Tag Archives: vintage books

The Book of Marvels


You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Better Science Books

In a recent online conversation about great “living books” for science, I saw lots of people mention older texts.  I was curious so I went and sought one out that would have nicely fit our study this year, called Stories of Rocks and Minerals for the Grammar Stage by Harold Wellman Fairbanks.  There’s a classical education title if ever there was one.  You can also read the book for free on Google Books if you’re interested.  It was published in 1903.

On the one hand, it has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen in a children’s science book.

“Beneath our feet is the soil which has had such a strange history.  Yonder the men are quarrying blocks of stone to make some one a house.  Down by the brook, you can fill your pockets with all sorts of pretty pebbles, each one of which has a different story.  Upon your finger there is a ring made of gold dug out of the earth by some miner.  In your homes there are dishes of silver, copper, iron and porcelain, the materials for which came from different parts of the earth.”

Nice, right?  I didn’t read the whole book but what I found was imaginative but informative, getting the reader or listener to think about things.  Other chapters guide kids into a volcano, through the formation of fossil fuels, and into a vein of quartz, among many other things.  It’s an incredibly detailed book.

But…  I also immediately spotted some issues.  Seventy elements?  Mother Nature did this and that and…  formed pretty much everything?  Somehow I don’t think secular or Christian readers would think much of that poetic licence.  Plus, explanations are often missing some key components.  Plate tectonics, for example, wasn’t even proposed as a theory for nearly a decade after the publication of this book.

There may be many parts you could use (and it’s possible I’ll dig through it and find some) but it mostly made me mourn the state of today’s science books for kids, when things are more accurate, but poorly written.  Even more than other subjects, science books have to be updated to be of use.  Yet there’s very little out there with such strong sense of narrative.

Front Cover

If those two sorts of books could only meet and become one book, then I might be happy.



Childhood Rhymes

If you’re interested in children’s literature and children’s culture, then I hope you know the work of the Opies.  Their seminal work is The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Peter and Iona Opie attacked the subject of schoolyard chants like anthropologists studying a mysterious tribe.  They interviewed children as well as digging through old literature and references in order to follow jump rope songs and common taunting rhymes among British youngsters over literally centuries of change.  Iona Opie also gathered fairy tales and nursery rhymes.  One of her best known collections is I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book.  It was illustrated by Maurice Sendak and is still widely available.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I found a number of amusing treasures among my mother-in-law’s diverse collection of children’s books.  One was the book Favorite Rhymes from a Rocket in my Pocket compiled by Carl Withers.  This book was a thin paperback that was similar to I Saw Esau but with a much more contemporary American flavor.  It was published in the 1970’s, so as a child of the 70’s, I felt very at home with most of the rhymes it contained.  As I read through them, I found I knew the vast majority of them.

Forgive the image quality. I only had my phone with me over Thanksgiving to capture this.

One of the things I wonder about is how, in this age of media, schoolyard chants and teases get conveyed.  I think they still must exist.  Are they more likely to come from television shows?  Do they begin as internet memes?  Do parents just teach them to kids?  I also wonder how much of their existence depends on having the sort of large community that comes with school.  Do homeschooled kids know these sorts of rhymes or pass them along?

Keep the Old Books!

As I always do when it’s time for a new unit in science or history, I went to the library to swap out the books we’ve finished for books about new topics.  This week, for history that meant books about Clovis and Charles the Hammer and Charlemagne.  Both of the libraries within walking distance are under renovation right now and the temporary library set up in a store front is a little pitiful, so I haven’t been going there.  Besides, we often need more books than our branch library can provide.  I’ve taken to going to two different libraries: the central library and a large branch library northwest of us.

Our central library has a pretty decent children’s book section in a big room with lots of windows.  It’s not the best facility ever, but it could be much worse.  The branch I’ve been going to is smaller, but it has something that none of the other libraries in our system have: old books.  Everything in our entire library system for children seems to have been published after about 1990.  Even older books are much more likely to be reissues from the 80’s and 90’s than original or older editions.  On the one hand, this is nice.  The collection, while not perfect, is relatively current.

On the other hand, look at this beautiful specimen of book I discovered while looking for stuff about Charlemagne.  It’s A Picture History of France by Clarke Hutton, in an edition from 1958.

Look at those illustrations!  The text is also very appropriate to elementary school.  It’s not a long, wordy book.  However, it’s not the brisk overview of an encyclopedia either.  There’s some meat there.

I went and told the librarian on duty how thrilled I was that their branch had old books.  She looked pleased that someone had noticed and was appreciative.  From what she said, I had the feeling that the library may have to defend its collection sometimes.  I’m not sure how often a book like this circulates.  I know that the books that get the most use are the ones the library wants to invest their money in.  However, if the kids want a Judy Moody book or a Magic Treehouse book and the library doesn’t have it, I can just pop over to the bookstore and buy it.  If we need an older book or a reference book for school, sometimes it’s impossible to buy it.  Books like this one are a resource for the library.  Yes, they take up shelf space, but it makes me so sad that libraries often toss these books out when they renovate or get new books in.

The Worst Party Ever

Popcorn Party [Book Elf book #468]We’re just back from visiting with family along with another week of summer camp.  Possibly more about that amazing summer camp and other North Carolina adventures later.  For now, I just wanted to review a book, one that’s no longer in print.  One of Mushroom and BalletBoy’s grandfathers has a pile of books that his parents gave him from his childhood so he could read them to to the kids.  Among the bizarre treasures of this 1950’s era collection is the book Popcorn Party.  I can’t stand it.  Mushroom begged me to read it and I succumbed so I got to be reminded why I can’t stand it.  And now you get to find out too!

Popcorn Party tells the story of a grandmother who lives what sounds like a really boring life.  For her hundredth birthday, she decides to have a little excitement (but only a little, mind you) and throw a popcorn party for the neighborhood kids.  In the process, she gets more popcorn than she needs.  She’s never gotten more of anything than she needs before but she decides to just go with it.  Well, big mistake, Grandma.  She pops too much and her whole house is nearly destroyed in a horrific popcorn accident reminiscent of the spaghetti problem in Strega Nona.  As far as I can tell, the moral is: don’t do anything exciting and don’t ever indulge in luxury.  Sorry, depression-era authors and publishers, I just don’t get it.  Also, can I just add that this book is such a study in how picture books have changed.  It has at least twice as many words as a similar book would today and the text hasn’t been arranged with much care the way it would be now.

Of course, so many good books are the old ones.  For an antidote to Popcorn Party, head over to Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves.