I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by Dr. Seuss
I’m sure I realized, as a child, that this book was teaching a lesson about life as well as the joy of reading, but I never minded. Perhaps the lesson was obviously true enough from my own experience – that there are always some problems in life, there’s nowhere you can go to escape them all, and instead of running away you need to deal with them – that I just enjoyed the wacky creatures and illustrations rather than feeling preached to.
I don’t know whether my son appreciates the lesson or not when I read it to him. having to deal with problems is certainly something he struggles with – though whether more than most children I don’t know. (I have read that greater-than-usual difficulty in dealing with frustration is common to children with autism.) But I enjoy seeing those familiar illustrations, like long-forgotten friends, and I hope that my younger son will somehow pick up both the fun of the book and a more positive approach to life’s problems.
The King’s Stilts by Dr. Seuss
I think this one we had to borrow from the library, but it was another family favorite. My mother in particular liked to quote the line about the mean Lord Droon, who thought that “the corners of the mouth should turn down.” I liked it because the page boy saved the day (much like in the next book listed). I have generally been too serious to fully absorb the lesson about the importance of play as well as work (and that working hard and playing hard fit well together, while neither does so well without the other), but I recognize the truth in it. Reading it to my son gives me a chance to both have fun and do something important at the same time.
Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss
If you don’t know what oobleck is, you really out to read this book to find out. It’s not something you ever want to encounter in real life, so be glad you can learn from King Derwin’s mistake. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions, saying “I’m sorry,” and being content with what you have. But it’s also a story of adventure, fantasy (wizards brewing up a magical potion and chanting a lot of solemn-sounding nonsense words), and just plain fun to read.
How Many Trucks Can a Tow Truck Tow? by Charlotte Pomerantz
We first read this when we found it among some books at a resort in Collingwood, Ontario (a place we liked so much we went back two years later), and I liked it so much I found a copy online and bought it. Like the “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?” tongue-twister, it does challenge the reader’s ability to keep the words straight (though not as much as Fox in Socks). But it’s a fun book to read aloud to your child anyway – and if you don’t have a child to read to, borrow one!
Why the Chimes Rang and Other Stories by Raymond MacDonald Alden
I finally found a copy of this book from an internet bookseller, but it took a long time because I couldn’t even remember the name of the book. But I remembered well how I loved to read the stories as a child, and wanted to have them for my sons to read also.
They are stories which teach virtue to children, but if they are moralistic I never noticed it in the enjoyment of a good story. I particularly remembered the first story, about the chimes, two poor boys on Christmas Eve, and the decision one of them had to make. And I remembered the one about the knights of the silver shield, because I always loved stories about bravery. There is one about an artist looking for beauty, and another giving and receiving gifts.
So far they have not captured my son’s hearts and imaginations as they did mine. I hope it is not that my sons have any less desire for virtue, and only that they prefer another (more modern) style of writing.
Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight
I first read an abridged version of this story as a child, and enjoyed the story. When I first read the full novel, it was hard going, between the dialect used in conversations, the sometimes slow pace of the story, and the very long difficult trip home with so many terrible things that happened to Lassie. But the ending was worth it, and brought a lump to my throat.
As I got older I enjoyed it more, and marveled at the things I learned about dogs and their instincts in the process. I last read it a year or so ago, and this time noticed things I hadn’t remembered about the humans in the story. One of the reviews on amazon.com recommends that younger children be given an abridged form (as I was) both because of the difficult vocabulary (including the dialect) and the difficult subject matter (job loss, cruelty to animals). I agree with that assessment, but I also agree that it’s an excellent book for older children to learn to appreciate.
Les Aventures de Tintin by Hergé (pen name of Georges Remi)
I came across a Spanish translation of these books when I was a student in Spain, and found them strangely familiar. When I traveled to Paris over Christmas break, I made sure to find them in their original French. After looking at them closely, I couldn’t decide whether I had actually seen books in this series before, or if it was some kind of sense of déjà vu that made me think I had.
I purchased Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge and Les Sept boules de cristal, which seemed to possibly evoke memories more than some of the others. I was nearly certain that Captain Haddock’s furious swearing was not altogether new to me, though I couldn’t decide what language I might have first encountered it in. (I did study French several years, and our textbooks did sometimes include excerpts from French children’s books.)
At any rate, I enjoy the books, in whichever language I read them. Our local library has nearly the entire series, mostly in English and a few in French, and I’ve read them all. It’s nice to find that I can still enjoy reading in French, even thirty years after studying the language in high school. The plots and characters are interesting, the settings are usually faraway places that are fun to learn about as Tintin sets about solving a mystery, and there is always some subtle humor which I enjoy.
