So the reading paid off! I have a job now, teaching a class about books written for children. That’s the news. What follows is a round-up of the children’s literature I’ve read this week to build up my knowledge of the subject. This is the beginning of what will be a long-term survey.
I borrowed a stack of maybe twelve books from the local library for this project—fiction, poetry, old and new. The first of these that I picked up to read was Kate DiCamillo’s modern classic, Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). I was drawn to it before the others because I love dogs. This is the story of a young girl named India Opal Buloni who claims a stray dog she finds running riot in a Winn-Dixie supermarket as her own, and of both the friendship they come to share and all of the new friendships that the dog’s presence makes possible for Opal (as she’s known). The book is charming, if a little too sweet sometimes. It even has some classically Southern Gothic elements—set in small-town Florida, Opal and the local kids wonder after the elusive ‘witch’ in their neighbourhood, whose garden is overgrown in dark thickets, and the old lady who still operates the library her father built after she wished for it once as a girl.
I’ve known that Jacqueline Woodson is an excellent writer for perhaps a year, since I heard her discuss a recent novel of hers, Another Brooklyn (2016), on Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt, which I then read myself and enjoyed greatly. I decided to indulge myself a little, during this scramble to learn about young people’s fiction, and pick up another one of her many books. This time I chose Feathers (2007), and it is further evidence in her favour. Set in the mid-1970s, this short novel takes its name from the famous Emily Dickinson poem from which Woodson quotes in the epigraph:
Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
A new boy joins our protagonist Frannie’s class at school and shakes up the order of things. The new boy is the only white kid in the class, not to mention the only white kid on that side of the freeway. As the title suggests, it is in the end a hopeful story, but of course a story of hope would be empty without hurdles blocking the way. I particularly love the way that Woodson handles the relationship between Frannie and her older brother, Sean, who is deaf.
Trying to emulate a fair chunk of an American childhood over just seven or eight days, I moved on then to The Hidden Staircase (1930, updated in 1959), my first Nancy Drew mystery but the second in the series. Nancy’s voice is akin to many in Enid Blyton—credulous, naïve, deferential, and yet always proven right in the end. The environment she inhabits is harder to really believe in than the deathly villages of Midsomer, but it doesn’t matter because she is so endearing as a character. You always want her theories to be proven correct, and eventually, you know, they will be.
The less said about the first true, standalone classic I read, the better. Judged just on its merits as a book, The Wizard of Oz (1900), by L. Frank Baum, is a stinker. The kookiness of a character or situation serves no purpose in the narrative beyond itself, Baum’s imagination quickly runs thin beyond the set-up, once he started desperately looking around the shelves in his sitting-room for knick-knackery that he might animate and pass for inspiration, and beyond the first half of the novel the plot is just plain boring.
Entirely by contrast, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) displays all of the charm and vibrancy that Baum’s writing lacks. Where the reputation of The Wizard of Oz has been salvaged and improved by its many popular adaptations, Carroll’s creations have never been better depicted than in his originals. The language jumps with liveliness, and the narrative never goes where you think it might, even when it is somewhat constrained by an overarching structure, as with the cosmic chess game in Through the Looking-Glass. True, Carroll’s imagination may also be fired by his everyday surroundings, his ability to twist the domestic into something terribly funny is near miraculous. The jokes always land: thoughts of the White Queen’s word-squirming when she offers Alice “jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day” have made me laugh all week, as have memories of the miserable Mock-Turtle. It helps that Carroll is an exquisite poet, too. His rhymes roll off the tongue with only the slightest effort at memorisation. I am absolutely in awe of these two complementary stories.
I jumped back from there to the present with Thanhha Lai’s 2011 novel in verse, Inside Out and Back Again. Lai tells the mostly autobiographical story of the pivotal year in a young girl’s life between 1975 and ’76, in which her family are forced to flee Saigon on a naval-vessel-turned-ark, seeking refuge first in cramped camps on Guam and in Florida, before settling as comfortably as they can in rural Alabama. The poetry here is thoughtful, raising global issues of war and dislocation in a personal, accessible way for young readers. The protagonist’s name is Hà, and we follow her as she struggles to accept the necessity of leaving the only home she has known, where a papaya tree she loves is budding, soon to produce ripe fruit. Instead of that comfort, she is forced into new and unwelcome situations, forced to learn and use the English language even though she would prefer to stick to her native tongue. These are the kinds of stories we simply cannot be without in our century.
And finally, I am half-way through a novel that reads more like realist adult fiction than anything else, just with an eleven-year-old protagonist named Ned. The book in question is One -Eyed Cat (1984), by Paula Fox. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that Ned should be the third or fourth child of a preacher or minister to feature prominently in the children’s books I’ve read recently (both Feathers and Because of Winn-Dixie have them too), or if it’s just an oddly common theme. I guess I’ll have to keep reading around and find out for myself. Regardless, this is a novel that I think will leave grimy traces under my fingernails, because it’s turning very dark and stormy. In the opening chapters, as Ned celebrates his birthday in a tense home, he receives an air-rifle as a present from his uncle. Moments later, his father, the minister, snatches it away and says he can have it back, maybe, when he turns fourteen and can be responsible. That night Ned sneaks up to the attic and fetches the gun from its hiding-place, then goes outside and lines up some shots by the old barn. A flash of movement passes through his sights, and in reflex he pulls the trigger. He thinks nobody would have heard, but over the next month he meets a cat with one eye missing that takes over his waking mind. I do not anticipate that this will end well.
I would say my selections so far have taken in a good variety, though some writing in translation would be a welcome addition in weeks to come. Eventually, too, I’ll get beyond the allure of Newbery Award stickers on front covers for my more recent picks, and take up all the excellent suggestions I’ve heard from friends and loved ones in recent days.