Magical to Me: Childhood Books and their influence

After I finished a gargantuan email interview with author Clay Reynolds last year (who died a few weeks later), I thought of a great question I wish I could have asked him. I love this question so much that I will pose it to every writer I interview. But first, I’m also going to answer my own question.

Here is that question — and my answer to it follows below:


I’m going to give a multi-part answer, grouped by grade level.

Elementary School

Back in elementary school, Scholastic Books were hitting the elementary schools — every few months the schools distributed sales catalogs which we would bring home to parents. Later I’d bring my order form (and a check from my parents) to the teacher, and a month later the books would arrive. That usually for me was a day of jubilation. I was eager to buy Snoopy books, and I almost always bought anything having to do with Greek myths (eventually moving onto the Iliad and Odyssey in middle school). Quite by accident I bought a book called Golden Phoenix and other French-Canadian Fairy Tales ( , LT) by Marius Barbeau and Michael Hornyansky, Arthur Price (Illustrator). It was a cheap paperback, but all the stories were fun and moral and clever. The paperback Scholastic edition was called Magic Tree and Other Tales, and the illustrations were only black and white, but it was the same book.

I loved reading myths and fairy tales. I also enjoy modern retelling of these tales; in fact, I once retold the Cinderella story in contemporary times where Cinderella was a man. Of course some people have taken the opposite tack — using the original setting of Greece and narrating the story with a modern sensibility.

The great thing about myths and fairy tales is that they are so many different kinds. Maybe Greek and Roman myths seem familiar — and so do Grimm fairy tales, but I know almost nothing about African or Asian myths — to say nothing of Norse or Egyptian or Gaelic. You can find all sorts of myths and fairy tales on Project Gutenberg that most readers have never heard of.

The French-Canadian fairy tales were fun and silly, and yet there were clearly identifiable protagonists (usually the youngest son or daughter) who messed up but eventually figured out the right thing to do at the end. The stories had a lot of redemption; In one story — the Sly Thief of Valenciennes, a successful thief was so good that he could steal anything — even from the King — without getting caught. The Sly Thief falls in love with the King’s daughter and has to learn that winning her heart is not as easy as stealing the priciest jewels. (I always remember the last line — after he marries the princess and becomes the King’s son-in-law, he realizes that the King had a method to steal as much as he wanted — it was called “taxes.” )

Below is an illustration I love from “Sly Thief of Valenciennes.” The king hosts a 24 hour banquet in order to catch the sly thief red-handed. At the start, the king declares that it is expressly forbidden for any of the party’s attendants to talk to the king’s daughter after dinner, which the sly thief promptly does. The next morning, the sly thief discovers that the princess had secretly stamped his forehead with a cross made in indelible ink. To avoid being incriminated, he steals the ink and paints the same cross on everyone’s forehead while they were still asleep.

Illustration by Arthur Price from the story Sly Thief of Valenciennes

Middle School: Fantasy Worlds and Science Fiction

By 6th grade I had become comfortable with school libraries and public libraries — even though I occasionally would buy books from the bookstore at the mall. I discovered the clever fantasy book, Norton Jester‘s Phantom Tollbooth (wiki). At the time I didn’t realize that the whole book was paying homage to Alice in Wonderland, but that’s okay; every chapter depicted some far-fetched absurd world. I loved every paragraph and every character of that book.

Book cover - Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth always has been my favorite childhood book. I liked the simple sequence of events and the fact that each successive chapter had a new “gimmick” which the narrator would learn about (A kingdom where people had to eat their words for dinner, a land where sounds were forbidden, a land where numbers would be mined from the ground, etc.) Each chapter introduced the reader to a new compartmentalized fantasy and then everything got mixed together in the finale.

At about the same time I discovered the 5 book Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Like the Phantom Tollbooth, I learned about Alexander’s books by reading an excerpt in my middle school reading textbook and discovering with delight that the Houston Public Library carried all these books.

book cover -- Lloyd Alexander's Book of Three. Fair use from Wikipedia

To be honest, I avoid book series, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series is one of the few series I have actually finished. Looking back, I never realized how common and archetypal some of the books’ elements are — the humble beginnings, the soulless creatures, the final battle. Reading through the Wikipedia page about the series and author, I see that the author borrowed a lot of elements from Welsh mythology even though the author grew up in Pennsylvania (spending some time in UK and Europe during World War 2).