Another set of books originally written in another language is The Little World of Don Camillo, and its sequels, by Giovanni Guareschi. I also attempted to find this in its original Italian when I visited Venice, but my Italian is not nearly as good as my French (I had no formal studies, only what I had taught myself out of a book). I ended up with a book written by the author’s son, continuing in some way what his father had begun, but I soon discovered I couldn’t read it well enough to keep track of the story, let alone enjoy it.
So I reread the books in English, and enjoy both the humor of Don Camillo’s struggles with the local Communist mayor, and the wisdom of the lessons he learns from the Christ on the crucifix in his village church (who talks with Don Camillo, sometimes encouraging him and other times rebuking him for his impatience or lack of faith).
The Mitford books by Jan Karon
I fell in love with this series from the first chapter of the first book. It was exactly the kind of book I had been wanting – something with an overall positive perspective, but that did not sugarcoat the sometimes harsh realities of life. (I think in the seventh book Karon lapsed somewhat into sentimentality, resolving too many thorny problems in a way not typical of real life.) The main character is an Episcopal priest, and I appreciated reading about his struggles to be a good pastor to his flock, to deal with some of the difficult people in town and in his congregation, and to preach the Word in a way relevant to their lives.
I’m sure it’s hard to write about God working in people’s lives without being accused of using miracles to fix problems with the plot or with characters. I can’t say I’ve seen God work as dramatically in my life or people I have known well, but I do believe God works in such ways, from books and articles I have read and hearing the testimony of people I have met but not known well. Father Tim prays sometimes for miracles, but he leave the results up to God, and forges ahead (for the most part) with patience and wisdom, although his courtship of his nextdoor neighbor certainly is rocky at times.
I like the nuggets that Father Tim quotes from various authors – except Wordsworth, whose poetry I don’t care for. I’ve looked at the books Karon has published which are compilations of Father Tim’s favorite quotes, and I have considered getting one, but I am always put off by the fact that they are “handwritten” rather than typed, which makes for more difficult reading. No doubt it makes them look more “genuine” – together with his comments and doodlings – but I would prefer them in a format that would make it easier to skim through looking for a particular favorite.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
I can think of few books that I have enjoyed as much, yet also few that required as much thought to understand them. I cannot think of any others that gave me as much of a mental workout while also being so entertaining. I purchased it shortly after graduating from college, when my brain was still used to a lot of heavy lifting.
I had known of M.C. Escher for years, and had been fascinated by his drawings. I had more recently come to realize that Bach was my favorite composer, and I was beginning to collect records (those things we used to play on record players) of some of his works. But I had never heard of Gödel before, and would not have attempted to read a book about a mathematician if it hadn’t been mixed in with the artist and the musician.
I can barely attempt to describe the contents of the book, they are so far-ranging. A great deal of it deals with the concept of recursion – in music, language, math, visual patterns, computer programs, and more. In the process it discusses Zen Buddhism, number theory, molecular biology, artificial intelligence, and even includes Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwock” in English, French, and German.
I don’t think I could say what, precisely, I learned from the book – other than that I could learn a great deal from such books and enjoy it, at a tiny fraction of the cost of attending college.
Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips
I found this on one of the many cluttered bookshelves of my parents’ house when I was a teenager. I had joined a fundamentalist church in town, which put me rather at odds with their much more liberal view of religious matters. I do not remember whether I had yet begun to become disenchanted with the fundamentalist mindset myself, but if not then this book may have begun the process.
I felt a bit uncomfortable reading it, and made a point of reading it away from the house, as I was pretty sure it was not on any recommended reading list that leaders at my church might promote. (If nothing else, it might have been suspect because Phillips had done his own translation/paraphrase of the New Testament, and only the King James version of the Bible was considered appropriate for us by true Christians.)
The first half of the book attempts to show how inadequate our views of God often are, and that the “God” many adults cast aside is not in fact the true God. For many people, it is more some distorted idea absorbed in long-ago Sunday School lessons with a young child’s limited understanding, and never nurtured and developed into an adult faith.
The latter half explores how an infinite God might go about trying to communicate with finite human beings. The result turns out to be pretty much what we find in the first four books of the New Testament – a God-made-flesh who teaches and performs miracles but is largely misunderstood and finally killed because he challenges people’s comfortable ideas and lives.
I reread this book every now and then, when it seems that my concept of God may be getting too small.
The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37¾ by Adrian Plass
My husband and I were introduced to this book by the associate pastor at the church we used to attend in Pennsylvania, and we quickly came to love it and others by the same author. There are few books that always bring a smile to my face (sometimes even laughter) as well as these (though Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes books work nearly as well).
There are Christian authors who point out the failings of evangelical Christians, but none as gently yet as pointedly as Plass (at least in my experience). By writing in the form of a diary in which the narrator is most often the example of our foibles and failing faith, he shows both our shortcomings and God’s great compassion for us in the midst of them. And he does all of it with such a great deal of humor that there is no danger of starting to take oneself too seriously.