Monday, May 29, 2006

Children's Lit or Classics? You Decide!

I'm reading Look Homeward, Angel which so far is a pretentious snoozefest, but I'll get to that when I post about it. Crafting an explanation of why I hate it is the only thing keeping me going at this point. But as I was reading it, some minor detail reminded me of National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, which has a simplicity and truth to it that in my mind makes it a far better book. So why don't I see it on any booklists? Is it because it's a "children's" book? Is it because it's by a woman? Is it because it's by a woman that it's considered a children's book? Two more books came to mind immediately that fit this category: Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. All books that are supposedly aimed towards "children" but which are truthful, incredibly well written, charming, and stand the test of time. So... what the hell?

Another book I would put on the "best books" list is In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. It's definitely not a kids' book, but it stands up against any of the canonical classics, in my mind. I don't know if it's because it's too obscure (Demi Moore is the only person I know of who knows Rumer Godden, as she named a child after her) or because of the subject matter (it's about nuns) so I'm not all up in arms about this one, but it also came to mind as one of my favorite books when I was a kid, and one that I still think stands up to a critical reading today.

Anyway, I'd like to see a much better list of "top 100 books by women," because this one contains some real clunkers, and none of the four books I've mentioned are on it, despite the fact that they are all better than Fried Green Tomatoes and Patience and Sarah. Although now that I take a second look at that list, there are a lot of good books on there. (Rebecca, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Mrs. Dalloway....) Hmm.

Anyway, what do you think? Are National Velvet, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Little Women all off the list because they really are children's books? If so, what makes them children's books? Do you think they really are appreciably weaker than the books in the canon? If so, why? Is the language too simple? Are the themes they tackle not lofty enough? Are there any "children's books" by men that have been treated in this dismissive way? I personally feel each of these books has enriched my life in a real, permanent way, and I'd include them all on my personal list of must-read classics, which I look forward to creating in twenty years when I finally finish this damn reading project.


Anonymous geowench said...

What an odd list. No Austen, no Brontes. Yet Wide Sargasso Sea makes the list. Little Women was not originally written for children nor marketed for children, was it? I don't know if I would include it in an all-time best list or not - but I certainly would not exclude it just for being a children's book.

4:51 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Well Middlemarch isn't on there either, and that's definitely one of the greatest novels of all time; I think it's a 20th century list.

4:58 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Which would exclude Little Women anyway, come to think of it!

4:58 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

I think there is a definite dismissal of children's literature when it comes to crafting lists of the supposed best books of all time. It is a deeply ingrained thing that I come up against every day as I try to urge various adults to read various books and have to constantly overcome their "but it's a children's book!" attitudes. Little Women would certainly make any list I made.

I look at that list you linked (which is definitely 20th century only) and I think about how much I hated Posession and The Awakening and The Fucking Shipping News and Wide Sargasso Sea, and I think about how Little Women probably wouldn't be on it anyway. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn should definitely be there, but it never will be, because it's supposedly a children's book and there will always be a huge number of people who can't get past that.

5:07 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I know, I hated Wide Sargasso Sea so very much, but I can admit it was skillfully written. (Fried Green Tomatoes, not so much.) I liked Possession alright, though. I liked The Awakening.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn... if Francie was a Francis, and Betty Smith was a Bob Smith, I wonder if it would be as snubbed as it is. I mean it's a classic bildungsroman, and the canon loves the old bildungsroman.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Sasha said...

Betty Smith wasn't a children's lit author, she didn't write "children's books", and as far as I know A Tree Grows In Brooklyn wasn't marketed as a children's book any more than her subsequent books would have been (two of which I've read. As for books like Wide Sargasso Sea well, typical university women's studies fare and not much else. It certainly can't match the powerful social document that is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Denise said...

The only thing I can think of that limits Little Women as a children's book is that it, like most Alcott books, has a certain moral simplicity that is very unfashionable now. Give to others, avoid temptations, don't let the sun set on your anger--these ideas lack the complexity people expect in literature these days, perhaps.

I'm not sure what the deal is with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The narrator is a child for much of the story, and it's told through her viewpoint, and perhaps that confuses people into thinking it's a child's story. Smith does the same thing with Annie, the young bride in Joy in the Morning--takes the viewpoint of a naive character.

To be honest, I think the real reason National Velvet ranks as a children's story is that people think of the movie and not the novel. You look at a very young Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor and a rather simple script and forget about the complex characters and coming of age story in the novel. "Oh, was that a book?"

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Westergren said...

I always love to run across any mention of Rumer Godden. In This House of Brede is a marvelous book.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I don't know ... I don't think Little Women belongs on a great literature list. I've reread it recently and it's unbearably preachy. It's not even just a matter of moral simplicity; it's a tract tacked onto a story. I loved it as a kid but I don't think it's great literature. Not at all.

A Tree Grows In Brookly is one of my favorite books but I'm not sure about it, either, not on a list of important literature. In some ways it is a very old-fashioned book for 1943, isn't it? It's a very nice example of a certain kind of book but I'm not sure it was ground-breaking or important. I could be wrong, but that would be my guess as to why it's not in the canon.

