I’m not sure what inspired this series of Themed Third Thursdays. It might have been having an old book recommended to me by a friend (and having my daughter read it and love it). It might have been picking up an old favorite on audiobook for my kids to experience for the first time. It might have been all those #TBT hashtags on old photos my friends post on Facebook. Whatever the initial reason, I’ve chosen to highlight a decade a month this year of old books that seem to have staying power–they remain, after the passage of years, classics that are read and reread by each new generation of readers.
To give you a vague sense of when-in-the-world this was, here are some highlights of the decade from a list I found on about.com!
1901–first Nobel prizes awarded
1902–the teddy bear is created
1903–the first silent narrative movie, The Great Train Robbery, is produced
1904–the New York City subway opens
1905–Einstein proposes his Theory of Relativity
1908–Ford introduces the Model-T
1909–plastic is invented
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1900): I can’t remember if I watched the movies first or if my mom read these books to us, but I know that this was GirlChild’s first exposure to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! I picked a copy up at the library (I had read it in the past ten years for a library class, but I wanted a refresher), and I left it in my bag. After sleeping in late on a Saturday morning, I woke to find that GirlChild was all the way to the part where they discover that the Wizard is just a man! Not too long after that, however, she got scared by the continuing plot, and she decided to stop and wait for me to finish it with her. Like many books from this era, it doesn’t shy away from harsh reality (whether real reality or realistic fantasy reality), but, unlike many traditional European fairy tales (and this was intended as a new American fairy tale by the author!), it doesn’t depend on fear and dwell on the grim(m). Probably best for middle to upper elementary readers, there is a whole series for the child who latches on to this one!
Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (1902): This collection of “pourquois” or origin stories was written and illustrated by the author of such other famous works at Captains Courageous and The Jungle Book. It contains eleven stories that explain how something came to be (such as the camel to have his hump, the elephant his trunk, and so on). While I don’t recall ever reading this book in its entirety, I am sure that several of the stories turned up in reading textbooks throughout my childhood (although none in particular stuck with me, the titles feel really familiar). A note that was written to go along with the 1978 edition of the book reminds us: “The language and references are those of Kipling; though they are no longer in vogue, they are of historical interest and literary note.” Basically, there are some really out-of-date terms and ideas in the book, particularly racial, but there is still value in the collection. Modern readers will, of course, cringe over some parts, and it’s definitely helpful to teach our children and students how to critically read a text to sort out what’s quality writing and content and what’s the result of the thinking of a different time and place. Still, I’d recommend caution in introducing these stories as-is to children with less mature critical thinking skills and discernment without also discussing what is now considered stereotypical or derogatory, and being selective about which stories to share until an appropriate level of maturity is reached might also be wise. (Also, this may be the earliest version of, “Don’t say I never gave you anything!” in print, found in the camel story.)
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter (1902): BoyChild was kind of traumatized by this one! Admittedly, he’s been sick, so his tolerance for stress is low, but discovering that Peter’s father has been made into a pie and watching Peter’s panic as Mr. McGregor chases him through the garden are kind of high-intensity when the only exposure one has had to Peter Rabbit has been the off episode of the Nick Jr. show (in which, BoyChild informs me, Peter does not wear the same jacket, and his dad isn’t in a pie). Still, as far as enduring stories, Beatrix Potter’s works have survived a century and are still household names! Best as a read-aloud for preschool and early elementary, the basic premise is that naughty Peter Rabbit intentionally disobeys his mother and seeks out the one place she told him to avoid: Mr. McGregor’s garden. There he is chased by Mr. McGregor and ends up losing his shoes, his coat, and almost his life! When he finally escapes after several very close calls, he runs home and passes out in exhaustion while his well-behaved sisters enjoy a lovely dinner in peace.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (1903): While this is not a book whose contents stuck strongly with me (since I’m not overly attached to the survivalism genre), it is still a book that resonates strongly with many readers. It reminds me, in part, of Black Beauty in that it tells the story of an animal who passes from owner to owner, some good, some bad, some foolish, some reasonable. Buck, the hero of the story, is a mixed breed dog, half St. Bernard, half Scottish shepherd (Scotch collie) who begins life as a family pet. He is stolen, however, and sold, becoming a sled dog, mail dog, and a miner’s companion and protector. After his last owner is killed (and he kills the group of tribesmen who murdered him), he bests and then joins a wolf pack, and legend tells of a Ghost Dog who returns every year to a particular spot, the place where Buck lost his last and best owner, and who leads the pack in the night. Although a short book, this is definitely not for very young readers. The author spent nearly a year in the Yukon before writing this book, so the realism is intense and gritty, and the book and his others are likely best for upper elementary and older readers (unless, of course, your reader has a very strong stomach and isn’t prone to nightmares). London seems very much like a forerunner to more modern authors like Gary Paulsen.
