Narnia: How to tell kids about symbolism

Narnia King Lune

I guess it’s Narnia Season! If you don’t like Narnia, maybe skip my blog for the next month or two. (Or, come on in and tell us why you don’t like Narnia.)

In the post before last, I mentioned that Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book, came to feel betrayed by Narnia in different way than I did. Miller was raised in a Christian tradition of guilt and tedium, and what (she thought) she found in Narnia as a child was a glorious escape from all that. When she realized the truth she was horrified.

I, on the other hand, was still a believer when my 5th grade teacher laid out the allegory for us point by point. I was never fooled into thinking Narnia was secular or pagan. And I personally thought it was awesome. I felt like I was being initiated into some kind of Masonic-like secret. (My own later sense of betrayal came when I realized how, despite all the fauns and fountains, C.S. Lewis’s world view was rotten to the core. More on that in a later post.)

What strikes me now, looking back, is how naturally we all took to the idea of allegory (or metaphor, or symbolism, or whatever you want to call what Lewis was doing). Whatever else one might say about Lewis, he did symbolism right, in a way that enhanced the emotional impact of the story, and in a story that had its own inherent appeal.

So it came about that I was shocked to my core by the high school death-march through Bartleby the Scrivener. This probably had something to do with me not taking a single literature course in college. As far as I was concerned, the experts were doing it wrong.

Even as a post-college adult, trying to take a more nuanced look at the issue, I have been disappointed. For a time I was an Isak Dinesen fan, and after the movie Babette’s Feast came out I made a point of tracking down the original story. The writing is masterful, and the allegory — briefly, Babette gives up everything she has to provide a feast for twelve people who at first do not know how to appreciate it, but by the end are transformed — is delicately handled and holds one’s attention.

But the problem is, the story entirely fails to work at a literal level. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BABETTE!

The literary world was so taken with this feat of extended metaphor that they seemed not to notice that such devices should be there to serve the story, not the other way around.

So that is the tale of how Narnia spoiled me forever for Serious Literature. Join us next week for a look at Prince Caspian.

The Charles Wallace Moment

I’ve already posted about Wrinkle in Time, but I’ve been thinking about this passage lately.

She felt only anger toward this boy who was not Charles Wallace at all. No, it was not anger, it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT.  . . .  With the last vestige of consciousness she jerked her mind and body. Hate was nothing that IT didn’t have. IT knew all about hate.

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

But she could love Charles Wallace.

She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace. Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace.

This moment had a profound impact on a friend of mine, and shaped her adult world view. And she is the kindest, most loving person I know. (Never  assume children’s literature is a trivial topic. It has the power to shape generations.)

Though it seems like a very simple and direct message, it has multiple layers, and this is what has been occupying my thoughts.

First and clearest is that we shouldn’t foster hate against evil-doers, because it will eat us alive. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves saying, like the guy in Falling Down, “You mean I’m . . . the bad guy?”

Closely related but saying something additional: We should extend to all people an attitude of love, or at least compassion — what is practiced in Buddhism as loving-kindness meditation (which is distinct from focused-attention meditation). Easier said than done, but it’s something worth striving for.

But this incident is not just about loving Charles Wallace, it’s about saving Charles Wallace. This leads to the the third and fourth messages, which swim just below the surface of our culture. Both messages are false, and both are swallowed along with the first two messages by too many young women: it is possible to save another person from being horrible, and, it is her job to do so.

It implies that evil is something overlaid on a basically good person, an external thing that has a grip on them, and if that grip can be broken they will be fine. There is the puppet Charles Wallace controlled by IT, and there is the “real” Charles Wallace underneath, if we can just get to him. THIS IS NOT HOW PEOPLE ACTUALLY WORK. I’m sorry, Meg Murray, but if Charles Wallace has taken to crouching in the basement reading men’s-rights forums, Charles Wallace is an asshole. You cannot save him by loving him. No matter how sweet he used to be, or could have been if his life had been different.

It is this dynamic that led advice columnist Captain Awkward to coin the term “Darth Vader Boyfriend.” The key here is not just that Darth Vader is awful, but how Luke reacts to him. Worth quoting at length:

“Luke, your dad is totally evil.”

“There’s good in him. I’ve felt it.”

“Luke, he blew up a planet just to make a point.”

“There’s good in him! I’ve felt it!”

