Books You’d Unpack First

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 11, 2013

Moving house is a big undertaking. The new place isn’t quite finished yet, so all of the bookcases aren’t along the walls; in fact, most of the books haven’t even been packed up and moved. Even so, the first thing I did after the major furniture was set in place and the movers had gone, was to unpack a few books to make me feel at home. Those books — the few I packed first — all happened to be children’s books, or books about them. This isn’t because I don’t love and appreciate books for adults, of course. I will have bookcases filled with the Gerald Durrells and Pablo Nerudas, the Louise Erdrichs and Nabokovs, etcetera. But those were not the books unpacked first.
In the office, I put up my books on writing and children’s literature, treasures like Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom ed. by Leonard Marcus, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Perry Nodelman, The Invisible Child by Katherine Paterson, TalkTalk by E.L. Konigsburg, A Child’s Delight by Noel Perrin, and The Openhearted Audience ed. by Virginia Haviland.
For the bedroom bookcase, I had only packed a very few comfort books, mostly books from childhood. Ones that make me feel cozy, or call up a memorable time and place. Many, many books are missing from this little shelf; my coveted signed Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie (Andrews) Edwards was actually packed first and separately of all the books, but ended up in a box that is still at the other house. And favorites like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and Jo’s Boys and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter and The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit and The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright and scores of others — including Runaway Alice by Frances Salomon Murphy and a Gary Paulsen-esque adventure book I loved but no one else seems to know, White Water, Still Water by Allan J. Bosworth — will find their way here. But for some reason, these books below were the ones I gravitated toward to make me feel totally at home. I especially adore how shabby some of these are from childhood re-reading.
comfort books
Here’s the list of what’s on this shelf. What would be on yours? (See below the list for a more refined version of that question.)
Our Peaceable Kingdom by John Drysdale (if these photos of unlikely animal and animal-human friendships don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy, nothing will)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the original translation by Katherine Woods, which I still rebelliously prefer, possibly in part because it’s the one my mother read to me)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (interestingly, the one book that doesn’t maybe belong on this shelf. I loved it, but I only read it a few times.)
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer (So brilliant, so full of wit! I have two versions here, my childhood copy and a newer copy, both autographed. Ahhhh.)
The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers, by Mary Norton (the first “omnibus” I ever encountered, and well-worn from re-reading)
All the small poems and fourteen more, by Valerie Worth, illus. by Natalie Babbitt (these weren’t from my own childhood, but I just love these poems and Natalie Babbitt’s pencil illustrations. I used them when I was a schoolteacher, so I suppose this is a comfort book from another part of my life.)
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, illus. by Garth Williams (the perfect novel; my childhood copy plus a more recent copy)
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (i think this is another perfect novel, and even though there are other Katherine Paterson books that are equally brilliant and fantastic, this one has a special place in my heart)
The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien (magical!!! another one my mother read to us, and many times over)
The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier (New York City in the 70s – so far from my Phoenix, Arizona childhood and therefore wildly compelling!)
Gray Magic by Andre Norton (this simple fantasy haunted me; I read it a zillion times)
I Was a 98-Lb. Duckling, by Jean van Leeuwen (so charming! This one stands up to the re-reading test and is perfect for tweens)
Mr. Pudgins by Ruth Carlsen (a book I have proselytized for bringing back into print — full of imagination and delight for young readers!)
The Moonball by Ursula Moray Williams (I was mostly fascinated by the idea of the kids discovering a ball made of a color they’d never seen before and used to twist my mind into a pretzel trying to visualize such a thing)
Case of the Marble Monster and Other Stories by I.G. Edmonds (these classic, clever Judge Ooka stories from Japan would still captivate 7-10-year-olds)
She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I’s Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians by Alexandra Elizabeth (Ally) Sheedy, illus. by Jessica Ann Levy (a marvelous book written by the future actress Ally Sheedy as a child and beautifully illustrated by her thirteen-year-old friend, this is still my favorite book about Queen Elizabeth I)
The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (little witch boarding school! What wasn’t to love?!)
Twenty-Five Dragons by Eleanor Coerr (one of my earliest introductions to Chinese culture and art; a lovely story)
Magic in the Park and The Witch’s Buttons by Ruth Chew (great young magic books; I’ll be blogging about these books very soon!)
The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase (soooo good, so creepy)
The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien (a wonderful, complex fantasy for fans of A Wrinkle in Time)
Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh (funny, sarcastic, unflinchingly honest about families and foibles; one of my all-time favorite books)
The Three Toymakers by Ursula Moray Williams (loved the forest village setting, the wolves, the toymaking, the suspense and just enough danger to have me mesmerized again and again. And Marta, the tempestuous, impulsive, spoiled talking doll!)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (with Gilly, all the small poems, and Our Peaceable Kingdom, the only one(s) not from my childhood. I love this beautiful, gloriously written and felt book.)
I love all of these books below, and I’m sure some wouldn’t pass literary muster today. But they ignited my childhood imagination and fed me in a myriad of ways.
Dear Readers, if you were to move, and pack up just one shelf of favorite children’s books, what would you include? Especially, what would you include that aren’t considered classics?

15 thoughts on “Books You’d Unpack First

  1. Becky

    The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, Mandy by Julie Edwards, Wigger by William Goldman, Ant and Bee collection by Angela Banner, What Katy Did books by Susan Coolidge. Little Women and Jack and Jill by LM Alcott.

