When you're a kid, collecting things can be an exhilarating – and sometimes exasperating – adventure. After starting a new collection, the thrill of the hunt often leads to a point at which you realize that your collection will never, ever, ever be complete. And that knowledge can drive you crazy.
I recall a simple second-grade assignment I was given to collect different types of leaves. I canvassed the neighborhood with purpose, collecting an impressive sample of maple, oak, and birch leaves in a wide variety of greens, reds, oranges, and yellows. I was quite proud of myself. Until I walked into the classroom the next morning. Looking at all of the other kids' leaves – most of which weren't represented in my suddenly-meager-looking collection – I discovered that you just can't keep up with the vastness of nature.
It's also very difficult to keep up with the vastness of the toy industry's manufacturing prowess. As a child, I was hooked on Star Wars figures. My brothers and I acquired quite a collection, which we stored safely inside one of those large Darth Vader carrying cases. Yes, it was cool. Still, for all of the figures that we did own, there were even more that we didn't. George Lucas' mind for weird-looking space characters ran too deep. Despite receiving Star Wars figures as gifts for birthdays, holidays, and every occasion in between, there was no way that we would ever collect every Star Wars figure. That's the harsh reality of collecting.
Recently, my two young sons started their first big collecting adventure. I'm proud to report that their collection revolved around books. In particular, they became dedicated to an absolutely terrific set of books called The Nature Series by North Carolina-based author, Suzanne Tate.
Wonderfully illustrated by James Melvin, each book in the series tells the story of a different creature. Some are sea creatures, some are land creatures, all are fascinating creatures. The stories promote the conservation of nature in a fun, engaging way. They're anything but heavy-handed.
We've found The Nature Series books to be the best bedtime reading material around. Each book is the perfect length for bedtime, not too long, not too short. And they're written at an age-appropriate level – and by that I mean that Suzanne Tate knows that little kids are capable of understanding some higher-level stuff. Our three-year-old can now tell you what a mollusk is, thank you very much.
The collection started out innocently enough. The boys' grandma discovered the series in the gift shop of her local zoo in Florida. She thought the books looked interesting, so she bought a copy of Oozey Octopus: A Tale of a Clever Critter and mailed it to her grandsons. Oozey's wild adventures – highlighted by being devoured, then spit out by a large fish and losing a tentacle in the process – totally captivated the boys. And the book totally captivated me.
Immediately, I called the phone number listed on the back cover – a direct line to Suzanne Tate's studio – and ordered three more books. They arrived a few days later and were just as good as Oozey. We repeated this process, and the book collection grew. At the same time, Suzanne Tate kept publishing new books in the series, and the boys added them to their collectors' wish list.
The mania became so great, in fact, that the boys began making up their own titles for new Nature Series books. I suggested that they let the author in on their ideas. So, they wrote her a letter. And to their delight, Ms. Tate quickly replied with a handwritten note thanking them for their enthusiasm.
Eventually, my kids collected 31 of the 32 books in the series. It all came down to one book about a wise fish, Old Reddy Drum. We discovered, however, that the book had gone out of print. Suzanne Tate's studio didn't have it. Online bookstores didn't have it. The boys were out of luck. Like many of my boyhood collections, this one seemed destined to remain agonizingly incomplete.
But then the miracle happened. On a family vacation to Myrtle Beach, we happened upon a small country store with a long dirt driveway. I pulled in. We perused watercolor paintings, scented candles, and old-fashioned hard candies, all the usual country store fare. Then, suddenly, our older son let out a whoop and jumped up and down as if he had just found the needle in the haystack. He did. There in his hands was a copy of Old Reddy Drum. Found in a little country store. With their collection complete, the boys are enjoying sweet satisfaction… until Suzanne Tate writes another book.