When my daughter was a young child watching Sesame Street, and I was a fledgling parent tuning in to her laughing at the antics of Elmo and Cookie Monster, it was oh-so-delightfully obvious that the show was deliberately cross-generational. I mean, would a three- or four-year-old even catch the humor of calling a skit ‘Miami Mice’ or recasting a Bruce Springsteen hit into the math ditty, ‘Born to Add’?
So it goes with children’s literature, that shared experience where the audience is captive, hopefully captivated by hearing the words she can’t yet read though following them as if she can. It’s a sound and sight show, all ears on the mother’s or father’s voice, all eyes on the pictures and words. A joy never really outgrown (witness the Harry Potter phenomenon), just cast aside in the interest of some higher purpose, independent reading and learning.
If children’s stories are often filled with talking animals and things that could only happen by some magical hand or trick of fantasy, they have a logic all their own, the most enchanting and the best brought to us by writers who understand how a child’s mind works and have made the genre their own. Madeline L’Engle, when asked why she writes for children, is quoted as answering, "I don't... If it's not good enough for adults, it's not good enough for children... Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh.” Discovering some of the (yes) adult writings by the author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, was eye-opening for me. On the flipside of that coin was the equally delightful discovery of a few gems written for children by authors whose reputations, in a way, place them in a world beyond genres. Below are just a few such books.
by Salman Rushdie
If it's hard to fathom being a high-profile writer living in hiding — not out of choice but because a fanatic religious leader has declared you an enemy of Islam and put a price on your head — it may, at first blush, be harder to fathom how a children's book was the first thing Salman Rushdie published in exile... and yet it makes all the sense in the world. Part allegory in its obvious allusions to the religious/political forces that conspired to silence Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a multi-layered tale of a storyteller who loses the Gift of Gab for which he is renowned. At the same time, the spirit of the stories within the sea, the overriding one being a son's efforts to restore his father's gift, places it squarely in the realm of fiction written for children. Peppered with allusions to 1001 Nights..., filled with word play and water genies and P2C2E (processes too complicated to explain), Haroun is as much a story about the nature of storytelling as it is a gift to Rushdie's son, to whom the book is dedicated.
by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Julian Bell
The afterword to Virginia Woolf's The Widow and the Parrot is as tongue-in-cheek as the story itself. Quentin Bell, who lifted the story from obscurity some sixty years after he and his brother Julian asked their famous aunt to submit something for their family newspaper, suggests it wasn't what they expected. And yet to reject the story, about a widow who inherits a parrot after her brother dies, would have been unthinkable. James is a parrot of few words, and a wise one at that, who enriches the widow's life. In and of itself, it is vintage storytelling, all the more cherished for its connection to the writer who gave us To the Lighthouse and "A Room of One's Own." Coupled with the gorgeous illustrations by Woolf's grand-nephew, Julian Bell, The Widow and the Parrot speaks to what it is we often cherish in children's books, namely the interplay between written word and visual art. It also stands as a cross-generational testament to an iconic family.
by Eudora Welty, illustrated by Beth Krush
The parrot we encounter in Eudora Welty's The Shoe Bird is a much more talkative bird and one with a motto: If you hear it, tell it. Like Rushdie, Welty knows the joys of word play. When Arturo the parrot repeats to his friend Gloria the goose what a young customer says early in the story — "Shoes are for the birds!" — his literal mind has no idea what he's getting himself into. And yet isn't that the way it is with children? Eventually they 'get' it, especially if, as the reader, you tell it like you hear it. Every bird in this riotous story plays its part in expected and unexpected ways. There's a cat who gets feathers flying and a phoenix who, with Arturo, saves the day. All of which is to say, even if the shoe fits, there may be good reason not to wear it.
by William Trevor
Juliet's Story, like Haroun and the Sea of Stories, has as its heart the nature of stories and the way they're told. Early in the book, the narrator tells us that Juliet, though she enjoys watching cartoons with her friend Kitty Ann, prefers listening to stories: "the little television screen was like a picture frame... filled up for you with colors and people and things happening. When you listened to stories you had to fill it up for yourself, and that was what Juliet liked." She especially loves listening to the storyteller Paddy Old, who fuels her imagination with (mostly) ancient Irish folktales. "Everyone has a story," he tells her, and his death puts Juliet into a tailspin of sorts, the only way out being a trip with her grandmother, where she discovers a story of her own. William Trevor, a master of the short story, has said, "My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so: I am a storyteller."
by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
An all-time favorite of mine, The Bat-Poet is a story about looking at the world through the eyes of a poet, in a way that turns perception on its head. When I use this book in my workshops with young writers/readers, I like to joke that right off the bat you know something is different simply because a night-time creature wants to see the world by day. You also know you're in the hands of a poet when you read the opening lines about a bat "the color of coffee with cream in it." Jarrell gained his reputation largely as a poet and critic and yet he's no less remembered for the gifts he brought to his collaborations with Maurice Sendak. With The Bat-Poet especially, there is the added dimension of the nature of poety as the core of the story. Complex as it may be for a young person to comprehend the intricacy of iambic pentameter, I always smile when the mockingbird, after hearing the bat read his poem, remarks, "Technically it's quite accomplished... And it was clever of you to have the last line two feet short." Often the beauty of a poem is the way it takes shape without the poet even knowing how he did it. To the bat's way of thinking, "The trouble isn't making poems, the trouble's finding somebody that will listen to them."
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