    1. Carol Moyer

      Loretta Mason Potts by Mary Chase. Do you know this one? I saw your other Mary Chase title.
      The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton
      Mr. Apple’s Family by Jean McDevitt
      All Betsy-Tacys, of course!
      Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
      The Poppyseed Cakes by Margery Clark
      The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden
      and SO ON..

  2. Paul Acampora

    Here’s a shelf keeps me happy. In no particular order:
    1. Mouse & the Motorcycle by Beverly Clearly
    2. Runaway Ralph by Beverly Clearly
    3. Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Dicamillo
    4. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle
    5. True Grit by Charles Portis
    6. A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
    7. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    8. The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks
    9. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
    10. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
    11. A Corner of the Universe by Ann Martin
    12. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
    13. I Am The Messenger by Marcus Zuzak

  3. Ellie Miller

    To : Becky…did you know that there’s a Betsy-Tacy Society (headquartered in Mankato, MN) which has a website…sorry I don’t have the specifics but Googling ‘Betsy-Tacy’ should get you there…which I stumbled on myself by sheer accident. They have a STORE too and sell not just the books but things such as related stationary and t-shirts(!) for afficionados. I was thrilled to find it and buy a shirt for my 50 year old niece who treasures those books as much as I do as a Mother’s Day gift.
    On my shelf?
    War for the Oaks – Emma Bull
    Tam Lin – Pamela Dean
    Jane of Lantern Hill and The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery
    The Great Mistake – Mary Roberts Rinehart
    Ask Miss Mott and Miss Brown of XYO – E. Phillips Oppenheim
    The Lieutenant’s Lady – Bess Streeter Aldrich
    Crystal Singer – Anne McCaffrey
    Dinner at Antoines, Joy Street and All that Glitters – Frances Parkinson Keyes
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
    Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
    Marelon the Magician – Patricia Wrede
    Fire and Hemlock – Diana Wynne Jones
    The Hounds of the Moriggan – Pat O’Shea

  4. Ellie Miller

    Addenda: my bad…didn’t read criteria carefully enough. Not all my choices are children’s books per se BUT most of them I read first while I still was a youngster.

  5. Tim tocher

    I have to have P. G. Wodehouse close at hand for mood elevating purposes. Gerald Durell’s My Family and Other Animals serves a similar purpose.
    Tim Tocher, author of Odd Ball: Hilarious, Bizarre, and Unusual Baseball Moments

  6. Joanne Roberts

    The Mystery of the Gingerbread House by Willy Folk St. John and The Happy Hollisters, by Jerry West, neither of which would probably hold up well now.
    A Cottage For Betsy by Ruth Sawyer and The Huffler, By Jill Paton Walsh, little known classics.
    Smith by Leon Garfield
    The Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander
    The Ransom of Red Chief and other short stories by O. Henry and the Hobbit, by Tolkien, which I never imagined were really books for adults.
    I also spent hours gazing at the illustrations for Winnie-The-Pooh, The Secret Garden, and a Hans Christian Anderson collection, by Ernest Shepard, Tasha Tudor, and Arthur Rackham, respectively. I confess I didn’t get around to reading them til much later.

  7. Christie

    Most of my children’s books reside in their own bookcase elsewhere but I do have a bedside shelf and among the books are The Pooh Bedside Reader and the four Winnie-the Pooh books by Milne as well as The Sea is Blue by Marie A. Lawson. It was published in 1946 and I inherited it from my sister (as well as a number of other children’s books). The rest of my ‘comfort’ books are definitely for adults.

  8. Melissa Posten

    Re: the Betsy-Tacy books – there’s also a very active, very friendly listserv called Maud-L that I have been a member of since 1996!
    So needless to say, my shelf would include my entire collection of vintage B-T hardcovers, as well as Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, a book no one knows called The Hideaway Summer, The Secret of the Seven Crows by Wylly Folk St. John, my bound volume of A Little Princess/The Secret Garden/Little Lord Fauntleroy, Star Spangled Summer by Janet Lambert, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The One and Only Ivan, The Penderwicks, Toys Go Out, Taran Wanderer, The Dark Is Rising, and Mandy by Julie Andrews.

  9. Sharon T.

    My Louisa May Alcotts and Jane Austens would be unpacked first, as those always have a treasured spot on my bookshelves, followed very quickly by my complete sets of Oz books and Harry Potter books. What followed would probably be a combination of my to-read shelf and my just-acquired shelf. But “Little Women” must come first.

  10. Kristi

    Wow! So happy to see “The Silver Crown” on your list! While my days of children’s bookselling are on hold at the moment, I never let this title go out of stock (unless it was briefly out of print), because it was my #1 handsell.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Kristi, I loved this book, and it stood up to repeated readings even as an adult. Since it’s by the author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, you’d think it would be better known!

  11. Louise Kennedy

    Anything by E.L. Konigsburg. Harriet the Spy – and now I must check the other Louise Fitzhugh title someone mentioned! I Capture the Castle. And a book called The Mummy Market that no one seems to know, but I loved. And maybe my favorite Christmas story: Mr. Willoughby’s Christmas Tree, which starts as a giant tree that is just too tall for the mansion’s living room, so the butler lops off a bit for his room, and it’s just too tall so…at the end there is an adorable mouse with the tiniest scrap of tree. Thank you for making me smile at the end of a long day!

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Louise, several years ago I asked members of the child_lit listserv what book they would most like to see come back into print, and The Mummy Market won by a landslide! I’ve never seen it, but it certainly must make an impression with readers.


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