When I teach Young Adult Literature, one of the things we discuss at the beginning of the class is the concept of the “home run book.”
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a leader in the field of reading, and discovered through his research that people who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read, or who only read under compulsion.
But the key ingredient in creating a reader is to hit upon the book that gives them that one positive experience that forever cements their relationship to reading. Jim Trelease came up with the concept of the “home run book,” basing it on a quote from wordsmith Clifton Fadiman, who said:
“One’s first book, one’s first kiss, one’s first home run are always the best.”
Trelease did a lot of anecdotal research, asking people who were readers whether there was one particular book that made them into regulars. He was surprised and pleased to discover that almost every reader could cite the very book that changed their attitude about reading to a positive one.
This issue came up for me lately when a good friend of mine read for the first time a book that has been a beloved one for me since childhood. Although I can’t cite The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as my “home run book,” it is definitely one of the top 10 that kept me interested in reading. As an only child, I empathized with the heroine’s isolation; I loved gardens and nature and the thought of a secret one that I could discover and have all for myself was compelling; and I liked how being forced into relationships with others almost against her will finally turns Mary from a sourpuss into a better, nicer, happier person.
Kim, however, came at it with a contemporary perspective, and her judgment was anything but flattering. Her first reaction was that while the descriptions of the gardens are lovely, “the entire book is a sermon on a set of values that have no place in a humane world.” She goes on to cite the colonialism and racism, comments on “healthism” that betrays both the disabled and the physically able child, and notes the “noble savage” trope depicted in the “peasant” character, Dickon. Despite the descriptive writing, the bright and resourceful children, and the extolled virtues of playing outside in nature, she concludes that the story cannot be disentangled from its classist moralizing, and maintains that it’s time to retire the book.
This reaction made me cringe, mostly because I recognized that she was probably right. Her comments made me remember a discussion in my YA Lit class one year about the relative merits of continuing to require the book Huckleberry Finn to be read by upper grade students, despite its rampant racism, and how severely my young students judged it, despite my urging them to consider context. It also made me recall what a shock I experienced when I recently reread a book that I had previously listed as one of my most beloved—China Court, written in 1961 by Rumer Godden—only to encounter an inexplicably forgotten and utterly shocking example of sexist physical abuse in the last chapter that effectively spoiled my previously unalloyed delight.
Suddenly, my judgment was suspect as I thought back over six decades of reading and wondered how I had been shaped by books that I had embraced unquestioningly at various stages of my life. This prompted me to revisit some of those, to see if books other than Burnett’s should have modern judgment pronounced upon them. So I picked up a few I had particularly loved, and began to read with a gingerly sense of both anticipation and dread.
The first, from a series that I read over and over as a child, was The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston. The initial theme of the book is eerily similar to that of The Secret Garden, in that the child’s parents (well, his father and stepmother—that trope is present here!) are out of the country, and the boy, whose name is Toseland, is sent to live with his great-grandmother in her big old mansion verging on castle (it has a moat) in the English countryside. But the similarities (in characterization at least) end there: The boy’s personality is trusting, open, and sweet, and the grandmother is delightfully quirky and kind. Toseland becomes Tolly, except when Grandmother Oldknowe forgets and calls him Toby after his ancestor (the stepmother, unforgivably, calls him Toto), and is welcomed into the rarefied atmosphere of her life surrounded by the memories of generations of the occupants of Green Knowe.
The question for Tolly, however, quickly becomes whether they are memories or something much more tangible. He hears giggles coming from the upstairs bannisters, and catches quick movements out of the corner of his eye as he enters rooms. Gifts and trinkets turn up under his pillow, on his chair, in his pockets, and as Grandmother tells him the stories of the three children who lived at Green Knowe in the long-ago days—Toby, Alexander, and little Linnet—he begins to believe they have never left.
I still loved this book, and found nothing objectionable that would prevent bringing it up as a favorite to contemporary children (although I didn’t read past the first book in the series, so I can’t vouch for all of them). I wonder if this series is the origin of my love for the surreal? You could call them ghost stories, but with the interactions with animals, with supposedly inanimate objects (a carved mouse, a garden topiary, a statue) that occasionally come to life, and with the three dead children, we’re talking magical realism. The relationship between the grandmother and child is touching, the fanciful narrative is wonderful, and I probably loved the whole thing the most when I was a child because I, too, was an only, solitary child who longed for playmates, loved animals, and had a vivid imagination.
The second book about which I had fond memories—again the beginning of a series and this a lengthy one—was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. This is the story of four enterprising brothers and sisters—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and little Ben—who have been raised by their father to believe that their maternal grandfather is an unkind and unloveable tyrant. So when their father dies the day after they have moved to a new town and the neighbors propose to find their grandfather and send the children to him, the children respond by running away. They find an old boxcar, buried in shrubbery along a disused railroad siding (and adjacent to a convenient brook), and turn it into a home, finding clever ways to provide water, food, clothing, and entertainment for themselves, even though they are children without adult supervision.
This one has a few coy moments, and the author does that prescient thing (“they were not to know that this moment would be a lasting influence in their lives…”) that informs you not at all but nonetheless manages to take you right out of the story in a most annoying way; but in most respects the book was surprisingly good. Although at one point Jessie, who is “motherly” to her younger siblings, is referred to as “the housewifely girl,” and the oldest boy, Henry, takes the fatherly role by going “out” to work (mowing lawns, picking fruit, and doing various chores for a doctor in a nearby village), mostly the children work together at chores and projects without too much regard for gender roles, and take delight in objects (Ben and his pink china cup) without any remarks about “girliness” and such.
When the children’s situation is eventually discovered, near the end of the story, and they go to live with their grandfather, I was further pleasantly surprised. Ben asks their grandfather, a curmudgeonly sort, what they will all do when they grow up; at first he says that Henry will take over his business (typical). But then, when I expected him to say something sexist about Jessie’s and Violette’s prospects as girls (marriage and family), he instead tells Ben, “You will all four of you go to college, and then you can choose to do whatever you want!” Considering the book was first published in 1942, that is an exceedingly progressive sentiment! Bravo, Gertrude!
I have a few more childhood favorites I’d like to revisit, but I’ll leave this subject for the moment, just concluding that, as painful as it can sometimes be, it’s never too late to become cognizant of our blind spots when it comes to learned prejudices. So while I still treasure my memories of The Secret Garden, perhaps I will find books less fraught with flaws to recommend to contemporary children.