Big Questions for Small Readers

Philipa Pearce’s 1958 Tom’s Midnight Garden (Harper Trophy, $5.95, 229 pp., ages 10 and up) is considered one of the finest novels written for children, "as near as any book I know to being perfect in its construction and writing" according to critic John Rowe Townsend. But I think Pearce’s recently republished first novel, Minnow on the Say (illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, Greenwillow, $16.95, 246 pp., ages 8 and up) is even better. Yes, Tom’s Midnight Garden is terrific. It tells the story of a boy whose loneliness is both expressed and relieved by nightly play in a sprawling and inhabited late-Victorian garden which, by day, is mere pavement and garbage cans. The nature of time, desire, and memory-Pearce delicately conveys and considers each. And yet...communication technology and style have changed, enough that Tom’s means of expression (effusive letters to his beloved brother) slightly estranges today’s reader.

Not so Minnow on the Say, with its timeless, if more conventional plot. The story begins in 1930s England when David Moss, the child of a bus driver, finds a lovely, neglected canoe tossed onto his family’s dock after a storm swells the river Say. He desperately wants to keep it, but his father urges him to find the owner. That turns out to be young Adam Codling. He is last in the line of a now-impoverished family that has occupied the banks of the Say for centuries. The only way that the Codling estate might be saved, and Adam not sent to relatives in Manchester, is if he and his new friend David can find the treasure that an ancestor hid during the time of the Spanish Armada. Equipped with a single clue (a four-line poem) and their canoe, the Minnow, the boys spend a summer questing for treasure. They cover a lot of territory and so does the book: poverty, greed, mourning, class relations, the nature of marriage and of friendship, village ways, and more. Don’t read this expecting misty nostalgia. Pearce’s love of village and river life shines through (she grew up on the river Cam in the village of Great Shelford), but so does her experience of the London Blitz and the trauma of World War II. You might never read a more painful account of the ravages of mourning as those scenes in which Adam’s grandfather, demented by denial of his only son’s death during the Great War, fails to understand that the boy he lives with is his grandson.

One of my favorite parts of Minnow on the Say is the joyous, hard thinking in which Adam and David engage while interpreting the poem. It is a rare pleasure to read a children’s book about thinking, but less rare this year-a good season for books that encourage children’s philosophical and theological questions and speculations.

One such book is Stormy Night, written and illustrated by Michèle Lemieux (Kids Can Press, $16, 240 pp., all ages). It poses forty-seven questions, and answers none of them. There are also expressions of wonder and fear, as well as quotidian observations, all emanating from a young girl in her bed on a stormy night. The interaction of questions and cartoon illustrations, the use of white space, and the book’s dimensions (short and notably wide) encourage a child’s eye, hand, and mind to linger. While an individual question quoted out of context might seem whimsical or strange-Is there only one of me in the world? Am I nice looking? Is there anyone watching over me? And what if there’s nothing after death?-the narrative arrangement is perfect, and perfectly in tune with the rhythm of the storm. What this book gets right is that children’s most abstract questions flow from the concrete world as they experience it. So a storm may bring on questions about infinity, war, God, death. So might a trip to the local science museum. Lemieux also gets right that children are excited by their own questions, and out of that excitement flows digression, as well as remembered words and experiences that fuel new directions in their speculation. Too many people think this is all very sweet, or capricious, when, in fact, by tracing connections that children make between world and mind, adults can begin to talk more fully and deeply with children about the nature of the world and God. This book is a great place to start.

You might wish to supplement Stormy Night with The Dead Philosophers’ Café (Notre Dame, $19.95, 166 pp., ages 11 to adult), an exchange of real letters between an eleven-year-old girl, Nora K., and the German philosopher, Vittorio Hösle. While a certain purity of questioning is lost as children develop (the girl poses her questions through an elaborately narrated scene of philosophers meeting in a café, and there is some interesting wrangling about who is controlling the story), nonetheless, in their serious play, Nora and Hösle cover a lot of ground. And they speak in strikingly religious ways. As he explains at the end, "Nora’s letters show how closely religious, ethical, and general philosophical questions are interconnected in the child’s consciousness...an explicit discussion of the question of God’s existence and the problem of death is necessary if a young person is not to become an unreflective clod. Making such issues taboo is a crime against the child’s soul."