I read all 5 Prydain books several times. They were funny, magical, dark, sad and yes, scary. The main character is a young “assistant pig keeper” who somehow gets caught up in a campaign to protect the world against the Horned King and Arawn. By the time I got around to the Prydain books, I had already read some King Arthur tales and was vaguely aware of Lord of the Rings. I loved the parts with magic and strange creatures. There were lots of action and adventure and magic, but it remained highly readable. Also, the books didn’t feel especially hard or long. Each was about 150 pages!

The series was well put together and mercifully short. (I could read any volume over a lazy weekend). When I reread the first two books recently, I was struck by how light the dialogue was and how rarely the narrator got inside the heads of each character. Some chapters were slow, but I knew that no chapter went on for more than 10-15 pages and that the action would certainly pick up by the next chapter. The reading level was fairly elementary, but as a young reader I never felt that the prose was too simple or basic; indeed, the Welsh names and unfamiliar words contributed to the magical otherworldly feel of it.

Looking back on the series as an adult, I see a lot of world-building going on; perhaps the author started with a basic struggle, populated it with characters and then imagined the land they had to travel through. Then he provided a backstory for everything, some magical touches and finally a map. (Books about magical realms always seemed to have a map!)

Map of Prydain land for Lloyd Alexander's fantasy series

In 6th or 7th grade I hit my Robert Heinlein phase, starting with Tunnel in the Sky. I read a good amount of sci fi in middle school, and Heinlein had a lot of good sci fi books for that age group. This particular book was about a group of high school students studying to be astronauts. They were sent on some space travel portal to visit an unknown planet as a “survival test” to see if they could adapt to the environs. The test was only supposed to last 2 days, and then they would be returned to Earth. Alas, because of some technical malfunction or astronomical event, they didn’t get rescued for two years, and all sorts of things happened while they were stranded (there’s a little borrowing from Robinson Crusoe, a little Lord of the Rings, etc.) Great funny adventure. I have fond memories of reading it although it never was a masterpiece. On a lark, I made an interlibrary loan request for it a few years ago. It was still as entertaining as I remembered it. There was enough activity and plot to keep me reading, plus the dialogue was always funny and readable.

I haven’t read anything like Tunnel in the Sky, but I recognized that essentially it was just a high school rite of passage novel. Sure there was science fiction and exploration added to it, but essentially it was just a bunch of high schoolers hanging out and having adventures. Formulaic yes, but the characters and the dialogue made it a fun read. From a writing point of view, the real challenge was letting characters do their things without slowing down the plot. At the beginning, in good Robinson Crusoe style, you were following one character, but as the chapters proceeded, more characters were added until at some point you were dealing with an entire civilization.

In 7th grade I also read and loved Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles — which I was convinced was the best book ever written. By high school I had to revise that initial impression, but I have returned to that book many times — even as an adult.

Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles did influence my writing a lot. Bradbury was basically a short story writer who found a unifying theme to group stories around. Martian Chronicles was more of an anthology than anything coherent. It mixed humor with pathos and metaphysical speculation. One story (“There will Come Soft Rains”) didn’t have any characters at all; it was merely about an abandoned house which automated robots continued to maintain despite the disappearance of the human inhabitants. I really loved that story; it blew my mind! Other stories were about two people who saw reality completely differently and couldn’t reconcile their disagreements. Martian Chronicles was a great example about how to write a short story collection that people wanted to read.

8th Grade Books that Freaked me Out!

I sometimes read books which were too old for me, and 8th grade is that time when you want to read the adult stuff and find out all that you’ve been missing.

My mother belonged to lots of book clubs, and sometimes I would read those titles, but honestly I don’t remember very much about them. They were mostly stories about ghosts and serial killers and that sort of thing: Amityville Horror, V.C. Andrews, Stephen King, etc. Also, I remember reading two very long books by Arthur Hailey: Airport and Hotel. I don’t remember much about these titles, except that they felt like the things that adults should read. These books were moderately interesting and informative, but they didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet.

I guess I read some books about love and romance, but I don’t remember any (aside from occasional sci fi stories in Omni magazine or humor mags like National Lampoon or Mad). Some of the books did have sex in them — that was unavoidable — but it felt like the sort of PG stuff you’d see on TV. Typically the sex scenes lasted about 2 or 3 paragraphs, and then the novel would return to the regular story.

