Beth Alexander stops in at Bacon today with a radiant essay on a favorite children’s book.
She makes me want to stay in bed and read – to ignore the glorious summer morning and the flowers that need watering and the laundry that needs doing and the bills that need paying.
(Perhaps I shall read in bed, for just a little while, perhaps a book about a little girl…)
In 1963, my parents’ dreams were coming true. They moved with their three children, aged 8, 6 and 4, into a new house they had built together, and they opened The Book Inn, both structures with Tudor influences. During the construction of the house, my mother drove to Nashville or Birmingham to ferret out architectural treasures they could use. Reclaimed light fixtures from a building being demolished in Nashville were installed in the upstairs bedrooms. Made of alabaster and wrought iron, they were luminous and seemed to contain magic.
During the construction, Mom walked me up the raw wood stairs and showed me what would be my new room. “It’s the best room in the house,” she said. “You’re surrounded by trees and can see who’s coming up the driveway.” I saw Peter Pan flying through the casement windows.
Only decades later did it occur to me that she might have said something similar to my sister, perhaps something like, “Yours is the best room in the house. You’ll see all the trees and wildflowers in the back yard, and you’ll be able to hear the birds every morning.” She was telling the truth both times.
The Book Inn was a source of wonder, filled with books and gifts. After school, we finished homework or found something new to read. I was soon taught to check inventory and fill the racks of greeting cards.
That was also the year that a new edition of A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in 1905, was released with enchanting illustrations by Tasha Tudor. It was the most beautiful book I had ever seen, and evidently has staying power. In 2007, the National Education Association included it in “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children,” and in 2012 was ranked by School Library Journal as one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time.
The word princess has become somewhat tarnished in recent times, with parents eschewing Disney princesses and royalty disavowing lineage. Sara is not a princess, but “an odd-looking little girl,” the clever seven-year-old daughter of a wealthy widower who owns a diamond mine. Sara’s mother died in childbirth, and her story begins as her Papa delivers her to Miss Minchin’s School for Girls. Though she is little, Sara realizes she lives a privileged life. She describes herself, however, as “one of the ugliest children I ever saw,” and begins to mistrust Miss Minchin when she tells her papa that she is beautiful. Behind Sara’s back, Miss Minchin says sharply, “She has been provided for as if she were a little princess.” Nonetheless, Sara displaces Lavinia, the headmistress’s former favorite, a mean girl from a century ago, taking her spot at the head of the line.
At the close of Sara’s lavish eighth birthday party, her fortunes change abruptly. News comes that her handsome father has died, and Miss Minchin’s true colors are revealed. Sara is thrust into service as a maid to her former classmates, stripped of her fine things and whisked from a cozy room to a comfortless garret with only a casement window for light. Under duress, Sara’s strengths emerge. Her fearless empathy for all, no matter the station, is a great lesson to little girls everywhere. And her vivid imagination transforms the attic into a place of beauty, at least in the reader’s eyes. Tudor’s illustrations bring it to life. Throughout Sara’s trials, she remains resolute and selfless, creating beauty from the simplest things.
This year has stripped away our innocence with swift and brutal waves of tragic events. The year 1963 also ended with our country’s loss of innocence, going into mourning as we approached Thanksgiving. It was heartbreaking then, as it is now, to explain cataclysmic events to a child, to see them struggle to comprehend evil that cannot be understood.
A 2013 study from the New School found that reading fiction enhances empathy, that critical ingredient in experiencing the feelings of another, expanding our knowledge of others and allowing us to identify with them. Fiction has the power to disrupt stereotypes. Maybe one thing we can do is peruse the children’s section in the library or bookstore and bring home a work of fiction.
Some recommended chapter books that may enhance empathy this summer include:
Ramona the Pest, a perennial favorite by Beverly Cleary, included as one of “Ten Books Every Six-and and Seven-Year-Old Should Know.”
The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, another favorite from my childhood about the tiny people who live under the kitchen and pilfer your tiniest things for themselves. A great read-aloud, as some words are slightly advanced.
Nuts to You, by Newbery Medalist Lynne Rae Perkins, a harrowing and hilarious tale of two best friend squirrels rescuing their third friend from a hawk; lots of short chapters, satisfying for a young reader.
Flora and Ulysses, another squirrel adventure with hijinks, but this time, with a vacuum cleaner, from Kate DiCamillo with illustrations by K. G. Campbell, winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal.
Saving Hanno, The Story of a Refugee Dog, by Miriam Halahny, is a more serious story, full of spunk and excitement, dealing with a Jewish boy and his dog fleeing Nazi Germany for London. Appropriate for 10- to 12-year-olds, it’s a terrific precursor to The Diary of Anne Frank.
Books-a-Million came to Huntsville in 1967, threatening the financial viability of The Book Inn. Dad returned to the farm, and Mom became a gifted high school AP English teacher as their own children became teenagers. Like Sara Crewe, whatever my parents went through, they remained resolute and selfless, sharing facets of beauty where they found it. Often inside a book.
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