Childhood Favourites

the trunchbull, matilda

In all likelihood I’ve forgotten many books that I enjoyed as a child. Some of the ones that I especially loved and read many times over have, however, remained in my memory and have made their way into this list. In no particular order:

Little Women

I really loved this book. I must have read it at least twenty times. Louisa M. Alcott herself referred to it as ‘moral pap’ for young people and did not enjoy the writing process. She wrote it on the recommendation of her publisher, for primarily commercial motives, and in record time. (1) Even so, regardless of however begrudgingly it was written, Alcott populated it with characters very close to her in real life, and her own adolescent experiences heavily informed the narrative of the novel. (2) The sense of authenticity imparted by the narrative, and a widespread identification with the struggles of the four March sisters gave ‘Little Women’ a huge following. Almost 150 years on from its initial publication, thousands of girls still identify with one or other of the sisters, and continue to take a keen interest in the tribulations and triumphs of the March family. I didn’t identify with any one sister, but certain incidents did find personal resonance and are amusing to think of. E.g. In the chapter ‘Experiments’ twelve year old Amy sits in the park, with her sketchbook and drawing pencils, hoping that someone will come along, take notice of her and enquire as ‘to who the young artist is’. At twelve, I think I was just as self-conscious, and was keen to be thought of as talented or special in some way. I think that’s how a lot of young adults are up until around the age of sixteen or seventeen: highly self-conscious, always evaluating their own characters, and being very concerned about how others perceive them; pretty self-obsessed in short.

It must be conceded that the novel is sentimental and overtly didactic at times, and as such might be perceived as running counter to modern literary aesthetic expectations. However, I find the didacticism less problematic as it is a novel directly principally at a child and young adult audience. As a child of ten, I had no issues with the direct moralising the author sometimes engaged in. It didn’t feel obtrusive and frequently I would be drawn to what the narrator had to say. Also, unlike characters in the traditional sentimental novel, the March sisters were far from mere typecasts. With their individual faults and idiosyncrasies, they represented a marked departure from the angelic/highly idealised young protagonists made to feature in pedagogical tracts directed at children. (3) I enjoyed ‘Little Men’ as well, but found ‘Jo’s Boys’ to be perhaps the weakest link in the March family saga.

Roald Dahl

This is a no brainer. This guy only wrote the best children’s books EVER. If I remember correctly, it was ‘Matilda’ that turned me into a voracious reader. I don’t think there was ever a Roald Dahl children’s book I didn’t like, but my favourites have to be ‘Matilda’, ‘The Witches’, ‘Boy’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and ‘Beastly Tales and Revolting Rhymes’. This wonderfully imaginative author’s books were ingeniously plotted, featured fabulous characters and were very very funny. Strangely enough, they also had a grotesque quality that children (including myself) found simply irresistible. Just take these fantastic opening passages from ‘Matilda’ through which we are introduced to the titular character:

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration that they manage to convince themselves that their child has qualities of genius. Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, ‘Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick!’

School teachers suffer a good deal from this sort of twaddle from proud parents, but they usually get their own back when the time comes to write the end of term reports. If I were a teacher I would cook up some real scorchers for the children of doting parents. ‘Your son Maximillian,’ I would write ‘is a total washout. I hope you have a family business you can push him into when he leaves school because he sure as heck won’t get a job anywhere else’, Or if I were feeling lyrical that day, I might write , ‘It is a curious truth that grasshoppers have hearing organs in the sides of their abdomen. Your daughter Vanessa, judging by what she’s learnt this term, has no hearing-organs at all’…

…Occasionally one comes across parents who take the opposite line, who show no interest at all in their children, and these of course are far worse than the doting ones. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood were two such parents. They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parents looked upon Matilda as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.”

Dripping with a kind of sarcasm that children delight in, Dahl’s children’s books sucked you in from the very first page. I read ‘Matilda’ again a few days ago and was surprised by how funny I still found it. Of course, the books also enthralled in ways that could only be felt exclusively by children. E.g. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid left wondering whether there really were witches in the world after reading ‘The Witches’. I don’t know if it’s possible for adults to fully comprehend Dahl’s tremendous appeal to children, and the kind of loyalty his books inspire. For that, you need to have read Dahl as a child.

Any mention of Dahl’s children’s books is incomplete without allusion to the wonderful illustrations they contained. Quentin Blake was only the best children’s illustrator ever; his scraggy drawings had a unique character of their own and made the books even more endearing. In my view, Dahl’s stories for adults were pretty hit and miss. Some worked, others didn’t. If Dahl is remembered a hundred years hence (as he very likely will be) it will be because of his children’s fiction.

Cynthia Voigt

I don’t think I ever really got into books that were specifically designated ‘Young Adult’ novels in a big way. Most of the ones I read didn’t stay with me, and I can scarcely remember what they were about. Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman family series is one of the exceptions to this. The first book of the series ‘Homecoming’ concerns four children, who have been abandoned in a carpark by their overburdened, mentally unstable mother. The eldest of them, thirteen-year-old Dicey is afraid that she and her siblings will be separated and placed in foster homes if the authorities come to know of their situation. Accordingly, she takes charge of her younger siblings and leads them on their arduous journey on foot from Peewauket (Pawcatuck) to the house of their only known relation Aunt Cilla in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It’s an absorbing journey for the reader as well, as we get to know the Tillerman kids, understand their struggles, and admire their resilience.

