MAROONED on a desert island! At least since "Robinson Crusoe," this has been a beloved childhood fantasy -- and the preferred situation for the makers of reading lists. For its fall children's supplement, Book World asked Katherine Paterson, Noel Perrin, Natalie Babbitt, Jim Trelease and Daniel Pinkwater to imagine the following circumstances:
You and five children are stranded on a tropical island -- palm trees, sand, plenty of fish and fruit. Happily, besides the basics for survival, you have been able to bring five children's books with you to while away the long afternoons and to amuse the gang. You're not sure how long you'll be stranded, but you do know you'll be rescued and there's no need to despair. So fun can be the order of the day. What books do you take with you? And why those particular titles? Here are the answers. Katherine Paterson (Newbery-award winning author of "The Great Gilly Hopkins," "Come Sing, Jimmy Jo" and many other books)
A COUPLE OF years ago, it would have been impossible for me to choose five books to take to a desert island for this mythical crew. Now it is only next to impossible. Clifton Fadiman's The World Treasury of Children's Literature has saved the day or days as the case may be. Fadiman has included in these first two volumes (a third has recently been published) dozens of stories, poems, myths and fables that I could not have borne to be without, including such treasures as A. A. Milne's "The King's Breakfast" and "Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents," and Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, all of which I have adored since I was a toddler, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Robert McClosky's Make Way for Ducklings, both of which gave my own children hours and hours of delight. Everyone will love some of Fadiman's choices, and he has retained lots of the original illustrations, shrunk, to be sure, and you're likely to have the 5-year-old running around screaming all day at the top of his lungs "Whoopy once whoopy twice whoopy chicken soup with rice," but on a desert island you can't be but just so fussy.
Being me, I'm not getting caught on a desert island without a Bible of some sort, and my children always liked best The Taize Picture Bible which is stories from Scripture using the text of the Jerusalem Bible with strong, appealing illustrations by Brother Eric de Saussure of the Taize Community. Look, for example, at the picture of Joseph on page 53 and see if you can resist reading the story.
I wouldn't want to be stuck anywhere for any length of time with a child of any age without at least one Anno picture book. My nearly grown children still spend hours poring over these wordless masterpieces. If I have to pick only one, I guess it will be Anno's Italy which, if you spend enough time studying, will give you a mini-course in Western civilization.
The last choice is always the hardest, but I think a read- aloud for the older children will have to be Part One of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. As I find myself nearing the end of The Fellowship of the Rings with no parts two and three in sight, I will be praying for a speedy rescue. Twelve-year-olds who want to know what happens next can be dangerous to your health. Noel Perrin (Teacher, essayist and contributor to Book World's "Rediscoveries" feature)
MY ISLAND CHILDREN are going to come in a quick burst, like one of those large but planned Victorian families. They are ages 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11. Never mind how many are girls, or boys. What matters is that two have vivid imaginations, two are sort of averagely imaginative, and one actively dislikes fantasy.
For the 5-year-old I would take Emmett's Pig by Mary Stolz. This account of a city boy who longs to own a pig, and who eventually does own one by proxy, would be especially poignant on a desert island. Also important, since this is a short book for a young child, and it will be read many times over, the style is classic. I would not be dreading the 9th or even the 19th reading.
The 7-year-old is one of the two with vivid imagination, and for her I would take Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. (I would also try hard to argue that the Earthsea trilogy is one book in three volumes, and hence be allowed to take The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore also. This 7-year-old is the most passionate read-aloud-to of my whole five, and also the most snuggle-minded. I'd like to have lots to read her.)
But I could manage with just Wizard. The fact that Ged, the apprentice magician, is also on a strange island would have appeal; and the utter reality of this imaginary place would enchant us both. So would the book's awareness that magic (like any powerful thing) is dangerous in exact proportion to its strength -- but not therefore to be abandoned. Just used warily.
The 8-year-old gets Miss Bianca, the first of Margery Sharp's books about an elegant and brave white mouse. This child is the most verbal of the whole five, and will delight in the mannered, almost 18th-century style employed both by Miss Bianca and her creator, Ms. Sharp. Miss Bianca will keep us civilized on our island. With luck, she'll also have us emulating her in being adventurous.
The 10-year-old is the one who prefers real life to any possible fantasy. He happens to be a boy. For him I'm taking Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages. (If he were a girl, I'd naturally take Little House on the Prairie. This is the one case where the sex of the child makes much difference.)
Seton's novel is about two boys who spend a summer living Indian-style in the woods near one father's farm. Seton (1860-1946) belongs in the top rank of North American naturalists, and was also a marvelous story-teller. I'm pretty sure all the children would gather round, if I got to do any reading aloud. Fantasy-lovers are seldom closed to stories of real life in the way the reverse is true.
