My Childhood Bookshelf: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
My favorite color is blue. My favorite food is chocolate. But if you ask me what my favorite book is, I'm not sure I could pick just one. Even as a kid, I loved reading all different kinds of books: historical fiction, fantasy, nonfiction, biography...pretty much anything I could get my hands on.
But even though I don't have a favorite-favorite book, one of my most beloved childhood reads was The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. It was the abridged (bowdlerized) version published in the 1980s that edited out most of the overtly racist, imperialistic passages from Lofting's original book published in the 1920s.
The book begins when a young boy, Tommy, finds an injured squirrel. Tommy meets Doctor Dolittle who can talk to animals and is able to treat the squirrel. With the help of a parrot named Polynesia, Tommy learns how to understand animal languages and becomes a sort of apprentice to Doctor Dolittle. Together, Tommy and the Doctor go on voyage both above and below the sea.
Even all these years later, I can remember the feeling of delight I had while reading this book. I can clearly see the influence of the fanciful adventures in my own writing now. It was whimsical, but not juvenile. Tommy was a curious and caring main character, often times taking charge when Doctor Dolittle got too distracted. Despite not having a favorite book, I do have a favorite character in this book, and it's not Tommy. My favorite was Polynesia the Parrot. She's very witty, smart, and cranky.
As much as I loved this book, I wouldn't recommend it to kids today without lots of guidance and discussion. It's so steeped in the attitudes of its time that even substantial editing can't remove that worldview entirely. Part of growing up is leaving things behind, and this book is one that stays on the bookshelf of the past for me.