Thursday, November 13, 2008

Children's books

Dad read stories to me until I could read for myself, and even then. Apparently I told him that I could hear better when he was reading. We lived across the street from the local library and once I had read my way through the children's books, I started on adult fiction, and then history, and on and on. I miss the ability I once had to become so totally inside a story that the outside world for a time ceased to be. The love of reading and the skill of reading go together. Wanting to read is the result of hearing good stories and knowing there are more. Reading well, like every other skill, is the result of practice — of doing it a lot. The child who loves to read is blessed.

Joseph Bottum considers "Children’s Books, Lost and Found", how that category came to be, the books thought of as "children's books," and suggests some additions and deletions from the canon.
...[T]he Victorians ... invented the idea of needing books specifically for children.

This meant, of course, that they had no such books to start with, and so, early in the nineteenth century, they pressed into service a number of adult books that have remained in the shared children’s canon ever since: Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Robin­son Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and so on. ....

... Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Oliver Twist were not written for children, though they quickly be­came identified as children’s books. Genre fiction has always had a tendency to slide down the scale from popular adult book to children’s classic. Many Victorian and Edwardian stories made this move from the grown-ups’ shelves to the juvenile section— Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Count of Monte Cristo, King Solomon’s Mines, The Prisoner of Zenda—but the same process was at work as late as The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954.

Fairly quickly, however, the Victorians realized they also needed to start writing from scratch the stories they wanted for their children. Many of these books have fallen by the wayside—sometimes fairly (good riddance to Mrs. Molesworth’s prim moralizing and W.H.G. Kingston’s fatuous adventures) and sometimes unfairly (Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe is superior Christian storytelling, and G.A. Henty’s boy histories deserve to be revived). Still, a few of those early and mid-Victorian volumes survive: Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, for example, together with Pinocchio, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and Alice in Wonderland.

The real push, however, came with the late Victorians and the Edwardians. Think of all the books from this era that you’ve read and given as Christmas presents, over and over again. Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. The Wizard of Oz and The Wind in the Willows. Peter Pan and Anne of Green Gables. Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson: This was the golden age of children’s books.

A few stray volumes got added in later years. The 1935 Little House on the Prairie, for example, though it was set in an earlier time. A sort of silver age is often said to have begun with C.S. Lewis’ 1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and continued through Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey in 1961 and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time in 1962. Dr. Seuss found his legs in this era, publishing both How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957. Three nearly perfect and underrated books arrived in 1956 alone: Dodie Smith’s Hundred and One Dalmatians (better than the movie versions), Nora Johnson’s The World of Henry Orient (much better than the movie version), and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.....
Bottum believes the Harry Potter books were a very good thing and that we are now living in a new "golden age" of children's books. He closes his essay with some suggestions:
Want some Christmas presents to give this year, books you may not know well, drawn from our new canon of children’s literature? Start with the Victoriana of Charlotte Yonge’s serious The Heir of Redclyffe and Lucretia Peabody Hale’s comic Peterkin Papers. Then move to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and the poems in X.J. Kennedy’s Brats. And end with some of the great newer stories: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Lives of Christopher Chant, for instance, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Any of them can sit unembarrassed beside The Wind in the Willows and The Just So Stories and Treasure Island and The Tailor of Gloucester—all the books we’ve somehow always known. [read it all]
If you love books, you may well find some noted here that you missed. I did. C.S. Lewis wrote that "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond."

Update, 11/18 - Today John Piper included this quotation from C.S. Lewis about writing children's books:
I was therefore writing “for children” only in the sense that I excluded what I thought they would not like or understand; not in the sense of writing what I intended to be below adult attention. I may of course have been deceived, but the principle at least saves one from being patronizing. I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.
FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Kid's Books for Grownups

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