But I distinctly remember three books from 8th grade that totally freaked me out — and still freak me out today.

Childhood’s End by Arthur Clarke was a story about an alien race that travels to earth and seems to be friendly and altruistic. But it was never quite clear what ulterior motives these aliens may have had in visiting humans. Action and plot proceed slowly, but then the end of the novel was so unexpected that I literally had to reread it to make sure I had read it properly. I recently watched a limited TV series of the book. It was excellent and did a great job of portraying that strange ending.

1984 by George Orwell. By that time I got around to reading it, I already knew that 1984 was a famous book and that it would contain lots of ideas and strange things. I knew that it was written by a staunch anti-communist and it was about doublespeak and dystopias, but aside from that, I went into it with no preconceived notions.

The censorship and oppression didn’t freak me out so much as the revelation that the subversive book by Goldstein (which was essentially a book-within-a-book) turned out to be a fake book written by the Big Brother people to trap dissenters. Honestly, it never occurred to me that an oppressive government could be so dastardly.

I also remembered the rats in Room 101 (who could forget that?) I had already read a few dystopian books intended for young readers, but it was genuinely frightening that Winston Smith actually saw five fingers on the man’s hand instead of four.

Mysterious Stranger and Other Tales by Mark Twain. (Archive) I can’t remember where or when I bought this book, but I had heard that Mark Twain was a humor writer and I’d already read the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County — which was mildly funny. I didn’t read the story collection from cover to cover, but I read a story a week.

Two stories caught me by surprise: “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” and “Mysterious Stranger.” “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” was a comic misadventure of a captain who had died and had somehow figured out how to navigate to different galaxies in the afterlife. (Published in 1907, this Bangsian fantasy was one of the last things Twain had published even though he had written earlier drafts in 1873).

On one level, it was a fun fantasy adventure. But it criticized religion’s notion of a heaven — or even an afterlife. Surely the way it is described by preachers and the Bible can’t come close to what it really might be (assuming that you believe in God, etc.) Twain’s heaven is a crowded vacation resort where most residents are bored or delusional or at the mercy of heavenly bureaucrats. The story tries hard to convey the smallness and quaintness of humans in this grand universe. At the beginning Captain Stormfield had arrived at the wrong galaxy and is met by overworked bureaucrats who don’t know what to do with him. Even when he is directed to the right solar system, he discovers that the population of Earth’s heaven is beyond his comprehension and that prophets and patriarchs are treated like celebrities who occasionally grace the world with their presence. Stormfield realizes that he is just an unimportant man to whom nobody pays attention, and the VIPs in heaven are people who were ignored during their lives.

The second Twain work, “Mysterious Stranger” is actually an unfinished novel published after Twain’s death. The protagonist makes the acquaintance of a stranger who performs all sorts of magic tricks, but then admits to the protagonist that he is actually Satan. But Satan does not do evil per se. He sees human actions as venal and destructive; he is almost indignant about the terrible things humans do but at the same time views these events as inevitable. Occasionally Satan intervenes to help a good man escape harm, but it is clear that Satan merely decides to act by whim; he cannot and does not intervene every time some injustice occurs on earth. This god’s eye perspective of Satan views prejudice and hatred and exploitation as unavoidable realities. Satan decries the “moral sense” of humanity, claiming that it actually oppresses the world more than liberates it.

It is a cynical and shocking tale. But the ending (which I will not reveal) exploded my sense of reality.

Reading the story again as an adult, I see that Twain is pondering the nature of authorial omnipotence. The story teller can manipulate a universe just as easily as the Satan character could do in “Mysterious Stranger.” Indeed, a storyteller can even create Satan as a character in a story. Twain almost seems aware of the destructive potential of a world which can be manipulated to fit any ethical viewpoint. It’s hard though to pass judgment on Satan because culpability rests on context and foreknowledge; sometimes it’s just impossible to figure out which outcome is best from a utilitarian point of view. Introducing someone as Satan puts the reader on guard, but if Satan is creating illusions, then the Author must be Satan. Life is but a dream, but the dreamer might very well be the author … or even the reader!

Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” This is probably true. I’ll add that what I read before high school exposed me to lots of passion, obsession, philosophy, satire, duty, adventure and spirituality. Some of the books I mention here were unavoidable to kids growing up at the same time, but other books magically appeared at precisely the right time — exerting their influences over the decades. All are great books, but no one can read everything. If I were growing up today, I doubt that I would have even come across one of these titles. What you read is a function of where and when you are. The books mentioned here are not that magical to most people, but they are magical to me.

Postscript: Movie Novelizations and Actual Scripts

During middle school I am ashamed to have read a LOT of movie novelizations. During elementary school I read lots of novels which were originally Disney movies but were made into easy-to-read chapter books (they often include movie photo stills!) One Disney novelization I remember was The Strongest Man in the World starring Ken Russell. I ended up reading the book before watching the movie, but as it turns out the book was just a rehash of the movie and nothing more. In middle school I read the novelization of Star Wars and Alien. Actually I’m semi-glad I read the book version of Alien before I saw the movie so I knew what horrors the movie would hold when I eventually saw it. Also, I don’t regret reading the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey (written by the same Arthur Clarke who wrote the screenplay). The book even explained the ending better than the movie ever did — which may be good or bad depending on your literary tastes.

In 8th grade I discovered an unclassifiable book: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Book): Monty Python’s Second Film: A First Draft (1977). I had already discovered the Holy Grail movie in 1976 or 1977 and became obsessed with it (like most of the other nerdy middle schoolers in 7th and 8th grade at the time).

But this book contained more just the Holy Grail script. They had reproduced the precursor to the script — warts and all. I thought the final movie screenplay (which was the second part of this book) was brilliant, but the early rough drafts were practically garbage — full of amazing ideas and jokes and sketches which bore absolutely no resemblance to the final product. For example, it included a lot of department store sketches which were axed and later found their way into various Flying Circus episodes. But the script also had tons of unfunny jokes, scenes which went on too long and pieces which were ultimately unfilmable.

Even in the final script, I saw how much was cut or deleted or rewritten; you got to see the crossed out lines and handwritten revisions. It was fascinating to see what dialogue made it into the movie and what got cut.

This book taught me two things: First, I realized that although the Monty Python people were brilliant and entertaining, their scripts were certainly not Shakespeare. They were almost embarrassing to read. At the time, I remember thinking that I could have easily written this kind of script even as a 14 year old. I lacked Oxford-inspired eloquence or the ability to compress the language, but there was essentially no difference between the funny sketches I was writing for friends and what the Monty Python guys were writing.

Second, I realized how much effort went into trying to cut the ideas down to the bone. Some of their early ideas had potential, but I saw why they were ultimately axed. If the early script had been produced as is, it might have still been entertaining, but nowhere near as exciting as the finished product.

I haven’t written many scripts (and honestly, I’d like to write more), but I have picked up a lot of experience editing my own prose and figuring out the most efficient way to convey a scene. The Holy Grail script was complex and needed to be edited with impeccable timing; seeing the early source material for the movie made me appreciate how much effort was made to turn rough ideas into a perfectly-oiled machine onscreen.

I used to carry this book with me everywhere — even when I went to high school; I showed it off to all my friends and lent it several times. Sadly, it disappeared for some reason. I think one of the people I lent it to had lost it. I was crushed, but in fact, I had already read and reread this book a dozen times; this book had served its purpose admirably.

Further Notes

If you are an author and want to answer the question in your own way, please do! Either drop your thoughts or a URL in the comment section — along with a one sentence summary of things you’ve written. First time comments typically go into the moderation queue, but if it hasn’t been approved after a week, please send me an email ( idiotprogrammer AT so I can make sure it is approved.

Here’s a great list of best children’s books by School Library Journal. BBC compiled a list of the Top 100 Children’s Books.

Choose your Own Adventure (CYOA) book series. This book series (targeted mainly to middle school readers) had a profound influence on my approach to storytelling and fiction. There’s only one catch — I didn’t stumble upon these crazy books until my late twenties, long after graduate school. Indeed, in the late 2010s I went on another reading binge where I read every CYOA volume from Houston Public Library and Harris County Library. (Gavin Jamieson revisits these CYOA novels and the crazy themes and narrative tricks they used).

