Last month I celebrated another birthday, and my wonderful birthday dinner at Christopher’s courtesy of my gentleman friend, got me to thinking about past birthdays and birthday presents. We didn’t celebrate birthdays in my family, at least not with the pomp and circumstance with which I celebrated my children’s birthdays and those of my grandchildren. As a child, my “birthday meal” was whatever was on the menu, but I did have a birthday cake. I always wanted the layers to be different colors and that was one wish that always came true.
As for presents, trikes, bikes, dolls, skates and those sorts of gifts, I received at Christmas. After all, Santa didn’t work in July. The one gift I could count on receiving was a book since my mother was a voracious reader. I probably received something to wear for the new school year but if I did, it didn’t leave much of an impression. The books, however, I do remember, and I did enjoy them once I got over the initial disappointment of not receiving something more exciting.
As an only child there were times even in my baby boom neighborhood teeming with children that I had to create my own entertainment. My mother also insisted on nap time in the afternoon and the naptime rule was if I didn’t want to sleep, I had to read, and I did just that. The neighborhood was quiet and peaceful since the other moms insisted on nap time as well. Before air conditioning, our open windows brought in the smells and sounds of summer – fragrant flowers and plants and cicadas – and the white noise from the metal oscillating table fan did eventually put me to sleep with book in hand.
My birthday book collection grew to include Little Women, Little Men, Robin Hood, Black Beauty and my all-time favorite, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. These were all part of the Illustrated Junior Library published by New York Grosset and Dunlap and featured the same colorful cover style even though the illustrators were different. For those who didn’t read it back in the day, The Peppers is about a widow raising her five children at the beginning of the 20th century, a time of social and industrial change, and yes, it reflects life at that point in our nation’s history.
I read some reviews on Goodreads recently and found it ironic that one reader panned it for its religious tone, gender and class roles and wrote that “children are being told a story that defies belief.” While my feathers were ruffled, I wondered where this reader stands on pure fantasy like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, or the superhero comic books which have made a lot people very wealthy. Books should be read keeping the context of the time in which they were written in mind. Fifty or 75-years from now, what passes as a good book today may seem out of touch to readers of to morrow but that shouldn’t take away from its purpose in its time.
For me, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was a journey away from the Houston Heights and I enjoyed being part of Ben, Polly, Joey, Davie and Phronsie’s lives. Joining them in their joys and struggles was like being with the brothers and sisters I never had.
Just so you know, I stopped receiving books in my midteens when my mother became mentally ill. Before she did, I finally received an “exciting” present for my 13th birthday, an aqua transistor radio with a leather carrying case! From that point on, I spent the next couple of summers not with a book in hand but lounging with my radio, turning the dial from station to station to catch my favorite songs – “just a transistor sister, playing my radio!”
Connie Clements is a freelance reporter for the Navasota Examiner and award-winning columnist. She writes feature news articles on a weekly basis and an opinion column as the mood strikes her.