Amen! It reflects poorly on our publishing industry that Michèle Lemieux could not find a U.S. press for Stormy Night (Kids Can Press is Canadian). This despite winning many prestigious prizes when the book first appeared in German, including one from a group of German Protestant churches for her contribution to the religious and philosophical life of children. Was it the sexual playfulness of a few illustrations that held publishers back, or Lemieux’s candid theological interest and theological doubt?

Another book that took time to come to America is Gabrielle Vincent’s wordless picture book, a day, a dog (Front Street, $16.95, ages 8 and up). First published in Brussels in 1982, it tells the story of a dog’s abandonment in rapidly sketched pencil drawings. These minimalist sketches convey vital details and leave much for a child to question. You can see the family know what they are doing is wrong, so why do they? The dog’s loneliness, fear, anger, tentative joy and relief, are all there for the child to live through. And by feeling with and through the dog, children learn not only empathy but how to have these emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

Lest you begin to think that all philosophy involves such heavy lifting, consider Sam Swope’s hilarious picture book, Gotta Go! Gotta Go! (pictures by Sue Riddle, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12, ages 4 to 10) which my six-year-old informed me is a "book about knowledge." A caterpillar is born with an unalterable instinct to go south: "I don’t know much but I know what I know. I gotta go! I gotta go! I gotta go to Mexico!" Inchoate monarch butterfly that she is, she does. There are lots of ways to enter this story: you can talk with your own young philosopher about knowledge, freedom, instinct, destiny-or you can just enjoy the beat.

Children’s books which tackle big subjects-evil, death, and loneliness-do raise the question of how much is too much for the child reader, how scary is too scary. It is important that each of the stories above includes an interested adult, close enough at hand to offer reprieve. That is also the case with two fine new novels about the loss of a parent, Reynolds Price’s A Perfect Friend (Atheneum, $16, 168 pp., ages 9 and up) and Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza Loses Control (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, 196 pp., ages 9 and up).

The well-known Price has written his first novel for young people in A Perfect Friend. It tells the story of eleven-year-old Ben Barks, shattered by his mother’s death, who finds little help from a father preoccupied with his own grief and constrained by masculine reticence. At night, Ben calms himself to sleep by thinking of elephants, the animal that he and his mother adored. When a circus, with one forlorn elephant, comes to Ben’s small town, he and his father find their voices and their relationship. While Ben’s journey to expressiveness is magical (he is assisted by the elephant tamer and two good friends), it is not instantaneous. Price stays true to the way a disappointed child reins in his instinctive hope in matters both trivial and weighty. In this sad, beautiful book, all the characters, human and animal, wish Ben well and do what they can to alleviate his burden.

That is not the case for the funny and frenetic eleven-year-old Joey Pigza, whose divorced mother finally permits a summer visit to the father he has never known. After all, the father is no longer drinking, and he appears genuinely interested in forming a relationship with his son. But the hopefulness with which Joey starts the summer rapidly devolves into confusion and fright as he tries to manage his remorseful, fetching, intemperate, hyperactive, and alcoholic father. It does not help that Dad has flushed all of Joey’s medication for hyperactivity down the toilet. Nearby adults wait a long time before they intervene to get Joey home: His grandmother is sympathetic but takes his emergency money to buy herself cigarettes; his father’s girlfriend is so smitten by Joey and the idea of having a family that it takes her a while to see trouble. Gantos really puts readers in touch with the fears of children who are bereft of responsible adults, but, even more impressive, he keeps the story from falling into the merely sociological. In Joey’s adult-child personality and fetching narrative voice you will find an echo of Huck Finn, whose situation, remember, was not so different.

Weirder and lovelier still is Swedish writer Barbro Lindgren’s picture book, Andrei’s Search (R&S, $14, 28 pp., ages 4 to 7). Set in Saint Petersburg, and dedicated to Korney Chukovsky, Russia’s great theorist of children’s play, it too is about loss. Andrei’s mother is "gone" and he is taken to an orphanage. From there, accompanied by a boy who never even knew a family, Andrei sets out to find his missing mother. Along the way, by delicate acts of imagination and play, the friends construct a habitable, caring world. When they "find" mother in that world, the gap between the real and the imaginary proves painful, at least for adults. The children to whom I have read this story, however, have met its conclusion with serenity and delight. We big people may see the imagination as a temporary stay against confusion, but little ones are fully open to the imagination’s transformative power. The restrained illustrations by Eva Eriksson amplify Lindgren’s compassionate narrative.

