Monday, April 9

Five Books, Fourth Grade, 1971-1972

Recently I've found myself involved in conversations that seem to circle back to my fourth grade class reading. There were five books our teacher, Mrs. White, read aloud to us three times a week after lunch and it's taken a lot of hard thought to recall all five of those books.

What strikes me most about the assortment is just how classic the reading was and what they say about their time, or rather what they say about a generation that grew up during those times.

If ever there was a book that hit our class hardest it was Harriet the Spy. Originally published in 1964 it was possible that this book felt the most contemporary to us as witnessed by the debates that took place as we would line up for lunch. While some of us contemplated what Harriet would do next, others would speculate what would happen to Harriet while other began keeping their own little not-so-secret notebooks. My original memory was that Mrs. White did not finish reading this book hoping instead to entice us to seek out the ending on our own. But remembering the end of the book and the classroom reaction reminded me that she had indeed read it to the class.

Looking back I suspect that Mrs. White knew these girls (it was only girls) had been keeping these private Harriet-wannabe journals, and she seemed to look pointedly at all of us when Harriet's journal was exposed and the lessons were heaped up on her. Without making issue of the journals being kept in class they disappeared and were never mentioned again

Forth grade is when California history is taught, and I don't think it was coincidence that Island of the Blue Dolphins made it into our reading time. The tale of the girl Robinson Caruso helped bring to life not only the survivor tale but the lives of the native populations in a rich detail.

After studying about the California missions (including a field trip to Mission San Gabriel Archangel) I would have thought we'd all been pretty tired of any more stories of primitive peoples in (what felt to us like) prehistoric times. But if there's one thing that boy gravitate toward it's a good old fashioned tale of being stranded and fighting wild dogs and surviving by wits. And for the girls, the satisfaction of knowing that a girl could take care of herself.

This is one I've been meaning to get back to as an adult and see how much is still there in the old memory banks.

I'm not going to pretend that we didn't think Charlotte's Web was a bit of a baby story when Mrs. White began reading this to us, especially when she would pause and walk the U-shape layout of the classroom desk to show us the various illustrations. Those moments of waiting and craning to see the pictures, accompanied by the rambunctiousness of kids just in from lunch, made the natural flow of the afternoon read a bit difficult. The rule was that we had to sit quietly and we could put our heads down on the desks but absolutely nothing else. It was hard to settle in to a nice post-recess read when you've got remain alert for the pictures.

That little flaw aside, and once we got over our little "baby book" whining the book turned out to be quite good after all. I even remember at the end some of the "tougher" boys worrying about Wilbur and trying not to get all choked up about Charlotte.

I hear they made a movie out of this book, but I can't imagine why any sensible-thinking person would want to. Not everything has to be refitted for modern audiences, or made purely to line someone's wallet.

While not the original dead dog story (who gets that honor, Old Yeller?) there's no doubting that the genre wasn't as harrowing as Sounder was to our gentle minds back in the day. I'm embarrassed to admit that the details have gone soft and fuzzy for me over time, but not the image of that poor dog hiding under the house with half of his head bloodied from a shotgun blast hasn't faded all these years.

But what was running through our heads back then? I have an equally vivid memory of watching the motorcade of JFK's funeral on television, and the assassinations of MLK and RFK were still echoing in our minds, though I doubt we understood their true meanings or significance. I have this memory of a sensation that there was something wrong in our country, an awakening as it were to the dissonance between the words "Land of the free, home of the brave" and the realities on the news and in books. This is where the story of Sounder clearly sits, lodged in the same space occupying the tragedies of the late 1960's, the successes of the moon launches, the Civil Rights Movement and the slow opening of a door that lead us out of the room called innocence and into the rest of our lives.

Our last book on my little tour through fourth grade was actually a school-wide read: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl's classic story of the unusual candyman and his contest to give a tour (and a factory) as a prize for five lucky people was being adapted into a musical to be preformed by the sixth grade class. More: the adaptation was being written by our own Mr. Green who at one point in his past was a rehearsal pianist for Broadway prior to becoming a school teacher.

Memory and time can color things many different shades, but nothing can alter the reality that Mr. Green's completely faithful adaptation of Dahl's book -- down to a chorus singing Dahl's Oompa Loompa verses as transitions for scenery changes -- was brilliant. That it came the year after the movie leads me to wonder whether or not it was in reaction to the less-than-faithful adaptation with Gene Wilder (though preferred over the recent Johnny Depp version) or merely a way to grab hold of a comet and ride its tail. I do know that the show sold out every performance in our school's cafetorium to the point of standing room only. I had long hoped that Mr. Green was able to parlay the success of that show into a serious career in musical theatre but that's an adult me seeing through fourth grade eyes. By fifth grade I was at another school across town and in the years I spent in my home town I never discovered whether that was a singular event or if that was one of many shows put together by Mr. Green.

The book? Loved. And what's not to love? Underdog makes good, chocolate everywhere, bad kids get comeuppance... Dahl may have been weird but he knew what kids liked in a story. As far as I'm concerned the only thing that ruins this book are the current illustrations by Quinten Blake. I know he's Dahl's illustrator of preference and all, but you cannot take away that part of my childhood, and those include the images first put into my head by Joseph Schindelman.

I wonder what five books will reign in the memories of my girls, currently in third and fifth grade. Years from now what will be the books with greatest impact, what will they be calling classics? We had nothing like Potter-mania or hungry book publishers looking to get us to buy every movie tie-in they can manufacture. The whole culture of books and reading is different, but I can happily say that they read far more than I did at that age. But what sticks, what's going to hold sway on that one day, thirty years from now, when they sit down and write about the five books they remember most during this time?

Anyone else have any memories they'd like to share?
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