As I mentioned Tuesday, my latest research endeavors have offered a throw-back to my favorite childhood reads, but also raised the question of whether anyone was still reading them. It’s true that childhood is not the same point on the space-time continuum that it used to be–the fact that most three year olds wear higher heels than I do is a testament to that, among other things. But does that mean that there’s no longer a place for naivte?
Maybe. Over the summer, I thought about giving A Ring of Endless Light to a twelve-year-old friend of mine, but then panicked. In the book, the grandfather has CANCER. The protagonist has THREE boyfriends. One of them tries to feel her up, too. The next time I saw my twelve-year-old friend, she was reading the Secret Life of Bees. The plot of THAT book was so disturbing that I blocked it out. It made a A Ring of Endless Light look like Hop on Pop. (Also sort of disturbing, if you’re Pop, I guess.)
Either way, I was legitimately insecure about the whole thing. (I know. Me. Insecure. Can you even picture it?) And something I’ve discovered in the past few days has provided fodder for my unease:
Nobody likes the All of a Kind Family series anymore.
A review I read on Jezebel makes some good points in its modern-day-scrutiny stance. The plot is sometimes predictable, other times lacking. Salty salmon skin is not really all that tasty. Dusting isn’t actually fun, and if your Dad cries when he finally has a son, it definitely means you’re living in era when your value as a woman is minimal, or nil. However, Jezebel’s criticism (although mostly in jest) fails to acknowledge the fact that the books are completely, word-for-word, autobiographical. Sydney Taylor didn’t even change the names of her four sisters. And it was her husband (no doubt whilst shaking his head, muttering, “Who knew women could write?”) who sent in the manuscripts to a publisher behind her back.
I get it. It’s funny to make to fun of a loving, Jewish family on the Lower East Side. If you don’t, how will you go to sleep at night knowing there’s a condo going up next to Katz’s? But as usual, I’m going to try and be serious while everyone else is direly amused. (File that under: why my brother is the cooler sibling.)
Children’s literature is meant for people who aren’t cynical yet; people who are still saying “Show me the World” instead of “Prove that the World is better than me/my TV/my blog.” Namely, the point of children’s literature is to create the illusion that the mundane can be exciting, because let’s face it, unless you belong to Brangelia or TomKat, Tom Sawyer’s life is about one mazillion times more exciting than yours.
Thus, children’s literature must fall into one of two camps: either a book is so preposterous it keeps you engaged (other worlds inside your closet, party in purgatory, Harry Potter) or, it convinces you, A La All of a Kind Family that “Dusting can Be Fun.”
When I was growing up, I relished and forgave anything that sounded like it in was in book form, including my own life. I found that if I could think of myself in the third person: “She practiced the piano dutifully, although she found it horribly boring, because her mother made her,” then suddenly life wasn’t quite as horribly boring.
In so many ways, as a younger child, reading was a way to make my timid, confusing, and uneventful life bearable. Oddly, although I’m still a voracious reader (and still thinks of herself in the third person), very few books imbue in me the same sense of wonder that dusting did when I was seven.
So, my new children’s-lit-based-criteria for an amazing book is walking around the whole time I’m reading secretly believing I am the character. It happened with Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage a few years ago and again recently with Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress Of Solitude.
You see, in September, I moved to a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is only beginning the slow gentrification process. That is a euphemism for: There’s no where nearby to get a decent cup of coffee. I really like coffee. Enough said.
But as I became more engrossed in the bitter but ebullient pulse of Dylan Edbus’s Dean St., I simultaneously began to draw a thrill from my own (albeit far less exciting, dangerous, or remarkable) Brooklyn burrow. One night, striding past teenagers in my pot-drenched lobby, I realized that, having just come off the train, I was unconsciously holding the book up like a breast-plate. If you’ve read the book, you know the hero has a ring that he believes gives him secret super hero power, and you’ll no doubt conclude, as I did, that a) I needed to put book back in my bag and have a nice glass of three-buck-chuck and b) I kinda-sorta-secretly-not-so-secretly had begun to think of myself as Dylan Edbus.
So: A+ Jonathan Lethem. A +++ Trader Joe’s for selling 3 dollar wine and reminding me that I am (vaguely) an adult.
Finally, because, how could I not?