August 26, 2006

Young Again

When I was a kid, I missed out on Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Better late than never.

Jenny Reisinger Cohen

I will probably read more books this year alone than I did during my four years in high school, and that includes all those Christopher Pike books I read back in the day. In fact, my antipathy for reading was so acute that one teacher told my parents she suspected I didn't finish any of the novels assigned to us in English class. This revelation led to the infamous "Pearl Buck Incident" in which my Dad read The Good Earth at the same time I did to force me to get it done. To this day, I hate that book.

Jenny Reisinger Cohen
The author at 8 and today. At left, she's Glinda from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which she still hasn't read. At right, she's holding her to-read pile.
My lack of reading remained a habit until I moved to New York City and passed my time on the subway starting books that I should have finished in high school 10 years earlier—if not beforehand. I now realize there's a whole genre of books that I never opened: the books I was supposed to read as a kid. So I decided to tackle some of those dusty tomes, picking mostly at random except for one book I felt obligated to read because it was gifted to me.

The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

The movie was released last year, and I wanted to be able say I read the book first. Besides, I started reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe three or four times when I was younger, but never got past the first chapter. It was now or never.

I wish "never" could remain an option for some of the books in the series. The Wardrobe, which I read first, was great! Prince Caspian and The Magician's Nephew were also good. But The Horse and His Boy is so blatantly racist—the Calormenes are just Arabs with another name—that I have no idea how a movie adaptation could avoid offending people. The Last Battle, which ends the series, has such sugary-sweet but totally not subtle references to Heaven that I kept thinking, "I get it! Heaven is a nice place where talking lions sound just like Liam Neeson." Like I said, hit or miss.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a candy freak. My husband, the vegetable guy, jokes that he would know nothing about dessert if it weren't for me. So how is it that I completely overlooked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a kid? The word "chocolate" is right in the title!

The only problem I have with Charlie now is that I saw both the Gene Wilder movie and the Johnny Depp movie before I finally got around to the book. The new movie version is definitely more true to the book, which is probably why now I love it better than Gene's. And the book was so delicious! It's got a chocolate river and squirrels that carry children away and a glass elevator. And the Oompa Loompas seem more fleshed out and interesting than the weird orange and green things I've come to know.

I admit it, I had fun with this book. It's like a great candy bar—sugary and satisfying. If you force your kid to read this and she doesn't get the idea that she'll be punished for her materialism by being turned into a blueberry, well, you're screwed. That kid will be as nasty as Veruca Salt, and your best bet may be to leave her at some candy factory and walk away.

Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

I was not going to read this. At all. Several friends recommended it, but I've been in a car going through Kansas many times. There is nothing exciting about the prairie. It's flat, brown, and boring.

Then I get this envelope in my mailbox—a copy of Little House from my friend Stacy, who took the time to buy and send it to me the day before she left for her honeymoon to Italy. Damn it! Now I had to read it. So while the people around me at a beach in L.A. were reading summer books, I spent my summer vacation alongside them reading about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It was fine, overall, but there is no way it made me want to live on the prairie. It takes you weeks to get there in a covered wagon, you have no heat, and when you finally arrive on some random patch of land, you have to live in the wagon until your dad builds you a log cabin. Oh, and there's no internet. What the hell kind of place is that? It just reaffirmed for me that I'm a city girl, whether its 1876 or 2006.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

Ah, yes, a book about a girl who is learning about training bras and kissing boys—like I really needed to relive the most awkward phase of my life by reading a Judy Blume book. And yet, I did.

My reaction to Margaret is probably the one that surprised me the most, because I thought it was going to suck, but it wasn't so bad. If anything, it was a bit true to my life at that age. Getting blisters because you walked to school without socks on since that's what all the cool girls do? Replace those sockless shoes with pink Chuck Taylor high tops, and that was me at 12 years old. Training bra? Yep, I had one. Crush on some cute boy that is totally not interested? Sure thing. If Dan Russo could see me today, he would be so pissed that he blew me off in the sixth grade.

Which leads me to why I had problems with this book. Everyone goes through that awkward stage between the age 12 and 15, and none of us wants to relive it. This stupid book caused me serious flashbacks that I did not need. If you know a 12-year-old girl out there, buy her a copy of this book and I promise she'll thank you later. If you once were a 12-year-old girl but have since moved on, don't torture yourself by going through that again.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Beverly Cleary

I'm cheating by including this one, as I've read it before. I obviously didn't remember this or I would have dropped it from my list. The whole book was about Ramona going to school, Ramona being baby-sat by the neighbor down the street, and Ramona puking on the floor in class. Also, there seemed to be an emphasis on Ramona observing her family's financial crisis. Why did I read this when I was eight and how did it not scar me for life? I'm so glad I forgot what the Ramona Quimby series was all about—being broke and puking at school.

This book led to an interesting email conversation with my mom. I distinctly remember being around eight years old when she called me over to our kitchen table, handed me this book and asked me to read the first page to tell her if I liked it or not. But why did Mom pick this book out for me in the first place? "I probably got it at the school library when I was volunteering there." I can't believe I totally forgot my mom volunteered at the school library until she mentioned it! But then how did I still not become a voracious reader until I moved to New York City, Mom? "It’s called revolt against authority." My mother knows me too well.


So what has all this taught me? If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self, "Read more books. Now. I know it's summer vacation, I know you just want to hang out, but believe me when I say you will remember the books you read better than today's Oprah Winfrey show. What the hell are you watching Oprah for anyway? You're 12! Oh, and don't listen to Mom when she tells you not to watch MTV. In the future, music will suck, so enjoy the good stuff while you can."

But for someone who is 29 years old, this undertaking wasn't such a great idea. It just made me a bit depressed in a "remember when all you had to do was go to school and someone else took care of you?" kind of way. Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I quite enjoy the ability to legally drink beer, drive a car whenever I want (except when I legally drink beer), and make my own rules. Oh, and I don't like feeling like a dirty old lady for asking where I can find kids' books at the library.

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Article by Jenny Reisinger Cohen

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