After our house flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, my mom and I became obsessed with replacing books that we had loved and lost in the storm. It was a funny process because often we could not remember the title of a book, but we could remember specific scenes, vague plotlines, or vivid images from covers of specific editions we had. For the first few months after Katrina, while I was going to school in Tennessee, my mom stayed at our apartment, writing lists of everything we had lost. She would wander the aisles of Barnes & Noble, scanning spines to see what jumped out at her. When she’d come to pick me up from school, she’d excitedly exclaim “I found it! I found four books today!” She’d show me the titles written down in her notebook of lost things.
For years afterwards, we’d be in the middle of something else when we would suddenly remember a book. I’d be folding laundry or working on homework when a cover would float into my mind or I would fondly remember a scene. Some books, like Rainbow Fish, or Holes, or Number the Stars have titles you just don’t forget. They stick in your mind and you know them. Other books have memorable authors they can be found by. I always remember author-illustrator Leo Lionni’s name, but I never seem to be able to recall the full title of Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse. I remember Maurice Sendak is the author that wrote the book with baby-stealing goblins, but I can’t ever seem to exactly remember the title Outside Over There.
If a title is part of series, say A to Z Mysteries, Animal Ark, Magic Treehouse, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, or others, that’s fairly easy to find too. Series tend to have a larger online presence, and where there’s a series, there’s usually a complete list of titles. I only ever read one A to Z Mystery, The Haunted Hotel, but I felt I had to replace it after the storm, and rereading it gave me such joy. I guess it feels like reclaiming something that was taken from you.
Other books can prove to be more elusive. For example, I could distinctly remember reading a kind of solve-the-mystery picture book that had interactive elements like pull-tabs, pop-ups, and envelopes with pull-out letters. I remembered one book revolved around a stolen piece of jewelry in the snow and another revolved around pirates. However, googling for “interactive mystery book snow lost jewelry” didn’t give promising results. For a long time, I was certain it was a missing diamond and included that while googling. I also thought I remembered seeing the Candlewick bear-and-candle logo on the spine.
However, one day, I hit a breakthrough by googling the names of other jewels, and finally found the book I sought. Of course the title was The Mystery of the Russian Ruby: A Pop-Up Whodunit. How could I have forgotten! The pirate book was easy to find once I knew the author. My mom was so excited I had found the titles, she ordered both books from Ebay and gifted them to me the next Christmas. It was crazy reading them again, pulling the tabs and seeing footprints and other clues. I felt like an 8-year old, discovering the book for the first time!
It can be addictive making discoveries like these. You think “well, I’ve been looking for this for years and I’ve finally found it! What are some other troubling books I haven’t found yet? What exact combination of words will reveal the title I’ve been looking for all along?”
My mom and I have used AbeBooks Book Sleuth forums to post summaries of books we remember. Usually if we can provide enough details, other forum members can think of the title or at least guide us towards it. (We found The Cats of Tiffany Street this way recently.) Looking on GoodReads in other reader’s lists has helped me find titles like The Baby Unicorn and The Christmas Doll (looking under list subjects unicorns and Christmas). Google can be helpful too, especially if you remember the publishing house, year of publication, or distinctive words that might pop up in the title or a description of the book. For example, I found Peter Lippman’s The Haunted House board book by googling something like “board book 1995 haunted”.
Every once in awhile I get an urge to google around for books I’ve been looking for for a long time. It’s not so much that I absolutely need to reread them, but that the search for them is like a mythical quest. These lost titles sometimes seem to hold the key to a rich archive of memories that can only be accessed by naming them. I also really enjoy reading other people’s quest for books, as the summaries of what they remember can be so enticing. Stump the Bookseller is a service that has been in operation for over a decade and many of the queries are still unresolved.
Just last night, I solved one of my long-time mystery books. For years I remembered buying a chapter book in Gonzalez, LA at a small bookstore in a strip mall while on a road trip with my parents. I remember coming back to my stroller with the book and looking through it. I remember my parents thinking asking me if I’d be able to read it by myself. Later, I held it as my parents listened to what I would later come to recognize as Prairie Home Companion. I remember thinking about what the book might be about based on the pictures I could see in the fading light. When I read it at home that night, it was about ghost pirate ships, roller coasters, and what I thought looked like hippo-characters.
I’ve thought for a long time it was a Stepping Stone Book (the first of the Magic Treehouse Books sported the Stepping Stone banner and I was sure it was on the cover of this book as well ). I finally thought to search it by guessing the year, 1996, and Stepping Stone chapter books. The cover is different than I remember, but it’s strikingly familiar as well. House of the Horrible Ghosts is a story about a ghost pirates who haunt an amusement park in a town inhabited not by hippos, but alligators (but who also look like dinosaurs)? I ordered the book and feverishly reread it. It holds up pretty well!
There are books I’m still looking for, of course. Sometimes the combination of the Internet and my memory come up short. And besides, like is a little more interesting with a few mystery titles haunting me.