Nostalgia and Childhood Literature

There are few things as comforting as curling up with your favorite book. The feeling of escaping to a world different from our own with characters you know as well as family is something that is hard to recreate with any other form of media; no one else has the same mental picture in their mind of a setting that you do. For me, the Gryffindor common room looks like my elementary school auditorium, but maybe to you, it looks like your living room and to someone else, it looks exactly like the movie.

As a creative writing major, I have read a lot of books from all different genres. Whether it’s classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, young adult novels like Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places or Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, or even graphic novels like Kami Garcia’s Teen Titans: Raven, I am almost always reading.

Despite all of these vast genres, my favorite book of all time is a children’s mystery novel that I read for the first time in the third grade: Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.

To give you an idea of the novel, here is the summary that is present on the back of my copy:

A highly inventive mystery begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they play a game. All they have to do is find the answer – but the answer to what? The Westing game is tricky and dangerous, but the heirs play on – through blizzards, burglaries, and bombings…

I was first introduced to this book when my third-grade teacher began reading it out loud to our class. I was immediately enraptured. The first chapter of the novel promises that there will be bombings and burglaries and mystery and adventure – everything an eight-year-old with an overactive imagination could want. But I was snapped out of my reverie when my teacher had to stop reading us The Westing Game and start reading us James and the Giant Peach.

The fact that I was forced to stop in the middle of such an exhilarating story frankly broke my heart, so I immediately forced my mom to drive me to Barnes and Noble so that I may pick out my own copy of The Westing Game. Once again, I became obsessed.

Since third grade, I have read The Westing Game about twenty-five times, give or take a few. I know the book so well that I have the first couple of lines memorized (“The sun rises in the east and sets in the west (just about everyone knew that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!”). And in the many times that I’ve read it, I’ve learned something.

Books offer a sort of home and belonging that is incomparable. When I open up The Westing Game all these years later, I am immediately transported back to eight-years-old. I’ve grown up with these characters and have seen myself in them at different ages; as a kid, I was definitely Turtle Wexler, but now I’m more akin to Theo Theodorakis. Maybe I’ll pick up the book when I’m older and realize I’ve become Mrs. Bambauch (or, more accurately, Sydelle Pulaski). Growing up I was often alone, but I would scoff at the idea of being called lonely. How could I be lonely when I had the heirs of Sam Westing to keep me company? (Yes, I’m aware of how lame that sounds but I just really love this book, okay?)

I wanted to highlight how important The Westing Game is to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it seems as though a lot of people haven’t read this book or, if they have, haven’t read it in a very long time. It’s a quick read and genuinely fun, so I can’t recommend it enough.Secondly, in literature communities, whether that’s the internet or just your college literature class, children’s novels are sort of swept under the rug. There’s the idea that if the novel isn’t grounded in gritty realism or an extended metaphor for some disaster, or has a lot of sex/sexual undertones then it isn’t worth reading. Take this moment to think about novels that you read in your high school English class. Where any of them just… fun? Did any of them have happy endings that were genuine? Mine certainly did not.

Children’s novels remind us that there is good and pure in the world. Yes, series like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter have a lot (a lot) of death, but they exist in a realm of childlike innocence that people are longing to return to. I’m not saying that serious novels have no place in society – that would be a bold-faced lie. But sometimes novels go beyond a bunch of pencil-pushing academics who claim to be the gatekeepers of what “high art” is allowed to be. 

Is The Westing Game the most important literary accomplishment of the 20th Century? No. But is it a genuine, entertaining novel that can make you forget about your problems and instead focus on these sixteen heirs? Absolutely! More importantly, for me, it is a story that reminds me of my childhood. 

And I cannot thank my third-grade teacher enough for sharing it with me.

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