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905): Though technically written and published as a magazine serial story before the 1900s, it was still first published in its entirety during the right decade! In the year since I originally wrote about it as part of my Princess Possibilities post, GirlChild has read it herself and enjoyed it. She even handled the father’s death relatively well and warned BoyChild about it when we watched the movie (which could have been so much better if they had actually stuck with the book instead of completely warping part of the plot!). For a little refresher if you don’t want to wade through the original post, Sara Crewe is a rich and precocious young child who is sent by her English officer father to a boarding school in London because India isn’t considered a healthy environment for children. (I’m not sure what they made of all the Indian children who probably thrived while living there…) While she is at the school, her lively imagination and loving inclusiveness endear her to everyone but the most hard-hearted of the other occupants of the seminary. Her father, sadly, makes a bad business deal and, overcome with stress and illness, dies. His partner, who feels responsible for his involvement and death, actually ends up making money from the deal that originally went sour, but his health is also not good, so he takes a house in London while he searches for Captain Crewe’s only living heir, his daughter Sara. Through coincidence (and what is hinted to be a little Indian magic, I think), he eventually discovers her living next door, reduced to servitude after her father’s loss, and adopts her into his home (and takes the scullery maid, Becky, with her to be her companion). It is an amazing story of taking life as it comes, showing compassion and empathy to all you encounter, and holding your head high no matter your circumstances.
Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery (1908): This is, by far, my favorite of all books. I even saddled GirlChild with a middle name in its honor! I was introduced to Anne of Green Gables in second grade when I told my teacher that I had already read all of the books on her classroom bookshelf. She brought in a little box of books to keep behind her desk for me, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Anne of Green Gables were among them! (They are the only two I remember, but it was a whole box just for me!) I don’t know if it was an abridged version or if I really actually read the whole thing as a second grader, but this is where my whole family first came into contact with this book and the series (the entirety of which my mother then proceeded to read aloud to the three of us kids). I longed to be like Anne; her openness, confidence, and imagination drew me in. I named two of our fish Silver Scales and Green Gillbert (punny misspelling intentional!) as inspired by her, and my third grade (and subsequent) writing notebooks were full of rip-offs and inspired-by stories. The Megan Follows miniseries captivated (and annoyed–plot changes, ugh!) us. Even as recently as this week, the Internet is abuzz with news that a new miniseries is in the works! That, my friends, is staying power. (Oh, a quick summary: Anne is a red-headed, 11-year-old, strong-willed orphan girl accidentally adopted by an elderly brother and sister (when they meant to adopt a boy to help with farm work). Shy Matthew takes to her first, admiring her shining spirit, and stoic Marilla even finds herself caring more for her than she believes any person should care for things of this Earth. She brings light and life to Green Gables and the whole town, perhaps the whole of Prince Edward Island, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not loving this feisty girl in all her vulnerable and vivacious wonder! (Not surprisingly, I see a lot of her in her partial namesake, GirlChild Anne!))
All of these works are over 100 years old. Newbery and Caldecott Awards had not yet started being awarded when they were written. World War I was yet to come. Even my grandparents had not yet been born! Yet they remain perennial favorites, beloved, passed on, and studied for the value they’ve contributed to life and literature–and continue to contribute!