Once Upon A Time

On loving, and losing, your favorite childhood books.

About a year and a half ago my parents moved out of the house in which I’d grown up. I’d been expecting this. My mother had threatened it for years by gathering random objects of mine she found in this closet or that cupboard and piling them in the middle of my childhood bedroom floor. The room still had lemon yellow walls and an electric blue trim, but it wasn’t really mine anymore.

Tell me what you want to keep, she’d implore. But these relics didn’t feel like mine either. They were part of a past, less exciting life. A time when possibilities for adventure were limited to what could happen on a few square blocks around my home, at the school playground, or in the pages of a picture book.

I put a stop to this collecting and piling pretty quickly. It seemed endless and obsessive.

“When you have a place to move to, no matter what I’m doing, I’ll fly to Chicago and pack up my shit,” I’d told her. Until then, stop dragging it out of the basement.

I’m not very sentimental about stuff. While preparing for a move to a new city, I placed the contents of my apartment on the sidewalk in front of my house and sold close to everything I owned for $250. I am attached to people and ideas and places but not homes or things. While I like being comfortable, I don’t care if the comfort comes when sleeping on a mattress you gave me (because good luck selling it on Craigslist) or from wearing a friend’s old sweatshirt.

When my parents did move, I made good on my promise during two days and three nights of whirlwind packing up and throwing out. If anyone could be proud of a slash-and-burn attitude toward remainders from childhood, I was. I quickly put aside all the typical things a writer who occasionally delves into her past for material would want to preserve — notebooks, journals, photos, drawings, a few crucial trinkets from the high school friends — pulled all the “literature” from college and beyond off the two overflowing bookshelves in my room, boxed it up, dropped the mic, and walked away.

I was done. The Christmas ornaments my father had meticulously arranged to photograph for posterity? Whatever. Jewelry boxes of oversize earrings shaped like fruit and Disney characters? Pffft. Those red Dickies overalls I wore every day junior year? My aunt’s bridesmaid doll named Renee that had once seemed beautiful but now looked creepy? No.

This was my attitude while clearing out my parents’ house. I was surprised at how little I cared about these things and relieved I wouldn’t have to cart them around for the rest of my life. But about six months after my extended family had picked over the piles of unwanted toys and stuffed animals, and a new family had signed a lease and moved on in, I realized what I’d lost.

In that bedroom, on the bottom shelf of the green bookcase, were the picture books from my early childhood. If I’d picked them out myself, I was too young to remember why or when. More likely they had been gifts or finds my father, an expert bookstore comber, had brought home. Dozens of books I’d been read before I could read. And dozens more I had learned to read: first memorizing them — in The Owl and the Pussycat, when the owl says to the pig, “Pig are you willing to sell for one shilling your ring?” I’d shout, “I will!” — and then puzzling out the actual words: “For every bear that ever there was / will gather there for certain because / today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”

“Where are those children’s books that were in the green bookcase?” I asked my father.

He didn’t know. “Did you save them? I stored whatever you boxed up.”

In my certainty and detachment, I’d forgotten to keep them. My dad had understandably figured that, considering my certainty and detachment, I’d chosen to let them go.

Can I try to re-create the collection by haunting bookstores the way my father had 25 years ago? The idea occurs to me now on nights when, alongside my routine anxieties about deadlines or credit card balances or cannibal apocalypse, the question will hover like a mosquito: Where are my books?

The stories in my books weren’t just a link to my young self or some representation of childhood; they are the stories I know best. The messages were simple, but lurking beneath those apparently straightforward plots were more complex impressions and ideas, always communicated subtly through symbols rather than exposition. Only the crappy ones attempted to teach me a simple morality. Even some of those had brilliant pictures.

The book whose loss I mourned immediately was the one whose message was most elusive. On my copy of William Saroyan’s improbable children’s story Me, the paper on the spine had peeled away and the pages were rough and wavy.

The text goes something like this: Once upon a time people had only one word, and that word was “me.” But other things said other things. The cat said, “Purr purr, I am the queen be kind to her.” The fish said, “Hush, hush in the water, I’m waiting for a letter from my only daughter.” The white rose said to the red rose, “Hello there, redhead.”

Reproduced here, the story sounds a little bizarre. I would argue that the best children’s books are.

More than bizarre, though, Me was surprising — especially when, one night, a man who was tired of using just one word, went out and shouted beneath a gleaming moon: “NO.” After mulling the book over for a few decades, I think that in addition to being a parable about innovation, Me is also an allegory about dualism as a foundation of language, and language as an essential part of identity.

But thankfully you don’t need that tedious explanation to enjoy the rhyme scheme, or the pictures — big, bright watercolors of cats, flowers, and bald, pink people that glimmer like stained glass. I loved that book because its world was exotic and recognizable. Animals talked, but what they said made sense. The characters struggled to invent a language that I was struggling to learn.

And so many of these books, I remembered lying awake that night with regret gnawing at me, were weird books like that one. There had been the relatively straightforward morals and messages of Angelina Ballerina or Miss Nelson Is Missing, sure, but there had also been the absurdity of Pickle Things, where everything — noses, castles, moats, and boats — is made out of pickles. In another one of my favorites, The Secret Staircase, two adolescent mice find a dusty staircase to an abandoned castle in their house! After hours of searching my own house I found my Christmas presents on the top shelf of my mom’s closet, but no secret staircase.

