Vasilisa: Early Book Meme

This is the second consecutive post dealing with childhood reads but Kate’s Early Book Meme was difficult to resist. Here are the answers that I came up with:

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?

I was not a reading prodigy, so I think I probably learned to read when I was three and a half years old and was admitted to kindergarten where reading and writing were, of course, taught simultaneously. My parents have still not forgotten that I was unable to draw an upright letter “A”, and my kindergarten notebooks, diligently preserved, bear witness to dozens of “A”s standing precariously on one leg. Reading came as a matter of course, and was taught in school, and supplemented by baby sentences uttered at home. English, not being our mother-tongue, was not spoken at home until my sister and I started using a 3-language slang hybrid of English, Marathi and Hindi, that was spoken at school.

2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?

I can answer this with a fair amount of certainty. My mother and aunt were big fans of the Russian book exhibitions that used to be held in the city in those days. From one such, we got a beautiful picture book, which had a minimum amount of words in the captions, the entire story being told in two or three pictures.

One that I remember vividly is that of a cat who starts playing with a ball of yarn from an old lady’s knitting. The ball rolls down the slope and unwinds and … Well, most of you will sympathize with the poor cat. The book, whose title escapes me, was a series of such simple one-page stories, a treasure of miniature eurekas.

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?

As children, we never earned any money by running errands. The notion of pocket money arrived pretty late when I was old enough to ride a moped and needed money for gas. But, I recall one of the books that I won as a prize in primary school: Fireside Tales, by Enid Blyton. This volume had short stories in which toys in a closet came alive at night and made merry with elves and goblins who visited from beneath the garden. When the film version of Toy Story was released, I could never understand what the fuss was about. Enid Blyton had done it so well, and the stories in my head were so vivid and interesting that it was slightly annoying that a movie director came and took it away.

Another prize for academic performance during middle school was a collection of short stories by famous authors – my favorites being “Dusk” by Saki H. H. Munro, “The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford, and “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe. Whoever chose that book as a prize – possibly a primary school teacher or principal – has my gratitude.

4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?

There is only one winner here, no contest. We had a book from Mir Publishers Moscow called Vasilisa, The Beautiful. The book was named after the first story in a collection of folk tales. From the collection, I remember reading and re-reading the poetically titled Marya Morevna, The Lovely Tsarevna, in which princess Marya Morevna helps Tsarevich Ivan outwit Baba Yaga and kill Koschei The Deathless, my premier villain at the time. Baba Yaga, malicious witch extraordinare, who lived in a hut that went round and round upon a hen’s foot, gave me more than a few nightmares. I had “goosebumps” every time I read about the part in which Ivan sneaks into Baba Yaga’s stables and steals a powerful horse which can enable him to chase Koschei no matter the head start he has. Whole sentences from that book are seared into memory, and I reflect with a little sadness that these quintessentially Russian tales are conspicuously absent from the bookstores in my city today. If anyone remembers, a few more of these gems were titled Ivan, Young of Years, Old of Wisdom; The Seven Simeons; and Chestnut Grey. Hard bound, musty, and olive green with gold letters in the title, the book was handed down to us from older cousins, and we returned the favor, handing it down to the younger ones, though it is debatable whether any generation had as much fun with them as ours. When things at work are difficult and worry gnaws at the mind, the advice from the book still echoes, “Don’t worry. Go to bed, for night is the mother of counsel.”

Moby Books, and its Indian equivalent Jaico Classics used to have a series of abridged and illustrated versions of the great classics – War of the Worlds, Moby Dick, Around the World in Eighty Days, Call of the Wild, and the like. These, I re-read with gusto. My inner life as a ten-year-old was full of bizarre adventures and grim battles – Dr. Lanyon’s letter to Mr. Utterson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the chapter on Queequeg’s coffin in Moby Dick, and the great fight between Buck and Spitz in Call of the Wild were my favorites. I did read Heidi and Little Women around the same time, in the same Moby Books series, but did not approach them with the sort of wide-eyed wonder and slavish fascination that I had for the former titles.

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?

I have written a separate post about this before in response to a post that Danielle wrote, and that answer is as good as any I can come up with. The book in question is The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are recommended for age eleven and over. I didn’t read them until I was 28, but then gobbled up the first three books in quick succession. This answer is slightly disingenuous though, because there is much more that an older reader can derive from (say) A Wizard of Earthsea, compared with the charms that that book can hold for a child. I have sinced been warned that the addenda that Le Guin later wrote to the original Earthsea trilogy are quite different in tone, and may be less enjoyable.

I know one book which I did not like as a child, and have not been able to finish as an adult. Much to the puzzlement of family and friends, I have been unable to love Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island so far. Perhaps, the next time, it might click with me.

6 thoughts on “Vasilisa: Early Book Meme”

  1. I just adore that illustration from Vasilisa, The Beautiful. And I love the advice that ‘night is the mother of counsel’. Do you think that book still exists in print? I’d love to get hold of it, but it has the look of something very rare.

  2. litlove: Beautiful, isn’t it? Imagine what novelty it must have had for a kid, if you told him that it would be daylight when a fiery red horseman galloped past you, and it would be night when you saw a black horseman on a black stallion. There was this and much more.

    I doubt that the book exists in print, but the stories themselves (or some modifications of the stories) are definitely around. I have seen at least one other book which had similar stories and similar characters, though the words and events were slightly different. I don’t know why that should be. Alexander Afanasyev collected some of these fairy tales, but I don’t know who the author is. You might find the following Wikipedia Page interesting:

    Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf

  3. I have sinced been warned that the addenda that Le Guin later wrote to the original Earthsea trilogy are quite different in tone, and may be less enjoyable.

    I don’t know whether they will be less enjoyable for you or not. They are different. My opinion is that they are likely to be less enjoyable to less sophisticated readers. Certainly “The Bones of the Earth” is my all-time favourite short story.

    I recently wrote a comment discussing How well Ged and Tehanu (the character) together with Gandalf and Aragorn met a prospective set of criteria for a Superhero. When I say “there are no real spoilers”, I mean I reveal nothing that isn’t told within the first few pages, or which you wouldn’t guess long before Le Guin actually reveals it.

    In this Follow up there are spoilers after a short space.

  4. Daran, apologies for the (very) late response. Your post on superheroes was wonderful to read. I do have copies of the latter Earthsea books at hand, and after reading the detailed comment you wrote after your post, I am eager to start reading them.

  5. Hiiiiiiiiiii, I m Natasha. i m from india. i read VASILISA hindi version since i was 10 yr. old. I keep it for very years, but now i had lost it.
    Now i want it back. so can u tell me how can i get this book, in hindi or english.
    my email is

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