Hello, Old Friend



Books are like memories you can hold in your hand. Sometimes picking up a book you have read before, maybe read multiple times, can transport you straight back to the person you once were and to the life you once lived. I realized this once again when I was helping my parents reorganize their bookshelves after they had new carpet installed. I come by my love of books naturally so their house is full of bookshelves, four large ones in the rooms with the new carpet. That is a lot of books and I remember many of them. These are the books of my childhood. Not all of them are children's books though my mom has an impressive collection of classic children's literature. But these are the books that were on the shelves when I was growing up.

There is the fat volume about King Tut that I paged through regularly, fascinated by the photos. There are the volumes of poetry that I dipped in and out of with only a small grasp on what the poems meant but with an endless fascination for the rhythm of the language. There are the old favorites that no house should be without, the Little House books and The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. There is a copy of The Mean Old Mean Hyena and if you didn't read that picture book as a child well, you were missing out. It tells the story of a mean hyena (obviously) who plays endless pranks on the other animals. It has the constant refrain of

"I'm the mean old mean hyena,
there is no hyena meaner.
I'm the meanest mean hyena
that's been ever known to be.
I'm a lowdown low hyena,
such a so-and-so hyena,
Oh! I know of no hyena
nearly half as mean as me."

I loved it. My brothers and sister loved it. My kids loved it. We all can recite huge swathes of it by heart. I remember getting a huge thrill out of the absolute meanness of that hyena. Why do kids like the troublemaker?

So many of the books I could recognize by the feel and the color of the spine even when the lettering had worn off. They were books I hadn't thought of in years but as soon as I saw them I recognized them and remembered the weight of the book and the feel of the story. My Friend Flicka and the endless yearning for a horse of my own. Cheaper by the Dozen and the organized chaos of a family with twelve children. Reading Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber when I was 9 or 10 and finding it odd and fascinating and absolutely enthralling. It felt slightly scandalous, I can't remember why, and very exotic. It was set in New Orleans, after all, and what can be more exotic to a New England child? I brought it home today to reread in the hopes of finding once again that feeling of escaping to another world.

That is what books do for us. They help us escape but they help us find ourselves too. We live many different lives when we read. And whether we are reading about a mean old mean hyena or about King Tut and his tomb we are becoming a more complete person because we have added another story, another fact, another way to understand the world, to who we are.





10 comments

  1. THE LITTLE HOUSE BOOKS. And I was just thinking about The Secret Garden this morning. Yes. x

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    1. They are absolute essentials in any children's library, aren't they? I still reread them regularly.

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  2. Love that photo. Understood Betsy is one I still have. I liked An Old Fashioned Girl, but really loved Little Women, obviously, and Eight Cousins, both of which we had. And yes to the books that were just THERE in the house as I grew up. I am a little sad that my kids don't know our bookshelves like I knew the family bookshelf--partly because with English as their second language, reading is coming harder for them, and partly because screens take the place of the kind of absent minded shelf browsing I did on slow days at home.

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    1. I was just thinking about this the other day. I used to do the absent minded shelf browsing you are talking about but my kids don't really and yes, it makes me a bit sad. I dipped in and out of all kinds of books on the shelves and they just became part of my reading history. However, my kids are more likely to read books they already know they want to read instead of trying random books in the house. I think there is a lot to be said for a bit of boredom in a kid's life. Now if they are bored they pick up a screen. I suppose all parents are nostalgic for their good old days.

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  3. Yes! This post is me, to a T. Except I've never even heard of the hyena book, but I just checked, and my library has it, so I've put a hold request on it!

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    1. Oh, I hope you enjoy The Mean Old Mean Hyena!

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    2. It's in at the library, so I'll be reading it soon :-D

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    3. So we've now read The Mean Old Mean Hyena twice aloud -- I think it's funny, and so does my 7-year-old, but my 9-year-old and 5-year-old don't like it AT ALL. I'm wondering if it touches some sore spots in their consciences, as they both can be very pesky and annoying on purpose, like the hyena? It's so funny seeing their reactions!

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    4. Oh, that is interesting! I suppose there really are two possible reactions to the book. I know I read a review of it once and the reviewer hated it and couldn't imagine why parents would want to read it to their kids. Why would you read about someone being deliberately mean? The words to the book do get stuck in your head, don't they? I always found myself reading it aloud at a breakneck speed, going faster and faster as the book went on.

      Did you ever read the Bill Peet books to your kids? My kids loved those too. There is one about a caboose who gets loose, that was a favorite. Also, Chester the Worldly Pig who had the map of the world in the markings on his skin. That was my daughter's favorite.

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    5. Yes, I was quite amused by their different reactions.

      You know, I'm not sure I've read any Bill Peet books to them -- but I remember several from when I was a kid! "The Ant and the Elephant" in particular, and "Encore for Eleanor." I'll have to see what I can find at the library this afternoon.

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