Favorite childhood tales feel like long-lost friends right now.
It’s week six of Staying Home and of the online book club I’ve been hosting for my 9-year-old grandniece and her friends, who live 400 miles north. Our 3 o’clock sessions are the highlight of my socially distant day.
Just before the shutdown, I ran several blocks to take curbside delivery of our first book, Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona. I read her years ago to my own children. It’s amazing to re-discover how Cleary inhabits the child mind, understands the yearning for classroom recognition, the trials of home life.
The book club and I chat as much as we read but have already almost finished a sequel, Ramona the Brave, from my bookshelf of favorites that made the cut when we downsized from house to apartment. Cleary herself inscribed my copy at an author reading at a children’s bookshop called the Cheshire Cat, which is gone now, like the Cat’s grin.
I have no more Cleary. So what’s next? Well, there are three favorites on my shelf: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden, The Complete Adventurers of the Borrowers by Mary Norton (all four books in one anthology), and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
There’s a tradition of book giving and inscribing in our family. My great-aunt Mildred gave me the Rumer Godden; my aunt Eleanor gifted me The Borrowers; The Secret Garden is inscribed to my daughter by her great-aunt Eleanor. Now here I am, a great-aunt myself, trying to decide which book to share with my grandniece.
All three of these books concern coping with solitude, confinement, and the powerless state of being children. And isn’t that everyone’s predicament now? We’re all grounded, confined, and not in control. I love all three books the way you love books that you read, re-read, and absorbed as a child.
Struggling to choose, I stand at the kitchen sink and look out the window at the world which grows greener and more inviting every day; I raise the window for a whiff of cool, fresh air. Suddenly, I am Arrietty, the young Borrower at the grating peering into the forbidden world beyond her family’s dark, labyrinthine, under-the-floor existence.
Author Mary Norton told her publisher that, as a nearsighted child, she studied close details, chinks in walls, holes in the bushes. She peopled them with tiny human-like beings who had to forage, “borrow” human leavings to get by.
Bored with nursery days of “dull, safe routine,” Norton imagined her Borrowers climbing up curtains, living under the floorboards, “unguessed at by the adult human beings.” She forgot the Borrowers as she grew older and went off to boarding school.
But she remembered, as an adult, in 1940, when “a change was creeping over the world,” and Jewish families were hiding, living “by stark and tragic necessity” the dangerous sequestered life Norton had imagined for her Borrowers.
So she began to write The Borrowers. These stories fit our moment. A different sort of change is creeping over the world now, a different kind of necessity — not Hitler’s genocide, but an evil virus, exacerbated by human choices — forces families to hide at home from the feared contagion of others Out There.
And it’s a good moment to introduce my book-club girls to the Clock family (Borrower surnames are borrowed from landmarks near their secret homes): father Pod, industrious and resourceful; anxious mother Homily; and their only child — resilient, feisty Arrietty.
Pod takes Arrietty into the outside world for the first time, for her first borrowing lesson; she wanders off and is “Seen” by a Human Being — the worst danger of all. She doesn’t tell her parents, and the encounter between the giant Boy and tiny Arrietty begins four volumes of adventures, plenty to keep us occupied, my book club and me.
How long will we be hiding here inside? How many more books before the girls can return to the Real World Out There of school and friends? We don’t know, but I do know books are helping all of us through this time. Reading is essential, for escape and sustenance, however old we are.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories, Known By Heart, is forthcoming this month. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.