Recently I discovered a classic children’s book that somehow I had never read (or didn’t remember reading!) I found myself enchanted and thoroughly entertained. While children may get enjoyment from stories, sometimes adult sensibilities can get even more. Children’s literature can have surprising depth and resonance. Whether rereading a book from childhood or discovering a title for the first time, you can find new literary adventures in children’s stories.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – This is a tale of being lost, then found; of not belonging and then finding your place in the world. Mary Lennox, a spoilt child of wealthy, neglectful British parents in India, is suddenly orphaned and sent to live in England with an uncle she has never met. Left to her own devices she discovers an overgrown garden, locked up due to being the scene of her aunt’s death. She also discovers her cousin Colin, who has a phantom illness and just as bad of a temperament as Mary. With the help of the kind natured boy Dickon, Mary revives the garden and Colin’s health. The destructiveness of self-indulgence and the restorative powers of nature are at the center of the novel.
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – The magical world that Rowling has constructed is complete and complex, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves. The series starts out rather simply, but as the books progress through the adolescence of Harry, it becomes darker, more complicated and more violent. Rowling allows all her characters to have flaws and redeeming features (except for the purely evil Voldemort). Mature themes – fascism, racism, failure of bureaucracy, self-sacrifice, and the need for the sense of belonging — are all intertwined in the fiction. The story arc is carried throughout the seven novels, giving a satisfying literary journey.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – Animals that talk usually are cute, but White doesn’t try to hide the animals’ natural tendencies or the reality of farm life with treacle. Charlotte’s Web opens with eight year old Fern Arable convincing her farmer father not to commit the “injustice” of summarily slaughtering the runt of the litter, but letting Fern raise the piglet. She names him Wilbur, and after nursing him and playing with him, is made to sell the pig to her uncle. It is in the Zuckerman’s barn that we meet the all the animals who quickly inform Wilbur of his fate of eventually being slaughtered. But the practical, kindly and smart spider Charlotte, who is Wilbur’s friend, cleverly finds a way to save him. The animals are the center of attention in the novel, with the humans mostly there to manipulate. Even Fern, who initially witnesses the animal conversations (much to her mother’s consternation), fades from the barn as her attention turns to more human concerns. The story is more charming for reveling in the earthy world of the barn and the lives of the farm animals.
The Giver by Lois Lowry – Dystopia has been a hot topic for children’s literature recently, but The Giver was published over twenty years ago, the first in a quartet. Jonas lives in a colorless, emotionally muted Community that has chosen Sameness to frame their safe, but shallow lives. They are able to keep their lives very balanced by a strict set of rules, and having one person the keeper of all memories — both joyful, like sunshine and family love, and painful, like sunburn and warfare. Jonas is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory. But as Jonas experiences the expansion of his emotional life, he and the Giver question the basic structure of the Community. The novel examines the large issues of whether good can exist without evil, if safety and stability is bought at the cost of emotional depth, what is a community without a shared past.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo – Opal Buloni is a lonely 10 year old girl —- lonely because her loving but distracted preacher father has recently moved her to a small Florida town, but her deeper loneliness has to do with the abandonment by her mother years before. Her adoption of a stray dog, named Winn-Dixie after the supermarket she finds him in, changes her life. Through her dog she finds her circle of friends expanding. More importantly, she begins to understand that there are all kinds of loneliness in the world and that reaching out to others eases that pain. DiCamillo softly weaves a southern charmer of a story, with interesting characters and a subtle message.
Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian.