I found the book at a firefighter-themed restaurant. It was sitting on a coffee table in the waiting area for children. Recognition struck me like a bolt of lightning: I had read it as a child. I only remembered glimpses of the art and story but had been searching for it for years.
Seeing”Fire! Fire!“ in the waiting area was like seeing an old friend who hadn’t changed. (Or feeling like an amnesiac having memories flood back in a rush.)
Since my son was born, I’ve realized that I have an incredible excuse to rediscover the long-lost books of my childhood. Part of this was to satisfy my curiosity: will some of these older books hold up to my memories? Another part is just the sheer joy of rediscovery.
In the lead up to my son’s birth, I went through old books that my parents had saved from my childhood: torn and tattered from the abuse my siblings put on them. I hadn’t seen them for years when I pulled them out. Memories came flooding back.
Some books have maintained a high level of visibility even for adults, and as a result, that nostalgia has since weathered: “Goodnight Moon,” “Where The Wild Things Are,” and “Curious George” are a couple of examples. Familiar, but staples: shared by the public at large.
There were others that I remembered vividly: “The Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear” which my father can quote from memory, even three decades after he first read it. There’s “Blueberries for Sal,” a picture book whose elegant illustrations brought memories flooding back from when I was a child, listening to my mother read it aloud to me and my siblings.
Then, there were the half-remembered stories that you encountered maybe once on a trip to the library or which was read to you at a story time in the library, so many years ago. This is where the thrill of discovery reared its head.
“Fire! Fire!” by Gail Gibbons was one of these books. For years, I remembered fragments of the book: a panel of artwork and parts of the story, but never the title, or the author. It’s clever: part story, but part explanation for young children about the different types of fire departments and how they work, not to mention, how and when you should call them.
“Katy and the Big Snow” by Virginia Lee Burton is another. Burton’s probably best known for her books “The Little House or Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel,” but this delightful story about a tractor named Katy digging out the city of Geopolis was one that I hadn’t remembered until I caught sight of it in a local bookstore. The story and artwork flooded back, and it’s an enormously relevant story for a place that receives a lot of snow annually.
Finally, there was Jane Yolan’s take on the Arthurian legend, “Merlin and the Dragons,” a book that I was first introduced to not as a picture book, but as a cassette audiobook.
It was a story that we listened to on the drive to school every day: half in the morning on the ride in, and the other half on the ride back. The story about Merlin dreaming about hidden and symbolic dragons charged my imagination as a child, and the excellent narration of the story stuck with me for years, certainly predisposing me towards other fantasy stories later in life.
After recalling the story, I discovered that it was also a book, with fantastic illustrations of knights and dragons. Onto the bookshelf it went, once it arrived from Amazon.
Not all of these stories hold up as classics. There’s “Iglook’s Seal“ by Bernard Wiseman, which I discovered in a box of old children’s books stored in our attic. The core of the story is a sweet story about a boy saving a beloved pet, but the execution is extremely problematic, racially and it’s something that I’m sure I’ll toss into my nightly reading rotation.
The internet makes it easy to rediscover these old titles: searching ‘Merlin’ + ‘Dragons’ + ‘Children’s Book’ certainly helped, but it was chance encounters in bookstores and other places that jogged my memory and helped me remember a long-forgotten story.
I wonder how many more of these books are locked away in my brain, and where I might rediscover them. Fortunately, I have a good excuse to go looking.