some children’s books

Therapist: and what do we do when we feel a tiny bit heartbroken but also dumb because we revealed our vulnerability to someone who rejected it, and additionally feel waves of acute terror that a no-deal Brexit will threaten our actual life because we need insulin and medicine shortages will be more than a minor inconvenience?

Me: walk to the nearest bookshop and purchase £50+ worth of children’s and YA novels

Therapist: NO

And so:

wrinkle in time

A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: Not gonna lie, this one has aged weirdly. Not badly, exactly, but weirdly. There’s a level of sheer serene acceptance of Christian theology that would actually make me think twice before sending it to a child now—not because L’Engle ever advocates anything more controversial than the power of love, but because direct Biblical quotation in a book for eight-to-twelve-year-olds feels a bit…full on? Maybe that’s my problem, though; maybe a child would skate over whatever they didn’t need. They tend to. Also, I can’t quite shake my uncertainty about the characterisation of Meg, her genius-mystic little brother Charles Wallace, and her beautiful-genius mother Mrs. Murry, in particular, ever since reading this Paris Review article. Are they just prototypes of the Perfectly Flawed Protagonist trope in YA? I don’t know. There’s enough left in the book, even with my discomfort, to make it resonate with me very deeply: the way Meg is told that her weaknesses can also be her strengths, that what she has in her heart for her little brother is enough to save him from the cruelty that wants him for its own. And the description of the terrifying dark planet of Camazotz, with its authoritarian sameness and awful punishments for those who step out of line, retains all of its power to disturb.

phantom tollboothjpg

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: The complex delights of characterisation are not really an issue in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our protagonist, Milo, is a chronically bored little boy (one rather extraordinary feature of the book is that he appears not to have any parents; it’s not that he’s orphaned but that they simply aren’t mentioned. I guess he’s what that era might have called a latchkey kid, except that he literally never thinks about them, not once. It’s a fascinating omission. Is it that they don’t love him, or that they’re simply not necessary to the story? Or a bit of both?) Anyway, one day he finds a parcel in his room which turns out to be a flatpack toy tollbooth. He rouses himself from lassitude enough to put it together and drive through it in his little toy car, and suddenly finds himself in an entirely different world, where two brothers rule over words and numbers (respectively), the conductor Chroma directs the orchestra of the world to play every day into colour from sunrise to sunset, and Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord collects loud noises along with his lab assistant, the Terrible Dynne. Milo acquires two faithful companions, Tock the Watchdog (watch + dog, you see?) and the Humbug (stripy, pompous, likes spats), and soon finds himself on a quest to bring back the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their exile in the Castle in the Air. The delights of The Phantom Tollbooth are in the rigorous logic of its nonsense world, in which it much resembles Lewis Carroll; if you eat subtraction stew, you get hungrier and hungrier, of course—why wouldn’t you?

*a personal disclaimer: I read The Phantom Tollbooth out loud to my kid brother when he was six or seven and I was eleven or twelve. It made the most enormous impression on him; until he discovered Roald Dahl, he called it his favourite book, and he used to talk about it loads. We never found another book that did quite the same sort of thing.

arsenic for tea

Arsenic For Tea, by Robin Stevens: The second in Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series, and quite possibly even better than the eponymous first book. Daisy Wells (president of the Detective Society at Deepdean School) and Hazel Wong (Secretary) are at Daisy’s parents’ country house, Fallingford, for the summer holidays, but there is something rotten in the estate. Daisy’s mother (much younger than Daisy’s father) has invited a rather flashy and insincere antiques dealer named Mr Curtis to stay, and they seem entirely too chummy; Great-Aunt Saskia’s habit of pinching the silver spoons is becoming too obvious to ignore; and why does Uncle Felix (who does something top secret for the government) seem to know the girls’ holiday governess, when she’s only just been employed? When Daisy’s birthday tea ends with the unexpected demise of Mr Curtis, and flash flooding cuts off Fallingford from the surrounding countryside, it’s up to the girls to find out which of the houseguests is a killer… The reason Stevens’s books work so brilliantly is that, within this familiar framework of Christie-esque plot devices, she is absolutely committed to psychological realism. Daisy and Hazel have investigated one murder already, and they are only fourteen; where a lesser author would skip over any lingering effects of trauma, Stevens understands that the resilience of youth has limits, that Hazel is upset not just by this murder occurring but by the way murder seems to be happening all around her and her friends, that Daisy’s apparently lesser concern is not (as Hazel believes) a sign of her superiority but an indicator that something is not quite right with her. Daisy’s and Hazel’s characterisations have both developed between books one and two, and I’m very interested to see where Stevens takes them next. (She also has the extraordinary knack of dealing with topics like infidelity, lesbian relationships and pathological kleptomania in a way that feels entirely accurate to the 1930s’ schoolgirl point of view, but also entirely appropriate to her 21st-century audience, neither patronizing nor unsubtle. It is one of the hardest tricks in the world and she deserves to sell very well for it.)

