Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Life with Charlotte, the Boxcar kids and Encyclopedia Brown
There are several books out that contain interviews or essays with writers who discuss the stories and books that got them interested in reading.
Several people mention Charlotte's Web. An old standby. It almost sounds cliche to say that it was a favorite book as a kid, but that's a credit to just how great a book E.B. White wrote. Our teacher read that to us in second grade, introducing us to the famous spider, Wilbur the pig and Templeton the rat.
Charlotte's Web certainly sparked an interest in books in me, although there's a chance that Charlotte's death turned some kids off of reading. Yes, she lived a full life, but did Charlotte really have to die? Could the ending have been Hollywood-upped a bit, Mr. White? And right after Charlotte's Web, we read Old Yeller. So if any kids had the idea that a book could end without the death of the main animal character, Old Yeller corrected them. A few years later, I believe in fourth grade, the class read Where the Red Fern Grows, an underrated entrant in the books-about-dogs-that-die-and-devastate-young-readers category. I'm assuming these books remain staples in many schools. I'm not familiar with newer books that are used in classrooms. I wonder if the newer titles are as eager to shovel death into the faces of young readers. Or is it now frowned upon?
But as great as those three books are, the stories I remember most from growing up are a pair of series: The Boxcar Children, and Encyclopedia Brown. The Janesville library held every title in both series. The Boxcar Children had such a perfect premise: orphaned kids living in a boxcar who are taken in by their rich grandpa. Grandpa's such a nice man - with plenty of space in the backyard - that he lets the kids move their boxcar to his house for use as a playhouse. Boxcars aren't just for hobos, they're for street-wise kids who beat the odds.
I always had visions of us stealing a boxcar and moving it out to my grandpa's farm, where I'd get caught up in various mysteries around town. Put some posters up, get a TV and a fridge in there, and the boxcar turns into a pleasant little home for any kid.
Encyclopedia Brown inspired even more dreams.
After reading about his latest case, I'd walk down the library steps hoping someone would come up to me talking about a petty crime that took place in town. A stolen bike, some pilfered baseball cards, anything. Finally I'd get to see if I had the skills of Encyclopedia. Could I connect clues that seemingly had no relation? Would I remember an obscure piece of information that would expose the wrongdoer - "Wait a minute. You said you were watching Monday Night Football at 7:30 when the bike was stolen. But Monday Night Football doesn't start until 8 p.m.!"
And I wanted my theoretical, 10-year-old girlfriend to have the looks and wits of Sally Kimball. Tough but cute, she'd help me stand up to the school bullies who shared interests with Bugs Meany. Together, we'd tackle the cases the Janesville Police Department struggled to solve.
The books sparked my imagination and inspired unrealistic dreams. Which is what all great fiction does, in adults and kids.
Unfortunately, Encyclopedia struggled as an adult detective:
Idaville Detective 'Encyclopedia' Brown Found Dead in Library Dumpster.