Category Archives: first books

First Books: Alvin Fernald, Superweasel (1974)

In 1960, science and technology writer Clifford B. Hicks — an editor for Popular Mechanics — wrote the first of what would eventually be nine children’s books featuring a spunky young inventor named Alvin Fernald. Alvin — with the help of his own “Magnificent Brain,” his best friend Shoie, and his sister Daphne (“The Pest”) — was always stumbling onto mysteries that needed investigating, codes that needed decoding, and various problems that needed creative solutions, usually with the help of one of Alvin’s inventions.

I was never a hardcore fan of Alvin Fernald — when it came to mysteries, I liked Encyclopedia Brown better, and I thought the world inhabited by Beverly Cleary’s characters was far more interesting — but when I saw Alvin Fernald, Superweasel advertised in the pages of the Scholastic Books catalog, I begged my mom for it. My second grade brain — which was just beginning to soak up books, comics, and movies where radiation gave you superpowers instead of cancer — was all but certain this book would be about a kid only a little older than me who had acquired the powers of a weasel through some freakish lab accident. I mean, he was an inventor, right? Surely, this was an example of Science Gone Horribly Awry, right?!?

No such luck.

As it turns out, Superweasel is basically a manifesto on environmental awareness for young adults. Alvin, appalled at all the trash and pollution in his hometown of Riverton, Indiana, adopts the guise of Superweasel as a way of carrying out a few acts of ecoterrorism without being recognized. Dressed as Superweasel, for example, Alvin climbs to the top of the tallest smokestack in town and plugs the top, sending smoke belching back into the factory and workers scrambling for fresh air. Mission accomplished, point made.

Yet, despite my disappointment that Superweasel didn’t live up to expectations, I was glued to this book and couldn’t read it fast enough. In the summer of 1974, I spent several nights sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the floor of my bedroom (it was the closest I liked to get to camping in New Mexico…), reading Alvin Fernald, Superweasel by flashlight, even as I fought to keep my eyes from slamming shut.

For that reason, Clifford Hicks’ Alvin Fernald, Superweasel scores the first Two-Fer in the First Books feature: it’s the First Book I Read With A Flashlight Under The Covers, and it’s The First Time I Fell Victim To A Deceptive Title That Failed To Live Up To My Initial Expectations (cross reference: Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy).

More information on Clifford Hicks and Alvin Fernald can be found here.

First Books: Limited Collector’s Edition C-37 (1975)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight — which broke all kinds of records this weekend — I wanted to share with you My First Batman Comic.

I first became a Batman fan not because of the comic books or the TV show (which was off the air before I was a year old), but rather because of the Super Friends cartoon, which premiered on ABC when I was six years old. It may have featured a somewhat emasculated version of the Dark Knight Detective (Hey criminals! Wanna make Batman cower? Take away his utility belt!), but, hey, it was still Batman. He was super cool, and I was completely smitten. My life as a fanboy had begun.

But I didn’t actually have any Batman comics until this one — with the clunky official title of Limited Collector’s Edition, Vol. 4, No. C-37 — which my mom ordered through the mail for my brother and me in 1975. Back in the early- and mid-1970s, DC was publishing collections of Golden Age comics in oversize editions, including reprints of the first appearances of Batman and the Flash, which still confound some rookie collectors to this day. This particular issue — under a terrific Jim Aparo cover — was touted as the Batman Special All-Villain Issue!

Needless to say, I read this thing until the cover fell off of it.