Finally, the 11-year-old. This was my hardest choice. A child this age can handle almost anything, and is still young enough to like almost everything. I considered The Lord of the Rings. I considered The Book of Three, the first volume of Lloyd Alexander's pentology about Taran, the boy in medieval Wales, and Eilonwy, his princess. (Pentology? Right. If a three-book series can be a trilogy, five linked books can be a pentology.) I considered 10 others I long to name but won't. In the end, I settled for Richard Adams' Watership Down. Humor, the non-aggressive heroism of rabbits, funny accents to read aloud in, a stunning story, a great book.
Now, where are the five children and the island? Natalie Babbitt (Author, among other books, of "Tuck Everlasting" and a regular reviewer of children's books)
SO HERE we are on this island, waiting to be rescued, and everyone's taking it pretty well. It's hardest on Prima, who is 14. She keeps saying there's no one to talk to: I'm too old, and the others are too young. But I showed her how to braid orchids into her hair, and sent her off to a sunny rock with a copy of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. I was afraid she might be more interested in working on a tan than in reading, but I notice Golding caught her attention. He has a way of doing that. And of course Lord of the Flies is utterly appropriate: island setting, young castaways, plenty of suspense, and a graphic, chilling lesson, if one chooses to notice it, in how rapidly our thin veneer of socialization can deteriorate when we're isolated. Prima will notice it, I think. But even if she doesn't, there's plenty of plot to absorb her.
Secundus is 12, and he doesn't much like reading stories. So it's a good thing I brought along Bernard Grun's The Timetables of History, even if it does weight five pounds. He's having a great time with it, and who wouldn't? It takes the world from 5000 B.C. all the way up to 1975, step by step, and is divided into seven categories: history and politics; literature and theatre; religion; philosophy and learning; visual arts; music; science, technology, and growth; and, finally, daily life. He looked up 1973 first -- his birth year -- and found it was then that Watergate unravelled, J.R.R. Tolkien died, The Godfather received the Oscar, Skylabs I, II, and III went up, the Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl, and we had a gas shortage. And those are just the entries that caught his eye. He's looking up other years about which he knows a little, now, like 1492. Columbus is there, of course, but Secundus was pretty interested to find that da Vinci designed a flying machine the same year. He wasn't quite as interested in knowing that the profession of book publishing began then, too, but I was.
I'm reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island aloud to Tertius and Quadra in the afternoons. Tertius is 10 and Quadra is 8, just the right ages. My copy is the one with N.C. Wyeth's illustrations, so there are wonderful things for them to look at while they're listening, and I'm honing my interpretation of Long John Silver's speaking voice, with an occasional "har-r-r" thrown in for good effect. When we finish for the day, Tertius goes off looking for pieces of eight, and Quadra is buiding a a parrot trap. I'm glad they haven't read this story before, and I'm glad there's no TV set here showing Disney's movie of it. Robert Newton -- he of the best "har-r-r" -- is wonderful as Silver, but the book is always better. And it lasts longer, too.
Quintin is six, and he listens in on Treasure Island, but he likes P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? better. We read it every day -- sometimes me to him, and sometimes him to me. It's a lovely, funny story about a baby bird who falls out of the nest while his mother is away, and wobbles off looking for her, asking the various creatures he meets if they are she. My favorite line is, "'I am not your mother. I am a cow,' said the cow." But Quintin's favorite part is where the baby bird asks a bulldozer if it is his mother, and its only answer is "SNORT." It's the bulldozer that scoops the bird up gently in its shovel and puts him back in the nest just as his mother is coming home. Quintin is kind of homesick, and misses his own mother, and this Eastman story always makes him feel better.
At night, around the bonfire, we're reading Alice in Wonderland aloud. Tertius, Quadra, and Quintin are all "into it," as Prima would say, and I notice Prima and Secundus are having a hard time hiding the fact that they like it, too. I can't wait till we get to "The Walrus and the Carpenter." But there are no slow parts to Alice. My copy -- with Tenniel's illustrations, of course -- is in one volume with Through the Looking Glass and The Hunting of the Snark, in case we're here for a really long time.
One bonus about the stories I brought: they all demonstrate that nothing much can happen in the way of adventure unless you're away from home, Mother, and apple pie. And these five children are certainly away from every bit of that. Good. They're all asleep. Now I can have a turn with The Timetables of History. After I've read "The Walrus and the Carpenter" for a happy thousandth time. Not a bad life here. Har-r-r. Jim Trelease (Author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook")
THE ONLY THING more difficult to choose than five books with which to be stranded on an island would be selecting which five children would be stranded with me. And since the latter is not included in my fate, I therefore must assume they are five souls -- with tabula rasa, if you will -- whom I have never met and might never meet again. Such will weigh heavily in my choice of books to be hurriedly salvaged from my sinking library and to be read aloud through our isolated days and nights.