Other readings from elementary years. In 4th grade I read every single kind of sports biography — I had even bought a Scholastic kid’s biography of O.J. Simpson! Besides a few series (Danny Dunn, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Encyclopedia Brown, Peanuts, etc.) I thought Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians by Mary Nash and Jason and the Money Tree by Sonia Levitin were great. I also read E.B. White’s Stuart Little, Wizard of Oz, Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume. Also From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, (I unabashedly loved all the books in that series) Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. Curiously, I never read Alice in Wonderland until my late thirties, which I would argue is the best time to appreciate that brilliant book. By 5th or 6th grade I had read both volumes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — my 4th or 5th grade teacher had read the book aloud to us every afternoon before the movie had even come out. I also enjoyed reading math puzzle books. I did not read a lot of comics — they struck me as stupid — but I read Peanuts comics religiously and Mad magazine semi-regularly. Oops, I totally forgot about the wonderful Great Brain series by John Dennis Fitzgerald which told the story of various immigrant families in Utah at the turn of the 20th century. Even though the stories were light-hearted and mischievous, they also provided historical perspective and a glimpse of religious differences (like Mormons vs. Catholics).

More on Phantom Tollbooth. I really haven’t gushed enough about this wonderful novel. First, there’s an outstanding annotated edition of this book edited by Leonard Marcus. It gives so much backstory and interpretation. This book introduced me to the Terrible Trivium (a polite but terrifying creature who assigned people to do pointless tasks purely to waste time).

Ogden Nash Poetry. Although I was exposed to some poetry at early ages (mostly Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss and maybe some Beatles song lyrics), I never really encountered poetry except as a quick lesson in English class. That was a mistake. Looking back, I probably could have warmed up more to poetry if only the right kind of poetry book had come my way. Actually I did run into a book or two by Ogden Nash, which were delightful and madcap. Sometime during middle school I kept a notebook where I copied down all my favorite poems by Ogden Nash (that was the 1970s when photocopy machines weren’t widely around). I used to love reciting these poems for fun. This was my favorite:

‘Procrastination is All of the Time’

Torpor and sloth, torpor and sloth,
These are the cooks that unseason the broth.
Sloth and torp, slothor and torp
The directest of bee-line ambitions can warp.
He who is slothic, he who is troporal,
Will not be promoted to sergeant or corporal.
No torporer drowsy, no comatose slother
Will make a good banker, not even an author.
Torpor I deprecate, sloth I deplore,
Torpor is tedious, sloth a bore.
Sloth is a bore, torpor is tedious,
Fifty parts comatose, fifty tragedious.
How drear, on a planet redundant with woes,
That sloth is not slumber, nor torpor repose.
That the innocent joy of not getting things done
Simmers sulkily down to plain not having fun.
You smile in the morn like a bride in her bridalness
At the thought of a day of nothing but idleness.
By midday you’re slipping, by evening a lunatic,
A perusing-the-newspapers-all-afternoonatic,
Worn to a wraith from the half-hourly jount
After glasses of water you didn’t want,
And at last when onto your pallet you creep,
You discover yourself too tired to sleep.

O torpor and sloth, torpor and sloth,
These are the cooks that unseason the broth,
Torpor is harrowing, sloth it is irksome-
Everyone ready? Let’s go out and worksome.

What’s Missing in Tunnel in the Sky. Surely the plot must have included some G rated romance and possibly even marriage, but there was no sex on that planet apparently. Looking back, it seems risible that a bunch of high schoolers — male and female — would be stuck on a planet with nothing to occupy their time and it would not occur to any one of them to engage in hanky-panky. I never noticed this omission at the time, but reading it as an adult, it seemed very strange.

Seeking Adult Fiction. Yes, I frequently would check out books from the library — in elementary, middle and high school. I pretty much read anything in the fiction department on the book shelves in elementary school. In middle school I checked out a lot of fiction titles from the school library, but by then my tastes had evolved to a point where I avoided anything that smacked of literature for children. Also, I am proud to say that I subscribed to Omni magazine in middle school. I didn’t make it a point to read the fiction published there, but often I did. I did discover Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy in 7th grade and the sequels. For a while everyone was reading it, but nobody took it seriously as literature.

There will come Soft Rains. (There are several excellent audio versions of Ray Bradbury’s story. I prefer the 1962 BBC version. The 1977 version (which sounds more high-tech is also great but strange).

