As I write this, my knees and hands hurt with a flavor of arthritis that has yet to be specified, I’m snuffling from allergies, my house is musty from dozens of inches of rain, I was only able to trim my cats’ toe nails before they escaped my trimmers, and it’s their ice pick dew claws that dig into my shoulder every time. A quarter of my garden has been overtaken by invasive Japanese irises that multiply every time I blink. Don’t even get me started on the house mouse that LICKED the peanut butter out of two traps without setting them off, and also apparently thumbs (poetic license—mice don’t have thumbs) its tiny rodent nose at my do-less, dew-clawed cats.
All the way from here I can hear you saying (over your coffee and lightly toasted buttery croissant—which is what I imagine you’re having for breakfast, or elevenses, if you’ve been up writing into the night, like I so often do), “What the heck, Benedict? This has nothing to do with writing. You’re just whining!”
Well, when life gets vaguely annoying, I like to complain for a while, and then pull a giant piece of particle board over the cozy fort/hole I’ve dug into the backyard. There I can ponder distant, gentler times. Here’s today’s note from the fort:
I’m thinking about the things I read as a kid that I don’t read much of today. As a kid, I acted without prejudice when it came to choosing reading materials. It’s not even that I chose things—they just showed up and demanded to be read. Gobble us up! You can have us all! We’re delicious! And I was totally game. Like a primitive Pokémon player, I was ready to catch them all. Perhaps it was that there were fewer printed (?) words floating around in the world than there are now, and so it seemed like an achievable task. There were moments (okay, hours) when I sincerely believed that if I tried hard enough, I could track down and read every word ever printed.
Dearest Reader, I never even got close, and at my age it’s not looking good.
BrainyQuote.com tells me that it was Arthur Ashe who said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” So here I am, on the journey, savoring the offerings along the way.
Back when I was first tempted by all those words, there were plenty of children’s books to keep me enthralled. Little Golden Books, library books, readers. (Damn, I loved those boring Dick and Jane and Spot books, but mostly because I thought they were funny. And also because I was made to sit behind the filing cabinet and read ahead, by myself, because I kept interrupting the other kids, telling them the words when they got stuck. Who doesn’t like to be allowed to read ahead?! In other news, I could be an insufferable brat.)
Then there was the good stuff. The stuff nobody told me to read, but that I couldn’t resist.
*Warning: If you are under the age of 45, you may have to consult a search engine. Think of it as research.
God bless the Highlights writers. How did they know I wanted to do puzzles and read stories about animals and other kids? I thought Gallant of Goofus and Gallantwas a kiss ass prig, though I did understand that Goofus was not to be admired. The peg-jointed Timbertoes were fun. Did Ma remind anyone else of Olive Oyl? I lived for Hidden Pictures. They were the first thing I went for as soon as the magazine arrived. In fact, when I later subscribed for my children (right, it was for the kids), I learned the Highlights people published entire magazines made up of only Hidden Pictures. And the jokes. I still can’t remember a joke to save my life, but Highlights always had one ready.
I miss paper dictionaries. Was there anything better than sitting down with one to read row after row of new words? Old ones are true cultural artifacts. I refuse to throw away my 1980s vintage Webster’s.
Granted, I wasn’t allowed to have these at home. But my girl friends had them. Tiger Beatwas the preferred title. What does that title even mean? Somehow it was important for me to know what Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy ate for breakfast, and what they liked a girl to be like (and what does thateven mean?). I’m not going to tell you how many times I pretended to be Bobby Sherman’s wife, and mother of his children, before I was ten.
I still tell people to read cereal boxes. Though now they’re not as much fun because they talk about having less sugar and more fiber, and there are no prizes in the boxes because trial lawyers have made sure we can’t have fun things anymore. Even worse, there are hardly ever hidden pictures on the back of boxes now. I think the trouble began with Wheaties and their fancy profiles of sports figures. Give me a Toucan word search any day.
I’m not so old that you could still buy a house or a bride in a Sears Catalog when I was a kid. But those catalogs were the Internet of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The descriptions of the items were persuasive—at least they were to me—and worthy forerunners of The J. Peterman Company catalog. The pictures were great, sure. Particularly in the early 1970s when the kid models started looking extra-excited instead of sitting there like mannequins. The Sears Catalog was the first place I saw a bra, and men’s underwear. A real education.
