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397799Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

Alison Lurie

London: Chatto and Windus, 2003.

I went book shopping yesterday and came home with a book I already own.  This is happening with more frequency.  Can full-blown senility be far behind my dotty bibliophilia?  Luckily the book was Boys and Girls Forever, so I can enjoy telling you about a marvelous book before they cart me off to the seniors’ home.

Many of the essays collected in this book first appeared in The New York Review of Books.   I’ve been away from this kind of leisurely book review for far too long, and one of the primary pleasures of this collection for me was to read an unhurried essay, not a review that would determine a sale.  Of course, I am more than happy to be persuaded to buy a book, but there was such delight in reading an expert’s take on children’s classics that eventually came around to a contemporary occasion for its discussion: a new film of Little Women, the centenary of The Wizard of Oz, a new biography of the author.  Parenthood has brought with it many joys, among them (re)reading children’s books, but time in which to read the likes of The New York Review of Books of a weekend morning is in scarce supply.  Oddly, I raced through this book precisely because it was so wonderful to enjoy again the pleasure of a leisurely-paced essay.

The central theme of this collection, as stated in its brief introduction, is that many children’s authors failed to grow up.  It’s a bit forced, this argument, as well as being a bit facile, and the forced nature of the introduction really does not do justice to the wonderful work done in the individual essays.  I see no reason to apologise for reprinting essays in book form and so have little patience for false pretenses.  In the essays, Lurie does tell us how the authors’ lives and times informed their creations, so there was a common biographical thread throughout, but they were also so much more than that, and I found that in almost every instance my appreciation of the works under discussion deepened.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, but I am a huge fan of her fans, which is to say that I find enthusiasm about books ever so infectious, and I delight in others’ delight of her work.  Lurie is definitely one of Jansson’s admirers, and she revels in the Moomin books’ complexity and darkness.  I love Jansson’s language, especially her names for her characters, and I’ve collected all of the beautiful Drawn & Quarterly editions of her books, but the reading of the books always falls flat for me somehow.  What I love about Lurie’s chapter on Jansson is that it makes me want to go back and give the Moomintrolls another go.  (Tove is pronounced Tova, and in both the hardcover and paperback editions of Lurie’s book, her name is misspelled several times as Tova, as if the author had slipped up between sound and spelling.  There are also several other glaring errors, like Patrick rather than Philip Pullman, that made me feel a bit less alone in my absent-mindedness.  I may buy multiple copies of books by mistake, people, but at least my spel-ckeck wroks.)

Not all of the essays are full of praise.  Lurie, while largely enthusiastic about Theodor Seuss Geisel, has nothing much good to say about Dr. Seuss’s all-American, fame-and wealth-driven definition of success to be found in Oh! The Places You’ll Go!:

Who is buying this book, and why?  Apparently it is a very popular college-graduation gift, and also often given to people who are changing jobs or careers.  It is a pep talk, and meets the same need that is satisfied by those stiffly smiling financial experts who declare on television that any glitch in America’s prosperity is a Gunk that will soon be unthunk, to be followed-On Beyond Zebra!- by even greater success.  (104)

So, there’s a bit of spit and vinegar in this collection, too.

The  book ends with an essay on nature in children’s literature that begins with a wonderful piece of memoir:

When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country, and my perception of the world entirely altered.  I had been used to regular, ordered spaces: labeled city and suburban streets and apartment buildings and parks with flat rectangular lawns and beds of bright “Do Not Touch” flowers behind wire fencing.  Suddenly I found myself in a landscape of thrilling disorder, variety, and surprise.

As the child of modern, enlightened parents I had been told that many of the most interesting characters in my favourite stories were not real: there were no witches or fairies or dragons or giants.  It had been easy for me to believe this; clearly, there was no room for them in a New York City apartment building.  But the house we moved to was deep in the country, surrounded by fields and woods, and there were cows in the meadow across the road.  Well, I thought, if there were cows, which I’d seen before only in pictures, why shouldn’t there be fairies and elves in the woods behind our house?  Why shouldn’t there be a troll stamping and fuming in the loud, mossy darkness under the bridge that crossed the brook?  There might even be one or two small hissing and smoking dragons–the size of teakettles, as my favourite children’s author, E. Nesbit, described them–in the impenetrable thicket of blackberry briars and skunk cabbage beyond our garden.  (171-172)

I adore this retreat from urban rationality to rural possibility.  The child she was sees the natural world for the first time through eyes educated by story.

