Children’s book people are always fussing that they and their product are not taken seriously enough. They should instead recognize their good luck and be still lest the bad fairy hear them and grant their wish. Since the number of good books for children published in any given year would not fill the reading time of an intelligent child for two weeks, the children’s book people would soon starve if reviewers began to apply serious standards. In the children’s book market, alas, the buyer is not the consumer. Because such books are short and composed of easy words, most people imagine that they could write them easily—and it seems they often do. Failed painters, failed poets, tired journalists, and captive wives all take up this cottage industry in the way that young people take up making music and films, few of them realizing that they have picked work that is indeed deceptively simple.
It would not be worth going on about such bad books except that children, by and large, can exert their own will in this matter only in negative ways—by non-attention and by a disinclination to read at all. One becomes grateful for comic books because they are interesting as well as cheap enough for a child to get hold of himself—keeping at least this kind of reading a private business much as television now is and as movies used to be when admission was eleven cents.
But comics alone are stingy fare and, for generations, children have augmented pulp by raiding the grown-up shelves to read Haggard, O. Henry, and H.G. Wells as well as their own classic writers—such as George MacDonald, Edith Nesbit, and P.L. Travers, many of whose works are still available. It would be good if more consistent attention were paid not only to such books but to others, less well-known, on publishers’ backlists. For example, there are books from the 1940s by Crockett Johnson and Margaret Wise Brown that no young child should miss. If things were done sensibly, Miss Brown’s Goodnight Moon would appear on reviewers’ Christmas lists each year until children no longer loved it.
Instead, we must have the latest “promotion” of the publishers, which is much bought and much less read. Certainly, all good books are not good forever—sometimes too great a cultural distance comes between the child and the book so that we lose Water-Babies or The Hole Book. Nonetheless, there is more in the past than we imagine for children who want to read.
Just as you cannot force children to attend to a bad book, you cannot keep interesting books away from them if there are any available. By good books, I do not necessarily mean those which adults think are good—but those which capture a child because they are saying something significant to him. No amount of chic art work or trendy writing can compensate for a true message from the heart of darkness. The Dr. Seuss books with their big slobbish drawings and infinitely repetitive rhymes were forced on me by children who loved exactly the mess, the anarchy, the playing around with unspeakable things that are the core of those books. What irritates me satisfies them, and it is hard to ignore authenticity when it exists. There is no great children’s book which does not reflect the obsession or fantasy of the author, and none in which that obsession or fantasy does not correspond to something of the same in the child.
Maurice Sendak is the finest children’s book maker we have, as well as the one most in touch with the classical tradition of children’s literature. Primarily an illustrator, he can tell a story in pictures which sometimes enhance the words and sometimes turn them entirely around. Sendak’s collaboration with Else Minarik on Little Bear resulted in as perfect a book for very young children as one could hope for; a book in which the mother is the mother of everyone’s dreams and Little Bear is forever perfectly loved.
In the books which are entirely Sendak’s, however, he speaks of other things. And most directly to young children who are closest to dreams of monsters, the night, and the danger of a protean self. In Sendak’s Nutshell Library collection, Johnny, “who lived alone and liked it that way,” has his house invaded by undesirables—including a tiger and a robber—who become frightened and run away when Johnny threatens to eat them up. In the same collection, the notorious Pierre (who says only, “I don’t care”) is eaten by a lion. Returning home, his parents hear a voice from the lion’s stomach saying, “I don’t care.” Pierre is finally regurgitated whole—the lion having become ill from the boy’s indigestibility. Although Pierre tells his parents, “I care,” as he triumphantly rides on the back of the lion, the look on his face speaks much more clearly: “They are all fools and I still don’t care.”
Sendak’s heroes are often the child version of the hero with a thousand faces, off on journeys to the interior. Where the Wild Things Are begins:
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew—and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around….
Max goes to “the place where the wild things are,” to monsters who “rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws,” but who also look rather like a child’s view of those idiot grownups he sees in the streets or in schools or even in his own house. Max tames them with a stare and the wild things make him king of all the wild things and dance for him in a wordless orgy which spreads over several pages and in which Max takes part rather superciliously while the monsters exhaust themselves for his approval. When Max gets lonely and goes home, he is victorious even there. His supper is waiting in his room “and it was still hot.”
I cannot think of a book in which such grandiose dreams of power (which all powerless young must share) are so gloriously fleshed out in full color for children of nursery age.
Sendak’s new book, In the Night Kitchen, is even more extravagantly put together than Wild Things. The illustrations are exalted recollections of 1930s movies and ads and comic strips and dreams. The figures have monumental proportions and lunatic energy, forever bursting out of the borders of the pictures. Mickey falls into a night kitchen at the center of a dream city of the past where the buildings are period replicas of old food boxes, cartons, cans, and jars. Here the elevated trains still run, and the dark starry sky is the one which, in the imagination of a Thirties’ child, appeared nightly over Radio City Music Hall. The three towering nightmare bakers (who insist that Mickey is “milk for the morning cake” while they mix him in the batter and put him in the oven) all have the face of Oliver Hardy. Mickey escapes from the oven and drives an airplane of dough through the sky to the tallest milk bottle into which he dives naked, gets milk for the bakers, and ends up in bed “carefree and dried” and quite satisfied.
In the Night Kitchen is perhaps the closest any children’s book has come to telling an authentic dream since the days of George MacDonald who, after all, lived in that pre-Freudian world where it was still possible that dreams were messages from Faerie. That Night Kitchen also works as a story is a measure of Sendak’s power and control. Sendak’s major concern is always the integrity and the individuality of a child, who will be neither civilized nor molded. Mickey creates the airplane of his escape from the dough that was to have molded him into shape. Max, in Wild Things, turns the wild things to his own will. Sendak’s heroes return home, but never entirely forsake the wild places of their journeys.