Our family set of encyclopedias had belonged to my dad’s parents (I think). Printed in the late 1940s, I remember using them for reports into the early 1970s. They seemed purely informational to me, but it was information that entertained. Even if the article was about turbines. Or airplanes. Or beetles or waterfalls pictured in black and white. My mom’s parents had an even older set, geared to children. My favorite volume had watercolor illustrations, and old songs and poems. I never memorized what volume it was, but I knew where it lived on the shelf.
I had no time for a grown-up Bible. I adored my Children’s Bible Stories, and tried to take it to church with me. I was probably nine years old before I realized it wasn’t actually a Bible. Until I started reading books like Black Beauty and Kidnapped and Sherlock Holmes stories, they were my favorite adventure stories. Nothing says adventure like chariots being felled in a tsunami, and a brawny guy with bloody eyes pushing down pillars.
Cue the Dora the Explorer song. I’m a map! I’m a map! I cut my reading teeth on my grandparents’ AAA maps –every page flip showed some new blue (or red) line to somewhere new. Even when we weren’t traveling, I could imagine where the lines led.
Okay. I feel better. The lawn guy has texted and says he can come soon and mow so I won’t have to hear the deer ticks mocking me as they sway atop our foot-tall grass.
Tell us: What were your earliest written word influences?
Good times, Ma’am… good times…
I can check-box a few on your list:
Highlights – “Fun with a purpose” – though sometimes I thought it read “porpoise” and was disappointed there was no Flipper story…
Dictionaries – Pop had a massive, library-esque one, on a book stand no less, that he would send us to when we used a word we didn’t know at the dinner table… sometimes I’d get sidetracked and wind up eating cold mashed potatoes… but I had some new “hot” words for dessert…
Cereal boxes – I thought it was just me…
Encyclopedias – we had a “kids set” Mom bought one volume at a time from the grocery store… and then there was another big-book in Pop’s study, the Columbia Encyclopedias – besides being referenced through high school, it was interesting to wander through when it rained… (and I attributed the name embossed on the cover – a family friend – as the editor until I made the connection sometime in the 10th grade…)
Maps – still love ’em – especially the National Geographic fold-outs that came twice or three times a year (and of course the magazine itself – always a keeper – my grandparents had a room full of them dating back to the 40’s, and used as term paper and report references)… I can still spend too much time navigating on GoogleMaps, but it’s not quite the same – there’s something about the way things get named that leads along the lines… Slapout, Alabama, all those Paris-es and Romes, and of course, the Smithvilles…
I didn’t read fan-mags, but I had Boys Life – as a cub scout… adventure and applications of the Scout Creed… “On my honor I will do my best…”
And Dr. Seuss at the dentist’s office… almost worth all the poking around… don’t know why the folks didn’t add them to our Little Golden Books collection…
And whatever (appropriate) magazines that were aging at the barber shop – and since Pop was a retired lieutenant-commander teaching me the value of the low-maintenance haircut (despite the time and fashion of my peers), I had plenty of chances to read a dogeared Life or Sports Illustrated…
Any way, thanks for inviting me in to the fort and letting me blather on – I’ll put the top back… besides, I have dandelions and clover to mow and run over (sorry, Dr. Seuss seems to have stuck)…
Yes! Dr. Seuss at the dentist’s office. As hardcovers, I expect Dr. Seuss was a little pricey for my parents. The Golden Books were quite inexpensive, but oh so memorable.
And then there were those orange-bound Childcraft volumes. What a range of literature and information.
I too read nearly everything–until I pulled Dreiser’s An American Tragedy off the shelf of my father’s study and my mother didn’t let me read it. (Still haven’t read it.)
Landmark books were a wonderful resource, as were a series of biographies with great subtitles (and here I’m making one up, since I don’t remember any of the actual titles): George Washington Carver: Slave to Scientist
And, of course, maps. I had shoeboxes full of those wonderful maps gas stations used to give out free. I still follow on Google Maps the events in novels I read. Had a huge map of Berlin on my wall when i read a couple of mysteries by Richard Hey.
What a cool thing to have a map of Berlin on your wall! And God bless gas stations for freebies. Sounds like you had a real collection. I always loved to get their stickers.
I guess Dreiser would’ve been a little rough–though maybe they just thought you might be bored by it? My parents had an open shelf policy. Harold Robbins really opened my eyes when I was twelve!
Oh yeah…Childcraft books. Which gave me the only poem I can recite from memory:
A book, I think, is very like
A little golden door
That takes me into places
Where I’ve never been before.
It leads me into fairyland
Or countries strange and far
And, best of all, the golden door
Always stands ajar.
The poem I remember–and I actually looked it up a couple of years ago in an on-line version of the old Childcraft with the old art work–was “The Highwayman.” I guess my interest in crime literature goes way back.
