: the Boxcar Children thread reminds me that I was an especially avid reader of kids’ mysteries back in the day — and I have been finding of late that the kids’ mystery writers of that generation (publishing in the 1960s and ’70s, or even a bit earlier) are very little remembered today. A handful of my favorites:

    Thelmar Wyche Crawford: I didn’t actually discover this author till I was in college, and have only ever read one of his books, but that one (Terror Wears a Feathered Cloak)) was tremendously impressive and I need to track down the rest of the (four or five volume) series. We’d now call him a YA writer; Terror, I think, predates both L’Engle and Elizabeth Peters, but reads something like a hybrid of the two, with a plot involving a lost Mayan city and tourists held hostage.

    Mary C. Jane: I think I found most of her novels through the school book clubs. Realistic plots, not too much family tension. In today’s terms, she was writing for middle grade readers.

    Elizabeth Honness: Colorful plots, some exotic settings, but still essentially realistic stories. High end of middle grade, edging toward young adult.

    Amelia Elizabeth Walden: Essentially, these were teen-targeted spy adventures/romantic suspense yarns; here again there’s a strong resemblance to the early stand-alone Elizabeth Peters books (though as with Crawford, I think Walden’s work actually predates Peters). Some of the books are loosely connected, as various protagonists are recruited by the same CIA operations officer.

    Phyllis Whitney: She’s better known for a long string of romance and romantic suspense novels for adults (most very good indeed), but I discovered her for her equally long series of kids’ mysteries. Exotic settings, strong plots, interesting lead characters — we’d now call these middle grade titles, but these were extremely well written.

  38. Tony: that’s interesting about the Anderson. I’ve rediscovered a few this way, too.

    Dorotheia: yes, letting the kids choose is also a good idea.

    John: never heard of some of those!

  39. I can’t recall the title of my breakout book, but I can tell you that it more than likely was about girls with ponies having improbable but exciting adventures and winning gymkhanas, i.e. one of the classic English pony stories by the likes of Ruby Ferguson, Judith M Berrisford or the Pullein-Thompson sisters. I guess they were all pretty formulaic, but I swallowed them whole. From the age of 6 I had my own library tickets and used to get five books a week – self-selected (my parents didn’t guide or censor).

    However, one of the memorable books I owned (and still own) was ‘Wish for a Pony’ by Monica Edwards which was a precious Christmas present when I was eight. This not only had ponies and two likeable main characters (girls, Tamzin and Rissa), but also had a whole richly populated geography as a background (Romney Marsh), detailed and ‘real’ with interesting grown up characters, too. (Like Old Jim Decks the rogueish but intrinsically good ferryman, and Old Jim’s son, Young Jim, and the slightly sinister Hookey Galley who was always Up To No Good, and Butterbeans Pope who was always hanging around the harbour mast, and the inappropriately named Lillycrop children, and the curmudgeonly grocer, Smiling Morn.)

    As I read my way through the series, the pony stories began to involve adventures in which the ponies were present, but not always to the fore. There were stories of (ultimately harmless) smuggling of brandy from Fance (Dr-Syn-for-kids?) or stories of the local farm struggling through a foot-and-mouth epidemic with help from our young cast, or fake ‘hauntings’ to scare off developers.

    Two boy characters duly arrived in the third book (Rissa’s cousin Roger and his piratical and dashing young friend, Meryon). Even at ten I liked that hint of romance and as I grew up with Tamzin, Rissa, Meryon and Roger, they grew up as well – and yes, Tamzin and Meryon did end up with an ‘understanding. I was delighted.

    In fact, I recently read a biography of Monica Edwards and was interested to find out that Meryon was based on a boy she knew in real life. Sadly he died while at Oxford University. When I found out I was gutted. It was as if one of my favourite childhood characters had been killed off withiout fulfilling that potential of growing up to be a doctor (the fictional Meryon’s ambition) and marrying his Tamzin. Those characters grabbed me so much as a child that over four deecades later I felt as though a real friend had died.

    As a child (and still as an adult) I always understood that the best books are about people who feel real. Tamzin, Rissa, Meryon and Roger never stopped living when I closed my book. I was always confident that my book was only a window into their continuing lives.

  40. The first time I read a chapter book I didn’t realize that you were supposed to read the chapters in order. So I picked out a chapter title that sounded interesting (the book was Chocolate Fever), and so began my lifelong love for reading- once my brother explained why the story made no sense.

    What was important to me as a kid is whether the characters were likable. If the characters didn’t seem real, I lost interest. I also recall being bored by books that were overly descriptive, which is why I never made it past the first chapter in Anne of Green Gables (and now it’s one if my favorite series!).

    The books that I read over and over as a kid; Betsy~Tacy, Little Women, Pollyanna, The Great Brain, Gordon Korman… to this day I still love them.

  41. I have no idea what book was my break out book. My earliest memory about reading was being an arrogant little brat in second grade, feeling too good for the short books, and picking out the longest ones, which turned out to be poetry collections. As I didn’t like poetry very much, this was disappointing, but I read them anyways, just to show off.

    By then, I was already a reader, probably thanks to my parents, who read to me every night, and would read anything I showed an interest in. My mom read me Treasure Island, and Great Expectations, and Little Women (until I couldn’t bear it any longer because they were growing up and Beth was going to die) Ivanhoe and A Connecticut Yankee, and then my dad decided to read me Robinson Crusoe – which is the most boring book in the history of the world. I believe that was when the reading aloud stopped, because I protested and protested, but he wanted to finish it.

    That year, of course, we had moved to a different state, and I didn’t have any friends, and the schoolwork was way too easy for me. But we did have a reading contest, where every time you read a book you would take a little computer test to make sure you actually read it, and get a score. I read about 500 books that year (only counting the ones on the list), won the contest for my class by providing about 50% of the total points, and didn’t even go to the pizza party that we won.

    It was a pretty lonely miserable year, but without those books, it would have been a lot worse.

  42. Serena: that’s a crackup about the chapter skipping. Though it makes sense if one has been reading short fiction.

    Cara M: alas, I know too many of us geeky readers who were like that.

  43. Well, I was about five years old, and I think it was called ‘Little Raccoon,’ or something like that. It was the first book that I read on my own, and after that I was hopelessly in love with reading.

    (Shortly afterwards, I started writing for children, when I entered first grade.)

  44. I was raised by a single mother who didn’t have time to read to me, so she had me read to her (as she fixed dinner, etc.), spelling out the words I didn’t know. I don’t claim a single break-out book either, although books were so primal, I once chose a daycare center at the age of 7 because they had a large book display in the front room (which was a lie; in 3-4 years, I only got to read one book from it).

    My blessed mother had a subscription to the Best In Children’s Books series, which exposed me to an incredible variety of authors, artists, styles & influences. (A listing of what’s in them is here: http://www.lib.usm.edu/~degrum/html/research/re-bestindex.shtml ) I still have & use the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedic Dictionary (with lots of cool glossaries, appendices, etc.) she couldn’t afford but bought anyway.