Tales of once upon a time

Collection: Pratt librarians can help reunite adults with the favorite old storybooks they can't seem to find.

September 24, 2000|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Sarah Rocklin of Timonium spent 10 years searching library sales and Internet sites for a favorite childhood book before she found it at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

For much of that time, Rocklin, 45, was hampered because she remembered only the opening scene of the book and the general plot.

When she finally got the title and author from a rare-book Web site, she did not find a copy at her local library branch, and booksellers wanted hundreds of dollars for it. Rocklin's brother suggested she call the Pratt library.

When she did, she discovered the library maintains an unusual retrospective collection of children's literature from 1930 through 1980 - including her long-lost adventure story, "Wish on the Moon," by Dean Marshall, published in 1951.

"I'm so excited about this," said Rocklin, a policy analyst for the Social Security Administration. "I'm going to share [the series] with my daughter."

Some children's books, such as those by Dr. Seuss or the tales of Curious George, are constantly rereleased and publicized, but thousands of others are out of print. As the state library resource center, the Pratt library dedicates space and resources to collecting at least two copies of each children's book, often collecting copies from other area libraries that have run out of space.

"Because of the nature of the audience they're intended for, [children's books] don't always survive," said library Director Carla Hayden. The retrospective collection "is one of the strengths and real treasures of this library collection."

Mention a title to Selma Levi, head of the children's department, and she is happy to dig it out of the dim stacks adjacent to the library children's room. Several times a week, she and other children's specialists emerge with a favorite volume from a patron's childhood.

Often, people want to share the story with their children or grandchildren. Even if the colors are less vivid or some of the elements are dated, "a good story will still work for children today, especially in the hands of a parent who loved it," Levi said.

A children's librarian for more than 25 years, Levi has found that children often are open to their parents' suggestions, especially if the family has built a reading relationship.

"It's like [parents and children] build up a set of the same friends," said Regina Wade, the department's assistant director. Favorite books help families "talk about important things without being preachy."

Children's specialists at the Pratt also recommend books from the retrospective collection for young readers who can't find what they're looking for on the public shelves.

Gentler, more innocent fantasy stories might appeal to younger readers who are not ready for the new "Harry Potter" volumes, Levi explained. And author C. W. Anderson's stories about a boy named Billy and his pony Blaze are still entertaining for children who like horses.

Older books also are popular with parents who home-school their children and are seeking good historical fiction, interesting nonfiction or charming stories with positive lessons.

In addition to the books, the librarians themselves are a treasure, Levi said. Many adults looking for favorites have only a vague description. With their memories and help from indexes kept in the children's reading room, the Pratt librarians - who have more than 70 years of combined experience - usually can identify the book and often can find it in the collection.

Levi found "The Witch Family," by Eleanor Estes (1960, Harcourt, Brace & World), for one patron who remembered that the book featured a magic bumblebee. She located "The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet," by Eleanor Cameron (1954, Atlantic Monthly Press), with only a description of a big-headed alien and children who built a spaceship.

When the Pratt librarians find the right book and bring it out of the stacks, people often have a visceral reaction to the familiar cover, Levi said. People usually say, "I've been looking for this book for most of my adult life," or, "I can't believe you have this," she said.

It is hard to say which book will strike a chord decades later.

Don Freeman is best known for creating Corduroy the bear, but for Gloria Brown, the children's department secretary, the willful little boy in Freeman's "Mop Top" (1955, Viking) remains a favorite.

Hayden always has loved a realistic and lovely portrait of a black family in Marguerite De Angeli's "Bright April" (1946, Doubleday).

For Levi, the doll made from a sweet potato in Mary Calhoun's "The Sweet Patootie Doll" (1957, William Morrow) and the rhyming kitchen adventures in Virginia Kahl's "The Duchess Bakes a Cake" (1955, Scribner) remain favorites.

"I don't know what made this stick in my mind so clearly," said Rocklin about the book she'd been seeking, "Wish on the Moon." But she could recall how excited she felt when she figured out the next plot twist from the author's clues. Now she wants her 12-year-old daughter to do the same.

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