Oh my yes! That one stuck with me as well. The illustrations were gorgeous. “Bess, the landlord’s daughter, plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.”
Oh, yes! The single grade-school book remaining on my shelves is the one in which I first discovered “The Highwayman.” A word feast for the imagination. I can’t fathom why someone hasn’t made a movie of it yet. (And if they have, please tell me.)
This is perfect, Kris. I love that you memorized it. Totally prescient!
My parents told everyone we had to move because I’d finished the library. Exaggeration, of course–it was just the “kiddie” side. I’d only started on the adult books.
Your list pretty much coincides with mine, although I’m trying to remember if we got Highlights when I was a kid, or if I was reading it when I got it for my kids. Probably both.
And then there were the comics with my dad at the breakfast table every morning. And comic books. Lots of comic books. Disney–Scrooge McDuck; Superman, Batman. We had the World Book, and I read that, A-Z.
There will be more memories triggered by other TKZers as they comment, I’m sure.
Oooooh! The World Book was pretty glamorous with their full color photos, as I recall. Lucky you.
We only got the Sunday paper, so my comics exposure was limited–and no one in our house (3 girls) ever had comic books. I feel like I missed a lot!
Get the encyclopedia, e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a.
My entire generation can spell encyclopedia thanks to Jiminy Cricket.
He never taught us how to spell Tiger Beat.
You stole my thunder, Jim! Jiminy Cricket got be beaten up in first grade. My family had moved from New Jersey to Virginia in May of that year, and that’s when I got dropped into Miss Gooding’s class at Little Run Elementary. On my very first day, she asked the class who could spell encyclopedia, and I of course raised my hand. According to Mike Curtis, I made the other boys look bad.
Comic books. I still remember little things from the early Batman comics, like how Batman caught an English criminal because he wrote down a date with the day before the month, like Europeans do. (“And that leads us right to Limey Lou, Robin!”) And of course, encyclopedia. When I was 12, my parents got me and my brothers a set of encyclopedia for Christmas. Best gift ever. They said they got tired of me bringing individual volumes home from the school library.
And I almost forgot “Boys Life” magazine, which I started getting when I joined the Cub Scouts. I still remember the comic strips they had, like the teens who found a time machine.
What excellent parents!
Great memory about the date. Ah, simpler crimes…
My earliest read was the Sunday comics. I was maybe five and would spread the double page sheet on the floor and try to match the words with the action…it’s actually how I learned to read.
What a happy memory, Patricia!
Mad Magazine and Classics Illustrated comic books. The former taught me that most things in life have an absurd element, especially politics. The latter made me “well read” ahead of my classmates. I mean, how many fifth graders have read Moby-Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Three Musketeers, and on and on? Sure, not in the editions the authors could have foreseen, buy hey! They were selling like hot cakes in drug stores. Maybe they would have thought that quite cool.
How did I forget Mad Magazine? Actually, I didn’t forget, but it left my mind as I was typing, as words often do these days.
I knew there was a common thread between us, Mr. B…
I “saw” more movies in Mad that I was too young to go to, and then, when I did see the film, it was hilarious because I recalled the parody first… “201 Minutes of Space Idiocy” is the first that comes to mind…
They had the greatest titles, right?
Voyage to See What’s on the Bottom
Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been
Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid
Add to that the two legends Mort Drucker (cartoons) and Frank Jacobs (the lyrics to the musicals), and it was pure genius.
And, (Twock~!), Don Martin (Spork~!!)
Fester Bestertester agrees with you.
Favorite line from Mad Magazine: “Mucous Face got away while Tracy was heaving, Chief.”
Classics Illustrated sounds like an absolute treasure–I wish I’d seen it as a kid. My kids were huge PBS Wishbone fans, and I watched along. Making classics accessible to kids is important.
Mad Mag–I didn’t know it was a thing until late middle school. My mom didn’t like the scatological humor lol.
Nicely done, Laura. My solution is writing a novel set in 1962 (when I was a young boy) with recollections back to the 20s and 30s. There are telephone books and yellow pages. No cell phones, of course. Kennedy and khrushchev are at each other’s throats over Cuba, Walter Cronkite is on the TV, my protagonist drives a Studebaker…
A pre-recorded message on the phone is a brand new thing, you get places by pulling out a road map… etc. etc. etc. Makes for fun and takes me back to, at least from my perspective, were simpler times.
How could I have forgotten telephone books?! Amazing things, from the lists of interesting names to the yellow pages. Perfect.
