If you liked the first post in this series, maybe you will like this one! Then again, maybe not. There are no guarantees in this life.
So, welcome to part two! Let’s check out the next five books. And again, keep in mind that these are books that I haven’t read in 20+ years, so what I’m giving you is the dominant impression they’ve left on me after all this time.
6. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, 1934
First of all, the Mary Poppins books (this one is actually the first in a series) are pretty different from the movie. For one thing, there are FOUR kids in the family, not two, and the book is set in the 1930s, not the early 1900s.
Another thing: Mary is a total badass bitch in the books. She isn’t kind or loving, or, you know, nannyish. She’s actually totally domineering and strict, and she’s, like, really, really full of herself. Like, she can’t pass a shop window without looking at her reflection and thinking about how great she is.
Needless to say, the kids adore her.
Of course, Mary Poppins has the same magical abilities in the books as she did in the movie. Unlike in the movie, she totally pretends that she doesn’t take the kids out on awesome adventures. Whenever the kids are all like, hey remember that time we did that cool thing, she’s all, I’M SURE I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. She’s ballsy, is what I’m trying to get at here.
There is one line in the book that basically sums Mary up perfectly:
“There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”
And she is kind of scary in the books, which I love. I’m a firm believer in the idea that kids need to encounter frightening things (within safe contexts) in order to learn how to deal with fear. So high five, Scary Mary!
7. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
So! This is the first dystopian book that I ever read. I like to think that encountering this book in my younger and more impressionable years helped set me up for a lifetime of loving this genre.
This book is so creepy, you guys. So creepy. Okay, so it’s the future and the world is totally devoid of anything that might make life tricky, including but not limited to: religion, culture, war, colour, climate, socioeconomic circumstances, and any and all choice, including who your life partner is and what you do for a living.
Oh, and also there is no sex. Nobody has sex in the future. They take pills to repress their sexual urges, and babies are born from women who are assigned the role of “birth mothers”. I’m assuming that these women are artificially inseminated, but what do I know? Maybe there are some crazy, behind-the-scenes orgies happening.
Anyway, the interesting thing about this book is that there were a lot of things about the dystopian world that appealed to me. I mean, everybody seemed pretty happy, right? Pretty content with their lives. And, possibly because so much is provided by the state (food, clothing, etc.) and there is no socioeconomic gap, there doesn’t seem to be any bullying or cruelty between people. I mean, sure, we find out later that part of the reason for this is that if you’re too different, you get released (i.e. euthanized), but still.
Then there’s the whole being assigned your career at the age of 11. Okay, kind of crazy, but also kind of cool? I mean, who hasn’t felt overwhelmed by the fact of having to decide what you are going to do for the rest of your life? I know that when I was in my teens and trying to figure out what I wanted to take at university, and what high school courses I would need to get myself there, the choice seemed incredibly daunting. And in The Giver, it’s not like the career assignments are totally random – the kids are carefully observed by a committee for years before they’re assigned their job. Plus, free education and training!
But then, of course, you start realizing what these people have given up in order to have their safe, happy society. They’ve given up on everything that makes life really good. They’ve given up anything that gives life meaning. And they’ve totally, totally given up feelings, which, while that concept occasionally seems appealing to me, is basically what makes us human. Oh yeah, and there’s also that whole euthanizing-anyone-who-doesn’t-fit-in-and-also-old-people thing. I mean, that part also sucks.
Writing this whole thing out has made me realize that The Giver is kind of a Brave New World junior, which is amazing. It’s a great book to get kids thinking critically, and a good way to introduce them to the whole dystopian genre. What I really hope that Theo takes away from this is that being different is a good thing, feelings are scary but awesome, and the fact that getting rid of all the bad things in the world would likely mean giving up a lot of the good things, too.
Oh, and that killing people just because they’re old is a bad idea. I also hope he learns that.
