I’ve talked before about the somewhat unusual circumstances of my elementary school years. I had free run of the school library, the local public branch, and my dad’s collection of books from about first grade on. I also read the daily papers on the regular; I was probably one of the few grade schoolers in the early 70s to be a fan of Art Buchwald and Nashville Banner humor columnist Red O’Donnell. But at the same time, I was a five- to eleven-year-old kid, and while the folks around me accommodated that as best they could — and cruciallly, allowed me to be a kid — there were parts that just didn’t fit.
And that brings us to the illustration above. I don’t actually recall having book fairs at Hermitage Elementary — they might not have done that back then. But I do remember My Weekly Reader (where among other things, I remember learning the two-letter postal abbreviations for U.S. states), and I do remember the sales catalogs for kids’ books that we’d get every so often.
I enjoyed looking through the catalogs, and would sometimes find books that caught my interest. However, I don’t ever remember getting them. Those were pretty lean years when I was a kid. Dad was twiddling bits by then, but was still making a salary in the high four- to barely five-figure range (In 1978, we moved to Kentucky and Dad doubled his salary — to $25K), and we were paying off my brother’s two life-threatening conditions that had required treatment in 1970. Mom would work part-time gigs, cleaning my classmates’ houses, and later working as a Fotomate, but she was mainly a stay-at-home mom. My grandparents would occasionally bring bags of groceries over when my folks were caught short, so I never went hungry, and I only remember having our power cut off once, for less than a day, but as I said, things were frequently tight. I didn’t know that, really — I wasn’t deprived, and was able to do things like football and Scouting, and took swimming lessons at the area Boys’ Club. I knew there were folks worse off than we were, and heck, I even got a portable 8-track player around 5th or 6th grade and a couple of Beatles albums (Red and Blue) to play on it, so I had mine, Jack.
But when I would bring home the Weekly Reader or Scholastic Book Club stuff and mention that I’d really like Books X, Y, or Z, my folks had to explain that if we got those, then we wouldn’t be able to afford the comics Dad and I read or the paperbacks he’d pick up from the drugstore. And since I could read those, didn’t it make more sense to take a pass on the “little kid” books that I’d plow through in a minute or two at most? (And even when my brother learned to read, he wasn’t particularly interested in it — there were bikes to ride and ramps to jump, so the books didn’t hold much charm for him then. I wonder how much he reads now.) Besides, a neighbor had given us about 180 back issues of Reader’s Digest, and I had those I could read as well — which I did.
It did make sense, but it felt a little odd when shipments would come in for other kids, and I knew they weren’t for me. And even now, when I see something like the photo at the beginning of this post, or when my friends on social media get their nostalgia on for that sort of thing, or even when Mrs. M brings home the spare catalogs a few times a year, I remember not quite fitting in.
And when the Spawn was a kid, I made sure she always got to pick stuff out from the Book Fair. It doesn’t seem to have been wasted effort.
And a belated Happy International Children’s Book Day, everyone.