When I was a kid — and there remains considerable debate today as to whether I have grown up — I did a lot of reading. Not necessarily the required stuff of grade school, but what I wanted to read.
I vividly recall the excitement of joining the Outdoor Life book club, seizing on the publication’s three-books-for-a-dollar offer, then getting a solid scolding from mom when she learned the deal required purchasing a few more books over the next year for much more than a buck. I somehow stumbled into a copy of Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America,” only to be disappointed upon learning it wasn’t about trout fishing at all. Nor was “Catcher in the Rye” the biography of Yogi Berra.
My clear-cut favorite as a young reader was anything by Jim Kjelgaard, whose books centered on the outdoors and, so often, dogs. Kjelgaard wrote more than 40 books, but was widely known for “Big Red,” “Irish Red,” “Haunt Fox,” “Forest Patrol” and a few others. “Big Red,” written in 1945, sold several thousand copies and actually for a while popularized the Irish setter – thanks, in part, to scores of young readers begging their parents for one of their own. “Big Red” was even made into a Disney movie in 1962.
Even today, I scoop up any old, tattered copy of “Big Red” and other Kjelgaard works and dole them out to youngsters, and maybe even breeze through one or two myself – notably “Forest Patrol,” his first novel and the riveting story of a young man and his growth as a forest ranger in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
The Keystone State setting for “Forest Patrol” should come as no surprise; Kjelgaard and his family lived near Galeton for much of his young life. Now the Potter County community is looking to mark Kjelgaard’s time there in the form of a mural to be created at a yet-to-be-determined location by Philadelphia artist Jonathan Laidacker. Students at Galeton High School, from which Kjelgaard graduated, will be part of the mural project in some way.
Kjelgaard, after years of battling depression and chronic pain, took his own life in 1959 at the age of 48. He was living in Arizona at the time.
Today, his works can still be found with a little effort, even though his last novel, “Coyote Song,” was written back in 1969. “Big Red,” and others have stood the test of time, and Kjelgaard’s adventurous writings remain available through Amazon and other booksellers.
Any parent — or school librarian — having trouble nudging their kids into reading would be wise to track down some of Kjelgaard’s books, especially if the youngster has an interest in the outdoors.