I was no bookworm growing up. Black & white pages filled with text containing the occasional scattered image, simply did not hold my attention for long. If I must be labeled, a very strong case could be made for my young self being classified as a “T.V. Junkie”. To make it clear, if it wasn’t assigned reading, I was much more likely to be found watching an episode of Charles in Charge than with my nose in a book by Charles Dickens.
And yet, there is something inescapable about the lure of books to a child in our American education system. Perhaps it’s the fact that our early accumulation of knowledge is facilitated by study from text books or to take it a step further, that we are forced to read them by the purveyors of our education. (The previous sentence is brought to you by the Big Words I Learned in Books Foundation or BWILIPF for short).
Either way, a trip to the book store was a cherished experience in my youth that filled me with anticipation. Even if given the choice I would have rather been watching the stop-motion adventures of Paddington Bear on Nickelodeon than reading them.I think it all started with a little something called, Troll Book Club.
You remember these things, right? The tissue-thin folded order form/catalog which was distributed monthly in our elementary school classrooms? Even more exciting than recess for me, was the day the Troll Books page was distributed and I got to peruse their colorful offerings.
My eyes would light up as I beheld the cover of the latest Little Critter or Berenstein Bears book. Of course we all know what every kid was really after, the stickers! Scratch n’ Sniff, Dinosaurs, it didn’t matter. If it stuck, we were sold! I also remember having an affinity for bookmarks, don’t ask me why.
Kids love to order things and I was no different. This was the one time, outside of the lunch line, that a 2nd grader was invited to participate in the world of commerce. Of course I had to ask my parents for the 5 dollars to lay my claim to the treasures within, but at least 7 year old me was the one deciding what it was wasted on!
I can still remember filling out the order strip, ripping it off and handing it to my teacher the next day with a check attached. As exciting as the ordering experience was, the elation of consumerism was quickly overtaken by the fact that we had to wait a whole stinkin’ month for our orders to be delivered! Oh, the agony!
As hard as it was to endure the almost physical torture of anticipation, once our “books” arrived, all was forgotten. They might as well have invited He-Man to visit, for all the excitement it caused in the classroom. To quell the inevitable storm of spastic, childish excitement that was bound to explode upon our teacher, we were always instructed to quickly stow our treasures in our backpacks and not take them out until lunchtime. Troll Book Club was such a tease.
I would have to say my favorite order of all was a painted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster. I remember it so because the characters were obviously based on the original comic book designs and not the popular cartoon series I was familiar with. It was so dark and mysterious, it made the turtles that much cooler. My wife says her favorite poster Troll Book poster was a Kitty reading book. As you can see Troll Book Club had something for everyone…even GIRLS!
As elementary school drew to a close, books began to be an actual source of entertainment and not just the wretched source of all homework. As such, I started asking my Dad to take me on trips to the local Crown Books so I could see what excitement they had to offer.
As it turns out, there was some pretty edgy stuff on the shelves circa 1994. No, I'm not talking about Madonna's book, SEX or Barney's tell-all autobiography "Demons Wear Purple". No, I'm talking about this raucously named collection of nonsense, the “Beavis & Butthead Ensucklopedia”.
I remember feeling “dangerous” staying up late to watch Beavis & Butthead on MTV and the same sense of “rebellion” flowed through me as I hid from my Dad for a few minutes to leaf through this rowdy reference book. If you can believe it, there were actually 2 books out at that time featuring those misbehaving metalheads.
The other book also “Sucked”. That’s not a review of the humor within, the freakin’ title was, “This Book Sucks”! Though I could never imagine asking my Dad to let me bring home a book with Sucks in the title, there were a few illustrated books of humor I managed to own.Perusing the same shelf, another group of animated misfits also managed to grab my attention from the printed page, The Simpsons!
Seeing as they were the predecessors of controversial cartoon shows like Beavis & Butthead, it was only natural that I would find them as neighbors in my new playground. But just as with their TV show, their books relied less on crude humor and more on clever parody of American life.
First of all The Simpsons Uncensored Family Album was an awesome way to feel like you were a part of the Springfield universe. The best part was they were photos that were often only glimpsed in episodes, but actually part of the show. Like Homer & Marge’s Prom photos from “The Way We Was” or Bart’s secret spy camera photo of Homer dancing with Princess Kasmir. I've always loved blurring the line between fiction and reality.
Then there was bright green hardback book that caught my attention. What's this? Why it's Bart Simpson’s Guide To Life! Filled with “wisdom” from the El Barto himself, this was The Simpsons version of the “Ensucklopedia”.
Filled with colorful diagrams in the classic Simpsons style and covering topics like the Human Body, Growing Up and providing Questions to Annoy Your Sunday School Teacher, Bart’s mischievous musings were a laugh a minute experience. So much so that even after I accidentally dropped the book in the toilet, I patiently waited for it to dry so I could read it again. True story!
Eventually Crown Books’ fortunes began to turn and before I knew it they were having their going out of business sale. One of the last purchases I remember was “Draw The Marvel Comics Super Heroes”. I had just gotten into comics and fancied myself a creator on the level of Stan Lee. What I didn’t have was the artistic ability of Todd McFarlane. So I figured I would learn the basic of anatomy, foreshortening and shading from this shiny, spiral-bound manual.
The sad part is, my Mom was an art teacher and could have taught me all this stuff for free. But this book was endorsed by Spider-Man and I was determined to learn it on my own. It sort of worked. People could at least tell what I was getting at with my drawings. I never really learned to draw women though, most just ended up looking like guys with larger than normal pectoral muscles. In the end I did eventually get my own comic strip published in the school paper, so that has to count for something.
Once Crown Books was no more, I began shopping at a little upstart called Barnes & Noble. Most of the time I found myself in the land of B&N I was just perusing the latest issue of Wizard, Metal Edge or Pro Wrestling Illustrated. The images on the magazine racks we're the only thing able to provide the same razzle dazzle of days gone by.
Otherwise I was there out of necessity to purchase the titles on my summer reading list. Eventually the magic of bookstore seemed to fade and with the advent of Amazon.com, it didn't seem necessary to return with any frequency.
Although maybe as my son gets older, we’ll take a family trip to the local book store and peruse the offerings in the kid’s books section. Maybe the wonder will be reborn in his enthusiasm or you know, maybe we’ll just stay home and watch TV. “Hey, what’s on? Oh look, re-runs of Perfect Strangers! What is that wacky Balki up to this week?”