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A List of Classics You May Have Missed from your Childhood

Ever since I finished my formal education, September has been an odd month. Gone are the days that September connotated a new beginning with new timetables, assignments, and renewed optimism. Now that I’m out of school, I find myself with plenty of free time after work, time that I can finally devote to reading what I want to read rather than what I need to study. It’s liberating, but it can be a bit overwhelming. When I try to determine what I feel like reading, I am left asking myself: Where do I start?

I did what any diligent bookworm would do. I went on Goodreads and consulted my TBR (To Be Read) list. I saw books of all genres from fiction to non-fiction, mystery to historical fiction, but what I noticed at the beginning of my list were children’s books. And then I remembered why I started this TBR list in the first place. I wanted to record a list of children’s classics that I missed during my childhood. Some titles included Inkheart, Maniac Magee, Julie of the Wolves, and Stuart Little. The list was long, and I thought to myself, why not start with these books?

There’s something to be said for reading a children’s story as an adult. Children’s stories can remind us of our youthful wonder, a freeness to experience the fullness of our vulnerability and innocence while asking life’s greatest questions. It’s never too late to read a children’s book. It shouldn’t be taboo either.

WPL’s children’s collection offers a variety of old and new favourites to revisit or discover. Here are a few books that I’ve revisited and enjoyed as an adult recently:

1. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Twelve-year-old Jonas is living in a seemingly ideal world until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memories. During his training, he begins to understand the dark secrets behind his fragile community. Lowry has continued this series with three other books: Gathering Blue, Messenger and Son.

2. Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
After Cole’s anger erupts into violence, he agrees to participate in a sentencing alternative that is based on the Native American Circle of Justice to avoid going to juvenile prison. Cole is sent to a remote Alaskan island where an encounter with a huge Spirit Bear changes his life. This gripping and graphic survival story offers a poignant testimony to the power of pain that can destroy and may also heal.

3. Holes by Louis Sacchar
What begins as a family curse becomes an inevitability for Stanley Yelnats the Fourth as he is unjustly sent to Camp Green Lake where the Warden makes boys “build character” by spending all day, every day, digging a five-foot-wide by five-foot-deep hole. Holes is a deceptively complex mystery that questions fate, luck, and redemption all while being rolled into a multi-generational fairy tale.

4. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
When 10-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles upon the Tuck family’s secret, she learns that drinking from a magic spring could doom or bless her with eternal life. The Tuck family takes Winnie away for a couple days to explain why living forever is less a blessing then it may seem. This slim novel packed with vivid imagery will leave you asking: would you want to live forever?

5. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
This thirteen-book series follows the turbulent lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire in the aftermath of their parent’s death in a fire. The Baudelaire’s are placed in the care of Count Olaf, a relative, who orchestrates numerous disasters that they must flee from. While the books offer a dark and mysterious tone, they are both clever and full of literary allusions, dark humour, and sarcastic storytelling that would be an excellent revisit or introduction for adults.

There are countless more classic children’s books that can be enjoyed by readers of any age. Are there any books from your childhood that you always wanted to read but never got around to? Check out the WPL Catalogue and/or the shelves at your local branch. You’ll never know what magical wonder you may find.

— Eleni Z.

Have You Met The Durrells?

You know how bookstores have ‘Staff Picks”?  Well I think we should have ‘WPL Customer Picks’.  Or maybe when customers return a popular DVD or book we could keep a tally of who is reporting that it is good/bad/worth the trouble and then post it at the returns desk with a little image of a thumbs up or thumbs down.  The opinions of our neighbours should be more important than the reviews we read in the Globe & Mail or the New York Times, and I would rather watch a DVD that a WPL customer recommends rather than one that gets a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  In fact, I find that material suggested to me by WPL customers is a guaranteed good read or good watch.  Thumbs up!

A favourite customer ‘gifted’ me with the television miniseries The Durrells in Corfu recently and I was as smitten with the series as she so confidently said I would be.  In fact, when I placed my hold on Season One she told me that I should place a hold on season two right away as I would be sure to want to watch Season Two as well.  She was right – it was that good (I have since thanked her for her sage advice, not to worry).  The miniseries originally aired on the British television network ITV and was picked up by PBS as part of their Masterpiece series.  We are fortunate to have both seasons at WPL and when the third season is encased in plastic on our shelves I will be faithfully waiting for it to arrive.  I will have a cup of tea ready to go and might even break out a festive meal in celebration.

The television show is an adaptation of the trilogy of books that Gerald Durrell wrote about the years his family spent on the island of Corfu.  He is at the centre of the books My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods but the screenwriters have chosen to make his mother, Louisa, the focus of their stories.  This was a great decision on their part – it gives the series a bit of snap that might be missing if the stories all centred on a young boy.  I’m sure that it would have been lovely but not quite the masterpiece we now have to enjoy.  It is fabulous.

After struggling to raise four willful children alone on a widow’s pension in gloomy England, Louisa decides to move them to a sunny Greek paradise.  Well, Louisa decides with the enthusiastic prompting of her eldest, Larry, who is determined to be a successful novelist (and becomes one – renowned author Lawrence Durrell ). The reaction of the other three is mixed at best. The chemistry between the family members is just magical.

When Louisa, Larry, next oldest son Leslie, only daughter Margo and young Gerald arrive on the island they are warmly welcomed by a taxi driver named Spiros who becomes their interpreter, protector and negotiator for everything – a villa, furniture, and the release of their funds from the bank.  While the family waits for their money to arrive they must ‘forage’ for something to eat and this is the first of many opportunities to see the different ways that the Durrells cope with adversity.  Larry flat out refuses to help, saying that he is busy writing.  Margo says that she is looking for a job and does so by sitting on their sundrenched patio in a bikini.  Leslie, always keen to help his mother, goes out with one of his many rifles and shoots some of the local wildlife while Gerald hunts for berries but ends up eating many, feeding some to their dog, and letting the remainder spoil while he is distracted by a neighbour who offers him a puppy.  Oh, the glorious little puppies.

Gerald Durrell’s passion for animals started when began keeping local wildlife as pets. They pile up so quickly that I can’t remember them all.  He had many species of birds, several types of mice, a number of insects, plus scorpions (!), turtles, otters, tortoises, snakes. In one lovely episode he wanted a goat so, so much.  The classic W. C. Fields quote about not working with children or animals does not apply in this series because actor Milo Parker, who plays Gerald, is top-notch and the furry and feathery supporting actors are sublime.  Animals and children are everywhere and make the show that much more enjoyable.  If you were to play this series without sound you would enjoy watching it for the visuals alone.

The three older children of the Durrell family also play their parts to perfection.  Larry is an aspiring novelist who spends every day wearing his underclothes and a polka-dotted robe while he types away in his room and when forced to provide encouragement or advice to his siblings he grudgingly does so but there is love behind the snide remarks.  Poor Leslie stomps about trying to find his place in their family, on the island, in the world and says “maybe I’m not the sort who is meant to be happy” but when Larry wonders if it might be time for him to return to England and they have a real brotherly conversation it is as if the two actors have really grown up together.  There is great chemistry there.  And Margo is sublime.  I’m sure that this young actor, Daisy Waterstone, is meant for great things.  She delivers every line – comic or dramatic – with such flair.  When she confesses to a local countess, played by the exquisite Leslie Caron, “I’m a bit dim”, there is really nothing more delightful.  It is so hard to choose a favourite among this cast of wonderful actors.

Each episode finds the family getting to know their new neighbours, the culture of the island, and finding their way to a happiness that they did not have in England.  It’s not an easy journey for them, thankfully, or the series would end and it would seem far too effortless.  It’s because life is a struggle for Louisa and her children that you keep watching, you become invested in their success, whether it be in Leslie’s love life, Margo’s quest for employment, or Larry’s constant pecking away at the typewriter.  And they are doing all of this while the sun is shining, they are wearing the most colourful clothes (well, Larry is usually wearing a dressing gown) and eating glorious meals on their patio which overlooks the Ionian Sea.  What more can you ask of a miniseries?  I read some terrific news online (there are spoilers about Louisa’s romantic prospects in this article so tread carefully) which tells us that ITV has committed to making a fourth season of The Durrells and that many key figures are returning to produce, direct and act in the show.

Besides Season One and Season Two on DVD,  we have many, many books written by Gerald and Lawrence in the collection.  Rosy is My Relative is a fabulous pick if you wanted something to read aloud on a car journey – it is sure to please everyone in your family.   You will find endless information about all of the Durrells on the Internet including wonderful content about Gerald’s conservation efforts and his Wildlife Conservation Trust.

It’s possible that after enjoying this miniseries you might be inspired to cook like Louisa, dress like Margo or plan a trip of your own to Greece.  The Durrells will keep you busy all through the summer with the help of the staff here at WPL.  And, if you are inspired to adopt a goat or a turtle then that’s entirely on Gerald.

— Penny M.

Treasures from afar…mostly

In the 80s there was a television commercial for a hair replacement company where the spokesperson would enthusiastically say “I’m not just the president, I am also a client!” and I think of this when I use our interlibrary loan, or ILLO, services here at WPL. I work here but “I am also a client!”, and I really love using all of the library’s services. Which is fitting because February is known as Library Lovers’ Month and my interlibrary loans are just one of the things that I adore about the library.

By filling out a simple form which includes information about how to contact me and the book I would like staff to find, I actually have access to the library catalogues of the many libraries that WPL has lending agreements with and the possibilities can seem endless.  Our ILLO staff will do the search and then reply to let me know if they have been successful. If things work out I receive a notice through e-mail and my beautiful book is wrapped in an ILLO wrapper and placed on the Holds shelf for me – is there anything more lovely that this? It’s part of the thrill to just imagine where my interlibrary loan might be coming from because you really never know.  Books can sometimes arrive from as far away as Calgary or Vancouver or arrive from a library as close as Hamilton. Of course, if the item is only available to be loaned to us from a library at a greater distance then there might be charges involved but you have an opportunity to set that preference when you first make the request.

I just never know when I am going to come across an unusual book I will want to read and am reassured to know that the interlibrary loans staff will get to work and try to find that unique book for me. A few months ago I asked them to find Madeleine Albright’s Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box which was part memoir and part social history as it illustrated the way that she used the pins that she wore to indicate the way that she was feeling when she met world leaders during her time as the Secretary of State for Bill Clinton.  Her memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, was a favourite of many local book clubs because of the vivid stories she shared and the way that she addresses political and historical impact of the war.  Two wonderful books I was able to read and learn more about this outstanding woman, one from our collection and the other on loan from a library who was willing to share their treasure with us.

I’ve also used the interlibrary loan service to do a deep dive into the world of picture books that I have loved. John Burningham’s style of art and the gentle stories he told have always been favourites of mine so when I came across a newspaper article that mentioned a book he had written about himself I checked our catalogue to see if we had purchased it. When I saw that it hadn’t made its way onto our shelves I asked the ILLO staff to try and find it for me and was thrilled with the chance to read more about his early life, his development as an artist and get a behind-the-scenes look at his approach to creating picture books. With a few clicks of my keyboard and a few weeks of waiting I was able to get Behind the Scenes in my hands and it was a wonderful read.  I probably drove my kids crazy with reading parts of this book aloud when really they just wanted to remember how much they loved us reading Mr. Gumpy’s Outing over and over again when they were small.

Sometimes the items I request through ILLO are not as spectacular as an autobiography of an award winning author-illustrator or a memoir from a former Secretary of State… sometimes they can be a lighter read. A recent book which came to me all the way from Edmonton was the less-than-fabulous Amber Fang: The Hunted, the first in a YA series from popular Canadian author Arthur Slade. You see, there are so many reasons someone might need to request a book through the ILLO system. A book might no longer be in print and we can get it from a library that still has it on their shelf – this can happen with specialty genres like Westerns, for example. We might have a series of nineteen books and the sixteenth book is missing from our shelves but a customer really wants to know what happens before they go on to read the seventeenth book. Or, in the case of Amber Fang, it isn’t a great book and WPL never needed it on our shelves in the beginning. I was fooled by a catchy tagline of “Librarian.  Assassin.  Vampire.” Amber was really all of these things but she was only good at being one of them – the vampire one – and that’s usually okay with me. Not this time. I do like a good vampire book but I won’t be putting in an ILLO request for the next one in this series. I’m not sure what my next ILLO request will be but if you want to give it a try here is the link to the ILLO services on our web site: http://www.wpl.ca/services/interlibrary-loan. I know you will love it.

-Penny M.

