Reading for the Grown-up Child

`THE Secret Garden," Frances Hodgson Burnett's ever-popular story, has never been out of print since first published in 1911. She wrote it for children, no doubt about it. The author's recent biographer, Ann Thwaite, describes how children today continue to read and enjoy this stirring tale of two selfish, sickly children transformed into healthy, confident, and normal kids. Children read it, she writes, "not as a `classic' urged on them by their elders, but as a living story of as much concern to them a s any written more recently."

Yet this is one of those children's books that have a particular fascination for adults. I know a woman who reads it annually - not to her children, now grown and away, but for her own repeated satisfaction. It is a touching book and vigorously reminds adults of child-certainties and child-wonders that layers of "mature" cynicism may too easily bury.

Why do certain children's books like this one fascinate adults? The reason may be as simple as the fact that a thoroughly good story for children, as long as it isn't condescendingly written, has to satisfy its adult author's imagination first. Most children's books are not written by children. So already there is a breaking down of categories, of worlds even: A children's book may as effectively make a child reader feel grown up as it may make an adult reader remember the child he was - or still, really , is.

Interestingly, before it was brought out in book form, "The Secret Garden" was serialized in "The American Magazine." Concerning this, Burnett wrote: "This is the first instance I have ever known of a child's story being published in an adult magazine."

It may be so, but its attraction for adults is far from unique.

"Watership Down" was read as eagerly by adults as children when it first appeared. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis have written fables that carry quite as many levels of meaning for adults as they do excitement for children. Queen Victoria was reportedly entranced by Lewis Carroll's Alice books. I remember at university a lecturer eagerly recommending "Huckleberry Finn" almost as if it were too good for children.

Often enough a bona fide child is, in fact, somewhere in the equation: Beatrix Potter wrote her first version of Peter Rabbit as an illustrated letter to a child. There really was an Alice who was a child friend of the author of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." Christopher Robin was A. A. Milne's son.

Yet these authors of children's classics were all, in different ways, oddly remote from children, or attached to them in idealized, unrealistic ways. Potter was still, because of a terribly confining family set-up, a child at 30. It seems she found escape from this cramped situation in her painting and writing; fantasies about animals were a kind of release for her. She realized that these were child things. She insisted her books should be the right size for little hands. Yet large adult hands have cont inued to treasure them ever since they were published.

Lewis Carroll was terribly shy, unmarried, and the Liddell sisters, for whom he wrote, were real enough, even though they became figures of his imagination.

And Christopher Milne made it clear that his father was writing quite as much about himself as a child as he was about his son, with whom he had remarkably little contact and not much apparent understanding until Christopher was old enough to go to boarding school and learn to play cricket - well beyond his Pooh and Eeyore days.

Today it seems to me that there are probably loads of books written for children only. I believe "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which sounds like a book I would never dream of reading as an adult, is such a volume. And I am only too glad to find slimy green creatures named after some of my favorite Renaissance artists entirely baffling and even rather repulsive (as well as cynically commercial in origin). Children are definitely not what they used to be.

PERHAPS children's book writers today understand children's tastes better. Or will the cream of today's kids' books be read by adults in the next century?

Some of the older classics seem, however, to have appealed to adults from the start. Frequently I hear it said, "Oh, I never enjoyed Winnie-the-Pooh as a child. But now!" As for the Beatrix Potter books, I believe they may well be "much loved" by "generations of children," but a significant number of children don't like them at all.

In our house, the Potter books were all there, the whole set on a specially designed miniature shelf unit, well before I came along as the youngest child. I suppose I had them read to me. I may even have looked at them. Certainly Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor feel as though they have never been absent from my life.

But my real enthusiasm for the Potter books has only very recently reared its head. Now I think them enchanting, mischievous, funny, and touching. They are children's books for adults, and as such receive serious literary and artistic attention from adults. Essays are written analyzing them. Novelist Graham Greene was not above admitting the importance of "The Tale of Samuel Whiskers" to him as a formative force.

