Friday, March 30, 2012

Children's Books

Reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book got me to thinking about the time I sat with a married couple at a Denny’s on the outskirts of Baylor University’s campus late one night after a drinking binge, eating pancakes. At the table next to ours sat four Baylor students. One of the girls, maybe 19 or 20 years old, held open the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. She read it aloud to her boyfriend while he squirmed in his booth, his eyes darting from his lap to the diners sitting nearby. He was clearly uncomfortable.

I’d read the book when I was a child, and the story, coupled with the haunting illustrations, had left an impression on me. My friend Kent, however, began speaking the lines from the book right along with her. I was impressed. So was the girl. She stopped reading and turned. “You have it memorized!”

Kent nearly blushed. “One of my favorites.”

Kent’s wife squeezed his arm, smiled back, and whispered to him, “That’s not all he knows by heart.”

Before you roll your eyes and wonder why adults would read children’s books, there’s something you should know. Where the Wild Things Are notwithstanding, children’s books are very often more sophisticated than your average adult novel. Don’t believe me? Forget the film versions and Disney’s rendition and read Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. It’s highly philosophical. How about C.S. Lewis’ children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia? Lewis was an English professor and a scholar. That series is full of truths many adults still don’t grasp, not to mention the allegory and sophisticated themes that you generally won’t find in paperback novels. True, there are plenty of children’s books that teach nothing, stories that never consider or explore anything an eleven year old hasn’t already been taught. But this, incidentally, describes many novels for grown-ups, too.

Yes, children’s books often involve things like talking animals, but so does George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and that’s clearly not for children. Absurd themes, elementary grammar, simple concepts, and childish characterizations aren’t confined to the grade school or young adult sections of your local bookstore. In short, the distinction between children’s tales and novels for grown-ups is often tenuous at best.

I don’t think I ever saw Disney’s rendition of The Jungle Book, but the book itself is excellent. Each story is self-contained, though a few involve the same characters. The first five of the seven stories are brilliant. And while the stories are all in prose, at least one poem precedes each tale. One of my favorites began “Tiger-Tiger”, which is in Q & A form:

What of the hunter, hunter bold?
Brother, the watch was long and cold
What of the quarry ye went to kill?
Brother, he crops in the jungle still
Where is the power that made your pride?
Brother, it ebbs from my flank and side
Where is the haste that ye hurry by?
Brother, I go to my lair to die

The poem “Seal Lullaby” precedes the story “The White Seal”:

Oh! Hush ye, my baby, the night is behind us,
          And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downwards to find us
          At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
          Oh, weary wee flipperling curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
          Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!

In the Afterward, Jane Yolen quotes C.S. Lewis: “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story that is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” Wikipedia’s page on Children’s Literature makes it clear just how unclear the distinction really is. Did you know some children’s books were written not just for children but actually by children? Simply put, categories are misleading.

I prefer to label books based on the writer’s craft, his or her command of the language, whether the characters are engaging, how moving or insightful the telling is. Of course if books were categorized according to those standards, we’d find out which were truly juvenile. After all, if it’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, why should we judge a book by the category stamped on its spine?

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