Not knowing the length of our stay, pragmatically I will leave behind my picture books, choosing instead longer volumes that will stimulate the imagination to make its own pictures. (Incidentally, in my selection process I assume the Gideons have already visited the island and left behind in some tree hole a copy of the Bible, thus saving me extra weight in my passage from ship to shore.)
I would first salvage a copy of the Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Childhood nights without the enchantment of frog princess, wolves, poisoned apples, dwarfs, and straw spun into gold is like a year without summer. If beyond the entertainment of the stories, my young listeners also sense that happiness in life is conditional to meeting certain standards or rules, that there is no credit card for happiness -- so much the better.
The children will be so delighted with my next selection they'll never suspect how self- serving the choice was for the reader aloud. Even if children did not delight in its fantasy and humor, I might still choose it simply because it was the one book I had the most fun reading aloud to my own children and my wife to her classes. James and Giant Peach by Roald Dahl has 39 of the most madcap magical chapters I could possibly share with children.
A psychologist told me recently that in her work with adults, one book surfaces most often when she asks them to return to their happiest childhood memories. It didn't surprise me in the slightest when she said, "The Secret Garden." For more than 70 years now Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic Victorian tale has been involved in the most serious kind of education -- that of the heart. Certainly it is old-fashioned, romantic and even occasionally pedantic -- but it works better than 99.9 percent of the books published for children each year and that's why it has never been out of print.
Isolated as we will be on the island, there will indeed be a certain amount of self-pity festering among all of us. And since the day of our births we've all been experts at crying for ourselves, we will need a book to shift our tears' center of gravity -- something to start us thinking instead about somebody else's troubles. Where the Red Fern Grows by the late Wilson Rawls is rated not only a five- handkerchief book by my own children but also their favorite. When the toughest kid in eighth grade reads it in the library with a jacket over his head so nobody sees him crying, it's a great book.
And finally there would be Shel Silverstein's poetry in Where the Sidewalk Ends. My own children's enchantment with his humor and wisdom is confirmed by the teachers throughout America who tell me no other poetry today reaches as broad a spectrum of ages and appetites -- from preschoolers to college students. I don't know if Silverstein's verse will stand the test of time or academia but I'm going to bring my edition with the library binding, though knowing in my heart that even that will not last through the repeated turnings and readings. Which is, I think, why it was written -- to be read and enjoyed. Daniel Pinkwater (Author and illustrator of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and many other books)
HEY! What is this? How did I get into this island thing with these kids? Who are they? Are they nice kids? Are any of them bright? Why don't their parents make an effort to get them back? What's wrong with them? Do they expect me to take care of them? Why do I have to pick books for them? Why can't they pick their own books? Why isn't there any TV on this island? One thing is for sure -- there isn't going to be a copy of Lord of the Flies on this island.
I don't like this assignment. I don't like the idea of people picking books for other people. I don't like the way librarians have turned into monitors of literary material for children. I had a librarian tell me to always whisper in the library -- which I thought was sort of fun, and I had a librarian, when asked, tell me that yes, I could check books out of the adult department on my child's card. (That was the occasion of my last regular visit to the children's room, by the way.) As a matter of fact, I don't very much believe in children's books as a "field," which is to say a refuge for second and third-rate artists and professionals. I believe everything should be heaped together, and people, large and small, should be allowed to rummage around and find what they need.
It isn't easy to rummage among five books. Incidentally, who's making these rules -- and who's enforcing them? What kind of sadist would condemn a man of my temperament to an island with five kids? Why can't I take four other adults and one child? The kid would have a good time. All the adults would spoil it and show it affection. And each adult could bring one book! I'd pick the adults. Deal?
Okay, let's check the rules. It says here, "you have been allowed to bring five children's books with you to while away the long afternoons and to amuse the gang." I see no reason why I should accept anyone else's definition of a children's book. I define a child's book as one which I read, or might have read as a child. (Kindly remember that I stopped exclusive use of the children's room after one week.) Also, nowhere does it say that I have to share the books with these brats.
No matter how one looks at it, sharing an island with a bunch of the partially grown is going to be stressful. I don't suppose I can avoid them altogether. The very least I am entitled to is some decent reading.
As to my obligation to "amuse the gang," I suppose, if they can find me, on one of those long afternoons, if they aren't behaving in a particularly disgusting manner, I might give them a bit of a paraphrase with commentary on one of the five books I've brought along for my own personal use. Who knows -- if they turn out to be a really nice group, sometime I might even let them read one.