Though nowhere near as transformative, Lurie’s book took me on a pleasurable tour of my own bookshelves and gave me new eyes through which to see some of the books perched there.  Really, the only problem with books about books like these, books that make you want to go back to your shelves and pull down great piles of things, is that they bring home the fact, yet again, that there are so many books and so little time.

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The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie

Wendy McClure

New York: Riverhead, 2011.

(reviewed from a review copy)

This summer, after our annual two-day drive from Ontario to Nova Scotia, I climbed out of our mini-van and into a flu.  In the roof-top carrier of the mini-van was a banker’s box full of books I’d brought on holiday (because it’s just not a vacation unless you bring along enough reading material to last until the apocalypse), but on our first night at the cottage, we did not unpack that box, and I was left without bedtime reading material.  I went, instead, to the cottage’s shelves and found an old Dell paperback copy of The Little House on the Prairie.  Perfect.  In spite of my exhaustion, I read late into the night, and when I woke up feeling less than well the next morning, I put it down to the long drive and the short sleep.

Not long after, I was back in bed and there I would stay for a few days.  The banker’s box sat in the corner, untouched.  Not one of the books was suitable for flu reading, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was, and I made my way through two of the Little House books while shivering and sweating and coughing it out.  (Not to be too melodramatic here, but I could identify when the family all had malaria.)

As I read, I was paying as much attention to the books as I was to my response to them: attraction and repulsion.  Ma’s racism was something I had not remembered at all, and it disgusted me.  It’s always an odd sensation to revisit a book from childhood, but this was particularly jarring.  I found the narrator a tad cold, too.  But then there was the wonderful catalogue of things and deeds, of blessings and curses, of a world contained and enumerable.

How delightful, then, to read Wendy McClure’s book and find my ambivalence so precisely and humourously mirrored.  I am nowhere near the Little House fan McClure is, but her book is so well written, so amusing and richly textured, that she takes us along on her own (re)discovery of the world of the books without our having to match her level of devotion to them.

McClure, who is a children’s book editor and who tweets as HalfPintIngalls, begins by describing the appeal of the books:

Since I edit children’s books for a living, I get asked a lot about my favorite books as a kid.  When I tell people I loved the Little House books, I know it’s a perfectly respectable answer, the sort of thing folks expect me to say.  Then sometimes they go on and ask me whether I also loved various other Important Children’s Books, like Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Prince and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’ll do my best for a while, trying to play along, and then at some point I have to hem and haw and shrug because, well, you know what I really liked?  I liked books that had pictures of toast in them.

Well, not just toast, but, you know, cups and ladles and baskets and hats, lovingly rendered, all in their places in a room or even just in little vignettes, but at any rate, things, in all their thinginess.  (3-4)

I do know!  Things in all their thinginess is my thing too!

She re-reads the whole set of Little House books, researches the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and begins to plan trips to the creeks, sod houses and towns in which her fictionalized biographies are set.  She buys calico sun bonnets.  She buys a butter churn.  And makes butter with it.  Her boyfriend, bless him, puts horehound candy in her stocking.

I flipped through the pages of [The Little House Guidebook] and mentally subtitled it Everything You Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend but Were Afraid to Ask.  And I was still afraid to ask: what kind of a person would I become if I just went with this, let my calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly? (26)

What happens when she lets her freak flag fly is a wonderful book, full of humour.  Equal parts memoir, biography, picaresque and cultural studies, McClure’s book attempts to reconcile her childhood love of the books with some of their darker undercurrents.

As part of her attempt to live “La Vida Laura,” McClure and her boyfriend go on a homesteading weekend, encouraged by the host’s mention of the Little House books on her website.   She is encouraged to bring her butter churn so that she can show the other participants how to churn butter.  The other participants turn out to be Christians preparing for the apocalypse.

