Was Tom really all that Swift? Were Frank and Joe Hardy?
My wife claims that I’d be a better writer today if I’d read the ‘classics’ when I was a wee lad. She might be right. I never read David Copperfield, but I know the name of the Hardy Boys’ speedboat (which they bought with reward money from solving crimes too tough for the local bumbling police chief to solve), and while I might not have read Jungle Book, I can tell you how many bathrooms there are aboard Tom Swift’s flying laboratory.
If I’m being honest, and I can think of no reason to be otherwise, I grew up on a steady diet of junk literature. Besides the evening newspaper, my father wasn’t much of a reader. My mom would stay up late reading romance novels and Readers Digest Condensed Books that she would trade back and forth between friends and relatives. I don’t recall my two sisters doing much reading or what their preferences were.
I attended Edgar Allen Poe grade school on the south side of Chicago. The school mascot was the Raven. Every seat was filled and teachers rarely held kids back. You learned what you wanted to learn and then they passed you along. I remember watching a lot of movies in school. The educational kind. On Fridays almost all the teachers showed movies. We were even allowed to bring candy to school on Friday. If you were reasonably well mannered you could coast along through the grades without being noticed—or learning much. I recall there was a library on the second floor of the school. I don’t know if they had copies of Jungle Book or David Copperfield. You weren’t required to read books so I didn’t read that many.
Then we moved. It was only thirty miles away, out into the suburbs, but it was a fresh start of sorts. I enrolled in Sunnybrook grade school. Our school mascot was the beaver. Our basketball team was the Sunnybrook Beavers. No lie. The year after I started attending they decided to change the name of the team to the Sunnybrook Nationals. The teachers at Sunnybrook were different than at Poe. They remembered my name, for starters. The class sizes were smaller and there was a genuine emphasis on learning. I wasn’t familiar with this concept, but I caught on fast.
Another big difference between the two schools was the libraries. At Poe the librarian, Mrs. Middleton, guarded the books like they were her little ducklings, and you had to have a very good reason for taking any book down off the shelf. At Sunnybrook, I don’t remember the name of the librarian, but she actually offered you books. She took you around and suggested titles that might interest you. How wild was that?
It was in the Sunnybrook library that I got my first sweet taste of serialized fiction. I rode the bus to school (as compared to Chicago, where the school was only a block away from home) and kids who rode the busses had to wait for them to arrive in the library. A door at the rear of the room opened out to the parking lot. A teacher usually sat by the door and announced which bus was loading, and looked bored most of the time. Meanwhile, us kids sat at the desks and either did homework, played desk football, or dug through the National Geographics looking for the ‘good’ issues. One day I was doing none of these things. I idly scanned the shelves and saw a series of books about a group of youngsters called the Bobbsey Twins. I picked one up and paged through it. It was little kid’s stuff, stupid, really, but by the time my bus was announced I was a couple of chapters in.
Then I did something horrible. Something that I regret to this day. I took the book with me. I didn’t check it out. The librarian was long gone for the day. I stole it. I stuck it into the pocket of the winter coat that I’d been sweating in for the last half hour and walked out the door.
Which was worse, I wondered. Stealing a book from the library or stealing a baby book from the library. That night I examined the book and tried to figure out why I’d taken it. It was certainly written for a younger age group than I was in, but this book was weird. It had been written in the 1920s and it was written in a denser writing style than I had ever experienced. It may have been a little kid’s book, but there were a lot of pages and the text was small. There was a lot of attention paid to mundane details, the most minor of characters were introduced with whole chunks of back history. And of course, because it was written in the 1920s, the characters had only a few of the conveniences I took for granted.
Everything seemed to involve a great adventure. If you wanted to do something as simple as wash your hands, you had to bring the wash basin downstairs, put on your wool jacket (the one with the blueberry stain on the sleeve, from the time that horrible Jimmy Creggers pushed you down into the blueberry bush near Hobson’s Creek. Mother and the wash woman tried their best to get the blue out, but to no avail) your rubber galoshes (last winter your feet were too small for them, so mother bunched up some rags and scraps of cloth into the toes) and your favorite mittens (which were a gift from Aunt Francine who claimed they were woven by the mystical old gypsy woman who lived in a caravan at the edge of town. She claimed that whoever should wear the mittens shall be eternally lucky. You told father once that whenever you wore the mittens you seemed to do well if there was a test at school. Father laughed and told you that there was nothing mysterious about my getting good grades. He then commended me on my study habits). Now dressed, you carried the water basin outside to the water pump. The pump handle had to be pulled once, twice, three times to bring water up, and then a few more times to run the brackish water through. With the basin full, it’s time to give your hands and face a good scrubbing. But while you look for the bar of soap and a wash cloth, Scraps the dog gets curious and while attempting to see what is in the basin he succeeds in knocking it over, spilling water on the rug that Uncle Nathan brought back from Spain after the war.