William Blatty’s Exorcist. One book I read in high school which definitely did NOT freak me out was William Blatty’s The Exorcist, but not for the reasons you might think. I had already watched the (edited) version of the Exorcist on TV with my parents. They were both VERY Catholic, and indeed my dad went to Brooklyn Prep (a Jesuit high school) at about the same time Blatty did. So basically I knew what to expect. The book itself had a lot of scatology and historical information about exorcisms. It probably grossed me out more than anything, but it certainly didn’t shock me.

Childhood Books Discovered as an Adult. I mentioned before that I only read Alice in Wonderland in adulthood and Exupery’s the Little Prince after college. I discovered the stories by Hans Christian Andersen in my late 20s and was struck by the similarities between his tales and Kafka’s. There’s a ton of public domain works for children which I haven’t really read. But I can report that Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (1914) is perhaps the funniest thing I have ever read. I can’t wait to read the two sequels (also in the public domain). Comic-wise, I discovered Big Nate series by Lincoln Pierce and (strangely) Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. These two series are as good as if not better than Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

MYSTERIOUS STRANGER: That Ending. From the Wikipedia article, I learned about this fascinating book, Mark Twain and little Satan: the writing of The mysterious stranger (1963) by John Sutton Tuckey which tries to understand the controversy about which version of the unfinished text was closest to the author’s intention. Tuckey maintains that the “life is but a dream” ending was tacked on after Twain’s death, and that Twain himself hardly accepted this solipsistic perspective (p. 81) :

Yet such an interpretation — that Twain’s art lost contact with Reality — must not be pushed too far. It has been noted that he could speak of a solipsistic view of life as someone’s “foible.” And he was probably more at home in the real world than his own words would sometimes suggest. Certainly he recognized the existence of other persons in the world. And it is greatly to his credit that he desired for them the same freedom that he claimed for himself. Dorothy Quick, who as a little girl enjoyed Mark Twain’s friendship, has related that once in 1908 when he took her to a circus, Mark Twain became somewhat melancholy after seeing an elephant perform upon cues from its trainer. He remarked that he always felt “sad to see anything brought down from its high estate — or something meant to be great that doesn’t know its own power.” (272) The elephant, he said, could probably have stampeded all the people who were present; however, it did not know its possibilities and so did tricks at the crack of a whip. And he was further saddened to think how many men were, like the elephant, unaware of their great powers. They toiled at low tasks, as they were ordered, although they had within them, all along, “the driving power of the universe.” (273) But he told Dorothy that she needn’t worry; that he knew his powers— and he would see to it that she knew hers. He was thus proposing to play, in actual life, the role of the mysterious stranger, revealing to a young person the limitless power of the creative mind. One of the things he told her was “No matter what happens, you must write,” (274) an injunction that eventually led to the writing of her book about Mark Twain.

Mark Twain was the mysterious stranger. And he played his role wonderfully to the last.

Flatland. I was also going to mention Edward Abbott’s Flatland as a book that influenced me as as well. But I wasn’t sure if I had read it before high school. Also when I originally read it I didn’t grasp its social and political messages. I reread it later in life and was struck by how profound and tragic it was. While the book is incredible on so many levels, I need to recommend the extraordinary 2007 movie adaptation directed by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr. (it’s free on YouTube).






7 responses to “Magical to Me: Childhood Books and their influence”

  1. Michael Barrett Avatar

    I too redd Phantom Tollbooth, Heinlein (middle school), and some others you mentioned: Encyclopedia Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (she was boss), Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, Mrs. Frisby (and even more depressing Z for Zachariah), Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

    Probably the greatest impact on my youthful reading were the Oz books and Dr. Dolittle (gifts from my dad one special day), Peanuts books, and my dad’s Pogo books, and later Tintin, which were hard to find until high school. Also Henry Reed (though I remember nothing of them now), The Hobbit, and the Matthew Looney series by Jerome Beatty Jr. illustrated by Gahan Wilson. I was obsessed with Tom Swift Jr despite realizing their formula limitations, as I didn’t put it.

    Fifth and sixth grade were when I discovered Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and Michael Moorcock a little later. First adult book: Christie’s They Came to Bagdad. No, wait, maybe it was James Blish’s Spock Must Die in third or fourth grade. First adult book consumed in 24 hours: Ten Little Indians. The Mrs. Pollifax series in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, plus Paul Gallico’s The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun.

    Also middle school I began looking for the Man from UNCLE books because I had no access to the show. And I became obsessed with humor writers: Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, The Egg and I (by Piggle-Wiggle author), Richard Armour, etc.