howl's moving castle

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones: Wynne Jones mostly bypassed me, somehow; I had friends who loved Charmed Life and Dark Lord of Derkholm, and I think I read one or two, but they didn’t really sink in. And I’ve never seen the Miyazaki film of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is presumably how most people now come to the book. But the Folio Society—of all people—made Howl’s Moving Castle the subject of their most recent illustration competition, and artists produced such stunning and intriguing work for it that I found myself picking it up and thinking I’d give it a go. Well, it’s great. Wynne Jones, like Stevens, takes familiar and even goofy genre tropes (three daughters, a supposedly evil wizard, seven-league boots, curses cast by jealous witches), throws them all together with a huge dose of irony, sarcasm and bloodymindedness, and makes something entirely sui generis. Sophie Hatter is an eldest daughter, which means her life will be comfortable and boring; everyone knows only the youngest children in a family get to have adventures. But when she inadvertently offends the Witch of the Waste, a spell is cast on her that makes her appear to be an old woman. Making her way to the castle of the feared wizard Howl in hopes that he can remove the curse, she finds that being an old woman liberates her from caring for other peoples’ opinions, and she installs herself as Howl’s cleaner. But the Witch is after Howl, too, and Sophie needs to find a way to free Howl’s indentured fire demon, Calcifer, if she’s to rescue not only herself but her employer… Extremely funny, quite unpredictable, and with some action taking place in our world in a way that Wynne Jones simply declines to explain, which (instead of being annoying) makes it all the more magical. Also, and rather unexpectedly, features one of my favourite John Donne poems.

rules for vanishing

Rules For Vanishing, by Kate Alice Marshall: Actually not part of the book haul, but a proof copy sent to the bookshop which I plucked off the shelf in anticipation of its October publication by Walker Books. It is an excellent instance of Internet-creepypasta-type horror, including an urban legend about a girl who disappeared, mysterious documents about “the road”, “the game” and “rules” that must be followed, and a fragmented, documentary-style structure. (I was forcefully reminded in the early pages of this exceptional Reddit thread.) There’s also a very impressive subtlety to the representation of deafness, bisexuality, and stammering; I often struggle with YA where the characters are DIVERSE!!1!1!!!1!, but Marshall does it brilliantly, making each character an individual with a given trait, as opposed to a walking trait. (The deaf character’s deafness, in particular, actually functions in the story: because of it, most of his friends know ASL, so they can communicate silently when they need to.) I’ll definitely be recommending this to thirteen-year-olds and up, for Halloween and beyond.

Currently reading: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, which I’m loving (more on that in another post, perhaps), and have two more from the book haul stack left: Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass, which is new to me but which Abigail Nussbaum convinced me about, and Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a childhood favourite and also one of those books that, when read as an adult, make one wonder why on earth our parents thought this was appropriate for us at the tender age of nine.

27 thoughts on “some children’s books

  1. Diana Wynne Jones is the author I always gave as an example of ‘better than J.K. Rowling but born at the wrong time’. You’ve made me want to reconnect with all of my old favourites…

  2. I’m so sorry to hear about the ongoing stress/new stress but this sounds like absolutely the right thing to do. I read L’Engle and Juster as a child but haven’t been back to them since. I always struggled with most of Wynne Jones – I find the goofiness a bit much – but re-read Witch Week over and over again in primary school. Rules for Vanishing sounds GREAT and I’m already compelled by that Reddit thread.