I try to recall each abandoned book that mattered. Tatterhood was a fairy tale about a scruffy antiheroine who rides a goat. She has shaggy black hair and is an all-around menace — a pretty accurate example of the type of girl I’ve fallen for over and over as a grown-up. When witches turn her more conventionally beautiful sister into a cow, she fights them with a giant wooden spoon.

Witches, elves, and goblins were recurring characters in the edgier books. The goblins in Maurice Sendak’s Outside over There steal Ida’s brother and replace him with an ice baby. At Hans Christian Andersen’s elf-king feast they burn horsehair for incense and serve “snail-skins with children’s fingers in them” as hors d’oeuvres.

Literal finger snacks are one of many memorable foods. Not feasts, usually, just little delicious, gross, or intriguing bites. The bowl of mush in Goodnight Moon was security and simplicity and comfort (just exactly how saying the word “mush” makes me feel), though many of the messages around eating could be contradictory or up for interpretation. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, he will eventually end up moving in and taking over. Still, he’s going to get the cookie — it’s no question, really. The never-ending pasta pot in Strega Nona’s house represented abundance, but also loss of control. Food’s universal charm would draw me into a narrative. However, I was rarely observing a simple matter of physical nourishment. More often, food had an emotional appeal — a sense of the fantastic, scary, comforting, or cautionary.

For the most part, all this went way over my 5-year-old head. I did think that puzzle piece Curious George ate looked tasty, though. Those books were simpering, but haven’t we all tried to eat a plastic grape at least once?

Listing the books brings them back in a way. Not having them anymore forces me to consider their value. They were filled with stories of triumph, ways in which the little guy, or woman, or dog faced off against parents, teachers, gods, monsters, and bullies. Strength was useful, but wit was better. Dr. DeSoto, the mouse who is also a dentist, fixed the Fox’s rotten tooth out of a sense of professional obligation, but he’s no dupe. DeSoto glued the fox’s mouth shut to avoid getting eaten. A model citizen of the anthropomorphized animal world, he “out-foxed the fox.”

But more exciting were the bad characters who were tolerated or even loved. The pesky and whiny and sneaky ones who were also angry or subversive. Eloise would sometimes “skitter” two sticks down the hallway of the Plaza hotel inviting eye-rolls and scolding. She was a personal hero.

At bedtime, Frances the badger can’t sleep and her dad threatens to spank her. Frances is sort of a mess: needy, insecure, and, even for a 6-year-old, an abysmal speller. She is also, in my opinion, totally adorable. My opinion probably has something to do with the fact that as a child I, too, was a mess. I locked myself in bathrooms as a form of protest and once suggested we buy a dog that would eat my baby brother. Spanking was an ever-looming threat.

Some adults assume children’s stories with naughty characters offer lessons in how not to behave, but, see, that’s just a cover. The characters I remember the most show that bad can be good, that love isn’t reserved for those who do the right thing. Because many of these troublemakers weren’t just screwing up, they were genuinely flawed. Weird and careless and selfish and mean and — at the end of it all — lovable.

Max was terrible and everyone knew it. Even he couldn’t really defend all the mayhem he caused. He just caused it, because he was Max and because he was wearing his wolf suit.

When Max becomes king of a band of Wild Things they ratchet up this mayhem. Of course, it’s not explicit mayhem, it’s the “wild rumpus,” but we can read between the lines and assume chaos. Max gets lonely after a while. Even the king of the Wild Things needs love. The Wild Things’ response when Max tells them he’s leaving is one of my favorite lines ever written:

“Oh, please don’t go. We’ll eat you up, we love you so.”

They’ve been abandoned by someone they care for and so they lash out.

“The Wild Things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”

But it does no good.

“Max stepped into his private boat, and waved good-bye.”

How many novels, plays, and French films does this surpass in depth?

As a kid, I saw how anger sometimes lives inside love. I felt abandoned, but never really was. Now that I’m an adult, I have grown numb, but not immune, to the pain of going. I discarded the objects of my past, miss almost none of them, but am sick with regret over the books I threw out.

I’d assumed my picture books were sentimental toys, no different from dolls or stuffed animals. The “important” novels and anthologies I bothered to save were symbols of my education and my ideas. Now, for one of the first times in my life, it’s the object that matters, not just the idea. My childhood, like yours maybe, was plagued by doubt and confusion. When I was frustrated or bored, I wanted an island or a secret staircase or a hallway in the Plaza Hotel where I could be wild. A real place, not a fantasy. If I stayed in my room, on my block, and in my yard, it was because I thought being good was a way to stay safe and loved.

But we love Max because of his wildness, not in spite of it. Holding these books and turning their pages makes that possibility real. My only consolation is that I’ve kept these stories so close. Max’s burrowed itself into my life so long ago — its lesson (if there is one, and I think there is one) is that I can be loved this way too.

***
Nicole Pasulka has been published in The Believer, Mother Jones, The Rumpus, and the 2013 Best American Sports Writing anthology. You can follow her on Twitter at @NicolePasulka.

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