Saturday, August 09, 2008

Confessions of a Kid Lit Lover

I wrote "Confessions of Kid Lit Lover" for this month's Bookworms Carnival. This cross-blog, monthly event is organized and facilitated by Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf, but each individual Carnival is conducted by a volunteer host--in this case my friend and fellow LA Moms Blogger, Florinda. She is hosting the carnival on her personal website, The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness, where she has chosen the theme "You're Never Too Old - Children's and Young-Adult Literature." She will link to all the blogs participating in this month's event. So what are you waiting for? Mosey on over there for more good reading (AFTER you finish reading my post, if you please)! Her post is up now--so check it out!

It’s been a tough decision to make, but I think it is finally time for me to come out of the closet. To proclaim loudly and proudly: I LOVE children’s and young adult books. (Don’t worry, I love lit for grown-ups, too—I’m an equal-opportunity lit lover—I’m. . .I’m. . . .omniliterary—yeah, that’s it, omniliterary!).

Not that there’s anything wrong it.

I’ve held on to my favorite so-called “children’s books” all my adult life. And when and if they became too tattered to read, I replaced them. Of course, I told myself and others that I was doing it for my future children’s enjoyment. But I knew, deep down, it was for me and me alone. I couldn’t bear to part with (among many others) The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables (my mom's copy), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Heidi, A Wrinkle in Time and Grimm’s and Anderson’s Fairy Tales (which were my father’s before mine). But I did feel embarrassed about my, um, attachments. I hid them in the bookcase in my storage room—safe from the prying eyes of friends and neighbors.

[An aside: I was overjoyed recently to discover that they are still printing these same editions of Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales (my copies were printed in the 1940s)—complete with the original magical and sometimes frankly disturbing illustrations and text. It’s nice to know that at some time in the not-too-distant past, people did not feel the need to write “down” to children, that authors had enough faith in their audience to know that they’d understand—or get the help they’d need to understand—scary ideas, real language, real grammar, and—gasp—an elevated vocabulary.]

It didn’t help that my husband thought my attachment to many of the books in the young adult genre was an indication that my emotional development had stalled in adolescence—It was basically the same way he felt about me watching that late, lamented TV classic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And really, the argument I made about watching Buffy—that, despite its seemingly childish (or rather, teen-focused,) subject matter, it was one of the best-written shows out there, applies equally to those purportedly childish or adolescent books I love—they are all incredibly well-written stories. And shouldn’t that be enough to make them universally appealing? Why are adults so prejudiced against stories about children or for children? A good story is a good story, dammit. Harry Potter, anyone? The Twilight Series? Kiki Strike?

Speaking of prejudices, in my childhood and adolescence, I noticed the grown-ups encouraging—whether intentionally or not—gender prejudice among books. I remember that in some grades at my school, the girls’ reading lists and the boys’ reading lists were different. While the boys were reading The Hobbit, the girls were reading. . .sheesh, I can’t even remember what we were reading-- Flowers for Algernon?? In any event, no boy wanted to be caught dead reading a “girls” book—and likewise, most girls were discouraged—or at least felt they were—from reading “boys” books. So, it never occurred to me to read books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was young. I thought I wouldn’t find them interesting. That they were too boy-ish. Boy oh boy, was I wrong. When I finally got around to reading many of those “boy” books as an adult, I thought they were brilliant, and, quite frankly, I was angry as all get-out that the girls had missed out on a lot of fine literature because some grown-ups thought….I don’t know what they thought, because it doesn’t make one iota of sense to me. Could it have something to do with being raised in the conservative South? Who knows?

Considering my love of kid lit, it’s no surprise that I’ve particularly enjoyed revisiting old favorites and being introduced to new ones with my daughter and son, and I thank the literary gods who have granted me a child who, at nine-and-a-half years old, still wants me to read to her every night. In fact, I’ve loved some of the books we’ve read together so much that I’ve stayed up late to read on, long after my daughter has fallen asleep. I can’t help it. Trust me. You would want to know what happens next to Gregor the Overlander, too.

And it’s not just young adult books I love—there are so many picture books that bring me enormous pleasure (I found that the hardest part about writing this particular blog entry was having to leave OUT so many books that I adore)—some for their message, some for their humor, some for their artistry, and some—for all of the above reasons.