“Luke, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he severed your hand.  From your arm. He cut it off.”

“Dueling to the death is just how we relate. You wouldn’t understand it. Now that we both have prosthetic robot limbs, it’s only brought us closer together.”

“Luke, he lured your friends into a trap so that he could murder them in front of you. We had to be rescued by Ewoks. It was embarrassing.”

“Yeah, that was pretty bad, I admit! But there’s good in him! I’ve felt it!”

And then Luke is risking his own life to carry Darth Vader out of the Death Star before it explodes so he can look upon that swollen purple face and experience one shining moment of real connection that would justify everything he’s invested in this completely dysfunctional relationship and he’s like “See? IT WAS ALL TOTALLY WORTH IT!”

Children’s literature has great power, and with great power comes great responsibility. Madeleine L’Engle did the world a disservice when she told us that love could not only defeat IT, but could save Charles Wallace as an individual. In reality, the only rescue that is possible has to be an inside job. He has to decide he wants to be a different person than that. (Spoiler: Most of them don’t.)

If you meet the grown-up Charles Wallace and he says he only acts this way because of IT (whatever IT is, fill in the blank), he is telling you he is an asshole. Believe him.

Books for Odd Children: A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

Most books feature ordinary children to whom unusual things happen, or perhaps a character who turns out to be extraordinary in a generic sort of way (they are the lost prince, or a witch, or have a gift of talking to animals or seeing ghosts). But these characters are usually not, in and of themselves, different.

Eccentric children are a disproportionate percentage of avid readers, and they are starved for books about kids like them: intelligent, emotionally intense, hyper-imaginative, socially awkward, interested in things that are uncool, or other varieties that don’t fit in. Many of these characters would today be recognized as neuro-diverse.

In the Books for Odd Children category, I’ll be discussing books that feed this need.

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In A Wrinkle in Time, the main character, Meg Murry, is highly intelligent but awkward and plagued with self-doubt. Her parents are both research scientists, and her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is a such an oddball genius that nobody knows what to make of him. Meg and Charles Wallace, together with a neighbor boy Calvin who is also unusually intelligent, are sent on a mission by three witch/angel/spirit-guides to rescue their missing father, who has gotten caught up in an interplanetary disaster that combines physics and religion.

It’s stunning how many kids of a certain age were gripped with a fervor for this book. (I’m speaking of earlier generations, before the renewed interest from the movie, back when the book was passed along by word-of-mouth.) It was the first to portray, in detailed realistic terms, a family of extraordinarily gifted individuals; and not the idealized heros of series novels, good at everything and popular and beautiful besides. These are real people with weaknesses as well as strengths, and real problems that are sometimes a direct result of their gifts. In addition, the reader is taken seriously by the author and invited into the world of large ideas. Young teens and pre-teens are expected, for example, to wrestle with the idea of folding space. There were certain readers who had been waiting all their lives for this kind of thing, and when it appeared, they struck like jaguars dropping from trees.

Another reason this book is such a stand-out is the seriousness of vision that L’Engle brought to her world-building. This was driven by her religious convictions, in a way similar to C.S. Lewis’s work, and one feels the depth of it whether or not one agrees with the beliefs.

A final point in the book’s favor is the strong plot at its core. The three children are taken to a planet where everyone is under the control of a being called IT, and six-year-old Charles Wallace arrogantly decides he is strong enough to defeat it. He is wrong, and though they succeed in rescuing the father, they lose Charles Wallace. Meg’s love for Charles Wallace turns out to be the one kind of power that IT cannot understand or combat, and it is this power that effects the final rescue.

Unfortunately, this material only makes up about a third of the book. The rest of it is (sotto voce) pretty bad. The plotting in this other two-thirds is loose and saggy, with endless passages devoted to quasi-philosophical, quasi-religious lecturing. The only way to account for the book’s raging popularity is that, in spite of its flaws, it fed readers who were not finding what they needed anywhere else.

It should also be mentioned that some of L’Engle’s books tip over into a kind of cultural snobbism that is distasteful. (This essay from the New Yorker explains a great deal about L’Engle and why her writing was both so amazing and so frustratingly awful.) Her first children’s book, Meet the Austins, is one example, particularly with its restored chapter “The Anti-Muffins,” which some earlier editor had wisely deleted.

