Nearly every writer was once a young reader, hooked on books, entranced by the worlds within words. For this special Children's issue, Book World asked five writers to reflect briefly on their favorite childhood reading. The contributors include: the polymath science (and science fiction) writer Isaac Asimov; novelist Gail Godwin ("A Mother and Two Daughters"); composer and diarist Ned Rorem; historian Barbara Tuchman; and Gene Wolfe, author of the marvel-filled science fantasy "The Book of the New Sun." ISAAC ASIMOV:
WHEN I WAS about 10 years old, there were a number of books I loved. There was Tom Sawyer, for instance (but not Huckleberry Finn, which I learned to love as an adult). There were the various Penrod books by Booth Tarkington (I felt a kinship with "bad boys" for some reason); there were various books by E. Nesbit, with my favorite by all odds The Story of the Amulet; and the various Dr. Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting, with The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle my favorite.
If, however, we judge a book as favorite by counting the number of times it was read and reread, my all-time favorite was none of these. Indeed, it was not a children's book (by the usual definitions) at all -- but I didn't know that. My parents were immigrants who couldn't read English at that time, and who didn't know English-language literature. They obtained a library card for me but could do nothing more, and I read anything I could persuade the librarians to let me have. I tried to get the long books, because they lasted a longer time, and I found Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.
I read it, and reread it, and reread it. It's an actual fact and not exaggeration that I read it 25 times before I was out of my teens. Since then I have read just about all of Dickens (and Nicholas Nickleby is my second favorite) but I have never wavered as to what is in first place. I still reread Pickwick Papers. I reread it, first word to last, only last month, and I enjoyed it just as much as ever, even though I can close my eyes at any point and continue reading.
Then, too, of course, I read science fiction magazines with an intensity that rubbed the print off the pages, but I suppose that doesn't count. GAIL GODWIN:
ACROSS THE STREET from our house, in Asheville, N. C., was an old hotel, and in the gatehouse leading to the hotel was a tiny children's library, run by a lady who was passionate about books. She, I think, alerted me to Mary Poppins and, when I liked that, Mary Poppins Comes Back.
These are the books that now strike me as having been my favorites, because I took them out again. I needed something in them. What was it? Well, last week, I went to the children's section of the Woodstock, N.Y., library, and got out the Mary Poppins books (there are more of them now than when I was a child) and reread the first two and dipped into the others. The language still charmed. P.L. Travers has a definite touch of Dickens, though I didn't know it then. And Mary Poppins was still the wonderful creature to me that she was when I was 8. So absolutely sure of herself! And so secretive. "Knowing everything and telling nothing." And she wouldn't let you get away with a thing. And magic was a part of her: you never knew what would speak or float off or fly back at you with Mary Poppins.
She was the perfect combination of discipline and imagination and the ability to be in touch with all forms of life that my child's soul (and my adult's soul) craved to emulate.
WE ARE what we read, and for better or worse we choose our own menu despite the will of parents. Thus I quickly took shelter against The Wind in the Willows (whose all-male anthropomorphism slights not only females, but the dignity of the wilds), while venturing into the more abrasive gales of Wilde, Louys and Cocteau.
Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales still seem today, of all "children's literature," the most touching, well-crafted, gorgeous and imaginative. Pierre Louys' Aphrodite (which I had memorized before puberty), in depicting the world's most seductive courtesan who kills and then is killed for the one she adores, reflects any young person's notion of the propriety of love-as-excess. And Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants terribles, by portraying a pair of well-off adolescent bohemian siblings who come to what grown-ups call a bad end, swayed a generation of Parisian youth, and by extension, me.
With all my current musical discipline and patient prosifying, I remain -- and am thrilled to remain -- the condemned nightingale, the fatal vamp, and the self-destructive child. BARBARA TUCHMAN:
I DO NOT THINK I can name any one book as a favorite of my childhood reading, although I can name several that I particularly liked or that made a strong impression on me. As a child -- meaning let us say under age 10 or 11 -- I remember particularly enjoying the Twins Series by Lucy Fitch Perkins, which told the adventures in a given historical time and place of a pair of fictional twins (always a boy and a girl). For instance, The Belgian Twins, whose story was set amid the invasion of their country by the Germans in 1914, or The Twins of the American Revolution, who took part, somewhere on the New England coast, in a brave and exciting war-time episode, a rescue or mission behind enemy lines of some kind, the nature of which I forget except for the memorable item that they had a boat named Modeerf which signified freedom spelled backward: that gave the story a heroic touch for me. It was one of those books that made one feel, "Ah, what I could have done if only I had been with tm!"
