Several years ago, when my oldest son, now 26, was a toddler, I read to him nightly. Usually, the books were my old favorites, books like Ferdinand the Bull or Doctor Doolittle or Winnie the Pooh. One day, I took out my childhood copy, unearthed from my parents’ basement when they moved from the Boston area to South Florida, of one of the Bobbsey Twin books. I adored the Bobbsey Twins as a child and read them all. Bert and Nan and Freddie and Flossie were my friends. I opened the book with great anticipation of sharing it with my son, so imagine my dismay when I couldn’t get beyond the first half page. The family’s maid was written as a stereotypical Stephen Fetchet character, complete with misspelled words to represent her mangling of the English language. It doesn’t bother me when I read the dialect in a classic like Huckleberry Finn, maybe because I don’t read it aloud, but I could not continue with the Bobbsey Twins.
More recently, I was on a panel at a local library, and we were asked to share our favorite or most influential book. I had no problem choosing one: Eloise was the book that introduced me to the wonders of libraries. I went to the local Barnes and Noble, took the book from the shelf, got an overly-caloric drink, and sat down to read it. I fully expected to purchase the book so I could savor the antics of the high-spirited, independent, mischievous Eloise whenever I wanted. The book is still on the store’s shelf, not mine.
I was appalled by the book. Eloise is not high-spirited, independent, or mischievous, at least not in a positive way. She is spoiled, disrespectful, disruptive, nasty, and a vandal. Her mother is almost completely absent. All we know is she travels and has credit cards. Eloise always keeps a bag packed in case her mother calls at the last minute for her to join her in an exotic locale with a warm climate, but the impression I got is that her mother has yet to do so. The father is never mentioned. The only men, besides the hotel employees, are her mother’s lawyer and a tutor, hired because no school would accept Eloise. A nanny is supposedly in charge of Eloise’s care, but does not seem to give any supervision at all. Basically, the nanny sleeps late, smokes, drinks, and watches boxing on TV.
The main feelings I had after re-reading this book as an adult were sadness, pity, and anger at the neglect of this young, intelligent child. During the many years that had lapsed between readings, I had learned that the author, Kay Thompson, who lived at the Plaza, most likely based Eloise on her goddaughter Liza Minnelli. What a lonely child Eloise must have been.
I am a bit worried now about revisiting some other old favorites, many of which are in public domain and free on Kindle. I’ve downloaded quite a few, and so far have not been at all disappointed by Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jane Eyre. Of course, those are not children’s books, although I read them originally a long time ago. Next up on my classics-to-be-reread is Little Women. I read it obsessively and frequently as a young teen. I really, really hope it’s as good as I remember.