The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley (not a review)

“At last the book was ready, complete with a short preface explaining that this was “a story my mother used to tell me at bedtime, when I was a girl. She said it was from a book that had come to her grandmother as a gift early in the last century. Although no copy has yet turned up, the story is indeed a gift, and I’m retelling it in hopes it will not be lost again.”

This is going to sound pretty weird, but this post actually means a lot to me, and it’s not because I think the book is that great. I definitely like it a lot, but I don’t think it’s a must read or anything like that. Rather, it’s because I have a bit of an interesting history with this book. (Spoilers ahead).

I read this book for class in 4th grade and I remember enjoying it a lot. I remember finding it really amusing that we were reading a book about a book. I think my teacher liked it a lot too.

Then one day back when I was working at an internship in college, I just remembered this book out of nowhere. I really have no idea how I started thinking about it all of a sudden, but I did somehow. Perhaps something happened that triggered my memory of it, but I really don’t remember.

However, I just absolutely could not remember the title of the book at all. I knew that I would recognize it if I saw it, but I had no idea what it was. However, what I did have was a vague recollection of the plot at the beginning of the book and the end of the book.

The general premise of The Great Good Thing is that within a book, there is a world inside of it that’s full of characters who live their own simple lives when the book is not being read. Then when the book is opened and read, the characters act out the story like a play. The main character of this book is Sylvie, the princess.

I remembered that the beginning of the book involved setting up this premise and also introduced three characters in the “real world”: a young girl (Claire), her grandmother, and her brother (Ricky). The girl received the book from her grandmother and read it over and over again. Then one day, her brother, who is a little obsessed with lighting things on fire to make them look old and cool, lights the book on fire and the characters have to escape and their story is lost. After this point, my memory of this book was pretty much blank until the ending.

The ending involves Claire’s daughter rewriting the book, because her mother told her the story when she was a kid, but she couldn’t find the book for it anywhere and wasn’t sure if it even existed. The original reader is implied to have passed away from old age. In the end, the storybook characters then finally have a home again and now their home is a popular children’s book printed by a proper publisher.

Isn’t that sort of ironic? There I was on Google, trying really hard to find a book about someone who couldn’t find a book.

I think the irony of the situation is what led me to latch onto my limited memory of the book. Since then, I thought about it every once in a while, but I just couldn’t find it anywhere. I couldn’t remember any of the character names, the title, the author, etc. Evidently, the book isn’t very well known either. As of right now, there are only 2,319 ratings and 303 reviews on Goodreads, so trying to Google my weak recollection of the plot didn’t lead me to anything. I also have a surprisingly strong memory of starting my struggle of finding the book and messaging a friend from Middle School in the off chance that he also read the book in Elementary School, but that didn’t lead to anything useful. I think I also tried to explain what I remembered to several friends at points in the last couple of years, but like I said, this book doesn’t seem to be very popular, so no one had ever heard of it.

But I finally found it. I think the Google search that led me to it was something like “metafiction children book” and searching through a good handful of lists until I finally saw the title.

Now obviously, reading the book again, there’s more to it than my terrible two paragraph summary. The biggest thing I forgot was how much of the book revolves around dreams and memories. Before Claire’s book is burned, Sylvie sneaks out of the book and goes into Claire’s dreams, which are wild and confusing to someone who has to act out the same story over and over again. After the book is burned, the characters all flee to Claire’s mind, but because she has forgotten about them, they’re cast away along with a lot of other people that Claire barely remembers, like an old math teacher. Sylvie eventually is able to jump over to Claire’s daughter’s memory after Claire tells the story to her young daughter, and her now adult daughter helps her rewrite the story.

But anyway, this is a post I’m making to immortalize the story in case my memory of it fades away, and I’m stuck searching for it again (though having the physical book now helps a lot). The book’s title is The Great Good Thing. The author is Roderick Townley.

(I do legitimately like the book though and I think it has a lot of charm, so I gave it 4 our of 5 stars. But this is not a review).

“Couldn’t you find it?” Claire laid her head back on the pillow.
“I tried the rare bookshops. I tried the libraries. Finally I wrote to the Library of Congress. It sure would help if you knew the author’s name.”
“I don’t think there was a name. I’m almost sure there wasn’t.”
Lily shook her head. “Mysterious. It’s as though it didn’t exist.”
“But it did. It does.”

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