8. The Little House Books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
These books are the best. The best. I re-read them around the time that Theo was born, and they are just as compelling and entertaining as I remember them being when I was a kid. Possibly even more so now that I understand more about their historical and political context.
There is so much to love in these books. First of all, there’s Laura herself, a smart, adventurous, resourceful girl who often chafes at society’s narrow definition of what women should and shouldn’t do. She spends a lot of time in her younger years being compared unfavourably to her older sister Mary (Mary was blond-haired, blue-eyed and well-behaved, whereas Laura was something of a hellion and, in her own words, “dumpy as a French horse” – whatever that means), but Laura is clearly the cooler of the two.
Then there’s her family, and the description of their daily life from their early days of living in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, to their eventual permanent home on the South Dakota prairies. I used to daydream about what it would be like to live like that, because when I was seven or eight it seemed super lovely and romantic.
In reality, it was a really fucking hard life. Imagine being stuck on the bleak prairies and seeing only your immediate family for months at a time. Imagine moving there with only a few supplies, having to build your own house and then trying to live off the land for long enough that the government will give it to you for free. Somehow, it doesn’t really hold the same appeal for me that it once did. I guess the Ingalls family liked, it though – they kept at it, and in the end they persevered.
And, somehow, Laura made a lot of it sound like fun.
Finally, there’s all kinds of neat, historical stuff in here. Some of it is totally random and weird – like, in the first book, when they butcher the pig (which is basically like Christmas for them), Pa Ingalls blows up the pig’s bladder like a balloon and gives it to Laura to play with. Some of it offers a historical perspective that I’d never considered before, like when Laura is terrified to ride on a train because they’re so dangerous. Most of the stuff about their daily life is just downright fascinating.
It’s too bad that this series has been relegated to the land of “girls books”, because, other than the fact that the protagonist is a girl, there’s nothing especially girl-specific about them. I really hope that doesn’t stop Theo from reading and enjoying them.
9. The Bruno and Boots books by Gordon Korman
This is a series about a bunch of boys at a private boarding school in southern Ontario. Specifically, it’s about Bruno Walton, his roommate Melvin “Boots” O’Neal and their many, many shenanigans.
I’m a sucker for boarding school stories, possibly because I spent several of my formative years reading any and all boarding school books by Enid Blyton. Except that while all of Blyton’s protagonists were boring and moral, the boys at McDonald Hall (and the girls Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the highway) are hilarious, awesome and always up to something.
Also, one of the books features a girl playing football on the boys’ team. So, you know, FEMINISM.
10. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Let’s be honest: Mary Lennox is a spoiled, privileged bitch who doesn’t even know how to dress herself. But also she’s kind of awesome?
Mary has kind of a shitty childhood in India before her parents die. Sure, she gets just about anything she asks for, but she spends basically zero time with her parents, whose main goal in life is to pretend that they don’t have a kid. Anyway, then there’s a cholera epidemic (leading to a nightmare-inspiring scene in which Mary is the only person left alive in a house where people have become ill/left town so quickly that they’ve literally left their dinner on the table), Mary is orphaned and sent to live with her uncle in England.
Things are kind of terrible in England at first, but then Mary learns how to put her own damn clothes on, starts exploring the great outdoors and befriends her maid Martha’s brother Dickon. Mary discovers the so-called Secret Garden, which has been locked up since her aunt died, and discovers the magic of Growing Things. Oh and her bitchiness totally fixes her hypochondriac cousin and her depressed uncle. Score one for bitchy girls!
I dunno, you guys. This book is just so lovely. Like, check this out:
“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.”
Ugh. You guys. My heart. I am such a sucker for Victorian prose about nature.
This is another book that’s usually considered a girlish book, but you know what? For one thing, I don’t care about that stuff, and for another, TWO of the damn protagonists are boys. I hope Theo reads and loves this one as well.
Anyway, that’s all for now. Stay tuned for part 3 of 4! I’m sure I’ll get to it. Someday.