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.