You know you’re in trouble when you start identifying with the bad guy.
I read to my seven-year-old son Nick every other night. His dad reads to him the nights I don’t. I’ve been reading to one or another of my children for 14 years or so now — there was a period of overlap when I read to them both, but almost never together. With seven years between them, they’ve never been even close to the same listening or reading stage. This has its advantages. I met lots of books reading to Mariah that I am happy to revisit with Nick, and we’re now reaching a point where she can pass along books she enjoyed on her own, ones I’ve never read. That’s how we got The Thief Lord. Mariah read it to herself a few years back and suggested it for Nick.
He sits on the bed next to me, his bony self getting almost too big to cuddle, but still trying, while I read to him. The Thief Lord is, according to the jacket copy, by Germany’s third-most-popular children’s author, Cornelia Funke. (She comes in behind J.K. Rowling and R.L. Stine, we’re told.) The book is set in a magical Venice where a gang of children is no threat to anyone (except maybe tourists whose cameras are easily accessible) and where a merry-go-round can make you younger (or older).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The novel involves a detective, Victor Getz, who’s been hired to find a child named Bo. Bo has run away from Germany with his brother, Prosper, rather than go to live with their maternal aunt Esther after the death of their mother. (If there’s any mention of a father, I missed it.) Victor finds the children, but decides that they are better off in Venice, without Esther and her husband, who reveal themselves in various ways to be crass, unpleasant people who think of the child they want, Bo, as a possession to be displayed rather than a child to be loved. In the scene I read to Nick the other night, Victor asks Esther’s husband, Max Hartlieb, “Do you actually like children?”:
“Max Hartlieb frowned. ‘Children in general? No, not really. They’re so fidgety and loud, and often quite dirty.’
Victor stared down at his shoes again.
‘And,’ Max Hartlieb continued, ‘they have no idea of what’s really important.’ “(198)
Here’s the thing. Maybe it’s because I had just hosted a sleepover birthday party for Nick, but I found myself identifying with Max as I read this passage. Who really does like children, children in general? I love my own children, but I can’t say that I always like them. And other people’s children? Again, they can be quite charming, and fun, and all those things, but at other times — well, as Max says: they’re fidgety, and loud, and often quite dirty. They certainly were at midnight the other night, sprawled across Nick’s floor all over the sleeping bags they refused to stay inside.
But the zinger in this scene is of course Max’s claim that “they have no idea of what’s really important.” This is where even the parent reading aloud who has been silently, if guiltily, agreeing with Max is supposed to come around and reject his crude misunderstanding. Ah, yes, because of course children do know what’s really important, don’t they?
Nick knows what’s important. Candy is important. TV is important. Bionicles and guns and computer games and snakes are important.
And, OK, building things and cuddling with your mom and learning to read are also important. But you get my drift. Max has a point, though the novel rejects it.
Sitting on the bed, cuddled up with my bony son, I have time to reflect on this. Reading aloud is qualitatively different from any other reading I do, not least because it forces me to slow down and consider the text word by word. I read for a living, as a college English professor, and much of my reading must perforce be swift and (though I hate to admit it) sometimes a bit sketchy. I’m mining the text for passages I can analyze in class, or use in an article I’m writing. But when I read out loud, I abandon myself to the pleasure of language, the subtleties of characterization, the details of physical description. I can tell you exactly what Victor Getz looks like; I might need to consult my text, however, to describe Pip from Great Expectations, no matter how many times I teach it. I’m even beginning to have a sketch of a map of Venice in my head from reading The Thief Lord, though in general I have little patience with maps and layouts in novels.
And, of course, I have to confront my less-generous side when I encounter it in the villains of children’s literature. Most of them are, after all, adults, and in many cases it’s simply being an adult that makes them villainous — or at least mildly unpalatable. In many of the books I’ve read to Nick and Mariah over the years, children are indeed those who know what’s really important, while their parents or, more often, the clueless adults who substitute for their missing parents, simply stand in the way.
I like to think I’m different. After all, I’m reading this book to Nick, I’m entering into the life of the child gang (a far cry from Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist, though no doubt its literary descendant), I’m agreeing with him that Max Hartlieb is a bad guy — even if I agree with Max for a moment about the mess and fuss of children.
And I’m keeping my moment of identification to myself. Over the next few months, though, I’ll be looking at some children’s classics to see whether it happens again, and to explore some of the ways the literature I love seems to be working. I’ll talk about books I’ve read with Nick, or with Mariah, books I love that lots of children read, and try to get at some of the ways in which they do and don’t empower, or value, children. Because the irony of the claim that children know best what’s important — as is painfully apparent in a book like The Thief Lord — is that in many ways the culture that consumes these books is a culture that does not value children, or their knowledge, very much. How can these two ideas co-exist? While I can’t pretend to have all the answers, I want to raise some of the questions that these books engender in me. I hope you’ll read along.