The Magic World of Children’s Lit

The lampost at the doorway into fantasy, from The Chronicles of Narnia

Shining the way to fantasy, from The Chronicles of Narnia

William Kristof, the much traveled Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote recently about the disturbing way that children’s IQ scores often drop over summer vacation. The cause is lack of intellectual stimulation. The problem is more severe with poor than it is with middle class kids.

As an antidote, Kristof offered up a list of children’s books that he believes will stimulate children’s imaginations. Although a few of the books are recent (like the Harry Potter series), most are his own childhood favorites. I was so excited to see some of my own favorites on his list—books that I’ve heard practically no one talk about—that I decided to contribute my own list. How well they would go down today, I don’t know, but they have a special place in my imagination. I would love to hear about your own list.

I won’t duplicate any books on Kristof’s list but will mention those that we both loved. For instance, he was immersed in both the Hardy Boy series and the Freddy the Pig series. The Freddy books particularly stood out for me. When my father took us to France for a sabbatical in 1964, my brothers and I visited the American Library in Paris every day (it was on our way to school). The library had the complete series of the talking pig who is both detective and poet.

Like Kristof, I also loved Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper more than Tom Sawyer. Kristof is the only other person I’ve encountered who speaks of his love for Little Lord Fauntleroy, which I posted on recently. I was delighted to see that he also loves Wind in the Willows, as masterpiece that I will write about one of these days.

I’ve thought about why the books we encounter as children are so important to us, and I think it has something to do with the fact that, for children, the boundaries between fact and fantasy seem less fixed. Just as children have a hard time distinguishing between their interiority and the world at large, so do they have trouble distinguishing between the world of the book and the real world. They don’t have to work hard to willingly suspend disbelief (to quote Coleridges’s famous articulation) because they are already more than halfway to belief. Thus the enduring power of these books.

Perhaps novels hold power over us because they return us to this childhood immersion experience, even though the books themselves may have adult themes. As Freud writes, as adults we never give up childhood pleasures. We just find adult versions of them.

One of the reasons I wanted to have children was so that I could read to them the books that I loved. The experience of reading to Justin, Darien and Toby was not exactly the same and my reading these books as a child, but it had its own special pleasures and intensities. Through my children I traveled back in time. When Justin cried over the (apparent) death of Gandalf, I remembered my own sadness and held him tight. As we cheered on the Scarlet Pimpernel as he pulls off another of his miraculous escapes, I relived my childhood excitement. As we gazed around the secret garden when Mary enters it the first time, I recalled my childhood wonder.

Here are the favorite books from my childhood, in no particular order:

C. S. Lewis, The Narnia ChroniclesMy favorites were The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair, but each had its special lure (with the exception of the second half of The Last Battle, which I didn’t care for). Seeing real life children making their way in a magical kingdom confirmed my own fantasies.

J. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – Tolkien’s fantasy world, with its vision of a small people stepping into heroism, so captivated my imagination that, for the only time in my life, I wrote a fan letter to the author (and received a reply!). Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth made my own world seem alive with possibility.

Francis Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden – Burnett begins with an orphan fantasy and then enters a world where that which is dry and desiccated finds new life. My only disappointment with the book was the way that Colin takes it over in the second half. I wanted it to remain focused on Mary and Dicken.

T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose – Another orphan story, this one about Mary teaming up with the descendants of kidnapped Lilliputians to defeat her mean guardians. I think one reason that children are so drawn to orphan stories is that orphans speak to their own sense of loneliness. As a child, I was also drawn to the stories of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist.

Greek Mythology and a child’s version of The Iliad The myths were filled with strange and often disturbing incidents, and I liked picking my favorite gods. The Trojan War was like choosing up sides for a game, with the gods splitting between the Greeks and the Trojans. I rooted for the Greeks but began to sense that life was more difficult, and more tragic, than I expected when I found myself mourning Hector.

A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – I learned not too long ago that my father named me Robin because he envisioned having a friendship with his son like that between Christopher Robin and Pooh. I remember loving Pooh and feeling frustrated by Piglet. And wishing that Eeyore would cheer up and that Tigger would calm down.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland – We had a recording of a British actor reading the entire Alice in Wonderland and I would listen to it over and over so that, to this day, I have many passages and poems memorized. The wordplay was good, the fantasy even better.

E. Nesbitt, The Treasure Seekers and The Would Be Goods – I had a English Victorian grandmother, which shaped my father’s choices which in turn shaped mine. While I didn’t mind American child characters that got into trouble (Tom Sawyer and Penrod especially), the Bastable children were more bookish and, therefore, more like me. I loved the way they operated as a family unit in their adventures.

Alexander Dumas, The Three Musketeers – I must have had an abridged version of the original novel, but it was perfect for a boy who dreamed of swashbuckling warriors engaged in adventures and intrigue. As I was one of four boys, we imagined ourselves as Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. I was the oldest and so liked Athos the best.

Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days ­– The staid Brit and the volatile Frenchman shake up their ordered lives and see the world. There was a special chemistry in their relationship, and their adventures allowed me to imagine stepping out of my own buttoned down, British-like household.

The Baroness Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel ­–Staid Brits cutting loose again, this time against the colorless bureaucrats of the French Revolution. I see a theme beginning to emerge in my choices.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost WorldLike many children, I loved dinosaurs and Doyle’s book allowed the dream of journeying back in time to come true.

George MacDonald, The Princess and CurdieMacDonald, a major influence on C.S. Lewis, seems a bit somber today, but I was excited by the adventures of Curdie as he enters court life and helps save the kingdom with his band of people transformed into monsters. His magic touch, which allows him to feel the real person underneath the exterior, is gained at immense pain: he must thrust his hands into the fire of roses.

Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books and The Just So Stories – I loved the way that Mowgli interacts with the animals, learning from them and exercising his special talents. Kipling’s Just So Stories, meanwhile, are imaginatively and extremely well written accounts of the origins of things. They are great fun to read aloud.

Cecil Day-Lewis, The Otterbury Incident – I loved stories about children gathering together and engaging in group projects. In this case, students at a boys school are raising money for a friend and uncover a counterfeit ring. There a wonderful first-person narrative voice to the story.

Paul Berna, The Knights of King MidasAnother group money-raising story, this one with boys and girls banding together to thwart real estate developers. Each of the lower class protagonists has his or her own gifts, and together they show themselves able to stand up to the adult establishment. Another fun book featuring the same characters is The Headless Horse.

I look forward to hearing about your own favorites.

This entry was posted in Berna (Paul), Burnett (Francis Hodgson), Carroll (Lewis), Day-Lewis (Cecil), Doyle (Arthur Conan), Dumas (Alexander), Homer, Kipling (Rudyard), Lewis (C. S.), MacDonald (George), Milne (A. A.), Nesbitt (E.), Orczy (The Baroness Emmuska), Tolkien (J.R.R.), Verne (Jules), White (T.H.) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Toby
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see. This might be somewhat slap dash as I think I read a bunch of other stuff but here goes. Definitely The Lord of the Rings, Taran the Wanderer, The Narnia Series, Charlotte’s Web, an array of Dr. Seuss-Hop on Pop, Red Fish Blue Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, The Bitter Butter Battle, The Three Musketeers, Black Stallion, Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Wind in the Willows, Magic Kingdom for Sale, The Belgariad (by David Eddings and also his series that begins with The Diamond Throne), The Shanara Series (by Terry Brooks), The Redwall Series, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Jurassic Park (the book not the movie which was terrifying), Congo, Around the World in 80 Days, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Secret Garden, I know there’s another black horse book and a book about a family of mice (the Rats of Nim?) or maybe they were little people with tails, also Watership Down (also terrifying in movie form). Hatchet and another book about surviving in the wild that I can’t recall the title of, a book written by a twelve year old that stars a cocker spaniel lost in the wild, definitely Homeward Bound (really anything that starred animals). The adventures of Captain Toad (maybe he was a frog, those were a long time ago but there were a crew of toads and frogs in a space ship). I don’t know if audio books count but if so then Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and So you Want to Be a Wizard should be added in there. The Wizard of Earth Sea series by Ursula LeGuin and the first several books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time Series. I’m sure there’s a lot more, but that’s all that comes to mind right now.


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