I was keeping an open mind.  And I had gotten used to encountering people of a somewhat more evangelical bent in the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan world—plenty of homeschooling moms blogged about the Little House books, for example, and I’d noticed more than a couple fish symbols on the cars in the museum parking lot in Mansfield, Missouri.  They were all nice folks who shared my love of Laura but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage. …

From everything I’d read, End Timers were waiting for the collapse of the civilization the way fans of the Twilight series awaited the trailer for Breaking Dawn.  They were bracing themselves to endure the myriad destructive ordeals that would wipe out infidels, atheists, unrepentant sinners, industrialists, government officials, and Salon.com readers, with the expectation that they, the prepared ones, would be among the worthy few who would be raptured to Heaven….  (191, 194) 

This wonderfully humourous clashing of worlds is an opportunity for McClure to investigate the darker side to the homey nostalgia of the books:

I had been searching for Laura Ingalls Wilder and I’d gotten Hippie Half-Pint instead, half full of her crazy, crazy Kool-Aid made from foraged berries.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was making me uneasy.  Deep down, I was starting to wonder if the Little House books had more to do with this sort of worldview than I’d been willing to admit.  Not the end-of-the-world stuff, of course, but that “simple life” mind-set and all that it rejected.  … I thought about the moms who bragged online that their homeschooled kids were not only reading the Little House books but were learning from reprinted editions of the same McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers that Laura and Carrie used, as if all of twentieth-century pedagogy simply didn’t exist.  (196)

It is this layered approach that I most liked about McClure’s book.  Memoir and biography, nostalgia and honest examinations of the racism in the book, humour and skepticism about the commercialization of Laura world.

On the banks of the real Plum Creek, McClure has a moment of clarity:

I was going to wade in the creek.  Others were doing it—both adults and kids were seeking out clear spots along the bank where it was easy to step into the water.  I found a place where the dirt was smooth from the feet of other visitors.  I took off my flip-flops and stepped awkwardly down the slope of the bank.  The water felt nice.  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described.  Or it was just like each step I’d taken in the creek at the campground where my family spent weekends when I was a kid.  I don’t know which had come first, my own experience or the book, but either way, that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I know the book was true. (232)

I love this passage.  The visceral layering of here and there, now and then, experience lived and experience read; the sudden awareness of truth.  Isn’t that what the complexity and clarity of re-reading old loves is all about?

This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it highly, not just for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for any book lover who loves a good read.

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I Can Say Interpellation by Stephen Cain

I Can Say Interpellation

Stephen Cain

Illustrated by Clelia Scala

Bookthug, 2011.

My husband was given this book as a gift this weekend (thank you, Greg and Lisa!), and I think it’s one of my all-time favourite parodies. In I Can Say Interpellation Stephen Cain uses the familiar rhymes and rhythms of children’s books to make exquisitely barbed comments on contemporary politics.   “Marx on Box,” for example, is a wonderful riff on Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, set in the streets of Seattle during the WTO riots.  (He reads it in the video below, but he is far too modest a reader.  I am giddy with admiration for the book and I would like to be able to share a clip of a much more animated reading.)

In “The Very Hungry Capitalist,” the capitalist’s feast climaxes thusly:

On Friday he ate up all the funding for social housing, public transportation, feminist research, environmental initiatives, unemployment insurance, universal daycare, Native land claims, and all the funding for the arts.

That night he felt a little guilty.

If you recognize the original and you sympathize with the sentiment, then this book is meant for you. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and even Go the Fuck to Sleep, gave me a chuckle, but the joke wears out quickly; it’s novelty comedy.  Parody is the frame for what Stephen Cain is doing here, but the value of the satirical commentary in the poems is far deeper and far more resonant.  This is a book for adults, particularly left-leaning adults with children to whom they have read the originals of these poems over and over and over again.  Parody with a healthy dose of moral outrage.

The illustrations by Clelia Scala work perfectly with the text, with collages that pair familiar images from fifties domestic scenes and Victorian illustration, with memento mori that highlight the theme of death and destruction in so many of the poems. 

Stephen Cain’s modest demeanour does not do justice to how fantastic I think this book is, but if you want to hear the author read some of the poems, here he is reading from the collection

and here is in an interview about the book.

Thanks again, Greg and Lisa, for doing my holiday shopping for me.  I will be buying multiple copies of this book for gifts this year.

