Recently I posted a picture on our store's Facebook page which ended up reaching nearly ten times the normal amount of readers. The reason for its popularity? It noted the birthday of Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the children's book character "Madeline." The responses to this post clearly showed that the simple mention of Madeline, as well as the picture of the first book's cover, were enough to spark a kind of joyful, giddy flame of memory in lifelong readers everywhere. Just as the scent of food or flowers can transport us back to childhood experiences, so too can a well-loved childhood book remind us of a happier time and place.
For many, the books of our youth are the classics: "Little Women," "Treasure Island," "Tom Sawyer," "The Secret Garden." For me, growing up in the 70s, the first books I remember were more recent "classics": Hardy Boys, "Charlotte's Web," "A Wrinkle in Time." But the one which engaged me more than any other was a lesser-known E.B. White novel, "The Trumpet of the Swan." Like White's other novels for children, this one focuses on the relationship between people and very human-like animals, in this case between a boy named Sam and a young trumpeter swan named Louis. The young swan (or cygnet) was born without the ability to trumpet, so with the help of Sam, he goes to school and learns to read and write. For awhile he wears a small chalkboard on a string around his neck, writing his messages for all to read. When that fails (no other swans can read), his father steals an actual trumpet, allowing Louis to communicate through music. It's a unique, touching story, and it's easy to see how a shy, quiet boy like myself would identify with Louis' struggle to find his voice and be heard in the world. And now, whenever I see the classic cover of the book, a feeling of comfort and calm comes over me, as though I'm meeting a childhood friend again.
Of course, I'm fortunate enough to work in a bookstore where all these books pass through my life on a daily basis. Among the stacks flowing in and out of the shop, a familiar cover will pleasantly surprise me and the memories will flood back into my present consciousness. What is troubling, though, is the fact that I'm seeing these childhood treasures less frequently. Many of these titles are half a century old, and not all books can survive the wear and tear of the natural aging process. So there may come a time when coming across that original copy of "Madeline" or "The Trumpet of the Swan" is a rare or even impossible hope. Those childhood friends may be collecting dust and mold in boxes somewhere, but they still have value, and they still conjure for us those moments of our past which would otherwise be lost in time. So as we move forward through the next fifty or hundred years of advancing technology, perhaps we should make a little extra effort to find and preserve not only the "great classics" and the First Editions," but also the smaller, personal literary treasures which soothed our souls on quiet, rainy days many decades ago.