In ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK, Laura Ingalls and her sister Mary prepare for the first day of school by donning their Sunday dresses and freshly-ironed sunbonnets, then set off on their two-and-a-half mile journey...barefoot. They ford a creek, but "would not walk in the dusty wheel tracks until their feet were dry, because their feet must be clean when they came to town."
Shoes were not a high priority for poor country families. My grandmother was born in 1882 and didn't wear shoes as a child either. Here's a picture of her when she was four years old -- dressed in her Sunday best, but also barefoot. I heard she was always ashamed of this picture because it showed she had no shoes.
Not that things got much better in future generations. I asked my Depression-era parents if they had new shoes as children. My father recalled getting fifty-cent tennis shoes "but only on rare occasions" and was once given hand-me-downs "that might have been girls' shoes." Growing up in the country, my mother picked strawberries during the summer and used the money to buy her one pair of shoes that would last until the following summer. Is it any wonder that, when we were growing up, our parents always bought us shoes that had a pinch of extra "room to grow" space in the toe?
I've been thinking about children's shoes ever since I heard about a new product called INCHworm Shoes (http://www.inchwormshoes.com/) which have a handy button on the side that allows shoes to increase up to three whole sizes to accommodate growing feet. Pretty neat, huh? If Laura and Mary had had them on the banks of Plum Creek, they might have avoided the taunts of "Snipes! Snipes! Long-legged snipes!" from their new classmates. Things might have been different for my grandmother...my parents...and even my brother and me.
Though children's shoes have never had the ability to grow-along-with-us until now, children's books are a very different story.
The best children's books can be read at almost any age, offering new perspectives and awakening different emotions at different times in our lives.
Sometimes it's best to ignore the age recommendations listed on the front flap of a dustjacket. Lloyd Alexander's THE HIGH KING is listed for ages 10-14. I was, in fact, ten years old when it won the Newbery Medal and I remember borrowing it from the library and then just blankly turning the pages, not understanding a word of the story. Maybe it would have helped if I'd first read the previous four volumes in the series. Maybe it would have helped if I had a stronger background in fantasy books. Maybe it would have helped if the characters had nice pronounceable names like "Jim" and "Debbie" instead of "Eilonwy" and "Fflewddur Fflam." Whatever the case, the book was COMPLETELY beyond me.
...when I was about twenty I checked them out of the library again and gave them another try. And COMPLETELY fell in love with them. I read all five in two days, even rushing out to the mall five minutes before it closed to get a paperback copy of THE CASTLE OF LLYR -- the one volume the library didn't have. What wasn't right for me at ten was, for whatever reason, perfect for me when I was twice that age.
Other books improve as we learn more about the world. As much as I enjoyed RIFLES FOR WATIE by Harold Keith and ACROSS FIVE APRILS by Irene Hunt when I was a kid, I hadn't yet studied the Civil War in school when I read them.
Coming back to them with a stronger knowledge of history, and the ability to place these novels within the context of their time, made me appreciate them even more.
Ellen Raskin's FIGGS & PHANTOMS goes on my list of the great Newbery Honor Books. I found it devastating and rather profound when I read it as a teenager and it continues to grow in emotional resonance the older I get.
I still find it devastating and rather profound, but its themes of mortality, loss, and renewal, which used to seem so abstract, now seem more concrete and imminent. (Plus, I get a lot more of the literary allusions and discussions about book collecting -- but that's just an added bonus.)
Then there are books like CHARLOTTE'S WEB which I, like almost everyone, loved as a child. I can still go back to its pages and fall headfirst into this story of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider, yet every time I return the critical-reader in me sees more to appreciate in the beauty of its language, the precision of its plot, and its timeless themes.
The best children's books can be read on so many levels, revealing hidden depths yet remaining fresh and new -- no matter how many times we pick them up or how old we are.
Like INCHworm Shoes, they grow along with us.