    [[FROM ROBERT: Michael Barrett has written two whimsical titles for children (Life Lessons in Leadership: The Way of the Wallaby: For Leaders Ages 8 to 88 and one previously published book called Mother’s Little Stinker). He writes film criticism for PopMatters and I’ve actually interviewed him. ]]

    [[ROBERT REPLIES: Michael, Very interesting! I did go through the Oz books — and enjoyed them, but have no memories of them. Amazing that you read Christie, Wodehouse and Moorcock so young. I never really heard of them until college. I read (and loved) Wodehouse in my late 20s, and I’ve never read Christie or Moorcock. I read Encyclopedia Brown/Three Investigators series in elementary school, but in middle school the only mystery writer I read was Ellery Queen in middle school (and only 1 or 2 books). I avoided Reader’s Digest Condensed Books even in middle school, but in retrospect, reading them wouldn’t have been that horrible at that age. Aha, I too read and enjoyed Bombeck — if only because I knew her from the newspaper. ]]

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Avatar

    Impressed that you remember that much detail about your childhood reading – but then I realized that me being sick for 33 years has greatly reduced my ability to do all kinds of things – including remembering. I hope it’s all still there in my brain, and if we ever get some relief for ME/CFS from the Long Covid research, I will be able to access it again.

    My favorite childhood book was The Other Side of the Moon, by Meriol Trevor. It’s basically SFF – a group visits the moon to explore the dark side that always faces away from Earth, and its science is not correct – there is no other side with a usable atmosphere, etc., but it’s an incredibly powerful realistic story of what happens to our explorers – and why they can’t say anything about it when they come back. Trevor went on to write theology, and I haven’t read her other book for children, but I made sure to pass the story on to my children because of the deep psychology that makes the story something I reread with pleasure every couple of years. It was written before we knew for sure what was on the other side of the moon – nothing – but the people are beautifully done as well as the story.

    You just wish it were true.

    I didn’t read Phantom Tollbooth or Narnia – and have had no desire to. I got two Nancy Drews from my godmother a year – one for my birthday, one for Christmas – and read them the same day. Curiously, many of the women scientists I met later in life had all had their possibilities opened by Nancy Drew.

    [[FROM ROBERT: Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt is the author of the Pride’s Children trilogy (psychological drama about “three passionate people who can’t all get what they want”) and a literary blogger.]]

    [[ROBERT REPLIES: Thanks, Alicia. I totally want to look up OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON. Here’s the wiki page for Meriol Trevor, a Guardian obituary and a long interview with Trevor about her Merlin/King Arthur books. It’s funny about Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. They were a well known series, and I’d read a few of them. But I viewed them as too formulaic and commercial. That is probably unfair. Sometimes authors can do great things with writing for series. (I’ve heard people rave about certain Star Trek novels for example). ]]

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Avatar

    The Hardy Boys have been severely and horribly ‘updated’ – don’t let kids near them.

    I have been too chicken to check whether the same has been done to the Nancy Drews.

    Thanks for the links to Trevor – I don’t know why I never thought to look once this stuff was available on the internet. The only other children’s book I knew about was Sun Slower Sun Faster (?) or vice versa – and I remember having ordered a copy from ABEbooks or similar, and it never arrived.

    I grew up in Mexico from 7 to 19 – without easily available books in English – and no public libraries – and was a head in the clouds/books kind of kid – I read what I could get my hands on. I remember walking for a long time along Avenida Lindavista (where we lived) to borrow the first volume of The Complete Sherlock Holmes from a friend of my parents who offered it to me; then being devastated when Sherlock ‘died’ at the Falls; walking again that long distance to return the first book and wondering what might be in the second, since Holmes was dead – perfect audience for the stories: I was 9.

  4. Matt Mills Avatar

    I love this concept and the way you structured the breakdown of your formative reads. Here’s how my (less interesting) literary path unfurled…

    Goosebumps all the way. Shakespeare, eat your heart out. No, they’re not great art. But for an oddball kid, they were a great outlet for my many kooky curiosities and comprised most of the books I read as a kid (yes, I collected them—until my dog ate them… I wish this were a joke (she was fine—just full)).

    Middle school:
    1984 as well. It’s so incredibly clear, horrifying, relevant, and inevitable. Not only should it be required reading, but we should also hold students’ eyes open so they ingest every second of it (just kidding—my clockwork isn’t orange). It’s a timeless examination of power/authority/propaganda/etc.

