Monday, August 4, 2008

What's Up With The Bookworms Carnival?

[The Bookworms Carnival is a cross-blog, themed event hosted by a different volunteer blogger each month. The August edition is being hosted by my friend Florinda at her personal blog and this month's theme is You're Never Too Old - Children's and Young Adult Literature. I am very happy to contribute this post, which will be linked to the carnival on her site. Thanks, Florinda!]

I associate books with trees. Not because books are made from trees (at least, some of them still are), but because I grew up reading in a tree. Actually, I did all kinds of things in my tree in the front yard of our house in Houston (homework, daydreaming, stealth reconnaissance of our neighbor Mrs. Jackson who, feigning innocence, would stand in curlers and caftan on her front porch while Pierre, her ill-tempered Shitzhu, would leave unwelcome deposits in our front yard), but reading was at the top of that list of things. There was a perfect little seat formed where two limbs came together, with another more slender limb below for a footrest. I can still feel the silver smoothness of the bark under my calloused palms, still smell the pistachio-colored meat underneath where I scratched a branch with my fingernail.

What could be better than being comfortably perched in a friendly tree, shielded from view by thousands of bright green leaves, reading a great book?

I read constantly, burning through The Wind in the Willows, the complete Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew's adventures and The Hobbit. Then there were the series that I loved so much: The Borrowers, Paddington, all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and Edward Eager's tales of magic. I could go on and on with a list (I know I'm overlooking many gems here) but there's one book that stood out from the rest for me and that I read over and over: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

I never tired of escaping into Harriet's world, which centered around her home on East 87th Street in Manhattan. To a girl with my experience at the time, Manhattan, with its skyscrapers and bustling sidewalks, might as well have been Mars. I remember asking my parents and other grown-ups what an egg cream was. (An egg cream was Harriet's soda fountain treat of choice.) None of them knew, and even though it sounded potentially gross, I wanted one.

Harriet carried a notebook everywhere she went, along with her belt of dangling spy gear (flashlight, extra pens, pocket knife, etc.). She had a regular spy routine, which involved making observations of both strangers and friends and scribbling them - along with her vivid commentary - into her notebook. You see, she was going to be a writer when she grew up.

When her friends found her secret notebook and read her blunt - and hilarious - commentary about them, Harriet's carefully ordered world was shaken. In the kid world, she was left to stand alone and face the repercussions of her unvarnished notebook entries. In the adult world, she was faced with the departure of Ole Golly, her beloved nanny, sage and fixture in her household.

I think part of what fascinated me about Harriet was that she was a very intelligent girl who was trying to understand how other people worked - why they did the things they did and said the things they said. In other words, she was trying to understand life by chronicling it as she saw it.

I related to Harriet's need to have some kind of control - or at least understanding - of what she saw going on around her, on both the kid and adult fronts. I also was inspired by Harriet's self-possession. She was her own person in every situation and I admired that. Harriet, as well as the other kids and adults in the story, were real in a way that I had never seen in a kids' book. I didn't think about any of this at the time, but looking back now, I see that Harriet the Spy was a supremely sophisticated, subtle and grown-up book...that happened to be written for kids.

I recently was cleaning out the top shelf of my nine-year-old daughter's closet and ran across the copy of Harriet the Spy that I overzealously bought for her long before she was able to read it. I made a point of buying an edition that had the identical cover art to the dog-eared Yearling book from my tree-reading years, and when I pulled it from the shelf, I found myself smiling at the illustration of the girl in the holey jeans, baggy hoodie and her father's lensless glasses. My smart, brave, dear old friend Harriet. I think it's time to introduce her to my daughter.


Unknown said...

You brought back my fond memories of reading outside on my farm in New Hampshire. I was spellbound with the Little House on the Praire Series. In a time of no computers, playdates (what the?), 24/7 cartoon channels, we were transported away in books. Now, it is forced labor (akin to perhaps water boarding)to get my 8 year old daughter to read "for fun". She laughed at my 35-year copy of Little House on the Praire. I long for those days when only Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was on TV. I am thinking of becoming Amish and cutting the electricity to our house.

Karen said...

Jeez--you trying to keep this thing a secret, or what? Love your posts. You 2 damn funny! Shoulda told me you were posting.

Karen said...

Hmm--you trying to hide this thing? How come you didn't tell me you'd started posting. I'm (sob) so (hiccup) so hurt. . .

A good and funny read as always, Anna! Keep up the good work, and for God's sake, keep me informed!

xx Karen

Daisy said...

Isn't it fun how we analyze our favorites and still love them? I read Little Women over and over - I can still quote line for line in my favorite chapters. Now I see that I wanted to be Jo; I so identified with her character. If she lived now, she'd have a blog!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE Harriet the Spy. I found a well-loved copy at a thrift store when I was probably around ten. I had never heard of it, but the title intrigued me. I read it then and dozens of times since then. Her world was the best. I love the opening scene where she and Sport are playing Town. I lived vicariously through her imagination. Oh! and I loved that scene where she scrabbles into the dumb-waiter. I always wanted to do that.

Anyway, now that I've rambled on and on, I just wanted to say hi to another Harriet the Spy lover. Thanks for sharing this in the Bookworms Carnival.

Jessica @ The Bluestocking Society

Anonymous said...

I'm living proof that it's possible for a book to shape a life. When I was in 2nd grade, I won a school writing contest for "short fiction" - and the prize was a hardcopy edition of "Harriet the Spy." I read it. Then I re-read it. And over and over. Although I went on to Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and even - gasp! - The Catcher in the Rye, for writing inspiration I always returned to Harriet. I, too, longed to know what an egg cream was, and made up my mind, all 8 years of me, that I would blow that pop stand of a town to move to Manhattan, which I did when I was 17. Cut to 30 years later, and here I am making my living as a writer. I'm so grateful to you for remembering Harriet: my first and best friend and co-conspirator.

Aimeslee Winans said...

geebus, whatzup with houston and tree-reading? i grew up in baytown and did the same thing...oh what, everyone does? well, i'm not reading anything outside right now, that's fer sure...

Beth Kephart said...

I loved Harriet, and I love that you return us to her so immaculately here. I haven't seen that book cover for ages.

Your blog is extremely well done, and I appreciate your Goodreads note! I'll keep checking back in an wishing you good luck through this harrowing/magical time. I know the feeling