"What the world needs now is hobbits." That’s what Bob Shaye, CEO of New Line Cinema, said at a public forum in New York City following mass murder at the World Trade Center. His remarks were greeted with hisses and derision (New Yorker, October 22). Perhaps cynics in the audience thought it a tasteless plug for New Line’s forthcoming The Lord of the Rings films. But Shaye is right.
That art affords an opportunity to withdraw from the "real" world to some other state is its greatest gift to humanity. It’s one we should fiercely covet for our children. For what happens when we, young and old, read imaginative literature? We withdraw. Novelist Philip Roth puts it well: "The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that’s otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn’t fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it’s not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading." The noise to which he refers is that emanating from "a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control" us.
Trouble, fear, disturbance of the usual: these might especially spur us to seek a different consciousness in books. But duress erodes the concentration required for reading. And worse, it is precisely in such times that puritans, positivists, and the impatient of every political stripe rise up to shame readers. During World War II, Commonweal’s children’s book reviewer, Claire Huchet Bishop (of whom more below) was horrified to learn that many nursery schools for the children of defense-industry workers had banned fairy tales, and that imaginative literature itself was in need of vigorous defense. Her "The Ban on Imagination" (November 19, 1943) credits to imaginative literature the capacity to transform us, to increase our understanding, solidarity, and wisdom. Bishop staked moral, religious, and even national life on story reading. "Let us not," she warned, "attempt to bar access to the world of mystery lest we become a nation with the fate of Lot’s wife." How many of those writing for children today value withdrawal? How many write to smite their readers with the imagined, the beautiful, and the fantastical? Too few, according to Harold Bloom in the manifesto-like introduction to his new anthology Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (Scribner, $27.50, 573 pp., Ages 5 to adult).
Contemporary children’s literature and the Age of Information, in his view, conspire against children, against the possibility of their looking for, let alone finding wisdom, pleasure, and companionship in books. Bloom hyperbolizes. But his praise is a bull’s-eye. The best, truest children’s stories and poems are those whose art provides lasting companionship. It is these that Bloom anthologizes and celebrates: "Where will we find ourselves more truly and more strange? Ideally, in family and in friends, or at last, if possible, in life partnerships. Yet...in all human love that something deep within us may go on feeling lonely....I was a very lonely child, despite a loving family circle, and remain solitary after a lifetime of teaching, rereading, and writing. But how much more isolated I would be if poems and stories had not nurtured me, and if they did not go on fostering me. The child alone with her or his book is, for me, the true image of potential happiness, of something evermore about to be." Most of the poems and stories Bloom selects are from the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian eras. The emphasis is on nonsense, fable, wonder-and fairy tale. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear preside. Aesop, Grimm, Arabian Nights, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde are richly represented along with less familiar writers and stories. Bloom’s anthology reveals itself slowly. In fact, it is initially off-putting, and not just because of its infelicitous title. Bloom mixes literature written for children (and adults) with literature that probably never had a child in mind. This considerably ups the castor-oil effect. He orders readings somewhat opaquely (into seasons), and provides no guidance for how to use the book. But his taste is terrific. Dip in, and let yourself be governed by mood and caprice. Bloom, alas, does not cover post-World War I literature, the stories that emerged after, and because of, the wonder eras he so appreciates. Nor does he uncover the impulses that have turned much of children’s literature away from the value of the imagination per se, toward other values. But both should be dwelt on. First, other values: Most children’s writers, parents, and teachers want a better world, and want children to be better in the one we’ve got. Reading (both ability and enthusiasm for), manners, and gender, racial, and international relationships-all these are manifestly imperfect. Quick fixes tempt: the transparent message, the easy pleasure, information dressed in a story. What literary resources would you use to teach a child about the Middle East and Islam? The Teaching Resource Center at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has put together an excellent annotated list, available through its outreach coordinator, Barbara Petzen.
The recommended books range from stories and poems about unfamiliar persons to those by them. I instinctively favor imaginative books by, affirming the unvarnished hope of the great Arabic poetry translator, Salma Jayyusi: "If we read one another, we won’t kill one another." And while informational fictions are direct and swift in effect, they are not memorable. Great stories and poems work slowly on us and on the world, their reading being more like prayer than social action. A child withdrawn into a great work of imagination is, above all, having an encounter: an encouraging and enlarging one. That’s how Russell Hoban presents it in his new picture book, Jim’s Lion (illustrated by Ian Andrew, Candlewick, $15.99, Ages 5 and up). It would be a shame if this book ends up just in hospital waiting rooms. Jim’s Lion tells the story of a boy facing grave illness and possible death in surgery. He gains courage when his African-born nurse tells him about finders, dream-vision animals who sustain people in their darkest hours and return them to the world. In Hoban’s restrained hands (and with the help of Andrew’s intelligent pictures), Jim’s encounter with his finder never strays into the maudlin. Instead, it delicately suggests the new resources that children (and those who write for them) have as a result of the contact between non-Western folk belief and Western views on the imagination. Few have mined this happy aspect of globalization.