The SaturdaysCourt of the Stone ChildrenRoom Made of Windows L’Engle shares this fault with a few other highly lauded 20th century children’s authors, including Eleanor Cameron in her later books such as A Room Made of Windows and Court of the Stone Children, and Elizabeth Enright in her Melendy books. (Indeed, L’Engle’s Meet the Austins seems to owe a great deal to the second and third Melendy books.) In such Meet the Austins books, one gets the impression that the author considers their characters to be not just different from regular children, but better. Their unusual talents and interests are uniformly ones that are considered “cultured,” such as classical music or modern art. These characters seem to spring less from the author tapping into the wellspring of quirkiness, and more from the author’s anxieties about being the right sort of person.

Despite these flaws, there are countless middle-aged adults walking around today who will never ever forget what A Wrinke in Time did for them.

The Dog Dies, Part IV: Conclusions

Part I –     – Part II –     – Part III

There are three basic problems with this kind of book. The first is their distorted moral vision: that life is gruesome and boys need to toughen up. These books may be beautifully written and of high literary quality (Bambi and The Red Pony qualify), but their vision of life, relationships, and emotions is so hopelessly out-of-date that there is no longer any value in making kids read them.

The second problem happens when the death or suffering of the animal is just badly written. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks about “sentimentality,” which is an attempt to affect the reader’s emotions with cliché or melodrama, as opposed to genuine emotion honestly earned. The death of Jack in By the Shores of Silver Lake is sentimentality: trite, manipulative, flat. Wilder was not a skilled writer — forgive me, but she wasn’t — and she was unable to do better than grasp at overused phrases and images to try to achieve her emotional effects.

Finally, there is the questionable psychology that leads adults to believe that children, who do of course experience grief in their lives, will be helped by re-experiencing it in fiction. A quick count of the number of Newbery and other award winners on the list of Dead Dog books shows how prevalent this idea is. Adult critics sometimes make high-handed pronouncements about how children will be affected: “readers begin to understand the value of life, the ever-present possibility of death, and the need for self-reliance.” I see little evidence that Dead Dog stories have this kind of improving effect upon children.

It is also suspicious that the object lesson, which supposedly will help the child learn about grief, is so often an animal: a loyal and loving animal that cannot understand the reasons for its suffering. Could this possibly be because it enhances the melodrama? Even weirder, when an animal is the point-of-view character, then it is often the animal’s beloved smaller animal that suffers or dies. One cannot help suspecting that a certain kind of adult does not so much have an ear for literary quality as a taste for making children cry.

The Little Prince (1943)

There is something amounting to a trend of adult literary authors who put out a single book for children. It’s a bit like a ballet dancer getting on a unicycle; the results can be hard to watch.

Let’s start with The Little Prince.

* * * * * * *

Saint-Exupery was a French aristocrat and an aviator in the early days of flying, who pushed the dangerous boundaries of navigation with minimal instruments in north Africa, and once nearly died in the desert after a crash. He became one of France’s literary elite with his adult works Night Flight and Wind, Sand, and Stars. These are neither cheerful nor big on plot. They are about death and loneliness, and the sere beauty of sky and desert.

Living in North America after the invasion of France, he wrote a children’s book at the suggestion of his editor’s wife. I had to look this up because I was not convinced The Little Prince had been intended for children at all. It’s short, it mentions childhood (the prince, though in a child’s body, hardly counts as a child character), it has a talking animal, and it has illustrations. That’s the extent of its resemblance to a children’s book. It is neither cheerful nor big on plot. It is about death and loneliness, and the sere beauty of sky and desert.

* * * * * * *

Look, I do get it, why people want to like these books. People who care about children, and literature, and children’s literature, want to offer an entry into the more sophisticated pleasures of language and narrative.

The trouble is, when adults just reach for the examples they themselves have been told are “great,” and then tell children how to feel about them, adults and children alike lose their authentic connection to the art of language-craft. The child who affects appreciation for The Little Prince because it garners praise from teachers is no closer to the heart of literature than a child with a genuine enthusiasm for Pippi Longstocking.

Stay tuned for howlers by Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Upton Sinclair, Ted Hughes, and more.

An Inventive, Animal-Loving, Small-Town Boy Whose Name Begins With H

There is a boy. He lives in a small midwestern town in the mid-20th century, and he is on a campaign to be allowed a dog. He is self-reliant and enterprising, and likes to tinker with inventions. His name is Henry or Homer.

