stories we (still) like

I didn’t spring from a literary family. Our shelves didn’t contain the classics or even the near classics—more like a strange collection of mistakes from The Book of the Month Club, discards from the library, or sometimes outright thefts books that somebody forgot to return. These were the days when withdrawals were noted in ink on slips of cardboard tucked into tiny pockets on the inside back cover. Easy for the odd book to fall through the cracks.

Our incomplete set of encyclopedia came from the various weekly promotions at Food City. Buy enough laundry detergent and you, too, could go home with The World Book of Knowledge [C through N], unmatched towels or flower-stamped dinner plates.

I remember a Reader’s Digest anthology, a fat wine-coloured Websters, an atlas with full-page colour pictures of gemstones, ocean life, constellations, that my dad and I would pore over at the kitchen table after dinner. After supper. We’d look at maps and I’d flip those huge pages, ask daft questions, revel in his answers, true or made up. We sometimes lingered for hours.

There were no kid books, no one read stories out loud. But I discovered the library early and dragged home stacks of things and don’t feel deprived in the slightest. The memory of choosing books, the way they smelled, the joy of surrounding myself with them in my room… I’m sure I missed out on something by not having them read to me, but fortunately I have no idea what that might be.

The only book I owned as a kid was a ‘Laidlaw Reader’ called Stories We Like. There were some Aesop fables and condensed Grimm’s among its contents, but mostly it was a collection of crazy little things about pillow eating geese, mud turtles, mornings on a farm, a talking brass kettle, what kittens dream about, a homesick monkey, flower fairies, and one delicious story about a boy sent to deliver three perfect cherries to the king but the cherries looked so good and it was so hot that he ate two of them en route and when the king read the accompanying note that mentioned three cherries, he said: Well, where the bloody hell are the rest?  Or words to that effect. The boy, bless his heart, admitted he ate them, prompting the king to say: You ate them? How the hell did you do that?  To which the boy replied, “Like this!” and popped the last one into his mouth.

God, I loved that story.

Still think of it every time I eat cherries.

I found the book the other day, among the many kid books I’ve collected as an adult. Lovely to open it again, immediately felt about eight. For the first time, I wondered about the authors—Louise Abney, Eleanor V. Sloan, Gerald Yoakam, M. Madilene Veverka, Margery Clark. Googling them only brought me to a lot of ‘Laidlaw Reader’ links that amounted to zip information. I suspect they were pseudonyms anyway. They have that ‘Ernest Hemingwaithe’ ring to them.

It’s beat up and written on inside and out, my name all over it, The Monkees etched into the cover, then I notice a stamp with the name of my elementary school. Uh oh. A bit late to take it back. Does anyone even read ‘Readers’ anymore? And who writes them? Are there still a team of Eleanor V. Sloans and Gerald Yoakams out there? It might actually be fun to show up at the Principal’s office, book in hand, apologize, admit to being a bit of a slow reader

But, nah, I’m pretty sure it was a discard.

That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it…

Anyone else feel like confessing questionably attained books of youth?

15 thoughts on “stories we (still) like

  1. I loved reading this! And while the words on the pages and the story within are the most important part of a book, I still find the smell of books intoxicating.

    1. And there’s different scents, right? New book vs second hand, hardcover vs paperback. Hmmmm, I wonder if genres smell differently? ;)

      My favourite, though, is picture-books-from-the-library smell: soap, warm milk and pyjamas…

  2. I found a library copy of Erich Segal’s Love Story in a desk at school in grade 7, and kept it. I later replaced the tattered paperback with a tattered hardback I found in someone’s garbage.

  3. We bought a cottage when I was a pre-teen that came fully furnished. Along with stacks of Field and Stream magazine there were paperbacks, including a couple of Playboy Readers that we kids hid from my parents and read with great interest…

  4. So many memories came to me as I read this lovely post. I love your telling of the “three cherries” story, and the fact you remember it still. I’ll bet many of your readers, like me, can relate to that hodge-podge of a bookshelf, and the childhood memories attached to certain books or tales. Not to mention the occasional book we liberated from its life of duty at the local library …

    One series I remember fondly (purchased, not pilfered!) was The Children’s Hour, an illustrated 16-volume set with matching red-and-black covers and titles like “Favorite Mystery Stories,” “Best Loved Poems,” “From Many Lands,” and my favourite, “Myths & Legends.” Each spine bore an embossed gold illustration and the cover featured one in black and gold. I still recall how one of those books felt when I took one down from the shelf — the heft of it, the smoothness of the red cover, and the intriguing texture of the embossed picture on the front. Each book containing a different world. There was something satisfying and comforting in the thought that ALL the best poems and stories had been gathered into one set — for a while as a kid I believed they had — and the idea that someone “out there” had read so widely and chosen so carefully, so that on any given day I could trace the row of spines with a finger and decide which world I felt like slipping into, “Leaders & Heroes” or “Roads to Adventure,” or …

    Thanks for reminding me of this and more, Carin.

    1. Imagine remembering the detail of those spines!

      And isn’t it brilliant to know this kind of joy can be passed on to little ones still… that maybe they’ll grow up holding something dear that we thought was just a book.

      As always, thank ‘you’, Allyson. I love the way you make the small big. :)

  5. I will think of those three cherries too when I next eat cherries. Clever boy, was he punished? How did the story end?

    1. Alice, I had to look it up; I couldn’t remember the ending, probably because it’s pretty unremarkable. There’s no mention of the boy being punished; the king is simply resigned to waiting another year for more cherries. One can only hope the farmer chooses someone else to deliver them.

  6. Loved this…it made me think of the many books I read as a girl…I also had a collected stories, called “Like It Is” by a similarly untraceable author. It was stories for teen girls (very young ones, I think!) One of the stories really stood out: a teen girl taking her younger brother to the park because she had a crush on the carousel operator. The brother got sick from the many times he had to ride it, which I found the most amusing part. Strange child that I was…

    I pilfered a book from an acquaintance once as well: Norma Kassirer’s “Magic Elizabeth”. I started reading it at the lake and took it home with me because I wasn’t finished and I was loving it – despite the fact that I had no idea how to ever contact this summer friend again ;) I read it over and over…

    1. I wonder if the friend even missed it and here you are still remembering it. That tells me it went to the right place. (Of course the friend may have been distraught beyond measure and had to seek counselling, but let’s not imagine that!) :))

      Stories about carousel operators. Sounds like trouble. I’m hoping it ended with her taking her sick brother home, eating his portion of fish and chips for dinner and never giving the carnie another thought.

    1. Oh, that’s great! Do you remember any of the stories, Eileen? Maybe we can start a book club for the vaguely recalled… ;)

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