    Seinfeld scripts, baby! I’ve always loved how the show managed to dove-tail all plotlines together into a satisfying climax (at least after Larry David realized that was a cool thing to do), so their scripts are among the most fun-to-read in the literary medium. And to be clear… I was in the pool!!!

    [[FROM ROBERT Matt Mills is a “goofy guy from the Midwest turned NYU graduate” who has worked in screenwriting, TV/film consulting and publishing many short stage plays and coaching competitive acting (Speech). Milles recently transitioned to the world of prose with his new eBook series The Workshop. ]]

  5. B. Westbrook III Avatar

    My absolute favorite book as a young kid was Harold and the Purple Crayon. It’s a story of a four-year old boy who wakes up at midnight and leaves his house with a purple crayon, then anything he draws with the crayon comes to life.

    In retrospect, like many of the things built or written in the 1950-70s – cars without seatbelts, cigarettes for kids, lead paint, kids’ toys with razor sharp edges and loaded with asbestos – it’s sort of amazing that a children’s book encouraging kids to leave their houses in the middle of the night with a pack of crayons was ever even released. But my parents, bless them, read it to me every night I asked them to. When I could read on my own, I read it so many times it completely wore out the spine and the pages fell out. I eventually saved up enough money in my piggybank to buy a new copy.

    I still love this book. While it could never be released today and will probably be banned in school libraries at some point, Harold and the Purple Crayon taught me three extremely valuable lessons: 1. That crayons aren’t just for coloring inside the lines, 2. Getting far away from home (2,000 miles in my case) could lead me on a series of unbelievable adventures, and 3. That I had the power to create my own worlds – which is really what writers try to do.

    [[FROM ROBERT: Balthazar Westbrook III is the author of the Vonnegut-style dystopian workplace satire Tales from the Techpocalypse. ]]

  6. D J Colbert Avatar
    D J Colbert

    This is a great idea and once I put my mind to it I was surprised at how many books I could recall. I couldn’t single any one out as being most influential so here is a selection distilled from the kaleidoscope of words swilling around somewhere in my consciousness.

    Harold and the Purple Crayon also made its way to my child’s bookshelf in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Mr Charlie’s Camping Trip reached our shores as well. Another memorable book that would not have a chance of being published in its original form today was Little Black Sambo. The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes was one of my most-read books, although, in truth, it was read to me.

    In Aotearoa we also had what was known as the School Journal. This became available to us once we started school. It was published almost monthly and contained numerous short stories, poems, and non-fiction articles. It began in 1907 and is still running today. We were allowed to take copies home to read.

    Other books in very rough chronological order included Bim, the Little Donkey (a poignant Arab story about a boy and a donkey), Babar the Elephant, and Stuart Little.

    As I grew older all the Tintin books, all the Asterix the Gaul books, the Molesworth books (a humorous look at life in an English prep school), the Hornblower historical fiction series about a young man growing up through the ranks in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, the Biggles series of books about a fictional British airman in the 20th century, Mad Magazine, and Three Men in a Boat (another humorous English book about a boat trip up the river Thames where nothing much happens but that nothing is often very amusing).

    Into my teenage years and things became a bit more serious with The Grapes of Wrath, The Old Man and the Sea, Catch 22, anything by Dickens, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Leaves of Grass, The Pagan Game (a New Zealand novel about rugby), Owls do Cry by Janet Frame, The Crying of Lot 49, and Moby Dick which my English teacher at high school insisted was “the great American novel” and anyone still trying to write that mystical beast was wasting their time. (Please don’t be discouraged).

    [D.J. Colbert is a New Zealand author of the 2023 comic novel If That Was Lunch, We’ve Had It which you can buy from Amazon, Draft2Digital, etc. ]

    [FROM ROBERT: Surprised to see that Bim was originally cowritten by French poet and writer Jacques Prevert who also wrote the script for Children of Paradise. ]

  7. Joe Max Avatar
    Joe Max

    Before I even read through the post, “Martian Chronicles” was the one that was top of my list. The idea that you could make up something so foreign and yet so human just blew me away. Then jump ahead to Monty Python – that is just incredible what they could do with an idea to make fun of it and give it life. They still influence me years later.

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