The first story, “The Cross Country Crimes!” (a reprint of Batman #8 from 1941) pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, who leads the Dynamic Duo on a murderous chase across the United States. It contained a great hook (the Joker is actually using the first letter of each state he visits to spell out his name), some scary Joker moments (Joker forces a jeweler’s bus off a cliff), and a thrilling fight in a swaying cable car. And check out this great splash of the Clown Price of Crime (complete with that iconic 1940s Batmobile at the bottom):

Next, the Penguin gets his shot at the Dynamic Duo in “The Blackbird of Banditry,” a 1947 story from Batman #43 in which Penguin declares he will “use fictional birds you’ve read about in books … and commit real crimes!” Penguin manages to stay one step ahead of Batman, and at one point even gets the drop on the Dynamic Duo by puffing on a pipe full of popcorn, which explodes into Batman’s unsuspecting face. Then, displaying a mentality that could only belong to a comic book villain, he chains the captured Robin to a wall (with a tightly drawn bow-and-arrow pointed directly at the Boy Wonder’s heart), locks Batman in a nearby cage, and (wait for it) . . . leaves to allow Batman watch Robin face an almost certain Death by Clever Trap.

Naturally, Batman uses a discarded umbrella to make a bow and arrow of his own, and as the Penguin’s arrow screams toward Robin, Batman intercepts it by firing an umbrella handle-arrow into its path — a drawing that always baffled my eight-year-old brain, as it looked to me like Batman had fired a pickle to block the Penguin’s arrow:

But maybe that was just me.

Anyway, Batman eventually nabs the Penguin, and can’t resist taunting him in his jail cell by reminding him of another famous fictional bird. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!” Batman guffaws. Hilarity ensues.

The last three stories in the issue featured Two-Face (who meets his demise via accidental hanging at a drive-in movie theater, an image that horrified me), the Scarecrow (captured by an old vaudeville trick in which he’s smacked on the fanny by a see-saw), and Catwoman (who models her crimes on famous women criminals like . . . er, well, the wicked queen from Snow White). And if all that weren’t enough, there was even a four-page spread featuring a map of the Batcave (circa 1968) and diagrams of Batman’s equipment, including this sneak-peek at the contents of his and Robin’s utility belts:

I stared at those pages forever, trying to figure out how Batman could get those smoke capsules out of his belt so quickly, or how that laser torch really worked. When you’re eight years old, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Come to think of it, it still doesn’t.

First Books: Meet Abraham Lincoln (1965)

From the mailbag, Mark in Chicago writes:

“I’m really enjoying your First Books segment on your blog, and I’m wondering: Since you’re a biographer, what would your ‘first biography’ be?”

Thanks for the question, Mark. When I was in second grade, I was given a collection of hardcover books called “Step-Up Books.” This was a series of about twenty non-fiction books for kids, with titles like Birds Do The Strangest Things (with an owl on the cover, peering at you with an upside-down head) and The Story of Flight, which pretty much sums it up. There were also a number of books about prominent Americans, including John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But the book I liked the most, and still remember best, is Meet Abraham Lincoln.

Author Barbara Cary does a fine job with the subject matter, and hits all the highs of Lincoln’s life in a style aimed squarely at young readers, even addressing the Civil War in easy-as-pie terms. But I was equally as taken with the artwork, by the brilliant Jack Davis, working in his familiar “bigfoot” style that was perfectly suited for the gawky 16th president. Together, the text and art were in perfect syncopation, neither getting in the way of the other, and I read and re-read this book more times than I can remember, filing away the moments Cary had so carefully chosen to bring Lincoln to life, while matching Davis’ thickly-inked and cross-hatched art with its place in the narrative.

I haven’t read the book in decades — and my original copy of it is long gone — but three moments from the book still stay with me. Here’s young Abe trying to comfort his sister, following the death of their mother, with a raccoon that I was dying to pet:

Next is Lincoln with Union General Ulysses S. Grant, whose cigar you can practically smell:

And finally, the picture that’s stayed with me my entire life — President Lincoln at his desk in the White House, trying to hold the Union together during the darkest hours of the Civil War:

Really, it doesn’t get much better than that.

To me, Meet Abraham Lincoln is a biography doing everything a great biography should do: educating while entertaining. For that reason, Meet Abraham Lincoln holds the high honor not only of being my very First Biography, but also the First Book To Show Me That Non-fiction Could Be Dramatic. And indeed it is.