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The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared

Alice Ozma

New York: Hachette, 2011.

Most of the time, when I go to the literary criticism or essay section of a bookstore, my first instinct is to look for books I already have or know about.  It’s a kind of settling in ritual, scanning the shelves for familiar colours and fonts, seeking similarity to my bookshelves at home or to the very bookshelf I’m looking at as it appeared the last time I was looking at it.  Was that book here last time?  Do they keep a good supply of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in stock?  I want to see my interests and erudition reflected back to me.  It is rare that I feel a surge of joy at a new discovery, because, let’s face it, books about books are not published every day.  Last week I found two new books that made my heart beat faster: The Reading Promise and A Jane Austen Education (more about which soon).

Alice Ozma was named after two characters from children’s literature: Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Ozma, the ruler of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.  Her father, Jim Brozina, a children’s librarian, chose them as her middle names.  She has adopted them as her first and last names, an apt decision for a girl who was brought up on books.

When she was in Grade 4, Alice and her father made a pledge: they would read for 100 consecutive nights.   While celebrating the accomplishment, Alice upped the ante: what about going for 1000?  They got much further than that.  From Grade 4 until her first day at university, Jim Brozina read aloud to his daughter every single night.  Including prom night.  They called it The Streak.

I read this book in one sitting tonight, my own version of a streak, as I am not often alert enough to read for so long, no matter how much I may want to.  But this book had me hooked.  It’s a book about books, it’s a book about children’s books, it’s a book about a committed teacher (cue the tears), it’s a book about the enormous value of libraries in schools (cue more tears), and it’s engagingly written.  

The book has its rough spots; it is Alice Ozma’s first book, and it gets off to rather a mushy start.  But it was also a page-turner.  I wanted to know what challenges the pair would face and how they would overcome them.  Aside from the fact of their amazing streak, this is also an engaging memoir structured around reading.  There are chapters on her parents’ divorce, on book sales and sick days, on funerals and date nights, on car crashes and suicide.  The chapters are timed and structured well, and each ends with a punch line.  Ozma’s humour is dry and self-deprecating, and she tells her story well.  The final chapter on her father’s beloved school libraries being turned into computer labs and emptied of books had me on the edge of my seat.  That chapter should be required reading for every school administrator.

After being asked by a slightly bemused friend if the routine did not get boring after a while, she realizes

We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but.  Every night was different because every story was different.  Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting.  But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages.  Everything else changed as soon as we picked up a new book, plunging us deep into a new landscape with unfamiliar faces.  The Streak was routine, yet it was as far from routine as anything a parent and daughter could do together.

Reading to my boys at bedtime is my favourite time of day, but there are days, lots of them, when it just does not happen.  (This is because I’m a stickler about bed time.  Jim Brozina was not.)  Nevertheless, this book made me want to enlist the boys in a big poster-making project: a huge 10 by 10 calendar to mark off our own unbroken streak of 100 days of reading.  As her father says in his preface to the book, “Nothing that lasts has been accomplished without effort.  The things that we are most proud of took quite a lot to achieve.”  This book makes me want to pull out the stops and make no excuses.

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More akin to wanderers and creators than to gluttons and addicts, readers lead a nomadic existence that requires mental agility and the capacity to pursue leads and follow trails.  Not all hunters return from those literary travels with their creative instincts sharpened, but they all bring back some kind of quarry, souvenirs of those lures that kept them hot on the trail.  They preserve those souvenirs as precious talismans that are memorized, burnished, and preserved until they become their own.  As they appropriate and internalize words, readers use those same words to construct their identities, changing them in ways so subtle that they often escape conscious attention. … Souvenirs of reading function in much the same manner as psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s transitional objects, bridging the realm of fantasy with the ordinary world, providing something to hold onto when readers return to sober reality after the thrill of adventures in story worlds. … Just as our hands once needed those concrete physical objects in childhood, so too so our minds seize on images and words from stories to help us make our way in the world. (Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters 90-91)

I don’t think I’ll ever get around to reviewing this book, I’ll just keep quoting its marvellous passages. 

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You may have heard that Martin Amis has said that the only thing that would induce him to to write books for kids is brain damage

Here’s a brilliant response from Patricia Storms.