And as for "Alice in Wonderland," when Oklahoman Martin Gardner compiled his "Annotated Alice" (published 1960), he excused the serious nature of his project by writing in his introduction: "The fact is that Carroll's nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child who tries to read the ALICE books. One says `tries' because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read ALICE with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows o r The Wizard of Oz. Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice's dreams. It is only because adults - scientists and mathematicians in particular - continue to relish the ALICE books that they are assured of immortality."

He is probably right. Adults do read the Alice books, can become almost obsessed with them. An endless stream of serious artists have illustrated these books. Yet Gardner may at the same time be overlooking many children's fascination for riddles, absurdities, word play, nonsense, and, indeed, nightmares.

I had a school friend who could, and rather too often did, recite "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe" (the Jabberwocky poem) from start to finish at astounding speed and with melodramatic extravagance. I have no reason to doubt such small-boy-Carroll-reciters still exist.

An American friend tells me of her great uncle, who was a rear admiral in the Pacific Fleet in World War II and even eventually had a ship named after him, who was always provided with a fresh copy of Alice as he left home on yet another lengthy tour of sea duty. He needed a new copy because the old one had been reduced to tatters by a lot of thumbing.

The same friend's mother recalls how when she was at college, the dean of residence and a group of seniors would often gather in a dormitory living room for a Pooh reading. Each took a role - one wonders who had to be Eeyore - with the dean as Christopher Robin. Naturally. In loco parentis. Because, as has been pointed out by literary critic Humphrey Carpenter in his book "Secret Gardens," the relationship of Christopher Robin to the other (toy-animal) characters, is that of parent to child.

AS a child, I do remember enjoying A. A. Milne's classics, though I know a number of people to whom they meant nothing in childhood but plenty now that they are (more or less) adult. But I can't really remember if I found them particularly funny. I know I enjoyed some of the slapstick - in particular Pooh descending gracefully into a gorse-bush.

But I can't believe I was even remotely witty enough to fully grasp the language, the humor, and the entirely adult nuances of the Pooh tales and the comic type each of the animals symbolizes.

Carpenter, in his book, makes much of the mocking tone of A. A. Milne's fun at the expense of his characters. He even argues that Milne's self-confessed view of children - as having an "egotism entirely ruthless" though they are appealing to look at - is expressed in both his verse and the Pooh stories.

Carpenter can take a passage like this -

"Oh, Bear!" said Christopher Robin. "How I do love you!"

"So do I," said Pooh."

- and comment: "Note the ambiguity in Pooh's `So do I.' Even at this moment of tenderness he seems to be expressing self-love, the old egotism."

Such a gloss inevitably belabors the light touch of Milne's text, which is just funny rather than solemnly moral in tone, and misses the fact that the tenderness outweighs the egotism totally. The continuing appeal of the Pooh stories and characters surely has to do with a forgiving affection which Christopher Robin has toward his splendid friends. So when Carpenter says that poor old self-pitying, morose, always-expecting-the-worst Eeyore, excites nothing but "ridicule," he is definitely off the mark.

I think that by a strange inversion, Milne used his fables as a way of making all of us, children or adults, laugh at ourselves. Daily I feel like a bear of little brain. Daily I want to avoid rather than face fearsome adventures, like Piglet. Daily I translate potentially aggressive confrontations into boisterous knock-about (mainly verbal, at my age), like Tigger. And I can't remember a day when I haven't felt at least once exactly like Eeyore when Pooh pointed out to him that he had lost his tail:

After an extensively contortive effort to see if Pooh was right about his missing appendage, Eeyore "... with a long, sad sigh," said, "I believe you're right."

"Of course I'm right," said Pooh.

"That Accounts for a Good Deal," said Eeyore gloomily. "It Explains Everything. No Wonder."

Unlike Mr. Carpenter, I don't just find the old gray donkey ridiculous (though he is, of course). I find him sympathetic and lovable. The ingeniousness of this character is that you laugh at him, but you do not despise him. He's not really a character but a characteristic. If, at a moment of similar self-pity, someone were to call me Eeyore, I'd probably be laughing soon enough.

What makes a children's book into a "classic" may well have something to do with the fact that such books are often not so much books for children as books - from an adult's viewpoint - about childhood. Or about whatever inkling of "child" there is inside most of us still - to be rediscovered. Said Pooh, thoughtfully.

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