Not Just for Children

Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

by Alison Lurie
Penguin, 219 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Children at the moment are made far too much of by the press, television, and movies: childish characters are beginning to invade the adult world of the TV thriller, sentimentalizing its stark effects or being clever beyond their years. When I was a child I disliked children’s books, or thought I did. My mother tolerated this attitude, and sometimes allowed me to take out an adult novel when she changed her own book at the circulating library of those days. I pretended to enjoy these novels—I still remember one called Return I Dare Not, which sounded promising—but in fact I found them silly, boring, or incomprehensible. Then I discovered Kipling, who doesn’t fit into any category, and I enjoyed, as I still do, every book and story that he ever wrote. I enjoyed in the same spirit the novels of Kipling’s friends Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson. None of these seemed to be about children, or for them.

In any age, I suppose, there is a backlash somewhere against the cult of childhood. W.C. Fields was funny, but dead serious, in saying that no one who sincerely hated children could be wholly bad; the poet Philip Larkin discovered with relief when he grew up that it was children he had hated all his life, not human beings as such. Alison Lurie once or twice implies in her shrewdly engaging way, as one might expect from so humorous and subtly perceptive an adult novelist, that men, but not women, were encouraged by the books they read in childhood to see themselves secretly as children for the rest of their lives:

In the early years of the twentieth century, the heroes of most adventure stories were boys; girls stayed home and learned to get on better with their families. If they were rejected children like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or orphans like Anne of Green Gables and Judy in Daddy Long-Legs, they found or established new families. At the end of all these stories, or their sequels, the heroine grew up, fell in love, and got married.

These things have now changed, and the fairyland of Oz had a lot to do with it.

An adult’s suspicions of children’s books can be disarmed if the characters are not children but animals or eccentric adults, such as those Lewis Carroll’s Alice meets in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; or if, as in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the characters are animals whom the reader instantly recognizes and accepts as different kinds of grown-up. This makes Grahame’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece a classic for all ages and seasons: its style and manner see the wholly arbitrary figures of Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger, vividly enacting every well-known trait of the gentry class, as that class sees itself, and as it feels threatened by the proletarian envy of lesser animals, like stoats and weasels. A gentry animal seems to be accepted by human beings as one of themselves, and liable for that…

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