Part of what hooked me on the Bobbsey Twins was the period stuff and the attention to detail, but the other part was the element that made Edward Stratemeyer (creator of the Bobbsey Twins, as well as Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and a dozen other series) a genius was that each book began with the characters talking about the great adventure they’d just had, and ended with a teaser for an upcoming adventure. On the surface this was such a cool concept, because to a reader it meant that these characters didn’t just start and stop in the book you were holding. They existed before that particular book began, and kept on keeping on long after the particular book ended. Heck, they probably even did cool things that never even made it into the books.
Of course, only slightly below the surface, this was blatant and shameless advertising. How could I bear not knowing about the great times these characters just had, and were about to step into? I couldn’t.
Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway because this is my confessional of sorts, in the days that followed I stole all four of the Bobbsey Twins books from the library. I had every opportunity to check them out, but I was afraid of being made fun of for reading such baby stuff. I did it and I regret it. (To make matters worse, after reading the books I hid them away in the garage. There was a hole in the drywall, so I tucked them in the wall. Years later my father decided to do some refurbishing and I just happened to be standing there when he ripped the drywall down and the books tumbled out. He asked me if I knew anything about them. I lied and said I didn’t. I knew then, as I know now, thirty-five years later, he knew I was lying. He didn’t push me on the subject and he never mentioned it again, but he knew I was lying.
After the whole ugly Bobbsey Twins debacle, I checked out all the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books in the library. And then I found out they had them on sale at the stores, so I started collecting them. These weren’t as well written as the Bobbsey Twins had been, but they were a good read. (In fact, the early Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books had been written in the same wordy, detail packed style, but around the 1950s all the books were rewritten, streamlined, and in effect dumbed down. The only good aspect of this was that a lot of the racism and stereotypes were removed. I’ve read a lot of the originals and some are so politically incorrect they’d make your hair stand on end. The books that I’d swiped from the library had been the original versions)
While waiting for the next Hardy Boy adventure to be published, I spent a lot of time at the public library. It was only a mile or so from our new house. They had a great Young Adult section, and best of all there was an air-conditioned reading room. In the summer, when it was too hot to play ball or do anything destructive, my friend Kenny Madison and I would bike to the library and cool down. After a while Kenny stopped coming along and I read most of the Young Adult section from A to Z. There was no David Copperfield, but there was S.E. Hintion, and I never found Jungle Book, but I did have a nice run-in with The Mad Scientist’s Club.
A few weeks ago I came across a book at Borders that took me back in time to when I first met the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys.
The book is ‘Operation Red Jerico’ and the subheading reads that it’s ‘The Guild of Specialists Book 1’. The author is Joshua Mowll, a British graphic designer.
The book takes the form of a journal from the 1920s, recounting the adventures of fifteen-year-old Rebecca MacKenzie and her younger brother Doug.
Intentional or not, the pretense of the book mirrors the basis of the Lemony Snicket series. Plucky children, secret guild, missing parents, kids being bounced between relatives like pinballs. But that aside, it’s still an outstanding book.
Because it’s a journal, nearly every page features extensive diagrams and maps. There are vintage photos and newspaper clippings. Brother Doug is a talented sketch artist, so there are plenty of pencil drawings of people, places and events.
Every important location is detailed in foldout gatefolds, and the book ends with extended appendices and notes. The overall book design is a delight.
I found this book in the kid’s section of the store, but I don’t know what kids will make of it. It’s a definite curiosity. Perhaps it was created with readers like me in mind. My daughter Dakota is twelve. She showed little interest in it. She’d sooner wrestle with a fifty-pound Harry Potter book.
If you dig innovative Young Adult fiction, look for this book at a store near you. It’s only fifteen bucks, and even if you don’t buy it you should give it a good look anyway. See if it sparks any memories.