The question of God’s existence, the problem of death, the power of the imagination-all these meet in The Amber Spyglass ($19.95, 518 pp, 12 and up), Philip Pullman’s long-awaited conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy. Since The Golden Compass (Knopf, $10, 399 pp., ages 12 and up) appeared five years ago, I have been urging people to read it and its fellow The Subtle Knife (DelRey, $8, 288 pp., ages 12 and up). In these, Pullman set up an argument between the old orders of faith and the new republicanism and scientism of the Enlightenment, an argument which was violently waged, unfairly represented, and utterly gripping. Central to the outcome of this war was the action of two adolescents, Lyra and Will, who everyone but themselves understood were the new Adam and Eve, fated to restage the Fall. Adults (including Lyra’s terrifying parents) aided or hunted them, knowing that their act would reconfigure Heaven, and establish a new cosmology. It was pretty heady stuff, and rumors circulated that Pullman was paralyzed with writer’s block, and would never finish the third. In fact, there was no way he could satisfactorily conclude what he had undertaken, as the amazing, admirable, and disappointing The Amber Spyglass testifies.

Lyra and Will’s fortunate fall is a two-stage affair. In the astonishing first part, they go down into the death world to find her friend, Roger, and Will’s father, John Parry. Think Virgil, Homer, Gilgamesh, not Dante. This is a world of oblivion, not judgment and reward. Urged on by the dead, the children use the subtle knife to cut an opening back to the world. The moment each ghost steps into life, he or she diffuses into atoms which possess consciousness and can mingle with living matter. That endless procession of the hopeful dead, as well as the sacrifice and journey of the children to aid them-you won’t soon forget these.

Pullman’s cosmology includes something he calls "Dust," and this plays a central role in the more problematic second fall. The cosmic battle, the exploratory openings between worlds, and the new portal for the dead have caused an imbalance whereby Dust (of which the dead are one aspect) has lost its fertilizing property, and floats aimlessly across rather than toward matter. If this continues all life will wither away. Dust recovers its gravity when Lyra and Will (finally!) kiss in an edenic grove of trees. Their love restores the attraction between what we can loosely call Heaven and Earth. This is very nice indeed, and Pullman perfectly conveys the edgy beauty of adolescent awakening. Except one small thing. This second fall is set in motion by the silliest how-I-lost-my-faith story ever, told by ex-nun and Oxford physicist Mary Malone. It all began to fall apart for her while she was dining by the sea with an attractive Italian physicist...Oh, please! People lose their vocation and their marriages over sex, but their faith? I almost felt sympathy for Father Gomez, the fanatical Vatican apparatchik who is trying to shoot the new temptress/physicist before she gets her hands on those kids.

I am willing to follow Pullman a long way (I’ve already heard from Catholic readers who are not) in his argument against our theological inheritance. Judgment and redemption do seem more fantastical in an age of physics. Authority does seem more authoritarian after the upheavals of the last century. Theodicy daunts us more than ever. And experience in a thousand tiny ways challenges our confidence in traditional concepts of God. But to seize Heaven on the ground that it straightjackets desire, what a bore! There are other New Age banalities too, like the female witch and angel wisdom figures, and worst, the absurdly inadequate gospel they bequeath Lyra and Will: "Be kind instead of cruel, patient instead of hasty, cheerful instead of surly." In the wake of the children’s horrific experiences, and in light of their required sacrificial separation, this hardly can be considered adequate.

Pullman’s portraits of the Vatican and of God are apt to puzzle, and even offend, Catholics. Liberal Catholics, in particular, will wonder why Pullman discounts the bridges they have built between modernity and tradition. Mystics, whose vision of our world ablaze with God’s loving presence counters Pullman’s view that such radiance is possible only absent God, are also passed over. But we might remember that hyperbole has its virtues, and blasphemy is often the handmaiden of awe. This fantasy series is worth a read as a serious, exciting, and, yes, agonistic trilogy centered precisely on what Hösle says we should be talking about with our children.

Published in the 2000-11-17 issue: 

Daria Donnelly (1959-2004) was an associate editor of Commonweal from 2000 to 2004. In 2002, after having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, she became associate editor (at large) and co-editor of the poetry section.

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