The Christopher Books

From 1966 until Donald’s death in 1989, husband and wife team Carol and Donald Carrick wrote thirty-seven true-to-life children’s stories that won many awards and were beloved by teachers, librarians, and families alike. After her husband’s death, Carol teamed up with her illustrator son Paul to write nine more, the last in 2002. Over the years, her books were appreciated by the Saturday Review, the American Library Association, The New York Times, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Christian Science Monitor, and the National Science Teachers Association.

Among their many books, the Carrick’s wrote two series based on their sons. The Christopher series, based on their son Christopher, captured my notice and was appreciated by both me and my eleven-year-old son, Jack. The eight-book Christopher series chronicles the wonder and thrill of everyday life of a boy of about 10-12 years old growing up in mid-twentieth-century America with loving parents and a dog. What sets this series apart for me is the sensitivity and grace with which Carrick treats difficult situations – including the death of a beloved dog. These books are not sweet. They are not lovely. They are not idyllic. They are, however, boyishly boy. They are full of real-life adventure. They focus in on the beauty of the ordinary. And they reflect the emotions and thoughts that are common to children, boys in particular.

“You’re only afraid of the pond because it is a mystery to you… wait till you see what’s down there.  Dark and Full of Secrets

I think my favorite book of the series is Dark and Full of Secrets because, with a pair of goggles and a snorkel mask, Christopher conquers his fear of the pond by discovering the magical world that lies below the surface. The illustrations are perfect, and the story evolves just as it should.

I love Christopher’s parents, and I love the time in which Christoper is growing up. He is allowed considerably more freedom to roam and explore than children today are, but that is part of the magic for our young readers. Christopher’s parents are deeply loving and concerned, but they also give him a significant amount of space and latitude to stretch and grow.

In a 1990 review for the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, Ruth Mehrtens Galvin writes:

“Her gift is for exploring the world as a child experiences it, in all its astonishing, terrifying, marvelous variety… Her children make us gasp as they dare the things that children dare…”

The illustrations are perfect for the stories. The muted colors feel like a collection of memories; a bit faded but not less lovely, and just perfectly suited to boy readers.

Below you will find short reviews of each book in the series. I read all of the books across two afternoons. At the time of writing this review, the Christopher books are being added to the Biblioguides database. We will update this post with links as soon as they are ready. As always, we are so grateful to our friends at Biblioguides for the endless hard work that they do to add more and more valuable books to their evergreen resource.

Sleep Out

This appears to be the first of three books happening over one summer. In this sweet story, Christopher gets a sleeping bag and some camping gear for his birthday, which he will be able to use the following weekend when his family goes to the cottage. Eager to use his gifts, however, he attempts to camp out in his urban backyard. He is disappointed in the city noise, which makes it hard to imagine that he is alone in the woods.

When the family gets to their cottage, Christopher’s father is too tired to sleep out the first night, so he gives his ten or twelve-year-old son permission to sleep out alone near the brook. But, not surprisingly, it rains, and Christopher is afraid of wolves. Seeking refuge, Christopher moves his camp into an abandoned old farmhouse that he knows of.

This story does seem a bit unrealistic to me, but somehow I am not dissuaded from enjoying it anyway. I think that children everywhere would cheer Christopher on and wish they could have an adventure just like it.

Lost in the Storm

In what seems to be another story during the same summer, Christopher and his dog Bodger visit Christopher’s friend Gray on the island. They take the ferry, play on the beach, and get caught in a storm. Christoper and his friend make it back to Gray’s parents at their cottage, but they lose track of Bodger. As the storm rages and the power goes out, the boys grill hamburgers in the fireplace, eat S’mores and generally have a good time. In the morning, they find Bodger unharmed. This story is fun and a bit more realistic than the first.

