The other night I finished re-reading the fourth Harry Potter book, and I realized my heart was racing. I felt warm and sad.
I’d forgotten how much I love children’s books, which is funny because I have shelves full of them. I read them when I was a kid, and continued to read them unashamedly through middle and high school. They weren’t the only things I read, but clear, sweet stories of adventure meant for audiences with the most wide-open minds were always my first love. I wrote my high school senior thesis on happy endings in children’s lit, and returned to my favorites during summers in college to be reminded and rejoice.
But I don’t read quite as much anymore (though I’m trying to make up the deficit this summer), and when I do I feel duty-bound to plow through grown-up books, to check them off my list, so that I will be improved.
For example, I’m about to force my way through the end of Brothers Karamozov, which was recommended to me over and over with great sincerity and enthusiasm by quite a few people whose opinions I respect. However, the novel has sat next to my bed for a very long time, containing three separate bookmarks which represent more than a year and half of teeth-gritted effort. This is not to say that I think that Dostoyevsky is too smart or difficult for me, or that it is not a wonderful novel, or even that I won’t enjoy it someday. I’m just saying that right about now, I am not loving it as it ought to be loved.
I must face facts I have forgotten: I do sometimes get that lifted, warm-and-sad feeling when I finish a book for adults, but I get it so much more often with kids’ books. When you write for children, there is no need to be obtuse, because children are not shy about the truth. It will not startle them coming round the corner as it does many adults. The best children’s books treat good like good, bad like evil, and mystery as if it is something wonderful to revel in. But I can’t really explain–stories have to be experienced.
Grown-up literary novels are written by people who expect, for better or for worse, to have what they have written discussed and pondered and considered, and perhaps, on a sunny day, enjoyed. But a good children’s novel is meant to be fallen into, to be put on like a garment, because that’s what kids do with the things they love.
On my fridge is a little slip of paper in my fourth grade handwriting. It looks like this:
A written explanation of the inner workings of this girl-power-on-the-grammar-school-playground circa 2001 version of Tolkien’s masterpieces would not be worth the space it would take up on the page. But suffice to say, when I look at this little list now, more than fifteen years later, I have two reactions, both of which make me smile.
First: Only one of the girls listed had even a small working knowledge of what the novels actually contained or who any of these characters really were (and she was not me), but we understood magic, that these names with all their solemn vowels could be portals to some greater world, and we wanted in to that place.
And second: That magic naturally fit and even characterized a childhood friendship which would become the foundation of something which has so far proved to be enduring. Of the three other girls on the list one just moved out of my apartment, one just moved in, and the third is moving back to Greensboro with her husband at long last later this month. And if you mention a good story to any of us grown women, we will glow. We loved magic then, and in a different, deeper ways, through years of practice, we love it now.
So shame on me for neglecting the stories which first taught me so much. Maybe next time someone acts surprised that I’ve never read whatever adult classic changed their life, I will write down the title, but then, if I am feeling brave, I will recommend right back at them one of the books which changed mine.
Maybe, in good time, I will become my grandma as I remember her, repeatedly confessing with only a very little bit of regret that as she got older she would merely re-read the her same favorite books over and over, because “they were just so good!” It is well for each of us to find stories in our own heart’s language.
Note: This entry from 2012 contains recommendations of some long-held children’s favorites, all of which I still stand by wholeheartedly, if you’re willing to stomach my sometimes stilted and flowery descriptions.