Roald Dahl writes good obsessional books that I (not sharing his obsessions) find a little repellent—which does not make them any the less good. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes place in the canals of a huge subterranean chocolate factory through which runs a river of chocolate. The owner of the factory allows some rather bizarre but fascinating things to happen to bad children who visit. He also experiments on tiny black pygmies he has brought, as workers, from Africa. (These pgymies sing and dance while they work because they are so happy not to be starving in Africa.) Finally, having no heirs, he gives away his factory to a good but starving boy.
In Dahl’s new book, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mr. Fox and his family, living snugly in a hill, are being starved by an unwholesome trio of farmers (one of whom eats nothing but goose livers mashed “into a disgusting paste” and then stuffed into doughnuts). The farmers are prepared to dig into the hill until they find and destroy Mr. Fox, who has been coming out to steal their fowl. Mr. Fox happily escapes with only his tail cut off. (In children’s stories, such mutilations happen only to animals—which fools no one but adults.)
Mr. Dahl has apparently been touched by the feathery fingers of Consciousness III, for Mr. Fox and the other neighboring animals resolve their problem of survival by creating a communal underground world which includes a network of tunnels leading to the storehouses of the three farmers. Mr. Fox instructs Badger:
My dear old furry frump, do you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn’t swipe a few chickens if their children were starving to death?… If they want to be horrible, let them. We down here are peace-loving creatures.
And the animals all decided to live together and never had to come above ground again. A story more satisfying than most.
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White’s new book, is not quite so successful as either Stuart Little (whose triumph over being born a mouse to a human family is now legend) or Charlotte’s Web (about a spider, death, and the continuity of life). But even when imperfect, Mr. White leaves most other children’s book writers far behind. Here, Louis (a trumpet swan born without a voice) learns to play a trumpet, to read, and to write with chalk on a slate, thus making a good life for himself despite his handicap. There is not much humor in the story—which is too bad because Mr. White has written very wittily in other books. Perhaps the mutilation here is too serious, too possible; the swan flying through the air weighed down with trumpet and slate is too orthopedic an image to fuse easily with the freedom and beauty of a wild bird. Still, there is much graceful writing about nature, time, seasonal change, and the relationship of one living thing to another.
Out of a haphazardly culled selection of books for aging children, only Young and Black in America seems to me a necessary book. It is a moving collection of personal essays which range in time from Frederick Douglass’s boyhood in slavery to David Parks’s tour of duty in Vietnam, and includes writing by Malcolm X, Daisy Bates, Richard Wright, and Harry Edwards. After all the racial rhetoric that has lately been swirling around kids’ heads, this book is a point of reference which very clearly defines what racism is and what it has done to generations of young black Americans.
By contrast, I Was a Black Panther (ostensibly told to Chuck Moore by an ex-Black Panther out on bail) looks to me like the most specious book for children published this year. The hero (who is transformed almost instantly from a football-playing middle-class high-school boy into a fiery black nationalist, a favorite of all leaders of the movement) appears to have been a kind of Wandering Jew, present everywhere the action was, from Stokely Carmichael’s march through Mississippi to Eldridge Cleaver’s annunciation of the “ten-point program” of the Panthers (“Glad you asked, little brother”). He was there the day Jim Forman and the SNCC office got trashed, and in Cuba for guerrilla training. And on roof tops sniping at cops, and on to jail. On the last page, pseudonymous Willie Stone quits the Panthers because they are “all muscle and no brains.” The book reads like a collection of clippings from Newsweek and was, no doubt, intended for those uninformed children’s librarians who are desperately trying to fill up a black shelf.
Paul Zindel writes for those young adults who, if they are at all sensible, would not be reading fiction for young adults. He has been much praised for The Pigman, My Darling, My Hamburger, and now, I Never Loved Your Mind. Zindel is a facile writer, has a brittle wise-guy humor, and is hideously up-to-date in his manipulation of the concerns of high-school students in middle America.
Even the best fiction written for teen-agers is synthetic, largely because the writer must deliberately withhold complexity. The subject matter of today’s teen-age novel is very little different from the slice-of-life fiction of the past; isolation, inadequacy, rotten families, rotten lives. Only the absence of depth allows “teen-age” books to fall into their category. The ideas are very carefully controlled—despite the appearance of a certain freedom of language and action—in order to be acceptable to high schools and libraries. They are rarely books that book-buying kids would buy.
Unwittingly, no matter how “relevant” they attempt to be, the schools become repositories of dead forms. A case in point occurred in the film High School, where Simon and Garfunkel’s dilution of Eliot’s poetry was being taught to the utter boredom of a highschool class. Twenty years ago, when Salinger was almost alone in sensing a new consciousness, librarians found Catcher in the Rye unsuitable for highschool students. Now that the kids are practically born that way and want to read Hesse, the schools buy quantities of books which endlessly imitate Salinger’s style, his hero’s discovery that everything is “phony,” but which lack Salinger’s intelligence and talent. Mr. Zindel is perhaps the foremost epigonous Salinger.
I Never Loved Your Mind is a tale told by a pretentious “sensitive” highschool dropout. He is in love with a disorganized girl who hates her home town because the grownups are all corrupt, lives (asexually) with a rock group, is turned on by health foods, and sleeps with the narrator once before she goes to a commune in the West. I think the book ends with the boy going back to school after a most unpleasant and pedestrian Walpurgisnacht at a local commune where they fight over food. This is such a squalid little book that it will make a gray Christmas indeed for the aging juvenile who finds it in the toe of his stocking.
December 17, 1970