    1. Oh god don’t read the thread alone or at night – it really got to me and I read the whole thing in an office in broad daylight. (Rules For Vanishing likewise.)

      I wonder now if it’s possible to see Wynne Jones as working in the same vague tradition as Pratchett – both of them seem very interested in subverting/affectionately mocking the expectations of their own genre. I think of WJ as preceding Pratchett, but I suppose they’d have been writing around the same time, really.

      1. That makes sense to me as I dislike both for the same reasons! I love genre subversion in children’s literature (Patricia C. Wrede etc.) but I really struggle with worlds that seem to me to be ridiculous.

        Thanks for the warning about the thread… I recently came across a similar thing (non-fiction in this case) that must not be read alone… even the Wikipedia entry is terrifying!

      2. I read a few of Patricia C. Wrede’s books and enjoyed them! But she was a bit like DWJ for me—I knew she existed but sort of bypassed her. (In retrospect, I fell so hard for Tolkien and, earlier, Tamora Pierce, that there probably wasn’t much room for anyone else.)

        I’m totally going to read that entry. I used to think of myself as not liking horror at all, and it still isn’t what I’d normally pick up, but I’ve realized that actually I quite like being scared sometimes…

      3. I just spent the morning gripped by that Reddit thread… terrifying! Do you know of any more like that? I’m not into podcasts but I’d be up for reading anything written!

        Wrede was one of the very earliest authors I read and still love, along with Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. Her Enchanted Forest Chronicles are genius.

      4. I’m entirely new to this myself, but I think the subReddit that the thread was on is called “nosleep” and I imagine it’s full of the same sort of thing!

  3. I always turn to children’s literature when things are getting on top of me. I can second Karen’s recommendation of Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock and would add Hemlock to that as well. I’m also a great fan of Philip Reeve. If you don’t know his Here Lies Arthur (very different from the Mortal Engines world, but I think the best thing he’s ever written) then I really recommend it. France’s Hardinge is remarkable too. By the way, having run school libraries for twenty years and lectured in children’s literature for another twenty I always judge a bookshop by its children’s section. Yours may be small but it is excellent.

    1. I’ve heard great things about Here Lies Arthur, and when I finished Mortal Engines last night I cried a little at the [SPOILER ALERT] death of Katherine—really impressed by him. Can’t wait for Frances Hardinge soon. And thank you for the kind words about our children’s section! We try to make it fun and exciting, and I’m really keen to continue revamping our stock.

  4. I’ve been contemplating a reread of A Wrinkle in Time (which I read as a child, but didn’t get). Gretchen Rubin always says you/she can tell when she’s feeling stressed because she obsessively rereads children’s books.

    1. How nice to know I’m not alone in this! (And honestly, some of the books I’ve come across that were new or almost-new to me have blown me away with how good they are.)

  5. I never read L’Engle or Juster as a child. Alan Garner and Catherine Storr were my faves then alongside Narnia. I can second Here Lies Arthur (which I read as a grown-up – absolutely brilliant). Also everythng Marcus Sedgwick has ever written!

    1. Marcus Sedgwick has had some serious championing from other readers I know, too! Don’t think I’ve ever heard of Catherine Storr – must look her up now…

  6. Meant to add sounds like excellent therapy too! (But it’s 2am and I’ve just had to drop off an anxious daughter at college to go off to Venice – 6am Gatwick flight – I’m now frazzled but can’t go to sleep quite yet,)

  7. I re-read Wrinkle in Time recently, and while it’s not a perfect book, Meg Murry was one of my favorite characters as a girl. I love that she’s stubborn and angry and insecure and I love even more that her faults are her strengths. I haven’t read Howl’s Moving Castle and I need to! I’ll look up some of these others too (I love Phantom Tollbooth).

    1. Yes! I really think that young girls being told that their “faults” are actually assets is something that STILL needs to happen more. Howl’s Moving Castle would be something you’d like, I think. (I still haven’t watched the film but a kind friend has lent me the DVD!)

