Friday, June 6, 2008

Collecting Things

One of the lesser commented upon, but reasonably universal, phases of childhood is that phase of collecting things. This monomania can strike anytime between about six years of age and around fifteen when it usually begins to fade or at least goes into abeyance for a while. Yet, as common as it seems, and as broad ranging as the interests might be, the habit of collecting things does not show up all that much in children's literature, which I find strange.

The particular items which attract a child's interest for collecting can be as wonderfully varied as the books in which they are interested. Rocks, stamps, dolls, pictures from magazines, baseball cards, charms for a bracelet, jokes, riddles, marbles, comic books and pets, are all of course traditional grist for the collecting mill but children can be wonderfully diverse. I know one young fellow who collects pictures of different styles of elevator. Another collects only rocks with natural holes in them. The variety can be fascinating.

What is the compulsion underlying this impulse? I have not ever come across any monograph on this topic though I suspect one must be out there. At the risk of indulging in a branch of thinking which I often mock, pop-psychologizing, I would hazard the guess that the collecting bug is a marker of development and maturity; it is that phase when a child begins to exert some control over his world and impose some sort of order, not the order of others, but his own order. When you are the collector, you set the rules, you are the expert - and with any luck you might also attract some attention. Possibly even positive attention. There are some really positive attributes to this phase of development when you think about it. What goes into creating a first class collection of anything? Focus, enthusiasm, and perseverance. These are not bad attributes to encourage.

The boundaries between collecting and hobbies can get a little fuzzy. I was an inveterate collector as a child with most of the reasonably mainstream collections going - such as rocks and stamps - but I also loved to build model ships and had quite a collection of them. Was that an accidental collection arising from a hobby or was that a hobby that needed to create a collection? Very zen. And I don't know the answer.

Beyond the standard collections common to many children, I also had a few outliers. Secret codes had their phase as did different language scripts such as Cyrillic, Vietnamese, Hindu, Arabic, etc. Living overseas, collecting coins from different countries was also popular. I still have old tobacco tins of coins around the house which the kids like to rummage through every now and then to find the must unusually shaped ones, the lightest ones (coins from aluminum), the ones with the most and fewest sides, oddly colored ones, coins with holes in the center, etc. I feel particularly aged when I sit with them and go through the coins, explaining where they came from and who some of the figureheads were. When we first lived in England in the 1960's, there were still penny coins in circulation from Queen Victoria's reign. Now that makes you feel old. Almost as old as when you tell them that the country from which this other coin came no longer exists. Ouch!

Jokes (and riddles in their own time) were a big collecting item at one stage, harvested from joke books, Reader's Digests, and other sources. Not being a natural comic and with no gift for remembering more than one or two one-liners at a time, I of course ended up walking around with a large sheaf of pages, trying to find just the right joke for the occasion. I think it was a mercifully brief collecting phase though it must have seemed interminable to my victims.

Facts were (and still are) another big item for collecting, greatly facilitated by the annual publication of the Guinness Book of World Records. I suspect the publisher must survive upon the annual emergence of a new crop of fact-collecting twelve year olds. I recall finding the Guinness Book in the library and being engulfed by its fascinating array of information, lugging it home and perching myself in the corner of the kitchen and sharing all these wonderful and fascinating pearls with whomever happened to be circulating there (and there was always someone in the kitchen - go to where your audience is). I can remember to this day the wonderfully polite way my older sister asked me to shut-up. After about the eighteenth fascinating fact that I shared with her as she fixed a ham sandwich or some such, she remarked "Oh, you must be reading the Guinness Book of World Records. I remember not being able to quit quoting from it too."

Guinness wasn't the only source of facts. There was also Ripley's Believe It or Not, some of whose books are still in circulation. If you are ever down in San Augustine, Florida for the history of being in the oldest city in USA, don't overlook visiting the Ripley Museum there - a seminal experience for any child. My daughter enjoyed it but my sons loved it. With all those shrunken heads from Amazonia and those two-headed calves, who wouldn't be captivated. Another source of interesting facts was Arkady Leokum's Tell Me Why of which I think there were ultimately three or four in the series.

Does anyone collect marbles anymore? I see bags of them in dime stores but I couldn't say when I last saw kids playing a game of marbles - a victim of modern virtual entertainment perhaps? In some corner of the attic I still have a beautiful collection of marbles of all sizes and colors.

Back to England, I hadn't thought about it in a long while, but we collected conkers, the hard seeds of chestnut trees. In the fall, all the little kids - well all the little boys really - would lurk under the local chestnut trees scavenging for good conkers. This took some care and dexterity as the hard brown shelled seeds came sheathed in a spiny husk. If it were well ripened, you could peel off the husk with ease. If not, you usually ended up with a lot of jabs and spines in your hand and fingers. The objective was to find a large, solid and very hard shelled conker. If one were not on the ground, the tree was inspected very carefully for candidates and it would not be unusual to find boys bombarding high branches with soccer balls trying to obtain some potential champion.

For the object of all this effort (and pain) was to have a champion conker. Once you found your candidate, you would drill a hole through the center (the exact location of the drilled hole being the subject of much learned conversation with friends in the know) and then park the conker under or behind a heater for a week or so. Once hardened (and hopefully not having become brittle), you would bring it out and thread string through and knot it at the bottom of the conker. You were now ready for a contest.

During recess you would roam the playground finding other boys to challenge. The rules were simple. You would hold your conker hanging from its string and the other boy would take his and smash at it, attempting to break your conker. Misses counted. After their turn, it would be your turn to have a go at his conker. The game would continue until one conker lay shattered on the ground. After you shattered someone else's conker, you had a onesy. If successful against a second conker, you had a twosey. And so on. Fresh conkers, onesy's and twosy's were pretty much a dime a dozen (to mix my countries.) A fivesy got notice, a tensy was famous. And these conkers did become famous. Some of these contests took on all the theatre and drama of a world heavyweight boxing championship. Some broker would arrange a match between an up and rising foursy against some gnarled and veteran sevensy. A crowd would form on the playground. How many rounds would they go before a winner emerged? And who would it be? Some favorite conker splitting apart would elicit heartfelt groans; if successful - cheers.

Certain boys would, over the course of the conker season, amass a veritable stable of champions. Most did this by careful judgment in selecting conkers. Some, who attracted much derision, did so by trading sweets and comics or other desirable things for a champion. But every boy was judged by the quality of his conker collection.

Last but not least are the general purpose collections - not characterized so much by what is collected, but by what the object means to the child. An old button from a beloved cuddly, a coin in your pocket from the time you visited Disney Land, a neat piece of driftwood from a favorite beach holiday, etc. Such a generic and harum-scarum collection is the locus of Charles Tazewell's The Littlest Angel, an almost saccharin tale but in the end, deeply touching. You see such a collection in the French movie Amelie in which a young woman's discovery of a boy's collection of precious trinkets, stashed away by a former resident in her apartment some time in the sixties or seventies, leads her on an adventure to find this long relocated fellow and reconnect him with this miniature time capsule of his childhood.

What did you collect as a child and what are the books of which you are aware in which a child's collecting is a pivotal part of the story?

Picture Books

Prudy's Problem and How She Solved It by Carey Armstrong-Ellis Suggested

Max's Words by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov Suggested

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss Highly Recommended

The Giant Ball of String by Arthur Geisert Suggested

Julie the Rockhound by Gail Langer Karwoski and illustrated by Lisa Downey Recommended

The Library by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell and illustrated by Paul Micich Recommended

Just Enough and Not Too Much by Kaethe Zemach Suggested

Independent Readers

Ripley's Believe It or Not by Anonymous Suggested

The Vanishing Thieves by Franklin W. Dixon Suggested

Guinness World Records 2008 by Craig Glenday

Rocks in His Head by Carol Otis Hurst and illustrated by James Stevenson Suggested

Hannah's Collections by Marthe Jocelyn Suggested

The Puddle Pail by Elisa Kleven Suggested

The Little Giant Book of Weird & Wacky Facts by Arkady Leokum and Doug Storer Suggested

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey Highly Recommended

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