A Childhood Book I’m Glad I Tracked Down

Re-reading a Favorite Book from First Grade

By Jeff Salter

At some point during the spring (probably) of 2019, one of my Facebook friends asked: “What is the first book you remember reading?” That’s a tough question for me to answer because I can’t recall ever being without a book. As I cogitated on that matter, however, my mind eventually took me back to a memory from my first grade year, 1956-57, at the small public library on Boston Street in Downtown Covington LA.

During that year, my dad took our only family car – a 1952 Plymouth station wagon – each day to Mandeville, where he worked as Protestant Chaplain at Southeast Louisiana [Mental] Hospital. Without a vehicle, my mom would pull a little red wagon into town, do the shopping and errands, and return with our groceries, supplies, and books from what must have been weekly stops at the little library.

The specific memory that was tickling my brain was me standing near the library’s front door, waiting on Mom and my siblings to complete their transactions so we could begin our walk home – about five or six blocks from there, I believe – and me holding the book I was impatient to begin reading. That book was about a boy and a bear.

Well, folks, you can imagine there have been more than a handful of books about a boy and a bear that could have been in that public library. My task in 2019 was to figure out which book it had been. I no longer remember my specific search pattern, but I think I recalled vaguely that “my” book possibly had won some kind of award. I must have poked around with search terms and somehow stumbled onto the answer: the 1953 Caldecott Medal winner was “The Biggest Bear” by Lynd Ward.

Once I tracked down the cover, its artwork triggered immediate recognition. But I had absolutely no recollection of the story itself. So, naturally, I had to acquire a copy. I’ve forgotten what I paid or where I located it (probably Amazon).

Since I had no recollection (whatsoever) of the story itself, re-reading it after 63 years was quite an experience. You could tell by the cover that the boy and the massive bear were best buddies, but that was all. Inside, with the full page illustrations and just a sentence or two of text facing each, the story unfolds. [SPOILER ALERT]

Little Johnny Orchard goes hunting for a bear so his family can “keep up” with their neighbors — almost all of whom have a bearskin nailed to their barns to dry (and cure).

Johnny comes back with a bear, all right, but it’s not dead… and it’s not even grown — it’s a helpless little orphaned cub.

Needless to say, Johnny is allowed to keep that little cub, who gets into all sorts of mischief. The bigger he gets, the more serious the mischief. Finally, the bear – grown into a massive adult – has caused so much trouble that the neighbors come to the Orchard house with an ultimatum: either the Orchards take care of their bear… or the neighbors will settle things their own way.

Sadly, Johnny explains things to the bear and tries three different methods of getting the bear out of that area permanently. But each time, the bear returns to the Orchard farm to be with Johnny.

Johnny’s folks lay down the law — the bear must be put down. Bravely, Johnny takes the bear into the woods with the intention of dispatching it. But before he can do so, the bear sniffs the bait in a bear trap (cage) and runs headlong into it… taking Johnny with him. Now, both are trapped inside the cage.

Soon, three rangers show up and explain they’d been trapping bears to send to a city zoo. In the zoo, they explain, the bear will be well fed and comfortable… and Johnny can visit any time he likes.

In the mid-1950s, it satisfied my childish sensibilities that a zoo was a proper place for bear that had been so tamed that it couldn’t hunt for his own food in the wild. But as a grown-up nearing age 70 (at that point), I was greatly saddened to imagine Johnny’s massive bear living in a tiny cage in a zoo. Oh well.

I wish Lynd Ward were still alive and could re-write those final few pages. I’d like to see the bear in a wildlife preserve where he could roam and hunt and live like a bear… and not like an exhibit in a tiny cage of concrete and iron bars. My grandkids were already too old to be “read to” by the time I acquire this book, but if I get a chance to read it to my great-grandchildren, I think I’ll affix my own ending to the story… in place of Ward’s final two pages.

Question:

What about YOU? Any books from your childhood that you remember so fondly that you’d like to read them again?

