“Special Books” by Christine Hedlin

Christine is a PhD candidate in the English department. She is currently writing her dissertation on the history of the nineteenth-century American novel.


I spent the holidays at my parents’ house this year, which inspired me to reflect on some of my favorite childhood and young adult reading memories. As it turned out, this is a delightfully deep rabbit hole in my case, so I’ve decided to write this post in the form of a “Top 10” list, as opposed to describing a single memory. I wouldn’t point to any of these moments and say, “And that’s why I became an English major.” Yet I can also safely say that I wouldn’t be where I am, that is, pursuing a PhD in English, without these kinds of moments. In random order:

Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy RathmannOne: As a child, I had many books on a bookshelf in the room that I shared with my twin sister. Many of these books—The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy, There’s a Monster at the End of This Book, Officer Buckle and Gloria—are still among my favorites. Then there were The Special Books. These were books stored in a musty-smell cabinet in the family room. They were “special” not because of their content or even their physical properties (although many were hard cover) but because they were given to my family as gifts. Therefore Ducks, Ducks, Ducks (you can probably guess the gist of the content) was a Special Book in my house, but Hamlet was not.

Two: The first “real” book (aka, not a learn-to-read book) that my sister and I could read ourselves wasErnie Gets Lost book Ernie Gets Lost, about the Sesame Street character Ernie getting separated from his mom at a shopping mall. We would stay up late reading it in unison by nightlight. Whether we could actually read it or just memorized it is highly questionable.

Three: When my next-door neighbor came over to babysit, my sister and I always made her read us the same two Little Golden Books as bedtime stories: Blueberry Bear Learns to Count and Kitty’s New Shoes. These were not our favorite books. We had plenty of others. But we took great delight in her frustration at the repetition.

Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingFour: When my family went on road trips, we’d bring along books to read aloud. My mom would always do the reading—when her voice got tired, we’d take a break, not switch readers. Family favorites included Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Jamie Gilson’s Thirteen Ways to Sink a Sub, Gordon Korman’s The Sixth Grade Nickname Game, and Barbara Park’s whole Junie B. Jones series. Recently I had the treat of introducing some children I was nannying to Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I loved it just as much as I remembered.

Five: I had a favorite elementary school library book. It was about a young girl with pigtails whose older sister disliked everything she did. One day the younger sister makes a disgusting soup to trick the older sister—and she likes it. I can’t remember the name of the book, but there was a line that kept repeating, something like “She’d cross her arms and shake her head and say she didn’t like it.” When my sister and I interned at the Library of Congress a few years ago, we had an opportunity to meet with a librarian in the Children’s Literature department. We enlisted her help in tracking down the book’s title, but still couldn’t find it.

Maniac Magee by Jerry SpinelliSix: If I think of my favorite books of all time, much of the young adults’ literature that I read as an adolescent qualifies. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee, Louis Sachar’s There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Caroline B. Cooney’s A Christmas Carol—I have read all of these countless times. One of my life goals is to write a book for young adults.

Seven: Katherine Paterson’s The Bridge to Terabithia was the first sad book that I can remember reading. I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t read it, but, after reading it one evening, I went running into my parents’ bedroom sobbing uncontrollably. I’m pretty sure my mom was relieved to find out that the problem was just in a book, but, to her credit, she didn’t say that. Instead she talked with me about how powerfully books can affect us.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!Eight: Recently, I had reason to read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which I read for the first time as a freshman in high school. I used the same copy of the book—why buy another one?—which ended up being a great decision because I was treated to high-school-me’s book-noting. Some of the notes were embarrassingly wrong. But mostly it was hard to tell because, instead of noting what was happening in the book, I had largely noted my emotional responses to the book. Thus my marginal notes include such gems as “AAHHH!! NOO!!! SHE’S GOING TO DIE! NOO!!!”

Nine: Each Christmas Eve, my mom, sisters, and I read three books: Twas the Night before Christmas, The Littlest Christmas Elf, and The Best Christmas Present Ever, which is about a man named Mr. Floogle and his big orange cat. My sisters and I also write and illustrate a book each Christmas to give to our parents.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore

Ten: When I was in first through sixth grade, my school had a Young Authors competition. The books my twin and I wrote (we always co-authored them) usually did really well—we even went to the state-wide Young Authors convention one year. What I remember most about the Young Authors competition, however, is spending two hours (okay, half an hour, but it felt like a lot longer at the time) each afternoon over our winter breaks working on the books. Each year Santa would give us a candy like M+Ms or Runts or Whoppers in our stockings so we could eat them while writing. Now I’m realizing this was probably good practice for writing my dissertation over break. If only Santa still brought me writing candy.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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