What to read next

Each time we review customer holds on books, CDs, and DVDs to ensure the wait lists aren’t becoming too long I see names that are familiar; James Patterson is often there and I also see Nora Roberts, Stuart Woods, Linwood Barclay. Customers at WPL are also such big fans of every award-winner going so as soon the longlists are announced for anything we see an increase in the interest in those titles, whether they be books or films. Once in a while there are surprises on these lists and that is what makes working at a public library constantly invigorating and that is what makes coming to work every day so interesting.

The most recent list had the most encouraging title at the top of the list, a title from the shelves of our Children’s Department, not a spy thriller or the latest Hollywood memoir.  The book that WPL customers are most interested in reading right now is R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, a book that has recently been adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay. We’ve had this fabulous novel on the shelves since 2012 with constant love from the families and kids who have taken it home. From the very moment that young readers started to get to know the main character, Auggie Pullman, they knew that they had read something authentic and wanted to talk about it, share it with friends, and find out more. This is a story about a previously homeschooled 10-year old boy who decides to start attending school (with all of the pressures you would expect plus the fact that he has several medical conditions including a severe facial deformity) and the author chooses to use this as an opportunity to model friendship, acceptance and empathy instead of your typical fish out of water story. It’s the perfect choice for a read-aloud or read alone.

It’s tough to find something exactly like Auggie’s situation but we have so many beautifully written novels to tempt you. The quality of writing for the middle-school audience is outstanding and, once you read your first one, you will find yourself coming back for more. Sarah Weeks wrote a fantastic book that will bring everyone back to their days of sitting in the school cafeteria with Save Me A Seat. She tells the story of Joe, who has just lost his best friends because they moved away, and Ravi, who has arrived in New Jersey from India. Joe has been bullied his whole life and Ravi is struggling with trying to be understood while he navigates the strange world of an American middle school.  They find their way through the lunch line, the humiliation thrust upon them by classroom bullies and a week’s worth of homework together.  This is where real friendships are formed.

Schools and friendships are the cornerstone of great literature for kids. It also really helps make the story ‘zing’ if the parents are absent in some way. They don’t have to be deceased exactly but their interference in a book can really slow down a narrative. Just think of every great book you loved when you were a kid – did the mother/father/grandparent/guardian feature prominently? If any adult was a big part of the story they were usually a very cool aunt or spectacularly helpful older cousin or mature neighbour. It can never be someone in authority – this spoils absolutely everything. Wonder‘s author addresses this in interviews about her book and many other authors, like Neil Gaiman and Kate Di Camillo, have done so as well. Stories are better without a cumbersome adult around.

Author Donna Gephart had written several successful novels for kids before she came to write the story of Lily and Dunkin in 2016. They meet in the beginning of their grade eight year when they find they have something in common – they dislike their birth names (Lily was originally Tim and Dunkin was born Norbert and takes up his new name due to his fondness for the doughnuts) – and are grappling with bodies that are betraying them.  In Lily’s case she knows that she is a girl but others assume she is a boy and classmates bully her as she slowly exhibits her identity by wearing makeup in public and Dunkin is hiding his bipolar disorder from his team so that he can become a part of their a successful basketball program. As Dunkin chooses to stop taking his anti-psychotic medications so that he can have more energy for basketball and Lily works on environmental issues their friendship grows. Gephart’s gift for humour makes this so much more than a book about kids with difficulties in middle-school.

Should you be interesting in approaching the middle-school world through something more visual you might want to check out CeCe Bell’s El Deafo. It’s a graphic novel of the author’s own experience but she has chosen to make all of her characters anthropomorphized bunnies so it seems oddly current – who knows exactly how old a bunny is, really. CeCe contracted meningitis as a child, loses her hearing, and goes through the experience of learning to use a hearing aid, requiring cords and a large receiver worn on her chest. The real magic in this book is her ability to dig deep into her memory and help the reader feel as if they are by her side as she relives the terrifying moment when she first realizes that she can’t hear her mother’s voice, how wonderful it is to hear again when she first uses the hearing aid, what it feels like to use her super hearing power for good by spying on the teachers in the hallway. The image of the girl-bunny on the cover of the book is a representation of how she felt – superhero-like – and the author is careful to say that her experience of deafness is hers alone but her experience of being a kid searching for a true friend will seem genuine to all.

These are sublime, universal stories which will capture the hearts of families. The books are as brave and bright as the children who will enjoy reading them. Kids just like Auggie, CeCe, Lily, Dunkin, Ravi and Joe are here in our library and these books, and so many others, are ready for them to love.

-Penny M.