It took me several tries to get through Wide Sargasso Sea but man, I love that book. Maybe I love it more because I hate Jane Eyre so much, but I definitely think it's an important book that belongs on the list.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Dorothy Rothschild said...

Oooh! Oooh! *waves hand* I've read In This House of Brede!

Off the top of my head, I'd say male-authored school stories and adventure books get automatically downgraded - most particularly I'm thinking of Tom Brown's Schooldays or Treasure Island, which are very much classics.

2:32 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

The word "classic" is sort of problematic, because I think it tends to refer to a book that continues to be read and loved long after its date of publication, and all of the books discussed here qualify. But it doesn't have much to do with the literary canon, or what is academically interesting. Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are not even discussed at the junior high level, are they? I think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a kid's book but it's taught at the secondary school level. (I think it is out of favor in universities, and that may indeed be because it displays a certain moral simplicity that is more appropriate for younger minds.)

And that is really the problem with those "great books" lists, figuring out whether they are discussing classics, or great works of literature, and how they are defining the latter.

6:59 AM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Yes, you make an excellent point. To qualify as part of the canon it should be academically and stylistically interesting, or groundbreaking in some way. I know In This House of Brede qualifies. I will have to think about that one for a little bit.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I just read a Tree Grows in Brooklyn this winter at the age of 29 and I did not think it was a children's book. I like to consider myself a fairly bright person and I do not know if I would have understood all what was going on when I was 12. I loved it so much though.

I wonder of these lists are just put out there to get everyone's undies in a bundle.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous geowench said...

bastard out of carolina (which is on the list) is primarily about a child, told from a child's point of view - but is certainly NOT a child's book - i never know what makes a children's book.

as for wide sargasso sea - well that seems to be a pretty PC list, and Phyllis Chesler made the whole mad women in the attic thing very PC (at least in feminist circles).

4:23 PM  
Anonymous hilary said...

I am sad they didn't have Angela Carter's Wise Children, one of my favorite books ever. I read it at university as part of a Shakespeare in Context course, one of the few books I enjoyed as part of my required reading as an English major.

It's crazy, funny, and very well-written.

As for children's books - really good books can appeal to children and also be enjoyed by adults. I remember being enthralled by Jane Eyre at age ten!

7:58 AM  
Blogger K said...

I agree with Hilary - sometimes "grown-up" books are enjoyable when you're a child, even if not in quite the same way as when you're an adult.

This is an interesting exercise for me, because I read a lot of children's books. My favourite of these is probably Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, which I read first aged about 13, then rediscovered aged 23. I can never convince any other adults that it's not fairytale fluff, but here goes...

When I first read it, I remember thinking "This book is good, but a little young for me. I wish I'd read it when I was ten." Now it's a book I return to again and again. The story is sophisticated and works on levels I never noticed when I was 13: there's intertextuality, gender politics, interlocking layers of puzzle... and quite a few grown-up and complex emotions too.

Books I'd class as being suitable for grown-ups: Fire and Hemlock, again by DWJ, which is a rich and wonderful book, and also means different things if you re-read it as an adult.

Ursula Le Guin's Tehanu, and indeed the whole Earthsea series, although when I reread Tehanu I was really struck by how good a novel it is on any level and in any genre. The fact that it's set in a world where magic exists doesn't matter. It's about humans and their relationships and how people get over things.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. This is beautifully written, and deals with serious moral questions: what do you do when you have to partake of a battle not of your choosing? What happens to loyalty, and how can you have a normal life around it? (All this makes it sound like Harry Potter, which it isn't, although it does start with a boy's eleventh birthday and a revelation of a strange birthright. I'd never noticed that parallel before!)

I'm tempted to add Missee Lee and Secret Water by Arthur Ransome; again, they have more in them if you read them as an adult. Missee Lee is an adventure story with an exotic setting, but the ending is one of terribly sad emotional conflict - if you're an adult. If you're a child, you probably won't notice.

Some books suffer from re-reading. When I first read The Mill on the Floss, I saw it as a tremendously tragic story and cried my eyes out. I was twelve. Reading it again aged 18, I couldn't make myself care about any of the characters. It all seemed over-wrought. (It's not Eliot I have a problem with - I like Middlemarch and even Daniel Deronda.) I think Jane Eyre is another one I find harder to enjoy for itself as an adult, perhaps because I'm not taking the characters at face value any more. (Still don't like Wide Sargasso Sea, though.)

I grew up on Rumer Godden, but have not read any of her adult books. Perhaps I should...

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have too much to say about your entry, however, I have an excellent book to recommend by a female author. I would love to talk with *somebody* about The House on Mango Street (Cisneros). I thought it was wonderful and would like to hear other opinions, if anyone else has read it. Of course I'm "anonymous" so it's going to be hard to get a chat started. duh.
Read it, it's beautiful.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous ljh said...

Gosh, is Missee Lee worth rereading? All I remember, aside from learning you need math to navigate and what a copying pencil is, is its anti-Asian slant. I read the later S&A books as a young adult, and that (and Great Northern) are the only ones I haven't reread. Missee Lee felt to me like more Peter Duck but with Mary Poppins prejudice. I don't remember a poignant ending at all.

4:38 PM  

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