Is it just being "good" (loaded word, there) that makes a book compelling to readers? I think it's something beyond that. Something that taps into our imagination and excitement about the world (if you want to think of it positively) or our enormous appetite for thinking about ourselves (if you want to be a bummer about it).

But it's a thrill to discover one of these books, and watch it transform each kid who touches it, like the goose's golden egg. This is the book I am thinking of:


Its power is undeniable: every child I have seen who has come within its orbit has been sucked in. And it doesn't end when you find out what life was like if you lived in colonial times, oh no. Then you have to go back to the beginning to read it all again. Why? I don't know. I think it that in some way it allows kids to conceive of a reality without them in it, by having them think about it with them in it. Do you know what I mean?

So much of growing up is about understanding that the world is bigger than you are, that it existed before you and will in all likelihood continue after you are gone, that as central as your own life is to you, there are billions of other people and each has his or her own life as well. The world exists outside you.

Or maybe I've getting all philosophical for no good reason, when really it's just cool to find out that kids didn't used to have plates! Or be allowed to talk during meals! They had to wear big cloth donuts around their bellies when they were babies! I mean, I admit it, it's all very amazing.

All I know is that ever since we got the first one years ago, which Chestnut read over and over and overβ€”it has stayed beloved. And when she brought it to a friend's house this weekend ("Because I think she'd really like it, it's really interesting you know?") when I came to pick her up, the friend's younger sister brought it downstairs, held reverently in both arms, then gently placed it in the bag. Because whatever the reason, the truth is: it is loved. And cherished. And that is wonderful.

5 thoughts on “Fascinations

  1. agh i REMEMBER this book from when i was a kid! i can clearly remember reading it in bed and being utterly captivated. and i think your observation about it helping kids figure out that the world existed long before they did is dead on. i was really into pompeii for a little while for the same reason i think.


  2. We actually used that book to teach our Colonial Unit, and I used another one in the series when I taught a 3rd grade unit on the Civil War.
    The whole series just kicks serious butt.
    I’ve also found that from little through 6th/7th grade, my students would flip through them. I think the biggest draw is putting history into an every day perspective.
    As a Historian (my primary degree before I got a teaching degree) I think the biggest mistake we make in teaching history is how depersonalized it gets. These books are intensely personal…learning about what counted as silverware or plates, as opposed to large abstract concepts that children may not be ready to understand (why we didn’t want to be part of England anymore).


  3. That is really neat, and I am immediately going to see if our library has any of those books. I personally looked at that book and immediately wrinkled up my nose, like “There’s another one of those dry kids’ books that tries to make kids interested in history but just talks down to them.” And clearly I was way off. I think my kids will be enthralled by the chance to think about what their lives would have been like in another time; and I will be reminded that you actually can’t judge a book by its cover.


  4. Okay, I haven’t read it (though now I totally want to), but I think I get what it’s like. For me the biggest draw of this sort of book–and there are grownup equivalents too, like Diana Gabaldon’s Highlander series–is that it reminds me that life in those far-off historical times felt just like now does, but it was just lived differently. You know? They were people just like us, not weird dimensionless cardboard cutouts. They were motivated by the same things, big and small. Sort of like what c said.


  5. Re: what makes a book compelling, I think it is that…(this sounds cheezy but)…you “fall in love” with a book.
    As with falling in love “in real life,” you can sometimes describe some attributes of the (person) book that you love…”I like the colors of the illustrations,” “the writing style is funny,” etc…But ultimately, it’s just that you fell in love with him/her/the book and can’t completely explain it.
    This could be why some books/people that you loved previously, you now think “what was I thinking….” well at the time, you were in love and love can be blind! πŸ™‚
    And then there are some books which I will forever be in love with. (Fortunately we’re not forced to just choose ONLY ONE BOOK FOREVER as we are with people πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ ).
    That is my explanation anyway πŸ™‚ . (But maybe don’t take the comparison too far, it could get weird). πŸ˜‰


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