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June 6, 2010

Does one seek escape in children's classics because one is miserable?

One year I received Swallows and Amazons for Christmas, and I was furious, because I’d wanted Goodbye, Stacey. Goodbye. I grew up reading Archie comics and The Sleepover Friends and This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall. Apart from an obligatory obsession with L.M. Montgomery and a passing fancy with Frances Hodgson Burnett, I didn’t read much in the line of classics. Or rather, though I did read classic books, they weren’t the ones that captured me. I think I was also too busy watching one sitcom after another during the hours after school.

When I read Joan Bodger’s wonderful book How the Heather Looks, I became conscious of how much I’d missed. I’ve only read A.A. Milne during the past year, Lewis Carroll has also come late to me, my Beatrix Potter was pretty rudimentary, I turned my nose up a Arthur Ransome, I only read Peter Pan as an adult, I preferred The Littles to The Borrowers, and I wouldn’t know The Wind in the Willows if it knocked me over. Part of this, of course, is that I’m not British, but I still couldn’t help but think I’d missed something. Reading about how real the worlds of these books were to Bodger’s children filled me with a kind of longing for a storybook childhood of my own, and then a compulsion to pass one onto my child instead to make up for all that I’d lacked.

I’ve since learned more about Joan Bodger’s children though, and the tragedy their family endured. I wonder how much of Ian’s encyclopedic knowledge of stories, and history, and imagined lands had to do with his own troubles, and the particular quirks of his brain that would so challenge him as he grew older. I read Bodger’s second memoir The Crack in the Teacup, and learned of the solace she found in children’s stories during lonely times in her own youth. About how she wanted friends to go play Swallows and Amazons with, but the other girls her age were obsessed with boys and lipstick. And of course all this made me want to reference the great Nick Hornby– does one seek escape into children’s classics because one is miserable, or is one miserable because one seeks escape in children’s classics?

What I’m really asking, of course, is that if I come home with a copy of The Wind in the Willows, will Harriet grow up to have no friends? Could my idiotic literary preoccupations in youth be symptomatic of my fairly happy childhood?

5 thoughts on “Does one seek escape in children's classics because one is miserable?”

  1. Nathalie says:

    Bodger herself decried the use of her book as some kind of recipie for doing it right. As long as you balance books and bananas, all will be well in the world. (Nathalie took her alliteration medication today.)

  2. Carrie says:

    My daughter (age 7) reads widely, classics and otherwise; she needs her quiet time and space, and books give her that escape in our loud and sometimes chaotic house. She is devouring The Borrowers series right now. She seems able to bring her imaginary world into the world of play, and share it with her friends and siblings, too. (She is fortunate to have strong connections with friends who also appreciate imaginary worlds). I read widely and indiscriminately as a child, too, and it wasn’t because I was unhappy or lonely. Those imaginary worlds fed me, entertained me, and gave me solitude when I needed it. And then I entered those worlds and expanded on them in play.

  3. Mr. B says:

    Yes, a well-read and book-friendly child will most likely be more alone. The pursuit is generally a solitary one and because most children do not become avid book readers, those that do will have difficulty finding peers to share with. That being said, being an avid reader does not preclude children from other activities.
    I think the real question is, can a child be nurtured into reading or is it innate?

  4. Charlotte says:

    Obviously it’s quite dependent on the child in question, but in my case a miserable childhood and a love of children’s classics shared a common root rather than being causal one way or the other. I was the sort of child who was likely to be outcast (saved only by a talent for Sports, which thankfully will earn you at least tolerance in the eyes of other children) and, independently, the sort of child who loved reading and had somehow got the impression that the older a book was, the better it would be. This kind of reasoning is demonstrative of an idiosyncratic personality that was responsible for both my literary tastes and my oddball status with other kids.

    I remember the first time I met someone, as a young adult, who had grown up reading exactly what I had. I was floored by how *well adjusted* they were. It hadn’t occurred to me that someone could be both a bookworm and an interesting, confident, accomplished person. Having now met lots of these people I feel much better about my own child’s chances of happiness!

  5. Melwyk says:

    I actually preferred The Borrowers to The Littles. Loved the Victorian illustrations – Arrietty with her long hair and ruffled dress was my favourite for a long time. I read almost all those Brit classics (except Ransome) but also read all of Korman and LMM and all our modern Canadians… and I hope I can say I am a well-adjusted adult 😉

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