“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music
for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens,
don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing
but sing their hearts out for us. That is why it’s
a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
In this post, I wanted to continue to present books that will make a positive and uplifting impact on my readers’ outlook on life. Today’s post is about several books that have influenced many generations of readers and can be enjoyed from the age of 5 to 100, and beyond. They are placed here not in any chronological order, rather more how they were on my bookshelf. They are all a must in your library.
To Kill a Mockingbird
1926 – 2016
To Kill a Mockingbird is near the top of the list of most-beloved American novels. Set in Alabama, during the time of the Depression, it is the story of six-year-old Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, her older brother Jeremy, nicknamed Jem, and their father, Atticus Finch, a middle-aged lawyer whose brave defence of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, provides the centre of the plot. Told through Scout’s eyes, the narrative renders a small-town experience through the hues of wonder and worry that colour every childhood, and through the lenses of illusions; they are about ideas of justice, the confidence that the wheels of the world might turn things to be right in the end, no matter what obstacles are thrown under it.
The famous film made with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (shown above) is largely faithful to the book, especially the nail-gripping trial of Tom Robinson. What the film doesn’t quite capture is the warmth and humour that pervades Scout’s telling, which is enlivened with a streak of satire that belies her age. Racial prejudice and violence in the community she inhabits are addressed eloquently. This widening sense of context enables her and the readers to recognise Atticus’s nobility and courage.
The novel was both a popular and critical success when it was first published, becoming an immediate bestseller and winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Oscar-winning movie, realised the following year, added to its fame and reputation as a contemporary American classic. The movie adaptation looms as large in filmdom, as the book does in publishing.
Here is an extract from To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict,” said Atticus. “She took it as a pain-killer for years. The doctor put her on it. She’d have spent the rest of her life on it and died without so much agony, but she was too contrary.”
“Sir?” said Jem.
Atticus said, “Just before your escapade she called me to make her will. Dr Reynolds told her she had only a few months left. Her business affairs were in perfect order but she said, “There’s still one thing out of order.”
“What was that?” Jem was perplexed.
“She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody. Jem, when you are sick as she was, it’s all right to take anything to make it easier, but it wasn’t all right for her. She said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that’s what she did.”
Jem said, “You mean that’s what her fits were?”
“Yes, that’s what they were. Most of the time you were reading to her I doubt if she heard a word you said. Her whole mind and body were concentrated on that alarm clock. If you hadn’t fallen into her hands, I would have made you go read to her anyway. It may have been some distraction. There was another reason -”
“Did she die free?” asked Jem.
“As the mountain air,” said Atticus. “She was conscious to the last almost. Conscious,” he smiled, “and cantankerous. She still disapproved heartily of my doings and said I’d probably spend the rest of my life bailing you out of jail. She made Jessie fix you this box -”
Atticus reached down and picked up the candy box. He handed it to Jem.
Jem opened the box. Inside, surrounded by wads of damp cotton, was a white, waxy, perfect camellia. It was a Snow-on-the-mountain.
Jem’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. … In a flash, Atticus was up and standing over him. Jem buried his face in Atticus’s shirt front. “Sh-h,” he said. ” I think that was her way of telling you – everything’s all right now, Jem, everything’s all right. You know she was a great lady.”
“A lady?” Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. “After all those things she said about you, a lady?”
“She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe… I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
Jem picked up the candy box and threw it in the fire. He picked up the camellia, and when I went to bed I saw him fingering the wide petals. Atticus was reading the paper.”
“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open,
but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed.
That is why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”
Alice in Wonderland
1832 – 1898
When Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson went picnicking one summer day with his Dean’s three children, he spun a little tale that he added to on subsequent occasions. The girls liked it so much that the middle child, Alice, who was Dodgson’s favourite, asked him to write it down, and so he did, calling it “Alice Adventures in Underground.” It is the wildly inventive story of a young girl who, feeling bored one afternoon in a meadow, follows a talking rabbit (dressed in a waistcoat and consulting a pocket watch) into a rabbit hole. Down she falls to a very strange place, where she is entangled in a string of “curiouser and curiouser” adventures none of which make any sense at all, yet it was described at the time as “the most enchanting nonsense in the English language.”
“The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.”
Taking pills and drinking potions, she shrinks and grows, swims across a pool of her own tears, and meets one of the most fascinating and unforgettable casts of characters ever concocted: the Caterpillar and the Dodo, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
The Queen of Hearts: “Off with her head!”
Free of any moralising or didacticism of any kind, Dodgson’s narrative floats freely on the intoxicating air of his whimsy and wordplay.
The real Alice who inspired Lewis Carroll’s book.
Three years after Alice Liddell asked him to write it down, Dodgson’s book was published with the title changed to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the author’s name disguised as Lewis Carroll. The year was 1865. In the sequel Through the Looking Glass, Alice joins a game on a giant chessboard, discovers the poem “Jabberwocky,” and encounters Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and other characters appeared in 1872.