* * * * *

Some of my earlier musings on versions of this topic:

https://fourfoxesonehound.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/childhood-books-which-left-a-big-impression/

[JLS # 530]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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13 Responses to A Childhood Book I’m Glad I Tracked Down

  1. your blog is amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I am amazed at the effort you put forth into discovering the title AND then locating a copy! As for the bear’s fate in the zoo, I’m sure the zoo was a more convenient place for Johnny to visit his pet bear. But your alternative ending would be nice, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      My entire outlook about “traditional” zoos had dramatically changed over the years. No wild animal should be in a tiny cage… period. But “modern” zoos have considerably nicer and more natural seeming habitats for the animals they house. A step in the right direction.

      Like

  3. jbrayweber says:

    I have most if not all the books I loved as a child. Most were Golden Books. As I got older, I did lose interest, for 2 reasons. The first was I spent all my time with my horse. The second was that reading became increasingly hard for me. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school before the reason came to light. I had a reading comprehension deficiency, a type of dyslexia. Reading was hard, so I only read what I had to read.
    At any rate, one of my favorite children’s books that I still love today and have read to my own children is “Tilly Witch”. The blurb: Tilly Witch forgot how to be mean and had to return to finishing school for witches to re-learn the trickery of the trade.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Jenn, I can’t imagine what it was like to struggle with a comprehension deficiency. To have something that directly interfered with my reading enjoyment would be horrible.
      I also loved the little golden books. I still have a couple of my old ones and we’ve acquired others to replace ones that each of us recalls from our own childhoods. I don’t remember Tilly Witch, but it sounds pretty cool.

      Like

      • jbrayweber says:

        I have a fairly large collection of Golden Books that were both mine and my husband’s. I also bought a lot from garage sales when my firstborn was young. I was fortunate enough to find Tilly Witch among those hunts. It’s worn, but still a favorite.
        Wish I would have also found some now unavailable Dr. Suess books.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff Salter says:

          I happen to own two of the Seuss books that are actually NOT my favorites… but I’ll definitely hang on to them now. I also have an anthology of 13 of his bestsellers in one volume that I bought years ago. It has at least 3 of my favorites, including at least 2 of the ones recently banned / cancelled.

          Like

    • Jenn, I am so glad that you overcame your reading problem. My sister also had a problem, which made her an underachiever in school, infuriating her teachers and frustrating the family. She was in experimental teaching methods when she learned to read, which I often thought was a lot of the problem. When she was in her late 20s or perhaps about 30, her mother-in-law started handing her easy romance novels. When she got through a couple, her m-in-l handed her “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot mystery. My sister struggled through it, but loved it so much that she made herself learn to read better. She still prefers audiobooks, which she discovered while making long driving trips, but she will read for pleasure for the last …(well, never mind how many years!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We visited versions of this topic before, but this is a new story from you,(and I tried to change an angle for tomorrow’s post). At the time, The Zoo seemed a nice, safe place for the bear at the time, (“Put Me in the Zoo” remember that one? I like that Johnny could be able to visit him. (This all sounds like it could have been my brother as a kid, another “Johnny”.)
    I was almost afraid to read all of this, since it sounded too much like The Yearling”, and that movie traumatized me to no end as a kid. Therefore, the zoo sounded fine to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I’ve never actually seen the entire film, the Yearling. But I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t want to view the ending.

      Like

  5. Carla Hostetter says:

    Most modern zoos have habitats rather than cages, and a bear so used to people could not have gone back into the wild. It would be nice to rewrite the last pages. As for me, I tended toward Golden book versions of Mary Poppins that had just one incident like the tea party on the ceiling which made me ask my mother for scones and crumpets to have with tea. She referred to them as my weird books–but she did find some scones, called tea cakes at our local bakery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      that was cool of your mom to support your interest in that way.
      My review of your novel is up on the next Hound Day, Mar. 11.

      Like

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