When I was in the fourth of fifth grade, my mom left Dad and me at home one Saturday morning and headed into town to do some shopping.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked.
Heck, yeah, she could! I wanted a book to read. And thus began a months-long battle between me, Mom, and the local brain trust.
Because, when she returned home that afternoon, Mom brought me a Moby Books Illustrated Classics version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
I was disappointed, and I didn’t hide it well. Which means Mom got upset, Dad got mad, and I got in trouble.
And then … we repeated the scene over and over until … well, I don’t know when. But not until I ended up with a shelf full of the little boogers.
So, what was wrong with the Moby Books Illustrated Classics? Nothing really, except …
The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew
The problems for Moby Books and me really began a few years earlier, when our class started going to the school library once a week.
It didn’t take me long to find Nancy Drew, and then the Hardy Boys, and within a month I was hooked on reading for good.
I didn’t realize at the time that Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene weren’t real people but just umbrella pseudonyms that allowed Grossett and Dunlap to churn out these mysteries in perpetuity.
And it wouldn’t have mattered.
What I knew was that I could get a complete story every Friday, and that by Monday morning I was hungry for more.
Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary
Luckily, my teachers read to us regularly, too, and that opened up a whole new world of chapter books and authors.
I’m sure there were many books that we heard from the lips of our beloved educators over the years, but the ones that really stand out to me now are Henry and Beezus by Beverly Cleary, in second grade, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, in fourth grade (duh).
These ladies told stories like no one I’d ever encountered before, and they told stories about kids like me. Kids like me having adventures I wanted to have.
As luck and marketing would have it, our local department store sold box sets of works by both authors, and my mom was happy to feed my reading addiction with their nourishment.
Like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, Blume and Cleary offered up a complete tale under each cover and, as in those sleuth books, illustrations appeared sparsely through the text.
They were weening us off picture books.
I was ready.
They Didn’t Come First
What Joe and Frank and Nancy and Henry and Beezus and Peter and Fudge really meant when it came time to seek new reading material was that the Moby Books didn’t come first in my life.
Had the “Illustrated Classic Editions” edition of Moby Dick shown up before The Secret of the Old Clock, or had the squat, big-letter copy of Treasure Island beat Ribsy to my bookshelf, all might have been well.
But none of that happened, and so there were expectations to deal with.
For instance, when it came to the Moby Books …
They Weren’t Complete
From The House on the Cliff and The Tower Treasure to The Secret in the Old Attic and on through to Superfudge and Henry Huggins, I had learned what a complete story looked like.
I knew about — even if I couldn’t name — plot and characterization and dialogue.
And, as shallow as it may sound, I knew that typeface should get smaller, not larger, as you moved up the difficulty scale.
By the time Mom brought home that first Moby Book, I also knew something about the classics.
I knew that Moby Dick had a lot of pages, for example.
I knew great literature was hard to read.
It took about two seconds to figure out the Mobies didn’t hit those marks.
They were very easy to read, and, though you got a full story (mostly), the writing just seemed so … *thin* … and I was doubtful that you were getting the full story.
They Had Pictures
I didn’t mind the pictures in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. And we were all dying to see what Dribble, Peter Hatcher’s pet turtle looked like before Fudge ate him.
But by the time I got to the Moby Books, I was over the pictures. I wanted thick, involved books that would last me all weekend — all week, preferably.
Instead, I got detailed drawings scattered throughout the books that, while interesting to look at, reminded me that these were not “real” books.
I felt robbed and disappointed.
Mom Wanted Me to Read
Mom and Dad both always wanted me to do well in school, and to read all I could.
So she kept trying.
She’d bring home a new Moby Book every couple of weeks and try to rationalize why it was a good choice … why I should enjoy the read.
And I kept telling her I wanted a book, not a pamphlet.
I was very ungrateful, it seems, but I had my standards, and I couldn’t understand what the problem was.
Even though Mom told me …
We Lived in Podunk
To be fair, I still (again, actually) live in Podunk. The same Podunk. So it’s not really all that bad.
But there was a big problem when it came to finding books to read in the 1980s …
Once I had bought and read all the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books the local department store had to offer … well, I’d bought and read all the books the town had to offer.
Except the Mobies.
So … why didn’t we just go to the library?
Because you paid your way in this life, dammit! And if you couldn’t afford — or find — something, you did without.
It was stubborn, self-denying, self-sufficiency at its best.