The Accident

This book requires some special notice from parents. When Christoper and Bodger are out for a walk, Bodger runs into the road and is hit by a truck. He dies on impact. The rest of the story deals with Christopher’s very real grief. I appreciate this story because it is very well told, is thoughtful and gentle, and has the power to teach empathy to our young ones. Sensitive readers may struggle with this one, but the average reader will likely do well with it. The death scene is quick and non-graphic. The story continues in the next book. That said, this book could be easily skipped without diminishing the reader’s enjoyment of the series overall.

Below are images from the scene of the accident, included for parents who wish to preview that sad scene:

The Foundling

In this fourth book in the series, Christopher’s family is home from the summer cottage, and Christoper is still mourning the loss of Bodger. This was the first book I read (not knowing that they were a series), and I appreciated the tenderness and honesty of the story. I was impressed that a children’s book could deal with grief and its many moods and attitudes so lovingly and healthfully. Even if families choose to skip The Accident, I recommend reading this one. The lessons in grief alone are valuable, and the story develops wonderfully. 

Spoiler Alert: Christopher does get a new dog – but not the way anyone expects. It is a well-done and worthwhile story.

The Washout

This marvelous story makes my boy-mama heart rejoice. In what seems to be the next summer, Christopher, his new dog Ben, and his mother have arrived at their cottage to open it up for the season. Christopher’s father will be coming by train the following weekend. When Christoper awakes the first morning, he notes that the cottage is full of a “dim, wavering light as if he were underwater.”

They quickly discover that a storm in the night has toppled trees and knocked out their power and their telephone. When they attempt to drive into town to get supplies and let Christopher’s father know, they find that their road has washed out and is impassable due to a fast-moving stream of water. Christopher begs his mother to let him and Ben climb across the ditch and hike into town alone. She reluctantly agrees. And we are treated to a marvelous tale of a boy and his dog making their way through the elements. Christoper proves himself to be responsible, capable, and wise for his years. Ben is a good companion. And all is set right in the end. I enjoyed seeing Christopher being so solid and dependable.

Ben and the Porcupine

Dog owners will cringe and delight in this one. Every night at the cottage, before coming in for bed, Ben prowls the perimeter, barking at any animals that might want to harm Ben’s family. Father calls it “chasing away the ghosts.” During the day, however, Christopher and Ben discover a porcupine in a tree. Christopher is rightly worried that Ben and that porcupine are going to tangle. Father assures him they have to let nature take its course. The only other option is to tie Ben up or close him inside the cottage all of the time, and that is no life for a dog. As we expect, Ben and the porcupine do tussle, and Ben gets a snout full of quills. But, in the end, Christopher finds a way to keep the porcupine at bay while Ben gets to do his job of guarding the family. The realistic situation and tone of this one makes this a gem for readers who love it when dogs are allowed to be dogs.

Dark and Full of Secrets

This is my favorite of the Christopher books. Realistic like all of the books in the series, this one is about the adventure that happens when a child is permitted to conquer fear and discover a new world in nature. Christopher is afraid of the pond (small lake) that their cottage is nestled on. It is dark and murky, and he is convinced that there is a sea monster under the surface. Father loves to swim and wants Christoper to know that there is something under the surface, but it is not a monster. With a pair of goggles and a snorkeling mask, Christoper and Ben discover a fascinating world of fish and turtles and other magical creatures.

As a lifelong avid swimmer, I appreciated the real fear that can overtake a swimmer in open water. The older I get, the more uneasy I am about swimming in dark water. Maybe I need a snorkeling mask and some goggles. I do want to draw particular attention to the illustration in this one. The underwater scenes are particularly good, and Donald Carrick captures movement convincingly.

Left Behind

This one is really different from the others. And, other than the fact that Christopher is in it, it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the series. The first seven books are all more or less set in nature or focus on animals. In this one, Christoper’s class takes the bus into the big city and then onto the subway to visit the aquarium. On the return trip, Christopher gets separated from his class on the subway and is lost. A subway worker finds him, turns him over to kindly police officers, and ultimately his teacher picks him up from the police station.

It is an adventure and may appeal to readers who can only imagine a subway. But, for me, I would have loved for Dark and Full of Secrets to be the end of the series.