I think the best picture books are often like a good Disney (note that I said GOOD) or Pixar animated feature; the stories work on many different levels—having appeal (often for different reasons) to both adults and children of various ages. A great example of this can be found in Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum--While the book is ostensibly about a little girl mouse (Chrysanthemum) who learns to love her name no matter what others think, much of the book pokes fun at adoring, hovering, hyper-intellectual parents. In any event, Chrysanthemum comes home from her first few days of school in tears because everyone has made fun of her name. While the text concentrates on Chrysanthemum’s parents (and in particular her mother) cheering her up, the illustrations show her father (in a lab coat) furtively reading books with titles like “The Inner Mouse, Vol . 1 Childhood Anxiety” and “A Rose by Any Other Name: Understanding Identity.” The first time I read this book, I almost snorted my nursing tea out my nose. I was also squirming in my glider with self-recognition. I’m sure the kids reading this book do not get most of the jokes—but it sure does make for enjoyable reading for parents! And what about Mo Willems? I don’t know an adult (or, at least, a parent) who has not been charmed by the Pigeon’s wide-eyed wheedling or failed to recognize themselves and their children in the Knuffle Bunny books (a fantastic mix of illustration and photography, by the way).

I don’t think it is an accident that so many brilliant New Yorker illustrators and cartoonists have written and illustrated children’s books. Humor, art—they are universal. There’s no reason an adult shouldn’t enjoy Bark, George (Jules Pfeiffer) as much as a child does. Then there are all those children’s books by William Steig, Ian Falconer, Syd Hoff, Harry Bliss and Jon Agee, to name a few.

Sometimes the artwork alone in children’s books just blows me away—Elisa Kleven’s books are a riot of color and detail. (When I was pregnant with my second child—her The Lion and the Little Red Bird never failed to make me cry. My daughter thought I was insane!).

And that guy up there on the pedestal? The one with worshippers bowing awestruck at his feet? That’s Robert Sabuda. He’s in a class by himself. I don’t think there’s any disputing that his popup books exemplify artistry (and engineering) at the highest level. Each of his works is breathtaking, and I cannot resist opening every page of every work he’s ever published. I suspect that, in this case, adults may admire his books even more than kids do.

I also appreciate the subversive nature of some children’s picture books. At the same time that she makes a fairly noncontroversial point about the necessity of beauty in the world, Barbara Cooney, in her book Miss Rumphius, also paints a somewhat revolutionary picture of an adventurous, independent-minded woman of a previous era who lives a very full life without ever having married. (Although I do think there's something fishy about Miss Rumphius’s relationship with the married Bapa Raja. His wife stands in the doorway of their home, grimacing, surrounded by children, including one babe on hip, while the Bapa Raja gives Miss Rumphius a gift handpainted with the words “You will always be in my heart.” Maybe I'm off-base here, but I’m thinkin’ the Bapa Raja was the John Edwards of his fishing village. . .).

A while ago, I thought that one of the happier moments of my life was when I was able to walk into Children’s Book World and not feel like some sort of, um, deviant, because I finally had a “legitimate” reason to be there. . .my children. (Oh dear, does that mean my children were my literary “beard?” Ick.). Well, I don’t need that crutch anymore. I stride proudly into Children’s Book World to purchase books for myself. Books that aren’t even arguably appropriate for my children. . .yet.

Now leave me alone. I’ve got to get started on My Most Excellent Year, dude.


Florinda said...

This is terrific, and will be the first post linked to in the Carnival. You have summed up the essence of the theme so well, Karen. Thank you!

You've also reminded me of some other old favorites of mine.

And I really like the mini-reviews you've included. While you're embracing your inner kid-lit-lover, I think you need to embrace your inner book-blogger, too :-)!

Daisy said...

You've mentioned so many of my favorites! My copy of Chrysanthemum has an autographed bookplate in it; my class sent a letter to Kevin Henkes and he wrote back! And Knuffle Bunny? I brought it home to show my daughter, a journalism major and photographer. A senior in college this fall, she loved the illustrations.
You have great taste in books!

Karen said...

Thanks, Daisy!!

Mike said...

That is a great list of books you have there. You are right about the gender issue, there was one book I bought at a garage sale when I was young that was definitely a 'girls' book, but I enjoyed it. I just didn't tell anyone. :).

Thanks for stopping by mine!

ChefDruck said...

This is a wonderful list of children's books. You have listed many of my favorites and many I didn't know either. As I wrote in my post, I've been thrilled to find that Roald Dahl was well received by my children because I've been as eager as they have to get to the next chapter. I can't wait to read the Secret Garden, Heidi, the Little Princess with them in a few years.

I'm reading the The Mysterious Benedict Society right now - although it's too subsersive for my 6 year old, I'm loving it!

Karen said...

chefdruck--I've just recently heard about this series--it sounds fantastic. . .I think I'm going to have to go out and buy it!

Anna Lefler said...

Right ON, Karen! Great post! "The Lion and the Little Red Bird" is one of my all-time favorite kiddie books. Solid gold. And I agree on the gender-bias. If I hadn't copied everything my older brother did, I never would have read "The Hobbit." Certainly none of my girlfriends read it. Don't you listen to your husband...we must read what brings us joy! :^)