First Books: Peanuts Treasury (1968)

The 1968 Peanuts Treasury — a collection of late 1950s to mid-1960s Peanuts strips — is, perhaps, one of the most influential books of my life.

It was given to me for my fifth birthday, and I remember laying on my stomach in an armchair in the den, my head hanging down over the front of the seat, looking down at the book on the floor. Right away I was fascinated by the panel on the front cover that showed Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound with his head simultaneously facing two directions at once as he watched the conversations taking place around him. Why does he have two faces? I wondered — and then suddenly, in one of those Eureka! moments I’ll never forget, I understood what it was that Schulz was doing.

It was my First Contact With The Genius of Charles Schulz, certainly, but it was so much more.

The Peanuts Treasury was the place where I learned you could tell a story with words and pictures, though in a way that was different from the Little Golden Books. Each page was filled with four-paneled cartoons — reprinted in glorious black and white — each of which had its own little drama and a punchline. Each was wonderful on its own, but when taken as a whole, they created something remarkable — a complete universe with its own continuity and characters.

To my five-year-old mind, Schulz was writing these just for me. Characters yelled at each other, threatened to slug each other (or, my favorite, knock your block off!), watched television, played baseball, and read comic books. It was like a soap opera starring kids, for kids — except, of course, that Schulz wasn’t just writing for kids, but for everyone. The fact that he could make you think you were his target audience is part of what made him so terrific at what he did.

But there was more. The Peanuts Treasury was where I first puzzled my way through words and concepts like “grief,” “psychiatrist,” “Beethoven” (which I pronounced “BEE-thuvven”) and “humanity.” There were references to people I’d never heard of, like Sam Snead, Dr. Spock and Gordie Howe, and to odd concepts like “new math.” I learned friends could be fickle — playing with you one day, laughing at you the next — and that basic human decency, like Charlie Brown’s, almost always prevailed.

I was particularly fascinated by Snoopy and the range of characters he played: a sinister vulture, a mountain lion, and my favorite, the helmeted World War I Flying Ace (which I always pronounced in my head as “World War Eye Flying Ace”). I was proud that I knew the name of his doghouse plane (the Sopwith Camel!) and I had my mom sing the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” slowly and deliberately for me so I could remember it, since Snoopy’s Flying Ace seemed always to be singing it in some lonely European pub that existed, I knew, only in his imagination.

Snoopy, in fact, was my hero for years. I learned to draw by drawing Snoopy, with that big looping head, the floppy ears, the button nose, and the slashed dots for eyes that had to be placed juuuust right. I drew my own comic books in which Snoopy — dressed in a Batman costume, of course — fought crime and drove the Batsnoopymobile. Snoopys of every size covered my notebooks at school and every classmate asked me if I wanted to draw Snoopy when I grew up. I would smile and nod enthusiastically and say that I did.

Alas, I never did get to take over the Peanuts comic strip. But I’m pleased to say today that I can still draw a pretty mean Snoopy.

First Books: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

I discovered Agatha Christie relatively late in my game: my sophomore year in high school. By that time, my science fiction and fantasy phase was sputtering out — Stephen R. Donaldson’s too-long Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was pretty much the last straw for me — and I turned almost on a whim to mysteries.

I started with a few Sherlock Homes novels, but while I respected Doyle as the innovator, Holmes himself quickly annoyed me. He always seemed to have these conveniently wacky expertises, most of which we as readers never knew about until they were suddenly needed to solve the case, at which point we learned Holmes had written the definitive treatise on earlobe shapes or candle wax or mustaches or whatever. Watson may have been left by Jove!-ing about what a genius Holmes was, but it never seemed fair to me.

Agatha Christie was different. While she generally used the same Holmes-Watson dynamic to tell her Hercule Poirot stories, Poirot’s sidekick, Captain Hastings, always had the same information that Poirot, and readers, needed to solve the mystery. Hastings, of course, never did, and with one exception (The Patriotic Murders), neither did I.

