One snowy day last week, I was looking at our collection of children’s books when I was surprised to see how many of the covers were green. I was taken back, not only for the sheer amount of green on a single shelf, but also because I’d read in Alexander Theroux’s essay collection The Primary Colors that yellow is “a child’s first color preference.” I suppose I thought more books would cater to that.
Of course, there were a couple of yellow books on the shelf as well — two ancient cloth books the colour of pale mustard, The Story of Paddington Bear, and another one called A Book of Reptiles and Amphibians, an ex-libris copy from my childhood elementary school.
But in any case, it was the greens that stood out, fresh and vibrant as a spring morning when the shoots on the trees begin to appear. It made me wonder what Theroux wrote in his follow-up book, Secondary Colors, about green. I would imagine he probably expounded greatly on its associations with nature, new life, and growth.
As I thought more about the colour green, I recalled some words from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, a poem I studied in high school, though I could not remember the exact phrases without looking them up. But I seemed to recall this poem about childhood was laced with green and gold.
“And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means.
And green and golden I was . . .”
Were the green children’s books I saw on my shelf intentionally created that colour to suggest the greenness of childhood? Was it just a marketing scheme?
I went and selected a few of the books and took them off the shelf. Among them were titles like Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett, the Swallows and Amazons series, and others. I realized that these particular books/series were not only about the childhood but also very much concerned with the natural world.
For instance, on her first morning at Green Gables, Anne looks out her window to see a green world, painted with imagery of “ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally,” and the word “green” itself is used to describe the view three times in short succession. And of course, “green” appears in the very title of the book, Anne of Green Gables, as the house — and in particular that part of the roof which it is named after — is painted green.
In The Secret Garden, Mary is intrigued with the idea of the garden that had not been entered for ten years, and went in search of it. She finds doors painted green. Now, these were only the doors to the kitchen gardens (much to her disappointment), but when she finally finds the door to the secret garden, its colour remains unmentioned: it was hidden under a curtain of overgrown, green ivy.
After she entered, “she thought she saw something sticking out of the black earth—some sharp little pale green points.” Though the garden was overgrown, the green of life was already poking through in places. Of course, the rest of the book largely centers around the garden being brought back to life, in a beautiful green rejuvenation.
The Swallows and Amazon books take place a great deal on the water, which is not green, but blue (at least it appears that way). But I’ve visited the Lake District, the setting of much of the series, which are loosely based on the writer’s recollections of his childhood holidays there. And I can tell you, the lush landscape is a sea of vibrant green.
And while I cannot readily find a reference to green in Swallows and Amazons, I did find on a website that listed one of their boats, “Wild Cat,” a schooner found in Peter Duck and the beginning Missie Lee, having been painted green.
Not only, then, are there the natural associations of nature in these books, but artificial ones, too: the painted gables, the painted doors, the painted boat, all green. The house, the doors, and the boat were all key parts of these books, and they were pained green, as though to signal back to the natural world, further associating a green world with childhood.
I recall my own green childhood of trees and fields. Of growing my own little vegetable patch, which largely consisted of green, weeds and all. Of picking bushels of green tomatoes from the family garden before the first frost. Of cutting the grass with the riding lawn mower and slicing the head off a green garter that popped its head up at the last second. Of going out into the back bush and plucking gooseberries, unripe, and eating their sour green seeds, puckering my mouth.
And I remember the countless hours that I spent as a child, reading. Reading the green books that talk of childhood and the natural world and green.
The green covers of the books, I realize now, were like a painted green, an artificial outside that gave me access to the natural, inner green — a green door through which to enter, a green gable from which to see, a green boat on which to travel.
And now, they are as gateways into my memories of playing outside, of being so closely connected to the natural world I could feel the blades of grass on the backs of my legs, of my own greenness. And of reading about childhood as I myself was still a child.
And I thought again to the covers of those green books. The green on the covers of the Swallows and Amazons series only appears on the cloth (they are covered with dust jackets of various other colours). The green is hidden beneath. And green cloth covers is a rather common choice for publishers. Perhaps it was just coincidence: the green covers were maybe not meant to intensify these associations that I’ve endowed them with.
It is now winter, and I am also in a different season of my life.
But I still return to the green of childhood by opening a cover of my old favourites now and then, and read in green for awhile.
There is nothing deep, nothing profound, I think, about this post. Just some thoughts about the possible links between the green of childhood and the books written about it.
Recently, I came across a reading challenge, which tasked the reader with reading “A book with a blue cover.” And I wonder what kind of book that would be?
Question: What colour associations do you have with particular kinds of books?