Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I should be doing a physics problem set. Or a biochem problem set.

On that note,

I am mildly disappointed with children's literature these days. Not that it isn't fun - it's loads of fun, for the right kind of kid. (of course, if you are a kid who doesn't like fantasy, you're dead meat). But it is exactly this break with reality that I find the most puzzling and the most disappointing. I think it might be a british/american switch - that the british way was more common earlier and has been overtaken by a more american method. Consider Peter Pan, or, to a lesser extent, Alice in Wonderland. In both cases, there is only one magical world and it is predominantly populated and created by the imagination. Especially in Peter Pan, the Neverland is immediately accesible to anyone who dares to imagine it. That's the point. Even remembering the games we used to play allows adults to see into the world of the Neverland, although we won't necessarily give up our hard-won seriousness and pay it a visit. My sense is that Alice in Wonderland was somewhat similar - especially in that it is a place of nursery rhymes and games, not a real place with real people so much.

Compare that to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oz needs a physical journey to get there, unlike Neverland - hence the tornado. It is populated by real people with real problems; racism, war, etc. Later on in Baum's series there are whole long lists of neighboring countries across the deadly desert. The counties in Oz even have colors associated with them, and names that sound childish and amusing - Munchkinland, Quadling Country, etc. Even the Deadly Desert or Shifting Sands has a hint of the alliteration and rhyme that has become all too common in place names in children's books. Moreover, the Oz books have a 5th grade reading level, much simpler than either Peter Pan or Alice. The erudition and vocabulary in Peter Pan, the inside jokes with a parent, are gone. So is most of the narratorial voice, especially in the later books.

Of course, I devoured the Oz books as a kid. There's nothing wrong with them, they are perfectly good for a child to read. The only pit fall - the only thing they aren't as good for - is for a parent to read to their child. That's when the narratorial voice really comes out, it's when the inside jokes and vocabulary are accesible to a reader, and it's when the link of imagination becomes so important.

As an adult, I know there is no emerald city, that the things in Oz are simply impossibilities and bear no resemblance to reality. I can't imagine a time when there could have been a Munchkinland. I can, however, remember a time in my life when I thought I could fly, when my imagination was so rampant and powerful that the things I now know to be fantasies seemed oh-so-real and frightening. Sometimes, late at night, my imagination is almost that strong now - but it's darker, too, more full of zombies and vampires and ghosts, less full of fairies and mermaids and talking rabbits. Point being that any reader can remember a time when their imagination was strong enough to take them to the Neverland, if the Neverland is really all about imagination at base. But no reader can remember a time when magic was real, really real, not just a product of your imagination.

But again, that doesn't matter if it's just a child reading it -- they have the imagination to not care about whether something is real or not. The only difference is that Peter Pan, the novel, is much more interesting to a grownup reading it than, say, The Series of Unfortunate Events or even Harry Potter (although I love Harry Potter; just not as much as I love Peter Pan). The vocabulary, too, is important here - when a parent says an advanced word while reading, a child will either (most likely) ignore it since it is gone so fast or (perhaps) ask the parent what it means. It lets them figure out how to use those words and adds to the experience with the parent. However, if a child is reading a book alone and comes upon a word he doesn't understand, he can't just skip over it unwittingly; there it stands on the page in indelible ink, puzzling and jarring. He can't ask his parent immediately either - if the child is reading alone then presumably the adults are doing other things and do not want to be interrupted. So the word simply takes from the reading experience instead of adding to it.

Which brings me to a conclusion that I made a while ago, at lunch with my father, which is that parents don't read to their children anymore, after a child can read. Or maybe parents don't read to their children as much -- we have this idea that children should read quietly, on their own, without assistance. And that is what children's literature is for. For children to read alone. Which is why you can be more fantastical, and simultaneously why the vocabulary drops and the narratorial voice all but disappears.

I remember my parents reading to me and my brother long after we could read. (Then again I was reading the Oz books at age four, so I am very glad at this). They didn't read modern children's literature (with the exception of Harry Potter, when that came out, because it's so much good clean fun that it was hard to resist). They read C.S. Lewis, a bit, and Tolkein, a bit. I learned to read by struggling through Peter Pan with my mother. Children's literature was a group activity. I love to think of that being the way it is meant to be - these wonderful, imaginative books bringing parents and children together.

The second difference is the myriad of places common in modern children's literature. If an adventure doesn't involve a trip to at least twelve different locales, it can't rightly be called an adventure at all. Which isn't a childish point of view in the slightest, but a very adult one. An adventure, for someone who is looking for adventures, could be simply in the backyard. Physical distance is not necessary. Which is fortunate to older, british writers - because in Britain, there is no space. Everything is nicely crammed.

In the States, however, there is plenty of space. (Especially at the time of Baum and the others). Think of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn - travelling down the Mississippi. You can go from town to town in the States, and there have always been stories of children doing it. There are always new places to discover, and each new adventure happens in a new place. Don't like something? Instead of changing it, why not just move on to a new location? The endless plains of the central U.S. parallel the huge worlds of children's literature we now see - getting from A to B is not as simple as wandering next door. You must go through C and D and E and the miles and miles of trails between. So children's literature is no longer nicely crammed, but rather takes place with much travelling between locales. Even in the sequels to Peter Pan that I have read, (official ones), the authors find the need to insert new places, new maps, new nations. The world is bigger now. So so are our imagined worlds.

I don't know how much of that is true - I don't know if parents aren't perhaps reading more to their children, or if children's literature has always been like that and of the older ones we only see those that stand out because parents enjoy them as much as children. But there is something to be said for someone who can write children's literature that grownups like.

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