Which brings me to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It wasn’t the first Agatha Christie book I ever read (that would be The ABC Murders), but it was the First Book That Ever Left Me With My Mouth Hanging Open in Amazement — and started my love affair with Agatha Christie novels.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) brings Hercule Poirot to a small English village following not just one death, but two: the first is the wealthy widow Ferrars, who is rumored to have killed her first husband, is likely being blackmailed, and is thought to be a suicide victim . . . until Ferrar’s secret lover, the equally wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd, is also found dead. Nearly everyone stands to gain from the deaths, and Poirot — this time sidekicked by Dr. Sheppard — unravels an unexpected motive with an equally surprising killer.

This is the book — only her seventh — that made Agatha Christie famous, and which very nearly got her kicked out of the British mystery writers’ Detection Club on charges that she had violated the rules of fair play. Only the dissenting vote of Dorothy L. Sayers (who allegedly said “Fair! And fooled you!”) kept Christie in the organization.

Remarkably, for a book that’s now more than eighty years old, mystery readers have done their part to keep the ending a surprise (consider it The Sixth Sense of mystery novels), but not everyone has been so accommodating. Years ago, TIME magazine casually gave away the ending, and Christie fans never let them hear the end of it.

If you’ve never read it, go find it, read it, and marvel at the expertise of a master storyteller at her craft. But if you tell me you figured out who the killer was, I won’t believe you. And if you continue to insist that you did, I’ll punch you on the arm. Hard. Because you didn’t.

First Books: Ramona the Brave

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Brave opens in the middle of a conflict, with Ramona trailing along after her sister Beezus, storming home from the playground steaming mad because some boys taunted her with calls of “Jesus Beezus!” Later, first-grader Ramona runs across a plagiarizing classmate who copies her paper owl, encounters a mean dog, braves the dark of her own bedroom, and defiantly informs her parents that she is going to say a bad word.

I was hooked, and I wanted more.

Fortunately, there was more. Lots more. My mother had given me the hardcover of Ramona the Brave — shown just up there on the right — on its release in 1975, as I was starting third grade. I went to the librarian at my elementary school with a copy of the book and asked her, “Are there more of these?” Together, we looked through the card catalogue (and they were really on cards in those days, kids! And a steak only cost a nickel! Now get offa my lawn!) and she steered me over to a shelf lined with other books by Beverly Cleary. It was the First Time I Was Hooked By A Series With Continuing Characters.

And what characters there were: the humorless Howie Kemp and his bratty baby sister, Willa Jean; spoiled pretty-girl Susan Kushner, with the curls Ramona can’t help pulling with a satisfying boing!; Davy, Ramona’s kissable crush; even Ramona’s parents were fully-realized characters, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Oh, and there was also Henry Huggins, who had initially been Cleary’s star attraction throughout the 1950s and 60s, until Ramona — like Jaime Somers stealing the spotlight from Steve Austin — surpassed him in popularity, relegating him to Special Guest Star/Cameo Appearances thereafter.

I quickly caught up on all of Cleary’s books over the next year — even reading the books that were outside of the Ramona continuity, like The Mouse and the Motorcycle — and continued to read the Ramona books as they were released over the next nine years. As a junior in high school, I even checked the newly-released Ramona Forever out of the library on the sly, so I could catch up on the latest goings-on on Klickitat Street.

To this day, I remain a hardcore admirer of Beverly Cleary (now a spry 92-year-old, living in California), and I’m delighted to have shared her books with my own daughter — who, when she saw me watching her as she stood in line with some of her friends the other day, grinned up at me and pretended to pull the ponytail of the girl in line in front of her and mouthed the word boing!. Each of us laughed in appreciation of the shared joke, and Beverly Cleary’s imagination lives on in yet another generation. As it should.

