(Reposted with thanks to the wonderful people at the The Nerdy Book Club, where I originally guest-posted this.)
Hello, Nerds! I’m Geoff Rodkey, author of the comedy-adventure-coming-of-age series The Chronicles of Egg and a big fan of the Book Club. When I got the chance to contribute a post, I was thrilled–and immediately spent the next several days meticulously crafting a 2,000-word essay about how Bridge to Terabithia scarred me for life.
I was convinced I’d written something truly special–poignant, heartfelt, existentially profound–until I showed it to my wife, who helpfully pointed out that it was actually turgid, boring, and painfully self-indulgent.
So I added my 2,000-word Bridge to Terabithia reminiscence to the unfortunately long list of Things That Seemed Like A Good Idea Until I Ran Them By My Wife and decided to take a different tack.
This is still a reminiscence, it’s still about books that meant a lot to me as a kid, and even though nobody dies in an emotionally devastating fashion in any of them, it’s still a little poignant–because in a sense, these books are dead themselves.
In other words, they’re out of print. They survive in libraries (I hope), and you can still fish them out of the Internet’s vast ocean of used book stores, but other than that, they’ve passed on. If you can track them down, though, I’d strongly recommend checking them out. They’re worth the effort.
Well, some of them are. Read on and you’ll see what I mean:
THE PUSHCART WAR, by Jean Merrill
I still can’t believe this is out of print. It’s a made-up history of a war on the streets of New York City between a triumvirate of more-or-less-evil trucking companies and an eccentric band of pushcart peddlers who organize themselves to fight back (with pea shooters) when the truckers start trying to run them out of business. It’s got an offbeat, singular, very funny tone, and the plot works on multiple levels–as a comedy, an underdog story, an object lesson in standing up to bullies, and a parable about the vulnerability of conventional military forces to guerrilla tactics.
That last one might be a stretch. But not by much. And The Pushcart War holds up incredibly well, for readers of any age–I sat down with a copy a while back and had as much fun with it as I did when I was ten.
THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, by Leonard Wibberly
This isn’t technically a kid’s book, but I read it when I was a kid, and my twelve-year-old loved it, so I’m counting it. It’s the story of a tiny, Andorra-like European country that decides, for reasons too complicated to get into, to invade the United States…using a small platoon of longbowmen, even though it’s the Atomic Age. And, for reasons that are also too complicated to get into, they win.
If this sounds even vaguely intriguing, hunt this book down. It’s a gem. The Mouse That Roared was also the basis for a Peter Sellers movie that I’ve never seen, because honestly, I don’t know how it could top the book.
One of several sequels to The Cricket in Times Square, this is the story of how Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse adopt a stray puppy, then have to find a home for it when the puppy grows into a sheepdog and no longer fits in the drainpipe where they live. I read it to my 7-year-old last year, and we both had a fine time with it. I’m not sure why it’s out of print when, say, Tucker’s Countryside (another Cricket sequel that, if you ask me, is no better or worse than this one) is still kicking around.
Incidentally, I liked the Cricket series so much as a kid that I wrote fan fiction about it. Rereading it as an adult (the book, not my fan fiction), I started to wonder what the deal was with Tucker and Harry’s relationship. Two confirmed bachelors, one of them highly fastidious, sharing a one-bedroom in the Theater District? Maybe you see where I’m going with this.
THE MCGURK MYSTERIES
If there was any justice in the world, the McGurk Mysteries would be as big as Encyclopedia Brown. The books, of which there were at least a dozen in print at one point, were about a detective agency of 10-year-olds who solved funny, age-appropriate mysteries around their neighborhood. In Ocean’s Eleven fashion, all the kids had a specialty: McGurk was the charismatic, Clooney-esque leader; Willie Sandowsky had a massive schnoz and a correspondingly exquisite sense of smell; Wanda Grieg was the muscle; Brains Bellingham was (big surprise) the brains; and Joey Rockaway didn’t bring all that much to the table other than being the narrator, but he–or, rather, author E.W. Hildick–was very, very good at it.
My youngest son would love these books if I could just convince him that the 30-year-old copies I bought on the Internet are okay to pick up even though the paper’s disintegrating and they smell like an elderly person’s closet.
IRVING AND ME
This was late New Yorker cartoonist and Danny and the Dinosaur creator Syd Hoff’s only novel for older kids (I think), and I kind of get why it’s out of print. Which is not to say it wasn’t a pleasure to reread. The story of Artie, a 13-year-old Jewish kid from Brooklyn who moves to Florida and semi-reluctantly befriends big-eared, slightly odd Irving, still holds up reasonably well–Artie’s narration is breezy, likable, and contains a pleasant whiff of Borscht Belt; his problems are entirely relatable; and the ending’s even a little touching.
But it’s very much of its time, by which I mean the 13-year-olds in it occasionally smoke cigarettes, look at dirty magazines, obsess over girls, and generally act in ways that, while true to the lived experience of 13-year-olds both in 1967 and today, tend to get contemporary kid-lit gatekeepers a little bent out of shape.
Speaking of bent of out shape, the last stop on my preteen literary nostalgia tour is…
THE SERGEANT: BLOODY BASTOGNE
Let me be very, very clear: THIS IS NOT A CHILDREN’S BOOK, AND I HAD NO BUSINESS READING IT WHEN I WAS ELEVEN.
But hoo-boy! The Sergeant: Bloody Bastogne was one of a series of pulp novels for adults written under the name Gordon Davis, which must have been a pseudonym, because…hoo-boy! I stumbled on this one at a shopping mall bookstore in Rockford, Illinois when I happened to have $2.25 plus tax in my pocket, and I decided to buy it because at age eleven, I was insatiably interested in World War II.
Whether due to incompetence, apathy, or a loophole in the local blue laws, the checkout clerk sold it to me. And oh, man! Did I get a thrill out of reading this book. Sergeant CJ Mahoney was a US Army Ranger who was expert at two things: slaughtering Nazis in ridiculously graphic ways, and engaging in even more ridiculously graphic behavior with the Belgian farm girls who conveniently wandered into the narrative whenever there was a lull in the combat.
This was like the literary equivalent of playing Grand Theft Auto. You know how some people believe that it doesn’t matter what a kid reads, as long as he’s reading? They’re wrong. But I will say this: The Sergeant: Bloody Bastogne unquestionably opened my eyes to the almost limitless potential of books to expose a reader to new worlds.
Got a favorite book that’s out-of-print? Drop a line in the comments–I’d love to hear about it.