What’s a good chapter book for a young reader in elementary school? The suggestion I’m giving to parents these days is Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. The Puffin Modern Classics edition contains six stories about life in and around Centerburg, a little town that shouldn’t be forgotten.
To be honest, I had almost forgotten about Homer until I found a copy in our children’s section a few months ago while randomly scanning all the titles during a lunch break. I realize some people may view his adventures, originally published more than six decades ago, as lame, hokey and outdated. I prefer to describe them as upbeat, good-natured snapshots from a friendly place.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about my own childhood recently, and if I ever write a memoir of early youth the story will end with me sitting at my desk in fifth grade, on November 22, 1963. I’ll never forget Mr. Thompson walking into the classroom and saying “The president has been shot.”
Lots of grownups can point to a moment in their lives when childhood moved suddenly and permanently into the past. Nostalgia for those growing-up years is a recurring theme for writers in all genres. Rod Serling handled it brilliantly in the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” one of the series’ most popular and critically acclaimed shows.
I offer Centerburg as a literary venue where kids can get a short vacation from the hard edges of the twenty-first century. If I had magic powers or if this were a science fiction novel, I’d build an invisible shield so that no children would be traumatized by violent crimes or other horrible events that are often difficult or impossible to explain rationally.
While there’s no hiding from the real world, I think everyone should be able to step away once in awhile and take a break in a safe setting. Centerburg is just the right spot. Readers who enter the world of Homer Price will meet a cast of characters who aren’t snarky or sarcastic. No one is getting harassed, threatened or bullied.
And I appreciate that McCloskey wrote in the present tense because it helps maintain a feeling of immediacy. In the opening sentence we learn this fact: “About two miles outside of Centerburg where Route 56 meets Route 56A there lives a boy named Homer.”
The surprises that pop up in Homer’s daily routine involve things like a donut machine that won’t shut off, a gigantic ball of yarn and a mysterious stranger who arrives in town one day accompanied by a remarkable invention. These are not high-intensity cliffhangers. The pace is easygoing page after page, with ample illustrations. In describing these scenarios to customers I’ve found several who remember reading Homer Price in elementary school and then instantly recall the rampaging donut machine.
Now I need to include a word of caution. The opening story involves a robbery, and on pages 14 and 15 the four bad guys are shown pointing guns at bystanders during the heist. The robbers are portrayed as clownish bumblers in the text but, due to events such as the Newtown tragedy and other recent shootings, the illustration resonates in a much different way now than it did when the story was first published. I’m not advocating censorship; this is something every parent needs to check out ahead of time if you think it might upset the intended reader or listener.
From a historical perspective Homer Price provides a useful glimpse of a simpler era that now seems almost ancient. McCloskey was writing these stories shortly before television and rock music transformed American life and jump-started the first generation of ‘youth culture.’ Homer never worries about wearing clothes that are trendy or about being popular with his peers. He tinkers with radios and does odd jobs for his parents. They run a gas station and rent tourist cabins.
But McCloskey was aware that major transitions were already happening around the country. The final story is entitled ‘Wheels of Progress’ and involves the construction of one hundred new homes on the outskirts of town. The dawn of a national housing boom is a good place for the book to stop. What happens next is up to every reader’s imagination. I like to think the town council put in some zoning laws to prevent haphazard suburban sprawl and chain stores popping up on every corner.
I’m glad Homer’s still around, and I’m glad Centerburg is not a hotbed of pop culture or in-your-face media trends. No zombies, vampires, or alien mutants roam the streets seeking human prey. It’s just a quiet, modest little community with a cheerful outlook, and I’m going to keep sending visitors in that direction whenever I get the chance.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the ‘Modern Parent’ blog at the Christian Science Monitor.