My first New Year’s as a parent I was just back from the hospital with a four-day-old baby, bloated and teary and terrified. Well-trained in reading and writing as an academic, I had no idea what to do with a tiny baby, one who’d arrived a few days early and put us in the hospital over the holidays, with little support and less preparation. I tried to read, in those early days — Dr. Spock was my constant companion — but it was months before I could pick up a novel again and settle into my life before children. When I did, I found that it was gone, irreversibly: I now read as a parent. Goodnight, Moon and Pat the Bunny suddenly revealed depths to me I’d previously not expected, while I completely lost patience with academic writing. Murder mysteries, once my chosen comfort reading, suddenly seemed macabre and heartless: wasn’t every victim someone’s child?
Now long past the hormonal days of early parenthood, my reading has expanded once again, but I still find that parenthood directs it. Soon after my second child’s birth I shifted my academic focus to children’s literature, figuring that I spent enough time on it at home that I should get credit for it at work. My motivations weren’t entirely cynical, though. I wanted to read with my kids, after all, and I wanted to know what was out there that was worth reading.
Turns out there’s a lot, even if Madonna hasn’t been able to find it.
Since my academic training was in Victorian literature (and, as far as my kids were concerned, that might as well have been when my childhood took place as well) I’m not always well versed in more recent literature, and I’ve been making an effort to catch up. I’ve read all of Philip Pullman’s novels for children and young adults (and if you haven’t, you should, too), but I’ve hardly touched Diana Wynne Jones, David Almond, and M.T. Anderson, for starters.
Jones’s magical Howl’s Moving Castle, the basis for the recent Miyazaki film, got me interested in reading more, and right now I’m working my way through her Chrestomanci series with Nick (There are six novels, plus a book of four short stories). Jones combines fantasy with self-reflexive humor, inventing (for example) a heroine in Howl’s Moving Castle who insists that she can’t be the heroine as she’s the eldest of three sisters, and everyone knows the eldest can’t be the heroine, or a magician with nine lives in the Chrestomanci books who wastes six before he even knows he’s a magician — and whose extra lives reside in a paperback book of matches. (Everyone knows children shouldn’t play with matches.) When Jones deprives her child characters of a parent, she realizes she’s playing with a very old deck of cards, and she makes it work in all new ways. Chrestomanci himself, the elegant magician whose dressing gowns are a work of art, has an ordinary-seeming wife and two plumpish children: the magician’s family is a large part of the pleasure of the series, in part, for the ways it points out the ubiquity of the orphan in so much literature for children. I love books that teach kids (and adults) how to read other books: Jones’s do that, so I’m on the lookout for more of them. These are terrific books for kids in the middle-elementary grades: fun to read on their own, fun for parents to read aloud as well.
David Almond, whose Skellig was my great new pick last year, has a backlist I’m working my way through as well. In Skellig, a boy discovers a mysterious creature living in his garage, and the girl next door, at about the same time. One thing it reminds me is how few novels for kids are truly “unisex” — Skellig, and others of Almond’s novels that I’ve read, focus almost equally on the young boy and the girl, making it a great read-aloud for both boys and girls. Of course, boys and girls can read about the other gender, but it doesn’t happen as often as it might, so I’m grateful to an author who realizes that, in fact, boys and girls do interact, quite a bit, and they might even share stories every now and then. Almond’s novels will appeal to an older audience than Jones’s — middle schoolers, perhaps; though Skellig is fine for ages 8 or 9 and up. His other books are a little darker and might appeal to an older crowd. Almond’s books often deal with the magic of artistic creation: writing, in Kit’s Wilderness, drawing in Skellig, sculpture in Clay, for example — in all three novels, creation is a dangerous gift, one that threatens and promises in almost equal measure. Since my son is currently obsessed with drawing (especially cartoon-like superheroes and imaginary creatures), I am particularly pleased to find books where art is a central theme.
M.T. Anderson just won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with his novel, The Astonishing Life of OCTAVIAN NOTHING, Traitor to the Nation Volume I: the POX PARTY. (Yes, that really is the title.) Octavian Nothing captivated me from the second chapter — it did take me a chapter to get used to the voice of the teenaged narrator, an 18th century boy living in the middle of a bizarre educational experiment. It’s a first-person young adult novel, told mostly through Octavian’s journal, so we discover along with him exactly who he is and why he’s not what he seems. Feed, one of Anderson’s earlier novels, made it into my children’s literature course last year and was one of the most controversial books I taught, not least for its language (opening line: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck”). Both OCTAVIAN NOTHING and Feed, in fact, share an interest in the ways language can both obscure and express complex thought, despite their very different settings. Teenagers like my daughter are always experimenting with language — these books reflect and refine that tendency.
I’m sometimes a little defensive about specializing in children’s literature, as if it reflects some weird Peter-Pan-like inability to grow up on my part. But these books remind me of the depth of experimentation, the richness of language, and the sheer joy in story that children’s and young adult books, at their best, can provide.
According to Philip Pullman, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book . . . . We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” In 2007, I want more stories to read, to share, to talk about, to teach. What about you?