Carroll’s characters have taken root in our collective imagination like few other literary creations. Perhaps of its nonsensical pedigree, it has proved to be an addictive pleasure for readers attracted by the rich mix of frivolities, hallucinatory happenings, logical puzzles, and keen adult observations. Carroll’s imagery, phrases, and characters have not only been attached to myriad toys and games but continue to enliven the language in everything from rock and roll lyrics to ordinary conversation. Most remarkably, although the Alice books date from the nineteenth century and are as engrained in our culture as any stories ever told, they remain as fresh as the day they were written, delighting new readers every day of every year. There have been many film adaptations made of Alice’s adventures and many more will be made.
Here is an extract from Alice in Wonderland:
“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream,” said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, ‘It was a curious dream, certainly; but now run in to your tea: it’s getting late.’ So Alice got up and ran off thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.
But her sister sat still just as she left her, leaning her head on her hand, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and all her wonderful Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and this was her dream –
First, she dreamed of little Alice herself, and once again the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers – she could hear the very tones of her voice and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes – and still as she listened, or seem to listen, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister’s dream.
The Duchess and the Pig-Baby
The long grass rustled at her feet as the White Rabbit hurried by – the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighbouring pool – she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal, and the shrill voice of the Queen ordering off her unfortunate guests to execution – once more the pig-baby was sneezing on the Duchess’s knee, while plates and dishes crashed around it – once more the shriek of the Gryphon, the squeaking of the Lizard’s slate-pencil, and the choking of the suppressed guinea-pigs, filled the air, mixed up with the distant sobs of the miserable Mock Turtle.
So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again and all would change to dull reality – the grass would only be rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds – the rattling teacups would change to the tinkling sheep bells, and the Queen’s shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy – and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farmyard – while the lowing cattle in the distance would take place of the Mock Turtle’s heavy sobs.
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown-up woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero
The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett
1849 – 1924
Frances Hodgson (later Burnett) emigrated with her family from Manchester, England, to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1865, when she was sixteen years old. She soon embarked on a writing career that would make her one of the most successful authors of the era and beyond. Her fame rests not on many plays and novels she wrote but on her three books intended for children but loved by readers of any age. The three books were: Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. As an author, she had a great gift for vivid characterisation of both virtue and villainy, the atmospheric dramatisation of fairy-tale-like reversals of fortune, a feel for the emotional pull of a sharply defined narrative, and the important, happy ending. She was a storyteller whose creations were loved by the movie makers. All her books have been adapted several times for the screen.
The Secret Garden story begins in India, with a sickly, plain, moody Mary Lennox. She is unloved by her beautiful mother. Mary has been raised by servants who had done nothing but indulged the child in order to appease her petulance. Orphaned by cholera, she is shipped off to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, an equally ill-tempered person whose slight hunchback symbolises his broken heart, embittered by his profound mourning for his wife, who died in an accident. Craven’s home, Misselthwaite Manor, is also an emblem of a closed and inhospitable existence: “The manor is six hundred years old,” Mrs. Medlock, the head of the household staff, tells Mary, “and there’s near a hundred rooms in it, though most of them’s shut up and locked.”
Soon after arriving on the estate, Mary stumbles upon a walled garden that’s been locked and abandoned since the death of Mrs. Craven. Unbeknownst to anyone, Mr. Craven has buried the key; Mary, guided by a helpful robin, unearths it and surreptitiously rejuvenates the dormant plot, creating – with the help of her maid Martha and Martha’s resourceful young brother Dickon – an oasis in the midst of Misselthwaite’s detached atmosphere that would not only nurture Mary’s emotional flowering but restore the health of her invalid cousin and rouse her uncle from his profound grief.
The story is full of metaphors and a heartwarming faith in the magic of nature and friendship. This extraordinary tale of perseverance, restoration, and redemption, influenced my life like no other book or person has ever done. The Secret Garden has been adapted many times as a play, musical, and movie. The Broadway 1991 production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning two. The best film version is one directed by Agnieszka Holland. In 1936, Frances Hodgson Burnett was paid tribute by the installation of a memorial fountain in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden. In the middle of a reflecting pool, a reclining Dickon plays the flute for Mary, who holds a bowl that serves as a birdbath:
I cannot recommend reading The Secret Garden strongly enough.
This is only visual proof of how profoundly this book influenced my life, the message about Magic of Nature is engraved upon my heart and in my soul.
Here is an extract from The Secret Garden:
“And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sundial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades – they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair fresh leaves, and buds – and buds – tiny at first, but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.”
“And this was not the half of the Magic. The fact that he had really once stood on his feet had set Colin thinking tremendously, and when Mary told him of the spell she had worked, he was excited and approved of it greatly. He talked of it constantly.
“Of course, there must be lots of Magic in the world,” he said wisely one day, “but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen, I am going to try and experiment. When I grow up I am going to make great scientific discoveries and I am going to begin now with this experiment. The great scientific discoveries I am going to make,” he went on, “will be about magic. Magic is a great thing, and scarcely anyone knows anything about it except a few people in the old books – Mary a little because she was born in India, where there are fakirs. I believe Dickon knows some Magic, but perhaps he doesn’t know he knows it. He charms animals and people. I would never have let him come to see me if he had not been an animal-charmer – which is boy-charmer too, because a boy is an animal. I am sure there is magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us – like electricity, and horses, and steam.”