This is not a genre exactly, but more like a family, whose members resemble each other in different ways and to different degrees. Henry Reed of Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) is perhaps the most prototypical: he lives in a small town, acquires a stray dog, sets up his own “research” enterprise, and of course is named Henry.

But the dog isn’t always a dog — it might be a skunk (Homer Price, 1942), a pair of owls (Owls in the Family, 1962), or a dinosaur (The Enormous Egg, 1956). Though most are set in the North American midwest, a few are in Oregon (Henry Huggins, 1950), New Jersey (Henry Reed, Inc.) or California (The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, 1954). The boys in Mushroom Planet are named Chuck and Dave, but they do have a pet chicken and build their own rocket ship. Miss Pickerell also fails the H test, but she loves her cow, goes on science-related adventures, and has nephews named Homer and Harry.

Other H’s include Herbert Yadon (with an uncle Horace) of Herbert (1950), whose permissive parents allow his inventive, scientific, and animal-related schemes to get out of control; Huggins “Huggy” Pindar in The Big Splash (1960), about a group of inventive child entrepreneurs in a small town in Ohio; Hank Roberts of Leave it to Herbert (1963; not the same Herbert of Herbert), whose pet mouse Herbert gets electronic attachments; the inventive Andrew Henry of Andrew Henry’s Meadow (1965); and Homer, Henry, and Harmon in The Mad Scientists Club (1965).

To be fair, Henry Huggins doesn’t have much of the family resemblance — he acquires a stray dog but has no particular inventive tendencies — but really, with a name like Henry Huggins, how can we not include him? (The name might derive from Oz’s Uncle Henry and his clone Gran’pa Huggins of The Magical Land of Noom, 1922.  There is also Henry Higgins from the play Pygmalion, 1912, though the movie My Fair Lady didn’t come out until 1956, six years after Henry Huggins.)

More distant relations spiral outward from the center, with 1950’s and ’60’s books about boys wanting dogs (A Dog on Barkham Street, 1960; A Dog So Small, 1962), being inventors (the Danny Dunn series, 1956 onward; The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear, 1960; The Inventions of Alvin Fernald, 1960; Andy Buckram’s Tin Men, 1966), having entrepreneurial and/or animal-related escapades (The Shy Stegasaurus of Cricket Creek, 1962; Risky Business, 1956, about a boy trying his hand at turkey raising), or just having ostentatious H names, like Hugsy Goode of The Alley (1964).

In a followup post I’ll be taking a closer look at Homer Price, the first of this genre, which has some peculiarities all its own.


Some of my books

Hello! I’m here to write about old kids’ books, especially the strange or forgotten ones. As both a mother and closet kids-book-reader, I’m always on the hunt, which has led me down some quite unexpected pathways. This blog is to share what I’ve found.

(I’m also a professor, so I can access rare books. Some of them are rare because they’re bad. I read them so you don’t have to.)

I’m interested in books that have what Zilpha Keatley Snyder (author of The Egypt Game and The Changeling) called “strangeness,” though I think my definition is broader than hers. They needn’t have magic or fantasy elements, but they do need something striking about them, something that pulls you out of the ordinary. So I mostly won’t be covering books about regular children doing day-to-day things (Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, etc.). These are excellent books with many loyal fans, and if that’s your thing you can start your own blog.

I’m also interested in threads of influence — what books did a writer read and love, and how does that pop out unexpectedly in their own writing? There are, of course, the big, obvious influences (oh look, it’s Gandalf again), but I find it’s more fun to track the small and weirdly specific details.

Doctor Dolittle (1920); Babar and Father Christmas (1931); The Little Prince (1943); James and the Giant Peach (1961).

Let me emphasize that this is all in fun, and not about blame. Source amnesia is a real thing, and the arts would be the poorer without it.

Another angle I will be covering is racism, sexism, warped moral codes, and other examples of our ancestors’ bad judgement.

The specs: I’m covering children’s novels (approx. ages 8-12, sometimes called middle-grade fiction — in other words, not picture books nor young adult, though I stray a little in both directions). And I’m covering a particular era, the first three-quarters of the 20th century. The year 1900 fairly neatly marks the beginning of the modern children’s novel, and the mid-1970’s marks a time when things fell apart a bit, before reviving again in the post-Harry-Potter era. The years 1900-1975 make a tidy segment of history to explore.

I hope you enjoy what you find here.