Wonders Rediscovered in Children's Books by Prof. Andrew Martino

Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The Chronicle Review

The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review

From the issue dated December 19, 2008

OBSERVER

Wonder Rediscovered in Children's Books

By ANDREW MARTINO

As a professor of world literature, I am in the enviable position of being able to do what I love and get paid for it. Quite simply, I am paid to facilitate discussions about books. Yet, since graduate school, I have found myself including on my syllabi fewer works of literature in favor of more "serious" works of literary theory. Each semester I spend less and less time actually discussing a book like Don Quixote and more time explaining why Marx or Foucault may be a valuable lens through which to interpret Cervantes. Correspondingly, my enthusiasm for literature has deteriorated little by little over the past several years.

It was in this cloud of literary malaise that I wandered one free afternoon to my local bookshop, searching for something, anything, to read that might take my mind off the serious literature I had been assigning in my classes. I thought I was looking for a 19th-century novel — a long one, in which I could lose myself for several days, if not weeks. As I strolled the fiction aisles, I found myself dissatisfied with the titles I was running my fingers across. I wasn't really in the mood for Dickens or Tolstoy.

In a fit of desperation, I made my way to the children's section to find something for my 4-year-old son. Recently my wife and I had begun the jump from pictures to more narrative-driven books, and I wanted to bring something home for us to read to my son before bed. As I searched for a suitable book, I was struck by the covers and titles of some of the young-adult books on display. I picked out a few almost at random and went to sit by a window. The first one I opened was Volume One of the Spiderwick Chronicles. I found myself hurrying to finish the first few chapters, to cram in as much as I could before I had to leave to teach a class. I bought the book to finish at home.

Later that night, after reading to my son about the exploits of Peter Rabbit, I once again took up the Spiderwick Chronicles. In less than an hour, I had finished the book and found myself eager to read the remaining titles in the series. It was a miraculous moment for me.

A self-styled literary snob, I began buying titles in the children's and young-adult section of the bookstore. I became an addict, and what's worse, I started to act like one. I would sneak into the children's section to look for something to read, all the while hoping that none of my students, or worse, one of my colleagues, would catch me buying young-adult fiction. After a few trips to the children's section, I became paranoid that the other parents (most of them with their children) would suspect that I was a potential threat. Here I was, a middle-aged man, alone in the children's section of the bookstore, frantically moving from shelf to shelf. Once, a little girl asked me a question, and after I answered her, I quickly bought my book and left the store. It was only several hours later that I realized my need to look as inconspicuous as possible made me look like I had something to hide. I began to feel like a pedophile lurking among the children's books. But I couldn't stop — my imagination was sparked.

Last spring, summer, and most of this fall, I was able to lose myself for a few hours each day in the story that I happened to be reading. I had not experienced the ferocity with which I devoured the books since my early 20s. When, during a class discussion on Gabriel García Márquez, I mentioned that I recently had read through the entire Spiderwick Chronicles, I received glares and looks of horror from most of my students. I could tell that I had fallen in their estimation. Right after confessing my addiction, I was driven to purchase The Golden Compass, James and the Giant Peach, and the Artemis Fowl series and read them in quick succession. I was hooked. From that moment on, I decided to keep my new obsession to myself; it became my own secret world. Later that summer, I moved on to the first few volumes of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Coraline, and Brian Selznick's magnificent The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

What is it about these books that captured my imagination so? As a young adult, I had found similar delight in fantasy novels, and I had loved comic books as a kid. At first it bothered me that I read young-adult literature so voraciously; I felt as if I was somehow betraying my profession. Yet as I continued to read, I discovered that I could finish several books in a week and still feel the same satisfaction that I felt after having spent weeks with one novel by García Márquez or Umberto Eco. I realized that what drew me was not just the superb storytelling but the speed with which I could get through the texts. It was a rhythmic experience I was encountering every time I opened a book.

In other words, the texts I was reading told their stories in an economical and exact style, without the unnecessary burden of digression or overexplication. These texts were similar to fairy tales or folklore in that they were written to be read in a relatively short amount of time. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino devotes an entire lecture or "note" to the values of quickness. One need not attempt to rewrite War and Peace or Gravity's Rainbow to achieve a work of epic proportions. James and the Giant Peach is an epic in miniature. The book contains several narrative elements that are in classical epics, yet they are much more concise. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, while borrowing heavily from Kipling's The Jungle Book, alludes to the adventures of Odysseus and Aeneas in the underworld via Nobody Owens's life in the graveyard. The literature I was reading was every bit as complicated and thought-provoking as the texts I included on my syllabi.

It would be a mistake to say that these texts are simplistic. They contain all the complexities we look for in any well-written narrative. Specifically, the books I was reading contained three attractive aspects: Most of the stories were told in the second person; every story featured a child protagonist; and most of the books began with the death or disappearance of one or both parents. The child protagonists were especially interesting because they reminded me that children see the world much differently than adults. For children, everything is an adventure; every blade of grass, every stone, every walk to the grocery store offers the possibility of an exciting, new, and worthwhile experience.

I suspect that as we get older, our taste in books leans toward more-realistic narratives, ones in which we can find some glimpse of ourselves. Yet to deny ourselves the magic, the wonder of stories, simply because we are adults is sinful. In a postscript to his review of Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, Michael Dirda writes, "Children's literature counts as some of the most imaginative writing anyone could want." By spending several months reading children's and young-adult fiction, I rediscovered not only what made me a reader in the first place, but also something essential about myself: my imagination. Reading "for fun" should not be just for children, but required of us all if we want to hold onto what makes us essentially human — our imaginations.

Andrew Martino is chairman of the English department and assistant professor of world literature at Southern New Hampshire University.

 

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