The Christmas inevitably comes when you want to give your child a present that says, "This is who I am" as well as "You are loved--be merry."
A Tonka truck is nice, but it won't serve as a revelation. For some people who suspect that language saved them, the only present that will do is My Book House, a set of yellowing children's books, mass-produced decades ago and inevitably defaced by the fortunate child who had it first.
My Book House alumni look at their newborns, tally their fingers and toes and immediately wonder how long they'll have to wait until their babes are thrilled by a gift of second-hand books, however glamorously wrapped. Fortunately, we don't know then that the answer is at least 20 years.
There are dozens of My Book House people, maybe hundreds, in the Valley alone. We don't have club dues or a secret handshake but we all haunt the same used bookstores, scanning the shelves time after hopeful time for familiar spines bound in genuine blue Leatherette. The prize is rarely there.
"I haven't seen a set for a year," says Diane Sharrar, owner of Bargain Books in Van Nuys, who has a waiting list of people who will pay $100 for a set in fair condition. For My Book House, fair condition means a previous owner drew stick figures on every page but didn't cut out any of the illustrations to costume her paper dolls.
"I've got desperate customers at this very moment," Sharrar reports. "I could use seven sets. One man wants three. He's got three kids, and each of them wants his set. He doesn't want to give it up, and he's trying to find three others to give the children at Christmastime."
The books don't look extraordinary to someone they didn't change. Volume 1 is devoted to nursery rhymes and children's classics of "The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea" variety. But the magic of My Book House was that, as you outgrew each volume, there always seemed to be another one that offered a denser, darker tangle of myths and stories, poems and tales.
The volume numbers were elegantly embossed in gilt, and, lined up consecutively, 1 through 12, the books accounted for the only elegance, the only order for that matter, on any of my shelves.
For the better part of a restless, lonely childhood, My Book House was worth its weight in Cinderella watches. First published in the '20s, it had the look of an earlier time, a time before plastic and Chevrolets with fins. Had it been an actual house, its walls would have been papered in faded cabbage roses, and motes would have glimmered in lemon-colored light near the stained-glass windows. My Book House was a fine, commodious place to be on a rainy Sunday afternoon, even when the TV wasn't broken and you didn't have the mumps.
Oddly, I remember little of the specific content of those much-read stories. The indelible exception was a grim cautionary tale about a child who committed some small crime--putting his book report off until the night before? recycling his undershirt?--and broke out in a grotesque rash of thorns.
Even grown-up graduates of My Book House commit any minor transgression in prickly dread that barbs will suddenly erupt from their interiors like the gut-busting creature in "Alien." Everyone will know. Given our visceral understanding of the consequences, it's a wonder we can sin at all.
While the story lines have faded in memory, the feelings associated with reading them are as immediate as the remembered scent of Teaberry gum, as permanent as a vaccination scar. Sharrar says that most of her customers seek out the books to recall the sweet moments of childhood. But I remember them as the one sure antidote against the poisonous side of being young.
Where did children who didn't have My Book House go when school and family threatened to close in on them like the walls of the prisoner's cell in "The Pit and the Pendulum"? Where did they hide when their parents were spiteful to each other or their best friend found a new best friend and didn't even bother to hide it? What did they turn to the day the new baby came home and they found themselves evicted from the center of the universe?
Had the books offered only distraction from the small ache of being young, that would have been enough. But My Book House had gripping illustrations as well, intricate pictures of creatures with strange faces and lovely, lavish costumes that swirled and teased and hinted that a richer life existed somewhere beyond the suburban street you weren't allowed to cross by yourself.
We learned in the pages of My Book House that there are places you can go at any time without waiting for someone to take your hand and lead you there. Only later would I discover the dark side of interior travel, that it is an ever-present temptation in a real world where experience is rarely dramatic, or even shapely, and people, unlike the characters in books, do not routinely strip down to their souls on your behalf.