FIRST BOOKS by Kathie Johnson

Discovering Old Favorites

I’ve been involved with children’s books now for almost 50 years, and have had my children’s library active for 25 of those. That time period has given me an opportunity to observe the way books go in and out of popularity.

I first paid attention to this when Freddy the (pig) Detective (by Walter Brooks) became popular a few years back. When I was a teacher many years ago, and the school I was teaching in was being replaced by a new building, the library in the old school decided to get rid of its older books rather than move them, and invited us to take what we wanted of them. I took several Freddy books, not knowing much about them but liking the illustrations. Over the years, I acquired more of the series, but they were never borrowed. Then about ten years ago, someone began reprinting them, and people discovered that they were delightful. Now, almost every child who comes to my library reads the Freddy books at some point.

Parents have rediscovered many other series written long ago, often by talking with other parents or by coming across books they loved when they were young. Children also talk to each other and spread the word about great books to read. Among these are L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books, Sydney Taylor’s lovely All-of-a-Kind Family books, about a Jewish family in New York, and Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Family books.

I had always liked the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, featuring children on watery adventures in England, but I had no takers until about five years ago. One family read and loved them, and began talking to others about them, and pretty soon they became “standard fare” for family read-alouds, as well as for good readers.

Some books became harder to find in public libraries (at least in our area), so were in a sense forgotten. After they were found in my library, they quickly became popular. I especially think of George MacDonald’s princess books. There are also the somewhat eerie Green Knowe books of L. M. Boston, which have captured the attention of fantasy readers, and E. Nesbit’s wonderful books, especially The Railway Children, but also her fantasies.

For younger children, Maj Lindman’s books have been republished and rediscovered in recent years: the Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr series for boys, and the Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka series for girls.

Fluctuations in Popularity

Some mid-level series seems to go in waves—very popular one year, less so the next, then back again. Among these are The Boxcar Children and The Bobbsey Twins. They are both experiencing a renaissance of interest in my library at the moment.

Some reprinted books have not regained so much popularity, at least in my library. Lamplighter has published a number of short, powerful, deeply Christian novels, mostly from the 1800s, such as The Basket of Flowers, Teddy’s Button, and The Stranger at Home. I began getting some after they were recommended by one of my homeschooling families, but they have not caught on with others. I now have CDs of some of the stories, dramatized, but again, I haven’t been able to spark much interest in them, which is too bad, as I love them.

Also reprinted is a set of Elsie Dinsmore books by Martha Finley. I have mixed feelings about these, and they have not caught hold among my library users. The heavy accents of the black servants, the way that Elsie never dresses herself or takes care of her own needs, and the too-close relationship with her father all set my teeth on edge. And yet, the wonderful, powerful Christian messages almost override these concerns.

There are other series that have never seemed to go out of fashion. Among these are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona and others, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking stories, and My Father’s Dragon series (for an early long read-aloud) by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

I have been struck many times by how important it is to have a gathering place in which people can talk about books and share what they have enjoyed. If this happens only at school, the choice of books may be determined by what is sold by Scholastic or what is popular on TV. If you want your children to get excited about books of quality, you’ll want them to spend time with other children who love to read. Book clubs for kids (and often their parents) have become popular in the last few years. If they are well run, they can be a great way of introducing kids to wonderful books they might not otherwise encounter. •

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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