Crisis Reads

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 25, 2012

When the ship hits the rocks, what do you want to read? Lately, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as friends and loved ones have been ricocheting through big changes of all kinds. What I’ve found, over the years, is that in times of trouble people of all ages return to beloved books from childhood. (They also, notably, turn to poetry. But that’s another post.)
When 9/11 happened, once people’s equilibrium had returned enough to focus on books, our sales of “comfort books” skyrocketed. We’re talking Ramona the Pest, Betsy-Tacy, The Great Brain, Superfudge, Strawberry Girl, The Moffats, Half Magic, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, The Dragon of Lonely Island, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, The Borrowers, The Enchanted Castle, Anne of Green Gables, the Casson family books, the Moomintrolls — these were the top choices of 12-year-olds. We always sell these kinds of books steadily, but the sheer NEED for them after 9/11 was remarkable. Adults sought the same kind of comfort, and found pickings a bit slimmer: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff are a few of our favorite recommendations to folks traveling through tough times.
When houses burn down, pets die, friends move away, parents divorce — kids want happy books, escape, a return to safe, comfortable, orderly worlds with humor, gentle adventure, loving family and friends, and the kind of suspense that doesn’t make your heart beat in the same tense rhythm of dread that has been preoccupying real life.
Josie and I have a dear friend, a wonderful poet and former formidable Manhattan English teacher, who is 85 and suddenly shifting into hospice care. Her 18-year-old grandson is visiting from Oregon, and today we saw him for the first time in many years when we dropped by. He greeted us with a beautiful open smile and a hug. “The first book I ever read,” he told us, “came from your bookstore.” It was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and we remembered helping our friend find just the right book for her somewhat struggling young reader, 10 years ago. The book was a turning point for him; he felt it to be his first major reading success, the one that gave him confidence to embark on what has become a love affair with books.
“What are you reading these days?” we asked him, expecting to hear Insurgent (he’d loved Divergent) or another high-octane dystopian fantasy.
The Wind in the Willows,” he replied, with that beautiful smile.
Of course.
Readers, what are your favorite books, and your children’s favorite books, when your hearts need soothing?

17 thoughts on “Crisis Reads

  1. Ellie Miller

    As a very young (16) college freshman…away from home for the first time…I remember making a beeline for the town’s local library and checking out several of the Andrew Lang ‘color’ fairy tale collections to help fight off homesickness. Recently, seventy years later, when I lost my husband to leukemia after thirty-five years of marriage, I turned to my battered copies of L.M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle” and “Jane of Lantern Hill” for comfort. When I’m stressed and want escape, umpteen rereads of Temple Bailey, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Frances Parkinson Keye’s novels never fail me.

  2. Maya

    What a thought-provoking post. For me it would be The Princess Bride (for “Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”), Weetzie Bat, and Anne of Green Gables.

  3. Melinda

    A Wrinkle In Time is always my go to when I need a comfort book. Perhaps it is Meg’s steadfast devotion to her family or maybe it is the fact that Meg, like all of us, is flawed but those flaws that are some of her greatest assets. I don’t know but when I begin the first sentence I feel as if I am being enveloped in a blanket that has been there at my best and my most flawed times as well.

  4. Carol B. Chittenden

    Story of Jumping Mouse, by John Steptoe
    Lifetimes, by Bryan Mellonie, illus. Ingpen
    Charlotte’s Web, of course

  5. Jess

    My first thought was Elizabeth Goudge – I haven’t read her in ages, but a friend who recently went through a tough time reread a bunch of hers, and I’ve been keeping them in mind for a rainy day.
    I also think of LM Montgomery, or any of those other favorites I own copies of ‘just in case.’ I think A Little Princess would also fit the bill, or Louisa May Alcott, or Elizabeth Enright. For newer things, I’d go for The Penderwicks, The Wednesday Wars, or some Diana Wynne Jones or Robin McKinley.

  6. Elizabeth

    I seem to habitually revisit Lord of the Rings at turning points in my life… and I almost forgot about the Weetzie Bat books until a commenter above mentioned them! Definitely those, over and over and over again.

  7. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

    I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster are another couple of fantastic comfort reads. I remember my mother turning to Anthony Trollope when she needed solace and laughter, and we have many customers who look to P.G. Wodehouse.

  8. Kristi Jalics

    D.E. Stevenson is a favorite author whose books I’ve read over and over since discovering them in the late 60s. Listening Valley, Miss Buncle’s Book, The Blue Sapphire are titles that are a great comfort in difficult times. but I read many other writers this way – Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Tacy books, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kenneth Graham, and Frances Hodgson Burnett are a few. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Goudge and Della Thompson Lutes and even the funny Mother Mason by Bess Streeter Aldrich. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, too, though they have a lot of darkness………Most of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books and Farahad Zama’s Marriage Bureau for Rich People series. There are more. These are books where the people are kind and good and in the end, good things happen.


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