First Books: The Crows of Pearblossom

Mr. and Mrs. Crow have a problem: they want to raise a family, but every time Mrs. Crow lays eggs, Mr. Snake comes along and eats them. Desperate for help, Mr. Crow approaches the wise Mr. Owl, who recommends they stoop to a bit of subterfuge. On Mr. Owl’s advice, then, the Crows paint two big rocks to resemble crow eggs and place them in their nest. Mr. Snake slithers up and (predictably) eats them, but as he glides away, he’s struck suddenly with a massive stomach ache. Moaning and twisting with pain, he stretches himself between two branches, ties himself in knots, and expires. Victorious, the Crow family goes on to successfully raise a nest full of little crows — and as we turn to the last page, Mrs. Crow is seen happily hanging laundry across the outstretched body of the dead snake. And all is right with the Crows of Pearblossom.

Aldous Huxley’s (yes, that Aldous Huxley) The Crows of Pearblossom is the first book that terrified me. Not in a Monsters-Under-The-Bed sort of way; it’s more like a Can’t-Look-Yet-MUST-Look sort of thing. Written as a gift to neighbor’s daughter during the darkest days of World War II, The Crows of Pearblossom can certainly be read allegorically, with the Nazi snake consuming the innocent Crows of Europe. But when paired with Barbara Cooney’s deadly serious illustrations, Crows becomes Aesop as channeled through Tim Burton — and at five-years-old, I found the combination of story and images to be perfectly and deliciously terrifying: Snake eats the Crows’ eggs — the Crows’ children! — while singing a funny song, and as he slithers sneakily away, eyes slitted with snakely satisfaction, the two eggs make visible humps in his middle. Later, after the Crows work their vengeance on the snake, his dead body stretches between the forks of two branches, his head hanging limply downward. Brrrr.

As a kid, I read this book more times than I can remember — and while elements of the plot have disappeared into age-induced fog, I’m still haunted by that snake and the creepy-casual way he ingested the Crow children. I was fascinated enough by this book as a child to make my own set of drawings, which I then rolled onto dowels and ran through slots in a box to make a primitive slide show. I can’t recall drawing the crows all that well, but I distinctly remember drawing those two humps in the middle of the snake, each one marking the spot where an unhatched little crow met his or demise.

Reader opinion on the Crows seems to be split down the middle — one reviewer calls it a “horrid little book” — but The Crows of Pearblossom earns a sentimental spot on my list of favorites as the First Book That Really Truly Creeped Me Out.

First Books

“Every reader has his first book, one book among all others which in early youth first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind…” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

While I almost always take Longfellow at his word, in this particular case, I’m going to disagree—mainly because I can’t narrow it down to just one book.

I’d argue that throughout our lives as readers, we have any number of “first” books. There’s the first book we read “without pictures.” There’s the first book that scared us, or the first book that made us laugh out loud. There’s the first book of poetry. There’s the first book that made us say, “I wish I could write like this” and maybe there’s even one that made us say, “I think I want to write one.” All of them, in some way, fascinate the imagination, as Longfellow says.

There are any number of first books, but all of them have one thing in common: somehow, they all made a lasting impression. Maybe the book that “excites and satisfies the desires” wasn’t even necessarily a great book—but the fact that it’s one of your “firsts” usually makes it a favorite. Mine are that way. I wish I could say that my first books were classics or sophisticates like Robinson Crusoe or Tom Brown’s School Days, but as you’ll soon see, they usually weren’t. They were certainly solid enough—and many are still read today—but mine fall more within the “sleeper” category. Some may indeed be classics. Still others may flat out stink.

Just for fun, then, I’m starting a feature I’m so cleverly calling “First Books,” in which I’ll talk about books that, for one reason or another, are burned into my memory, or made some sort of lasting impact on me. It might be the first book I can remember reading with the flashlight under the covers, or the first mystery that truly impressed me. It might be the first horror story I ever read, or even the first comic book I can remember reading. They might be books you like . . .or then again, they might not.

Stick around.