Children's Books & Our Lost Imagination

The Wicked Witch melts, from the W. W. Denslow illustration of the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

"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. 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. 

Contemporary children’s literature and the Age of Information, in his view, conspire against children

And if you are looking for a book to help address children’s post-September 11 anxiety and sorrow, this is it. Russell Hoban is also responsible for the best publication this year, a new edition of his 1967 cult classic The Mouse and His Child (pictures by David Small, Scholastic, $16.95, 244 pp., Ages 9 and up). Although Hoban has quite a following, from preschool lovers of the badger Frances to adult fans of his postapocalypse novel, Riddley Walker, this, his first novel, had fallen out of print. The story follows a wind-up pair of tin mice, a dancing father and son joined at the hands, as they journey to the freedom of self-winding. This is not in any sense an "easy" read: The sentences are demanding, the jokes pitched high, the philosophy rigorous and pretty dark. There is probably no other children’s book where death is so remorseless and rapid in its effect (it’s so terse, that I burst into laughter when a frustrated hawk spits out the tin mice and declares, "Ugh! You aren’t part of the balance of nature!"). The bad guy—Manny Rat, lord of the dump and cruel master of the discarded windups-is potent. The good guys—an occasionally insightful Frog, a daffy Muskrat, some misanthropic birds, and an array of ragged wind-ups—don’t exactly inspire confidence. And yet they triumph. It’s a mistake to read The Mouse and His Child as menacing or too tough. It’s a blazing portrait of good achieved. And one I trust. Why? Because Hoban does not underestimate either evil or good, terror or tenderness, the natural order or what can happen when one dares to think outside the terms of nature. Expect laughs but also disconsolations. The Mouse and His Child, to my ear, is a dark version of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. You can almost match set piece for set piece.

Grahame’s mystical "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" resonates here in a quirky, tragicomic scene in which the pond-submerged mouse child searches for an end to infinity by staring at a Bonzo Dog Food can label. The label pictures a dog holding a can of food with a label of a dog holding a can of food and so on. Is there anything beyond the Last Visible Dog (this phrase also serves as the title of a pretentious philosophical play put on by the Caws of Art company and is the name of the mice’s eventual home)? When the label is torn away, the mouse discovers that what is beyond infinity is himself, glimpsed for the first time in the reflective tin. You don’t have to know Grahame, or 1 Corinthians 13:12 ("through a glass darkly") to feel the depth of aloneness presented. Or the importance of his father’s hands still laced in his own. But it helps. Which is why reading great books matters: because they lead children deeper and deeper into a lifelong, expansive territory of insight and pleasure, made not of one or two books, but of many in conversation across time. The contentment of a child, alone with her book, provides the opening image of a very funny, smart new picture book, Elsie Times Eight (Hyperion, $15.95, 32 pp., Ages 4-8) by Natalie Babbitt. A hard-of-hearing fairy godmother and set of well-meaning parents conspire to turn a perfectly happy, absorbed Elsie into eight noisy, brawling, unwanted Elsies. Of course, eight identical girls cannot share food, parents, a bed, a cat, let alone a book. Babbitt, one of the giants in children’s literature, loves to play with the boundaries and conventions of fiction. Her famous novel, Tuck Everlasting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95, 139 pp., Ages 9-12), is about immortality, the state in which book characters, but not we, live. She brings a similarly playful intelligence to the language and pictures of Elsie Times Eight. The characters look modern, with their hairdos and glasses, but are costumed in fairy-tale outfits. Once things get straightened out among the hapless adults, Elsie returns to her reading, and we finish ours.

If you like your adults scary as well as inept, there is always Brock Cole. His fine new picture book is Larky Mavis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16, Ages 4 and up). I confess to being a reluctant fan of the well-regarded Cole. His 1987 novel, The Goats (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95, 184 pp., Ages 9-12), wows. It’s about two misfits at summer camp, the cruelties they suffer, and the friendship they forge. But only in The Goats do Cole’s adults have the capacity for shame; in subsequent novels, they are increasingly negligent, narcissistic, even predatory. Cole’s touch in picture books is lighter, and more convincing. Larky Mavis is a slightly daft girl (always "mooning about, mooning about") who notices that a peanut she is about to pop in her mouth is actually a baby. She calls it Heart’s Delight. She feeds and comforts it. Meanwhile all the adults around her debate whether it is a deformed bird, a pig with four ears, a calf and a half. When the schoolmaster, parson, and doctor shift from patronizing neglect to active interest in separating the two, Heart’s Delight utters its first words, "Let go my ma," and transports Larky high above the town. "They look exactly like the mice and the moles!" says Larky, looking down at the townspeople. Such are the happy reversals in perspective available to those who trust the imagination. Perspective is all, when it comes to great illustration. One of the best was the late Margot Zemach, whose nursery-rhyme pictures are gathered in a new collection, Some from the Moon, Some from the Sun (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17, Ages 3 and up). Zemach’s ability to pick an interesting focus, her quick wit, her varied styles and moods, always triumph. This collection of twenty-seven rhymes (grand, but disjointed by way of her absence) also presents a biography in pictures, many from unpublished illustrations held by her family. It includes a full bibliography of her work. Born in poverty, Zemach here confesses that she wanted to be an artist of social significance, but discovered a different talent along the way. She fully and unapologetically dedicated herself to her gift, in all its lushness: "children deserve detail, color, and excellence...the best an author and illustrator can provide." Zemach answers one of the big questions: What books do our children deserve? Ones so good that the child will wonder, as does the boy in Jim’s Lion: "Maybe everything else was a dream and this is the only thing that’s real." What can those stories do? Let the final thinking on that be devoted to Claire Huchet Bishop, who from 1952 to 1964 wrote Commonweal’s annual assessment of children’s books. That feature (fifty to a hundred children’s books surveyed, with extensive pages of advertisements for children’s books) was first developed and written by managing editor Harry Lorin Binsse during World War II, when Bishop was reviewing books about conditions in her native France. Bishop was born into a family of Breton storytellers, educated at the Sorbonne, and served as a storyteller at the first children’s library in France, which she helped to found. After her marriage to an American, she moved to New York City. She wrote more than twenty-five children’s books (including my childhood favorite, Five Chinese Brothers), and was a storyteller at the New York Public Library.

Bishop has been on my mind lately, not only because of war, but because of a new work born out of her labor. The children’s opera, The Secret Cave, by Judith Lane, is adapted from Bishop’s 1952 children’s story, Twenty and Ten (Puffin, $3.99, 26 pp., Ages 8-12). After listening to this affecting work, performed last spring by the Children’s Opera Company of Ossining, New York, I went back to Bishop’s columns and her Twenty and Ten. Bishop’s "The Ban on Imagination" provides a virtual blueprint to her fictional narrative of twenty French children outwitting Nazi soldiers, and successfully keeping hidden ten Jewish peers. The children outwit the Nazis by thoroughly knowing and playing out a story, the biblical "Flight into Egypt." "Who are the Jews?" shouts the Nazi soldier. I am, says the boy playing Joseph. I am, says Mary. I am, says Jesus. The children laugh. The Nazi is dumbfounded. Judith Lane first read Twenty and Ten at age nine. She never forgot it. "It’s been part of me my whole life," she told an interviewer. She had no familial ties to the people or events of the story; nevertheless, they became part of her own experience. And that’s what a good story does. It opens, encourages, and stays. It keeps faith.

Published in the 2001-11-23 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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