One of my favorite activities is visiting used bookshops or resale stores that feature books. Often attracted to vintage publications, I’m typically drawn to those reminding me of something from my youth. I enjoy sharing these “fantastic finds,” hoping to spark a memory for blog readers, as well, or to create a new curiosity that leads down an intriguing avenue. Since I write for both children and adults, I have a vested interest in understanding what pulls people toward certain types of books.
“Uncle Wiggily” was a popular board game when I was a young child. I remember having mixed feelings about playing with my family or friends and sometimes felt a bit of nerves during the game. Not sure if those related to some of the unsavory characters along the path of play, like the bad “Skeezicks” and “Pipsisewah,” or maybe I just didn’t want to lose! At the time, I was only vaguely aware of stories written about this rabbit, “Uncle Wiggily Longears.”
Hop forward almost forty years to the middle-aged version of me scanning the shelves at one of my favorite used bookstores in Michigan. There it was…a childhood memory in full color, also in rather tattered shape. It was still quite a steal at $8.00. The book, Uncle Wiggily Goes Camping, was mine! Written by Howard R. Garis, I decided to pursue details about the author.
Further research revealed that Howard Garis wrote thousands of Uncle Wiggily stories, which appeared in the Newark News for many years and in books; I also learned he wasn’t the only published author in his family. During the early to mid-1900s, he and his wife, Lilian, wrote hundreds of juvenile series chapter books. Some sported their actual names, while others were written under various pseudonyms for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, including Tom Swift books as “Victor Appleton” and the Bobbsey Twins series as “Laura Lee Hope.” As you can imagine, I needed more (books and information)!
I purchased the treasure above, from the Melody Lane series by Lilian Garis, in a bookstore while living in North Carolina. It’s a former library edition and found its way south from a county in Pennsylvania. I was thrilled to come across it and love the art deco appeal of the cover. The frontispiece illustration and end papers with the dated library pocket (1946) are amazing.
Lilian and Howard had two children, a son, Roger, and younger daughter, Cleo. As a young man, Roger also wrote series books, such as The Outboard Boys. Cleo penned the Arden Blake Mysteries during that same period. The front of Missing at the Marshlands, shown below, isn’t very interesting without a dust cover, but the end papers are beautiful, and the overall condition is very good. This one was bought in a Minnesota bookshop that housed a wonderful vintage section.
In middle age, Roger wrote a biography entitled, My Father Was Uncle Wiggily. I owned a copy, at one point, but gave it away as a gift, so that’s a stock photo, below. The book was a joy to read and has just the right combination of nostalgic family stories and other interesting tidbits, such as tales about Howard Garis being close friends with their neighbor, the poet, Robert Frost! I remember a few hints at some competition between the Garis elders and children, especially as time passes and incomes fluctuate. Roger also tells about his mother’s disappointment in her unsuccessful quest to move from writing for children to more serious works. Overall, the book is a very positive and enjoyable biography, and I didn’t question or care, particularly, whether every bit is true or written through “rose-colored” glasses. Enter the granddaughter, Leslie.Because of my interest in the Garis writing family, I occasionally do a quick internet search to see what I’ve missed. Around 2007, Roger’s daughter, Leslie, wrote House of Happy Endings: A Memoir, which was reviewed as being the story behind the fairy-tale. She recounts a difficult childhood watching her father’s struggle for success, independent of his parents, while he fought depression and addiction. In later years, Howard and Lilian had come to live with Roger, his wife, and three children. Leslie writes candidly about secretly observing much of the goings-on in the large house while hiding in the dumbwaiter.
The book is raw and difficult to read but feels very honest. It certainly dispels any ideas of a Garis utopian life. Not a happy book, but it does contain a certain feeling of hopefulness in the author’s attempts to understand the dynamics between her grandparents and parents, and to come to terms with some issues that follow her into adulthood and even affect her own child. I’ve never come across this memoir at a bookstore but couldn’t resist taking this post full circle. At the time of reading, I borrowed it through the interlibrary loan system. I’m not sorry to have read it, but the story is quite sad. I hope the author, Leslie Garis, has found a bit of her own happy ending.