  8. Ahh, Watership Down! Pagelong lists of plant species, interspersed with a little genocide and fascism and sociopolitical critique and grief. It’s a wonderful book – I re-read it a couple of years ago for the first time in a long time – and so powerful at the end, but yeah. It’s still shelved in the 9-to-11 age range in Waterstones, but… it’s not just the violence and the sadness and the fact that so much of the philosophical side will go over their heads, but also just how incredibly slow-paced and description-heavy it is. I know a 9-to-11-year-old, and while I think she’d love the story as a whole, and would have no trouble with the sadness, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be willing to sit through even just the first five pages of it.

    I read the Phantom Tollbooth once in a school library when I was six or seven, immediately loved it, but only remembered a few snippets and didn’t actually work out what book it had been for another twenty years or more. When I re-read it, I was disappointed. There were good bits, but a lot of quite formulaic stuff, I thought. And whereas ‘Alice’ is nonsense founded on interesting philosophical thought-experiments, ‘Tollbooth’ is nonsense founded on such a determined, insistent right-wing political ideology that I was just rolling my eyes by the end. It’s not a bad book, I understand why I loved it as a child, when I had read fewer things like it and better than it – and indeed, maybe it’s a part of why I went on to love Oscar Wilde and Terry Pratchett and the like – but it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it might have been.

    I feel a little sad when people turn to children’s books for comfort, because it’s something I largely missed out on. I did read some children’s books, of course – like both the above, and a lot of Roald Dahl, and Narnia, and a few other random things – but not many, and not usually ‘classics’, and they weren’t the things I was really into. I largely skipped straight into just ‘books’ – partly because I read a lot, and partly because I read fantasy, at a time when all fantasy was considered children’s books anyway*. My childhood books were things like the Silmarillion. Which is still a wonderful book, but… not really comforting in the same way, I think. [hmm, maybe I should try re-reading Narnia…]

    *and if you think that Watership Down is age-inappropriate…

    If you’re looking for very brief ‘classic’ children’s books, though, I did not long ago re-read and really like like “The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler”, by Gene Kemp. Not a fantasy, although to a child of the modern world the 1970s are probably more fantastical than Narnia (so. many. safeguarding. issues.). By modern standards a very low-key story – it’s just following a schoolchild around their ordinary life for a few weeks – with an unexpectedly modern twist… but I liked the way the children of the story actually felt like believable children, rather than the precocious adults-in-child-form you often find in the genre…

    1. I literally just reread Watership Down this past week, and… yeah, it’s an interesting choice for the children’s section. One of the things that struck me was how utterly unapologetic Adams is about the fact that the new warren desperately needs females for breeding purposes, and how relatively uninterested the book is in the female characters having much of a personality other than as breeding objects. Hyzenthlay’s got some spark to her, but she’s not a hero or even really a protagonist. It’s probably much more representative of how lapine society, such as it is, actually works (Adams was an earnest researcher and names in his acknowledgments the lapine biologist Ronald Lockley), but I can’t help thinking it would never make it past a publisher today.

      The nice thing about children’s literature is that often, even if you can see the political ideology as an adult, it doesn’t register even to a precocious child because they have no need for it. Lucy Mangan is good on this phenomenon re. The Chronicles of Narnia; as a child she had friends whose progressive parents wouldn’t let them read it on the grounds that it was Christian propaganda, which is not untrue but which is pretty irrelevant to an eight-year-old. Even a clever one is much more likely to be impressed by magic and beauty and talking animals than by the clear allegorical resonances of Aslan’s self-sacrifice. Kids take from books what they need, I think, which is partly why I’m also a big fan of not age-labeling books. Like you, I read plenty of adult fiction at a young age, some of which was ill-advised (Bridget Jones’s Diary at ten, for instance, was an eye-opener) but none of which actually damaged me and much of which I enjoyed. (I consider “comfort reading” to be “things I read in childhood”, very often, so I also frequently go for The Lord of the Rings! Have never read The Silmarillion. At the moment, I’m also taking on responsibilities for children’s books at work, which is partly why I’m focusing on reading more of it – to get myself up to snuff!)

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