‘Homecoming’ is no Famous Five adventure story. In fact, scarcely any sense of adventure attends it at all. The novel is told in a mature voice and is, in a large part, a psychological study of the Tillerman clan. Voigt had an impressive understanding of children and young adults, and was very skilled at portraying their insecurities, psychological struggles, and internal growth; be it James Tillerman in ‘Homecoming’, Wilhelmina Smith in ‘Come a Stranger’ or Jeff Greene in ‘A Solitary Blue’. Several of the novels in the series did have a bildungsroman format, and captured aspects of the adolescent experience with a lot of acuity. This also brings me to my one gripe with Cynthia Voigt’s young adult fiction. These intelligently and quite poignantly written novels, were almost completely bereft of any kind of humour. They were dead serious throughout, and not infrequently imparted a sad feeling to the reader. To quote Matilda’s words to Miss Honey ‘Children are not as serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh’. Teenagers love to laugh as well, and Voigt’s genuinely worthy novels would have been even more worthwhile with a good sprinkling of humour.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As with Agatha Christie’s crime fiction (which I would discover later on), much of the enjoyment I derived from these stories came from the demystification process I underwent. However, one important difference between Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the latter’s more effective portrayal of character. The characterisation of Sherlock Holmes himself, with his eccentricities and talents, was integral to the appeal of these stories. The attractiveness of Sherlock Holmes’ personality was of course closely connected with his capacity to rapidly and penetratingly (if somewhat artificially) discern the real issues underlying a problem, and bring the seemingly intractable puzzle to a successful conclusion. The dry, rationalising aspect of his personality may have been exaggerated but it never reduced him to a mere caricature. You always thought of Holmes as an integral person, with an individual perspective on any given subject.

Critic Franco Moretti very aptly identifies one of the key flaws in Holmes’ method of detection or ‘deduction’. Each story was premised upon the assumption that “the relevant causes are always a finite set. They are also fixed: they always produce the same effect”. (4) I think even when I read the stories as a child I had a niggling sense of this. E.g. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Watson is amazed when Holmes deduces that he has come from Afghanistan. Holmes’ thought process is described as follows:

‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.”

What is the appearance of a ‘gentleman of a medical type’? How does a doctor in regular clothes look any different from an architect or an engineer? Is the ‘air of a military man’ distinguishable from the air of a policeman? Couldn’t Watson have been ill first, and then have gone somewhere warmer for a restorative sojourn as was common enough at the time? The fractured arm is also consistent with a police inspector’s having had a scuffle with a criminal. You get my drift…I suppose Doyle’s skill as a wordsmith was in persuading us, at the time of reading, the that conclusion arrived at by Holmes was indeed the most logical and probable one. Obviously, many of the stories were also very ingeniously plotted. Doyle’s detective fiction was written for entertainment purposes, but also had a literary quality and is difficult to class exclusively as ‘genre fiction’. I think it’s arguable that it had a foot in both ‘popular fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ camps.

Enid Blyton

I was fond enough of Enid Blyton’s books, without ever really being an ardent fan. I think I preferred her school books such as the St. Clare’s series over her children’s adventure fiction. Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’ stories must have also had an impact on me though. Around the age of nine I remember being terribly indignant about the fact that all the kids in her books were always having adventures, and that I have never had a single real adventure. I was so desirous of ‘being in an adventure’ myself that I resolved to run away from home. I seemed to have held the impression that as soon a child was out in the big wide world on his or her own, an exciting adventure would automatically and immediately befall him or her. I packed my Qantas backpack and spent what seemed like forever waiting for my parents to fall asleep before I sneaked outside. Fortunately, I was way too chicken to follow through with my plans. Scared of the dark and silence outside, within minutes I retreated back indoors. So much for my grand adventure.

Fairy Tales and Fantasy

 Of course, fairy tales (Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Russian folks tales, Arabian Nights, Panchatantra stories etc.) were a part of my early childhood. That interest in magic and folklore somehow never transitioned into a fondness for the fantasy genre later on. I never got through a single one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels or any of the books in C.S. Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series. The only parts of the Harry Potter books that interested me were the initial and closing chapters featuring the Dursleys. I thought these chapters were a hoot. But as soon Harry got onto the train for Hogwarts, I would invariably start zoning out. I never read a single Harry Potter novel from cover to cover. My brother was bewildered; ‘How can anyone not like Harry Potter?!!’. Such a thing is indeed possible. Perhaps the only series I am fond of in the fantasy genre is P.B. Kerr’s wonderful ‘Children of the Lamp’ series. This highly entertaining series featuring twins and djins wasn’t around when I was a kid, but I think I enjoyed it just as much when I read it some years ago as an adult.  I sat up all night completely absorbed in ‘The Akhenaten Adventure’ and after a long time felt a bit like a child seeking to be a part of a ‘real adventure’ again.

 

 

(1)Valerie Anderson, ed, Little Women (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1998)

(2)Ibid

(3)Ibid

(4) Franco Moretti, “Clues”, in Popular Fiction, ed. Tony Bennet (London; New York: Routledge 1990), 238-249

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: