I always wonder why some books resonate so much with a child and others don’t. And as I look back into my childhood at the books that shaped me, I wonder what made them so important in MY life. One such book is The Lion’s Paw, by Robb White. My fourth grade teacher read this to my class in Englewood, Florida, where I spent my childhood. The book was out of print for many years, and when I searched for it as an adult, even badly worn paperback copies on Amazon and e-bay ran $85. I was surprised and delighted to find a paperback copy in a thrift store for 50 cents after many years of looking. And I was even happier when a former student emailed me to let me know the book was back in print. I had my new hardback copy before the week was out. And yes, it was as good as I remembered it, although somewhat dated.
Originally published in 1946, White’s book follows two orphans, Nick and Penny, who escape from an orphanage on the east coast of Florida. They join up with Ben, another orphan running away from his uncle, who wants to sell his beloved sailboat. The story follows them as they cross Florida on their way to Captiva Island, looking for a shell to complete Ben’s collection. He is convinced when he finds this final shell, a rare lion’s paw, his father will return.
The children battle bounty hunters, the Coast Guard, alligators, and hurricanes. The book is fast-paced, has interesting characters and a dramatic and satisfying ending. As a child, I was fascinated by hearing the names of places familiar to me: Lake Okeechobee, Fort Myers, Captiva and Sanibel Islands. For years I looked fruitlessly for a lion’s paw.
But I think my love of the book was due to more than a good story set in familiar places. The three kids are fully aware of the possible consequences of their running away, but, unloved and unwanted, they band together and take responsibility for their own futures. I was inspired by 12-year-old Penny’s inner toughness as she rowed in the night, her hands bleeding and her tears mixing with the rain. Ben’s faith and trust in his father and his desire to live up to the faith his father had in him also inspired me.
My teacher seemed to like books with resourceful, resilient children who were unwilling to sit and take what life has handed them and who understood that it would be more hard work than fun. My Side of the Mountain was another book of this type this teacher read us. I think this need for resilience and ingenuity is one reason the Harry Potter books have been so popular.
Events in my life have forced me to call upon an inner toughness that I never knew was there until I needed it. I have not rowed for hours in the rain, but I have sat in doctors’ offices, in emergency rooms and in school meetings fighting for my child. There are very few of us that lead such charmed lives that we will not need resilience at some point. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and books such as The Lion’s Paw are a good place to start. The gift of good books is one we hope to give JRA students in turn.
I have never met anyone outside of Florida who has read or even heard of this book. Do any of you Florida folks remember it? For those of you outside of Florida, were there regional books that you loved? I’d love to hear in the comment section what books inspired you as a child.