Here’s what I remember: My sisters and I are still small enough to fit on our grandfather’s lap as a threesome, one on each of his outstretched thighs, the smallest tucked in the middle between his legs, her back pressed against his broad belly. My grandfather’s body is soft and he wears loose pants worn shiny and thin, as smooth as bed sheets. Those of us propped on a leg lean back against his broad shoulders and together we focus eight eyes on a small cardboard book nestled in his rough hands.
We are waiting for our grandmother to serve dinner at the end of a long day we’ve spent running and climbing, across the broad space between the house and the barn, up the pole ladder to the hayloft where we like to throw cobs of dried corn at the pigs down below. We have run off our jumpiness and are ready now to be still and listen.
All my adult life I have identified in memory the books my grandfather read to us as Little Golden Books, the larger ones with the gold foil spine, but the ones we read and enjoyed most were smaller, a different imprint altogether, Rand McNally Junior Elf Books. The first twelve Little Golden Books were published in 1942; Junior Elf Books came along five years later, both in response to the massive post-World War II demand for affordable children’s books. Little Golden Books sold for 25 cents until 1962 when they saw a four-cent price hike; the Junior Elf Books that remain on my shelves post a price on their covers of 15 cents. Together, they have sold hundreds of millions of copies and are now collectibles online. A favorite of mine in good condition, The Animals’ Train Ride, copyright 1953, fetches $15 on eBay but you couldn’t pay me ten times that amount for the crumbling copy that sits on my shelf collecting dust.
The living room is dark at Granddaddy’s house; the sun has settled below the surrounding hills. The floor slopes slightly from the front door toward the kitchen and a curtain hangs between the living room and the front bedroom. The furniture is swallowed in shadows. A weak light bulb shines on the colorful pages of our Junior Elf book, A Penny for Candy, and its illustrations of happy children with plump cheeks and neat clothing. The protagonist is an adventurous boy in a blue beanie, Jonathan Percival Pinkerton, Jr. The boy and girl who live down the street, Bonnie and Buster, the Twillinger Twins, wear sunny yellow outfits that contrast with their wavy black hair and blue eyes.
Granddaddy sits in a lumpy brown armchair with scratchy upholstery like a man’s beard. We sit on him and wait for the end of the first book, then beg for another: The Puppy That Found a Home, Peter Pat and the Policeman, The Little Red Hen, Benjie Engie. Even train engines have round faces, broad smiles and wide-set eyes in Junior Elf books.
I prefer stories with animal characters to those with humans, especially in these books that mix their wildlife across species. Families of kittens intermingle with squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, chipmunks and mice. Frogs and owls are frequent supporting characters. They wear smart waistcoats with breast pockets and watch chains, bowties, bright aprons, and dresses plump with petticoats. They sleep in high beds piled with thick blankets, inside tidy cottages with rounded doors and windows and picket fences. Their tables are piled abundantly with fruits and vegetables and birthday cakes with pink icing.
Skoot and Skedaddle, the squirrel siblings in The Animals’ Train Ride live in a tree house. In the story, they take a train to their Aunt Tippytoe’s house at Hazelnut Hilltop. The train has a blue engine, a yellow passenger car and a red caboose. A pink baby pig in overalls sits atop the engine and squeals when the train comes to a stop. The brakeman is a big, black crow.
Years later I realize that much of my dream life comes directly from these books and their images.
We eat dinner and brush our teeth and beg for one more story. Benjie Engie is a Slow Old Local train who wants to be a Fast Through train. But when he gets his wish, he discovers that at such a fast speed, everything becomes a blur and he loses his view of the countryside. Benjie goes back to being a Slow Old train and, slow like Benjie, we climb down from Granddaddy’s lap and chug ourselves off to bed.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.