Is children’s lit as good as it used to be?

(ParentsCanada; CBC)

You might be forgiven for wondering what planet we’re living on when you read kids’ books today. Often it seems that excitement only comes from big things, big people and exotic places, which can make you long for the books of our youth: Harriet spying on the grocery clerks; Peter winning Dribble the turtle at a birthday party; the Great Brain’s latest swindle. The books that were popular for the under-10 set in the ’70s and ’80s seemed…different.

The reading we did when we were young just seemed that much more vivid and more embracing than the reading we do as adults. There are good reasons for that, says Deirdre Baker, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Toronto. “A lot of what you read and come across is discovery for the first time. It has that joy of discovery and involvement.” When we are young, we don’t yet have the patterns of literature truly down pat, so there are no clichés, no tired plot twists or overused adjectives. Everything is new; every story is fresh.

Deirdre notes that reading is something we introduce to our children, and, while the books that we read and loved may not be the greatest literature ever to emerge, our interest in those books will register with our kids. Introducing them to our kids is a chance to revisit old stories, old fictional friends and to share something that was special to us. For those reasons alone, she says, introduce your kids to whatever books interested you.

And get dad involved. “It sounds weird,” says Deirdre, “but studies have shown that children who have fathers who read are more likely to become readers.”

She’s right, that does sound weird. And she doesn’t even mean dads who read aloud; it’s just dads who read their own books to themselves. It’s perhaps a reminder that, in so many ways, children take their reading cues from us.

I recently dusted off my old chapter books to read them to my children, and was hit with a wave of nostalgia. Are they as good as I thought they were? I turned to Deirdre and her colleague, Ken Setterington, a storyteller, author and book reviewer, for a studied opinion.

The Great Brain | By John Dennis Fitzgerald

“I think it’s wonderful,” says Deirdre. “It’s funny. There is a real sense of having that kind of status in the family, having to deal with the older brother who is always going to pull one over on you. And it allows serious issues into the story without being moralistic … I think that’s a real strength.”

The Great Brain of the title is John’s older brother, Tom, who has a knack of swindling all the neighbourhood kids. John is usually the one to bear the brunt of his schemes. The stories take place in a smallish town were everyone always seems to be sitting out on the front porch. There’s lots of activity in the street, and people have time to gather around to offer opinions on breeding dogs, the smell of outhouses or to grumble about those pesky kids. It’s a pretty rough and tumble life with fights and scuffles, and real trouble to get into. Still, it’s pretty safe, too. The Jenson boys get lost in the Skeleton Caves for two days, but are found, scolded and life goes on.

Going back to this book was like visiting old friends. The writing is smooth and mature, the scenes are vivid and the illustrations by Mercer Mayer are complex, dark and deep. There are eight books in the series, and even now I find it hard not to go from one to the next, to the next.

Little House in the Big Woods | By Laura Ingalls Wilder

Over the years, there have been many, many people who have gushed about the Little House books, though for today’s reader, Laura Ingalls Wilder might as well be describing Mars. There is really nothing in Laura’s world that we might find in ours. But there is at least one thing that remains as vivid now as it did when the first book was published in 1932: that voice. On its publication, one reviewer wrote, “Wilder writes with such lively recollection and keen pleasure in her own childhood experience. An atmosphere of festivity and good comradeship between the children and their elders pervades the book.”

Those things are still there, and are still fresh and welcome. Laura had fun. She liked people, except for Nelly Olsen, and they liked her. Laura is polite, creative and alive, and isn’t afraid of engaging with the world around her. She doesn’t save the world, or solve a crime or find a secret passageway, which is kind of a nice change.

But today’s literary context has more to offer readers. “I would recommend them,” says Deirdre of the Little House books, “but in conjunction with other books that are from different perspectives, such as Louise Erdich’s The Birchbark House. Written from the point of view of an aboriginal girl, it also deals with family and has a lot of the same types of qualities.” And Canadian author Jean Little’s historical fiction  both current and decades old — continues to stand up.

Harriet the Spy | By Louise Fitzhugh

“It’s a great book,” says Deirdre. “It’s innovative. It’s still absolutely germane. The writing is sharp, ironic and honest, and it still makes adults uncomfortable because Ole Golly says sometimes you have to lie,” in order to keep the peace.

Brash and fallible, Harriet is certainly no Nancy Drew, which is what readers noticed when Harriett first appeared in 1964. She keeps notes on the people around her — all in block capitals — and becomes a social pariah at her school when her peers discover them and share them around.

“I’M GLAD I’M NOT PERFECT,” she writes after getting in trouble. That was a big deal to a young reader. By accepting her imperfections, she allowed us to be imperfect, too, and to know that it’s OK.

“It’s a powerful book,” says Ken. “It’s a classic, and it’s one that I’ve always cared about. It really reaches kids because Harriet is completely different from all other characters in children’s lit. Kids can identify with her, and there is a recognition they don’t find in other books.”

Ramona the Pest | By Beverly Cleary

“This book is still completely relevant,” says Deirdre. Ramona is the model of a certain kind of child, and to this day remains a great example of the type: she’s a pest, opinionated and forthright. All of which make her great reading for kids. She takes a bite out of a block of butter, says lots of things that she shouldn’t and colours in a library book in the hopes that, if she makes it her own, she won’t have to take it back. Didn’t we all want to do something like that at some point?

Ramona also pays the price of her actions which, to a kid, is exciting stuff. Her parents argue, say the wrong things, and apologize. They’re human too, which feels good for parents to read. With Cleary’s subtle craftsmanship, Ramona remains as fresh and appealing today as the day she was written.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret | By Judy Blume

Blume created considerable buzz by writing about menstruation and puberty. You’d have to do a lot more to get people’s attention today. Still, there just wasn’t that much out there, at least in the 70s, that was as frank as Margaret. She felt a bit lost at sea, perhaps confused about some things and puzzled why adults didn’t seem to understand her or treat her as she felt she ought to be treated. And she had a private life full of personal confidences and desires. That was big. But, both Ken and Deirdre feel it probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal then if it hadn’t been for Margaret’s period. Fair enough.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler | By E. L. Konigsburg

“It’s a kid running away from home and living in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and it’s amazing,” says Ken. “She’s stealing the money out of the fountain, she’s sleeping on Marie Antoinette’s bed…. She’s really mad at her family, and that’s why she’s run away. She wants to prove that she’s special.”

Deirdre agrees. “Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful…. Whatever it is that Judy Blume has to offer, E. L. Konigsburg has way beyond that. Her characterization is subtle; she is really about the complexity of humans.”

Glen Herbert is a writer, editor and father of three who lives in Burlington, ON. And yes, he is also an avid reader.

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