MartinAmisPigeon

Check out more of her portraits here.

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Pop-up books are a category unto themselves in children’s book publishing, and the very best pop-up books always give the reader a surprise, a new perspective.

Here’s one from Roaring Book Press by Marion Bataille that amazed me with its clever manipulation of the alphabet.  It blends beautifully the kinetic properties of books and letters. 

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via Bookninja, edible books.  I so want to do Where the Wild Things Are for Gavin’s next birthday.

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100 Best Books for Children

by Anita Silvey

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004

I don’t know how I came across this book.  I think I once enthused about Michelle Landsberg’s guide to books for children and someone mentioned Silvey.  I bought it, it sat by the bedside for months,  got shelved, gathered dust, yada, yada, yada.

I’m here to tell you that if the care and feeding of young minds is in your purview, if you are a fan of children’s literature, and if anyone (like me, for instance) suggests that you read this book, do it right away

It looks for all the world like such an ordinary, if beautifully organized, book.  A nice, neat 100 books.  A nice, neat 100 mini-essays, all tidily the same length.  And because this is a book to recommend children’ s books, and because no such list is ever complete, especially not at 100, there is even an appendix, “Beyond the 100 Best.”

Nice and neat, yes, but also bursting at the seams with all kinds of wonderful information,  spilling over with literary deliciousness.

I feel about this book the way that I feel about any writing that ranks as excellent.  It gives me a profound sense of satisfaction to read it. 

Anita Sivley (bio here) worked as the editor of The Horn Book Magazine and as a publisher of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin, and her vast stores of knowledge encompass not only the authors and illustrators of children’s books, but their editors, too.  Many of the essays include details about the role that an editor played in bringing a book to market and to the status of a classic.

The editor of The BFG, Stephen Roxburgh, proved to be one of [Roald] Dahl’s most exacting editors.  He spent days drafting his editorial suggestions to Dahl, ten typed, single-spaced pages that commented on inconsistencies, cliches, and matters of taste.  Dahl told Roxburgh that he was “absolutely swishboggled and sloshbunkled” by the trouble the editor had taken with his work.  He accepted these criticisms, greatly improving the manuscript.  The BFG remains Dahl’s most critically successful work, an example of the author’s broad genius and the editor’s insights combining felicitously to produce a classic. (87)

Then there are the anecdotes with which the book is stuffed.  (Aspiring writers who are struggling to find a publisher, avert your eyes.  This may sting a bit.)

Although [Sid] Fleischman pursued a successful career as an adult screenwriter in Hollywood, he began creating children’s books for his own three children.  He sent his first book, Mr. Mysterious and Company, off to his agent, saying only, “I seem to have written a children’s book.  If you don’t care to read it, I will understand.  Drop it into the wastebasket.”  Instead the agent sent it to the editor Emily McLeod, who made an offer the next morning, launching Fleishman’s new career. (92)

The mini-essays, then, don’t just give a dry account of plot, setting, etc.  They add layers and layers of depth, remarkable in such a small space. 

I find that I also have Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators on our shelves. 

I’m off to read it.  Right away.

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“Foreword: On Rereading”

by Anne Fadiman

from Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love

My son, Griffin, who is nine, recently appeared as Peter in his drama club’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I wanted to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to him and his brother, Rowan (almost 5), before they met the bowdlerized stage version, so we spent several nights escaping through the back of the cupboard with Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter. 

(For those of you unfamiliar with the story, four siblings find a passage to a frozen land called Narnia at the back of a cupboard.  Narnia is frozen because it is under the thrall of the White Witch, but the appearance of the four human children heralds the fulfillment of a prophecy that will see the great lion Aslan return to Narnia, melt the neverending winter freeze, and vanquish the White Witch.  In the process of this triumph, Edmund is seduced by the White Witch, by means of enchanted Turkish delight, betrays his siblings and is only saved from death and dishonour by Aslan’s offering to die in his place.  Aslan is duly killed by the white witch but comes back to life thanks to a bit of old magic that promises eternal life to those who die to redeem others.)

