Blue spined Hardy Boys books filled my childhood. I read every volume I could put my hands on, loving some, liking others, and not realizing until I became an adult just how formative a part of my reading life those books had really been.
When my daughter, a reader, got old enough, I gave her a couple of the yellow hardcover Nancy Drews, imagining a reaction not unlike my youthful own. She didn’t care for them a bit. Her taste was perhaps more sophisticated than mine had been, her reading world already populated by Harry Potter, Prue McKeel, and Sammy Keyes.
The experience may have been there to remind me of the truth that our kids are not young us; left to make their own decisions, they have tastes and opinions of their own. Here I should add: as they should.
Even when our kids do find that their interests overlap our own, I’ve found that the reality that inspired me decades ago looks different without the gauzy filter of fond memory. It happened for me last week when my seven year old son handed me a copy of The Sign of the Crooked Arrow at bedtime.
He has a few old Hardy Boys books, brought home from Grandma and Papa’s, that have languished on his bookshelf long enough that I’d figured they’d go the way of my daughter’s Nancy Drews.
Taking The Sign of the Crooked Arrow from him, I saw that he’d lined up his four Hardy Boys books and chosen the one with the picture he liked the most. How he could have ignored the lurid cover of The Twisted Claw I’ll never know, but (as I reminded myself again) this was his choice, and should be.
We started reading.
There was Frank. There Joe. There lumbered Chet, the Hardy’s overweight, kindhearted chum. Pages ticked by and I found myself relishing a world of shortwave radios and whirlybirds.
My son seemed into it, curious about these teenage sleuths, the string of daring daylight robberies, and the abandoned sedan at Slow Mo’s Garage.
Side by side, propped up on pillows, we traveled through a world somewhat like our own, a midcentury land of malts and dungarees, where, as the blurb on the back of the book explained, “Sons of a famous American detective, the Hardy boys help solve many thrilling cases after school hours and during vacations…”
And just as I had forgotten how much of a lesson in manners and morals the Hardy Boys provided, I realized as I read that no contemporary children’s’ book would make manufacturing cigarettes filled with “knockout gas” a major plot point, claim that a watch band could be identified as being worn “by an Indian” because it smelled like hominy, or include the passage:
From the top of the cliff a fleeing lamb came hurtling down toward them. It landed in a broken heap near the frightened ponies. Pye got off to examine the dead animal.
“There are no wild sheep here,” he remarked, looking up at Joe. “Men must have chased it. We’ve got to find them!”
With that he picked up the lamb and flung it over his saddle. “It’ll make a good meal later.”
Um… “Goodnight, son?”
With each page I saw that what I’d found fresh and exciting when I’d read it as a kid, was dated, or for the more generous, vintage.
The sporadic line drawings I had looked forward to seeing were simple; the chapter headings ridiculously predictive.
It was a nice reminder to me as an educator that while I can accept that I was influenced by x, y, and z, whatever those were for me, and that while I might be a part of one of my students’ x, y, or z, their influences shouldn’t be the same as mine.
This isn’t only because the world and its attitudes have changed, though they have of course, but also because the kids we raise as parents and the students we work with at schools are their own individuals. I may have rooted for “Good Old Chet” but my kids’ cast of literary characters is as different as they are from me.
As we embrace the individuals our kids choose to be, we help them grow into the adults they will become.
Free from expectations, we also allow ourselves the quiet delight that comes from those moments when the Venn Diagram of our own youth overlaps with their childhoods.
As he closed his eyes and listened to The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, my son whispered to me: “Dad, let me know when we get to a picture.”