Of course Heidi, which I need hardly describe, was a favorite of my early reading and, also, The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A marvelously evocative story -- about a young girl plunged into miserable circumstances in a horrid school and magically rescued by an East Indian who had known her father when he was an important figure in India, and had been looking for the daughter ever since his friend's death. Now he appeared across the roof tiles outside her attic window and brought the riches and the protection that transformed her from beggar to princess, like Cinderella.
As a teenager, from about 12 to 14, my favorite reading was historical novels, of which Alexandre Dumas was of course the king, beginning with The Three Musketeers, one of the great books of its kind, because the author created characters with real personalities. Who that has read it does not know and visualize as a person the dashing D'Artagnan, stern Athos, suave Aramis and jovial, fat Porthos? Most historical novels are vivid enough in background and event, but without individualized characters they do not take hold and stay in one's mind. And let me not leave out The Count of Monte Cristo, tapping messages on his prison walls and eventually achieving those wonderfully appropriate acts of revenge on each of the former associates who had a hand in his imprisonment.
Two books that matched Dumas were Conan Doyle's The White Company, whose central figure did not equal the Musketeers, but the events carried the story, especially the dramatic siege of the castle by the fierce rebellious peasants -- a scene I have never forgotten -- and secondly Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, made memorable by its true use of thrilling and heroic history. Sir William Wallace, the hero, was not much of a personality, but so brave and noble that he personified Hero. The Countess of Mar who betrayed him was my introduction to an evil woman, not just a witch or wicked step- mother of the fairy tales, but an actual person who caused the tragic death of heroes. I must not fail to say that much was added to both these books by the brilliant and stunning illustrations of N.C. Wyeth.
An author whom I must include (often I think one has favorite authors without necessarily having a single favorite book), is Howard Pyle, whose Adventures of Robin Hood and Tales of King Arthur and collected folk tales (The Wonder Clock and Pepper and Salt), all with his own illustrations in strong black and white, with a great flavor of the medieval, made up a large part of my favorite reading and still exerted their charm when read aloud to my grandchildren. GENE WOLFE:
IN THE BROILING summer between the year I finished the third grade and the year I began the fourth, we moved to Houston and into a small white house with three large rooms and a cramped kitchen. The house is still there -- I went to see it when I went to Houston for my 35th high- school reunion last year -- though my parents have not owned it for more than two decades. When fall came, I was enrolled in the neighborhood elementary school.
It was and perhaps still is the policy of the city to name its high schools for Texas heroes and its lower schools for Southern poets, and to see that the students got a thorough grounding in the poet who had become their totem. Ours was Edgar Allan Poe. He was born in Boston, I in New York; perhaps we were able to see the South with eyes less clouded by custom than those of other children. For me, as for him, it was still the South of segregation, in which every public building had four restrooms, and some had two spittoons. It was the wartime South as well. We had to crawl under our desks when the air-raid siren blew; and my father, who had wangled a "C" sticker, sometimes drove my mother and me to Galveston in the evening, where the breeze off the bay struggled with the heat and we might see the flickering orange glow of a tanker torpedoed in the Gulf.
To me it seemed wholly natural that we should read "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (a story that kept me awake for most of a night) in the fourth grade, a proper and quite natural introduction to a world in which my classmates soon held me flat over a semitropically huge nest of fiery red ants. It still does. We read "The Fall of the House of Usher" too (though we told each other that one was a little dull), and memorized "Annabel Lee" and "Ulalume," from which we quoted passages that gave our parents the galloping fantods.
Poe School is still standing too, strategically positioned between North and South Boulevards. I found it surprisingly modern in appearance for a building that must surely have gone up in the '30s. Its lawns are mowed, and its children (who are black now as well as white) scrubbed and smiling. Leprous shades still gibber at its windows; and though Jim Crow is gone, I glimpsed the Raven as it flapped past the chimney. "Wrapping the fog about its breast/ The ruin molders into rest. . ." But not too soon, I hope. God, how I loved it!