I shared your love of Tiger Beat and Bobby Sherman. I wrote a letter when Here Comes the Brides was cancelled expressing my displeasure. How I loved the Bolt brothers. “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.”
We had a set of green World Book encyclopedias I spent hours of time reading and also a set about the presidents. Great fun.
My writing career begin when a friend of mine collaborated with me on a magazine we called, “Out of this World.” A comedic look at sci-fi. Sadly, we had to reduce the cost from 10 cents to free due to lack of interest. Our school mates were obviously not the compulsive readers we were and had some sort of standards.
Thanks for the article 🙂 Rose
“The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.” Reading this touched a place deep in my heart, Rose.
My sympathies on the loss of publishing revenue. I know how hard that must have been. Let’s just say your standards were over their heads!
Laura, you’ve inspired a fond look back this morning. The books and magazines you mentioned, the folding paper maps to places unseen and unimagined, the joy in receiving an assignment that required research in our encyclopedia set. Heavy dictionaries with fine print, comic books packed with brilliant color punctuated by white bubbles containing short words and large exclamation points. Perusing the latest story about our teen idols and imagining meeting them on the streets of our tiny one-stoplight town. Those were indeed our days of innocence.
I’m so glad it sparked happy memories for you, Suzanne. Innocence is underrated in these information-heavy days, I think.
I loved Tiger Beat and Teen Beat. They included posters that I used to hang all over my bedroom walls. I bought them whenever I could from the grocery store or borrowed copies from friends. We would gush over Donny Osmond.
But , somehow I was able to read old copies of Eerie and Creepy comic books that I loved just as much.
Wow; those are a blast from the past!!
I read Highlights magazines when I visited the dentist’s office. I’m with you on thinking Gallant was a goody-two-shoes, but I didn’t want to be like Goofus either. The hidden pictures were my favourite; always wanted to beat my brother or my sister to finding the answer first.
My grandparents still got the JC Penney’s and Sears’ catalogues even when I was a teenager (which is a while ago now). I loved looking through them and admiring how stylish they looked. Some of those fashions wouldn’t look too out-of-date today, to be honest.
Mom bought multiple sets of encyclopedias: Childcraft encyclopedias, Encyclopedia Brittanica, and a set of Charlie Brown ‘Cyclopedia (15 volumes). I loved those. Questions and answers about everything from the human body to magnetism to climate to cars, boat, and cars, and culture. I think I can credit her with me being so curious about everything. If we were bored, we picked one of those up and read it.
I went for Seventeen, Teen Magazine, and YM in my teens (so embarrassing when my Dad vetted them for content), but for fan magazines, I only remember buying a small handful of those. I think as I went through high school, my obsession with bands, singers, and celebrities waned.
We watched a lot of PBS and Nickelodeon shows too back in the late 80s/early 90s– Reading Rainbow, Picture Pages, Square One Television, Mr Wizard, Mr Rogers, Sesame Street… you don’t get programming like that these days.
A fantastic look at nostalgia for me today– thanks!!
I used to go every week to the library with my mother, then we would go to the post office when I got my book from the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club. I was only about 4 or 5 years old. I would always read everything too. I would go up to the old house behind ours that was used as storage and read all the true crime magazines that I discovered in boxes. It made for some interesting discussions with my parents when I asked some questions about what I had read!
I can’t remember the first books I read. I did get the Highlights magazine. Haven’t thought about that for years! My folks always had the National Geographic magazines and had two rooms full when it was time to clear out the old homestead. The first set of books I really remember were the Nancy Drew series, Bambi, and Zane Grey novels, although I know I read many illustrated children books before then. However, age (I am now on the downward slope of over the hill) has clouded those memories.
My dad was a logger, so we spent all of our non-school days out at camp near where he was working. My sister and I brought a literal grocery bag of library books with us each week – all of them read by the weekend when we returned to town to run errands, do laundry, and check out more library books. I remember reading Black Beauty in one three hour reading session.
I have been known to ready anything handy. Yes, cereal boxes when there was something to read, the dictionary, and encyclopedias. Not have something to read is like trying not to breathe. I still read a book about every two days.
Yes to Dick and Jane…hilarious. My boys and I literally laugh out loud when we read them at bedtime.
How about Sweet Valley High series? Those pesky and pretentious twins got me into reading a series after I sadly devoured all of Judy Blume’s novels.
The phone was a big part of our lives for entertainment as well. We owned and small cottage on the Cape and still had what they called party lines (sharing a phone line with everyone on the street). Nothing better than picking up the phone on a rainy day and listening to the old biddies gossip…
Great, nostalgic article .