The timing seemed perfect, not just because of Griffin’s upcoming performance, but because winter was loosening its grip on us here in Toronto, and the great thaw in Narnia was mirrored on our own street, in our own garden.  There was a new smell to greet us when we opened the front door to go to school each morning, damp earth and warmth, and I liked ending the day going through the magical cupboard door, with its powerful sensory reminders of spring’s arrival.

I cannot remember when I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Unlike Anne Fadiman and Laura Miller, I do not have clear memories of reading or being read the Narnia books, but I also cannot remember a time when I could look at the big wardrobe in my grandmother’s bedroom without thinking that it led to another world.  The possibility of infinite regress out of the back of the musty cupboard, like Alice’s looking glass and rabbit hole, just always seemed there, and I was looking forward to my boys’ initiation into this realm of possibility.

I was prepared, also, for the disillusionment of rereading, for the discontinuity I knew to expect between my own and the boys’ perception of Narnia.  Anne Fadiman, in her Foreword to Rereadings, and Laura Miller, in her The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, both eloquently recount their disillusionment with Narnia on rereading the books as adults, and I had their experiences fresh in my mind.

Here is what Anne Fadiman has to say about reading another of the Narnia books to her eight-year-old son:

Reading a favorite book to your child is one of the most pleasurable forms of rereading, provided the child’s enthusiasm is equal to yours and thus gratifyingly validates your literary taste, your parental competence, and your own former self.  Henry loved The Horse and His Boy, the tale of two children and two talking horses who gallop across an obstacle-fraught desert in hopes of averting the downfall of an imperiled kingdom that lies to the north.  It’s the most suspenseful of the Narnia books, and Henry, who was at that poignant age when parents are still welcome at bedtime but can glimpse their banishment on the horizon, begged me each night not to turn out the light just yet: how about another page, and then, how about another paragraph, and then, come on, how about just one more sentence?  There was only one problem with this idyllic picture.  As I read the book to Henry, I was thinking to myself that C. S. Lewis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a racist and sexist pig. …

It was difficult to read this kind of thing to Henry without comment: the words, after all were coming to him in my voice.  I held my tongue for the first hundred pages or so, but finally I blurted out, “Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn’t really fair to girls?  And that all the bad guys have dark skin?”  … Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream.  And who could blame him?

I love how she gets at the complexity of the emotion of herself as a re-reader: gratification, smugness, pleasure and pain.  What costs us our own (adult) total immersion in the books we loved as children is our education:

Your education becomes an interrogation lamp under which the hapless book, its every wart and scar exposed, confesses its guilty secrets: “My characters are wooden!  My plot creaks!  I am pre-feminist, pre-deconstructivist, and pre-postcolonialist!”  (The upside of English classes is that they give you critical tools, some of which are useful, but the downside is that those tools make you less able to shower your books with unconditional love….)

Not wanting my boys to look at me like I had poured vinegar on their ice cream, I kept my education and my criticisms to myself.  I reveled, instead, in what Lewis’s book offered my senses: the taste of Turkish delight, magically enhanced to an addictive state, the feel of fur against a cheek, the crunch of snow underfoot, the sound of frozen streams coming to life. 

When we had only a few chapters left to go, my mother died, suddenly of a heart attack, and I was not sure I’d make it through the last chapters of Aslan’s sacrifice and reincarnation.  The real and the fictional spring were too much of an assault on my senses, too much of a stark contradiction to my mother’s death.  Aslan’s death was too much of a parallel to the awful fact of our family’s loss.  As a long-lapsed Catholic, I did not take comfort in Aslan’s apotheosis.  For me, there was only the cold, bare fact of my mother’s absence.

It is true that you can never return to the innocence of a first, childhood reading, but I did not expect to be deprived of an attachment to Narnia in so stark a loss. I did finish reading the book to the boys, and was, frankly, numb to Aslan’s appeal to the children’s loyalty.  I felt excluded, not on the basis of education, but simple incomprehension.  How, with apparently so thin a description, did Lewis manage to inspire his readers and his characters with love for Aslan?  The boys did not ask many questions about the Old Magic that brought Aslan and Narnia back to life, and I did not offer explanations.

I took comfort, instead, in the warmth of the boys’ bodies curled up next to mine, and in the fact that their Grandma’s love of reading seems firmly to have taken root and blossomed in the fertile soil of her grandsons’ imaginations.

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