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The Cure for Nostalgia

Over the past year I’ve worked hard to find the right reading material for Simon. He’s a fine reader—a very good one in fact—but reading is not something Simon gravitates to for recreation, and he prefers my reading to him over his reading to himself.

All of which is fine. Simon’s true loves are obviously sports and math. I haven’t written about the math love lately, but it has continued as passionately as ever. These days he satisfies math cravings by learning his multiplication tables, playing with factorials and powers, and figuring out how much the winning contestant on Jeopardy should bet in Final Jeopardy. He does all of this in his head, oftentimes faster than I can. It’s amazing and delightful, and Matt and I both look forward to his actuary career supporting our retirement.

But I digress. This year I really wanted Simon to enjoy reading more. The key to this, as every article and educator will tell you, is to find the right book for your child. By “right”, they mean right subject, right tone, and right reading level. We did well with story collections, but struggled when looking for chapter books.

We found books that were too hard for him, books that were too easy for him, and books that were too snarky for both of us. I do not need a book to teach Simon how to sound like a snotty teenager; I’m sure he’ll figure that out on his own when the time comes. We finally landed on a Beverly Cleary book that hit the reading sweet spot.

From that point on, I’ve mostly been bringing home old books or books written in an older style. The hallmark of these stories is that they are not too scary, the kids in them aren’t all sour and jaded, and the parents are not depicted as buffoons. If you’re not careful, reading enough of these will lead you down a path of nostalgia for the “good old days” when times were simpler and well behaved children showed some respect for their parents.

I generally distrust any allusion to “good old days”. It comes naturally: My Zadie, born in 1911, responded to any reference to good old days with a hurumph and the question “good for what?” He believed in progress, whether it come in the form of returnable space craft, vaccines, or civil rights, and I share his viewpoint. Yet there I was, reading books that made me long for a bygone era of confident and competent parents, respectful and innocent children, and strong communal ties.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and The Hardy Boys cured me of this temporary insanity. Matt and I chose Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing because we thought the character Fudge was hilarious. The book is set in New York City in the early 70s. We both remembered the 3-year-old boy Fudge and what a mess he was. We both forgot that New York City was a cesspool in the 70s and 80s. I had to stop reading at one point to explain to Simon what “mugging” meant as the title character explained how his dad told him to behave if/when he got mugged.

That was the second most awful thing in the book. The top prize went to a reference to the countryside upstate, where the miracle of leaves changing color in fall takes place. According to our narrator, leaves in 1970s New York City did not change colors because of air pollution.

So much for longing for the good old days of my childhood.

As for The Hardy Boys, I never made it past the dust jacket. The book I brought home was an original written in the 1920s, a relic from the time my grandparents were children. The editor of that volume carefully explained that modern readers might be taken aback by the descriptions of gender and racial inequalities revealed in the text and be offended by some of the language. I’m not sure what “language” I’d have to explain to Simon, but I’m absolutely sure I have no desire to teach that particular lesson.

Nostalgia sufficiently cured, I will return to Beverly Cleary and hope to find more books like hers that cherry pick the best bits of a bygone era while eliding the urban decay and social injustice.

2 Responses to “The Cure for Nostalgia”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    When people in my generation talk about the “good old days” I decide that they are either suffering the early stages of dementia (well maybe not so early!) or they are rewriting history like some of the bigots who have made the news in the last couple of months.

  2. blg says:

    One of the first books I got from the grade school book club was Beverly Cleary’s “Henry and the Clubhouse.”
    Two suggestions…which may not stand the test of time, although they lasted in my memory. My Father’s Dragon and Harriet the Spy.

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