“When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead, then something began pushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were. I have never watched things before, and it made me feel curious. Scientific people are always curious, and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself: “What is it? What is it?” It is something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know its name, so I call it Magic. I have never seen the sun rise, but Mary and Dickon have, and from what they tell me I am sure that it is Magic too. Something pushes it up and draws it. Sometimes since I have been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast.”
“Everything is made of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden all around us. In this garden – in all places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and I know I am going to live to be a man. I am going to make the scientific experiment of trying to get some and put it in myself and make it push and draw me strong. I don’t know how to do it, but I think that if you think keep thinking about it and calling it perhaps it will come. When I was going to try to stand up that first time Mary kept saying to herself as fast as she could, “You can do it! You can do it! and I did. Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime, I am going to say “Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! And you must all do it, too. This is my experiment.”
“Tranquility embraces –
the sun’s exit advances.
Listening to whispers
among the trees,
our time here is a gift,
and when we depart,
the gift will be someone else’s.”
The Jungle Book
1865 – 1936
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) but educated in England before returning to India to work as an editor on a newspaper in Lahore. By the age of thirty-two, he had written scores of popular stories, collected in various volumes, and a story for children, The Jungle Book, published in 1894, which since then has become both a children’s and grown-ups’ very much loved classic. More books followed and by the age of forty-two, he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature – the first English language writer to do so, despite modern views changing the perspective, I firmly believe that if we focus on the imaginative story and the wonderful adventures of all the animals, and leave the politics aside, the magic of the book will prevail.
When Disney made the book into a movie, who didn’t dance with King Louie, Baloo, and Mowgli to this catchy song?
“Now I’m the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I’ve reached the top and had to stop
And that’s what botherin’ me
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I’m tired of monkeyin’ around!
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You’ll see it’s true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too
You’re doin’ real good
Now here’s your part of the deal, cuz
Lay the secret on me of man’s red fire
But I don’t know how to make fire)
I made a deal with you
What I desire is man’s red fire
To make my dream come true
Give me the secret, mancub
Clue me what to do
Give me the power of man’s red flower
So I can be like you
I wanna be like you
I wanna talk like you
Walk like you, too
You’ll see it’s true
Someone like me
Can learn to be
Like someone like me
Can learn to be
Like someone like you
Can learn to be
Like someone like me!”
No matter what some political views are, Kipling keeps his readers’ affection with poems like “If..” and the unforgettable adventure story “The Man Who Would Be King”, adapted into a famous film, the marvellous novel of India, and a host of other works. This is in no small part because it is impossible to read a page of Kipling without being startled by a phrase or sentence that is animated with the spring of speech rhythms but underpinned with a unique confidence and poetic poise. The dynamism of his verbal gift is palpable, and the force of his ingenuity containing sound, sense, and narrative invention combine to paint pictures of a sensually rich world that resembles the real one but is really a conjuring act, in a delightful way.
There is no better place to meet Kipling and his gifts than in his “Just So Stories”, written for, and no doubt, first told to his young daughter.
The twelve tales provide wildly satisfying answers to often posed by curious children questions: how the camel got his hump? How the alphabet was made, or how the elephant got his trunk. Each tale is addressed to the narrator’s “Best Beloved” with whom any listening child will certainly identify.
“The Cat That Walked By Himself”
The spinning of the tales is so entwined in Kipling’s prose that any parent reading the “Just So Stories” aloud is transformed into a master storyteller, and every “Best Beloved” will be happy to listen again and again. Which is an unmissable thing as it leads to a life of love of reading and the wonder of language in all its richness and complexity.
Here is an extract from the “Just So Stories”:
The Cat that Walked by Himself
“Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O, my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild – as wild as wild could be – and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild ones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.
Of course, the Man was wild too. He was dreadfully wild. He didn’t even begin to be tame till he met the Woman, and she told him that she did not like living in his wild ways. She picked out a nice dry Cave, instead of a heap of wet leaves, to lie down in; and she strewed clean sand on the floor; and she lit a nice fire of wood at the back of the Cave; and she hung a dried wild-horse skin, tail-down, across the opening of the Cave; and she said, “Wipe your feet, dear, when you coming, and now we’ll keep house.”
That night, Best Beloved, they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones, flavoured with wild garlic and wild pepper, and wild duck stuffed with wild rice and wild fenugreek and wild coriander; and marrow-bones of wild oxen; and wild cherries, and wild granadillas. Then the Man went to sleep in front of the fire ever so happy; but the Woman sat up, combing her hair.”
All the original illustrations in The Just-So Stories were drawn by Kipling himself.
* Lauren Scott has written two books of beautiful poetry, “New Day, New Dreams” and “Finding a Balance”, from which all the proceeds are donated to the Chris Klug Foundation to support organ donation in honour of her daughter.