Books from Childhood

Wes Anderson has a new movie out—"Moonrise Kingdom"—which I learned about via an article in The Houston Chronicle about its twelve-year-old protagonist traveling with a suitcase filled with books. In the article, Maggie Galehouse wrote that she feels we all have a book or books that changed our lives.

While still musing about which books changed my life, I listened as the host of the NPR radio show "Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me," Peter Sagal, interviewed the author of The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster. Sagal said that "anyone who knows anything about me knows this is my favorite book ever." (Listen to or read a transcript of the interview here.)

The Phantom Tollbooth was one of the seminal books of my childhood. Out of the nowhere, it was featured on one of my favorite programs, shortly after I read an article about books influencing our lives.

Clearly, I needed to think about my young reading life.

I was an avid reader as a child. Books were my favorite escape. And little Leslie dreamed of writing her own stories one day. (My parents thought that was nice, and asked what else I wanted to do.)

The books of childhood stick with us in a way the texts of adulthood don't. This is probably partially because adults have so many other things to think about. Also, few concepts are groundbreaking past childhood--or we think they aren't. Thirdly, adults have little patience for things that they feel are silly, as though they're a waste of time. (This is sad.)

Musing on it—and I may miss some—here are a few of the authors and books I read as a kid that are woven into the fabric of my childhood, in rough timeline order:

Shel Silverstein

I can still recite many of the poems in Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic from memory. Clips from The Missing Piece are still family catchphrases. ("Grease my knees and fleece my bees / I'm lookin' for my missin' piece.") I loved his short, fanciful tales about other children and animals in absurd situations. I was even fortunate enough to meet Silverstein and hear him read and play his guitar when he visited my elementary school. I remember The Giving Tree from my youth, but I think I only appreciated it fully as an adult.

Roald Dahl

When I thought marrying someone was just about really liking him a lot, I told my mother that I wanted to marry Roald Dahl. Over a full body of work, Dahl is my favorite children’s author. His ability to write clearly and concisely about fantastical subjects still impresses me. He created entire worlds that felt 100 percent real. As a kid, my favorite book of his was The BFG, perhaps remembered most fondly because I remember my father reading it to me.

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

Didn't everyone love Where the Wild Things Are? The rich, poignant illustrations! The story! I can still probably badly draw from memory the wild rumpus and Max in his wolf suit with his porridge on the final page. And I still love the phrase "I'll eat you up, I love you so."

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

My original childhood copy of Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.

My original childhood copy of Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.

Like Sagal, I loved Juster's book. The story is simply told, but the imagination behind it is rich and complex. Milo's venture into a topsy-turvy world full of puns and wordplay tickled my nascent love for language. Thinking on it now, I suppose there are similarities to Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, but as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth was more believable and relatable. The former just seemed bizarre and kind of frightening, whereas Juster’s book was thought provoking and amusing.

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

My original, 7th grade personal copy of T. H. White's The Once and Future King.

My original, 7th grade personal copy of T. H. White's The Once and Future King.

Does seventh grade count as childhood? That's when I was assigned White's The Once and Future King. I still have my original copy, which I highlighted and starred and annotated. The newly rich, three-dimensional stories of the characters from traditional Arthurian myths—people with nuanced motives, life lessons, struggling with what it all means—gave me an entirely new perspective on the world and human nature. By seventh grade, things weren't quite so simple anymore, so this book really resonated with me.

What books made an impression on your childhood?