Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, October 15, 2012

The Strangeness of Re-reading Older Children's Books


In the past year I've gone back and read some older children's books, and I've been struck by how strange they now seem. The magic that made them classics still absolutely remains, but it's striking how much sensibilities have changed.

If you read a thriller published in the '60s or most literary fiction published in the twentieth century, there are certainly elements that may seem dated, but it does not usually feel like a wholly different experience than reading something written today.

And yet I was struck by the very adult perspective in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the way A Wrinkle in Time starts slowly before veering into what I now think is a bit of a scattered plot by today's standards.

A few months back in The Atlantic, there was an interesting discussion about adults who re-read The Giver, not even a book that was written that long ago.

Is this just a matter of returning to books with adult perspectives, irreversibly influenced as we are by our experience and the way our outlook has changed? Is it a reflection of the maturation of a genre that is still relatively new compared to most adult genres? Is it the movie-influenced impeccable pacing that has come to dominate modern fiction?

Have you revisited a book you loved as a child and experienced it differently? What do you make of it?






52 comments:

Fiona said...

Nope. I'm never disappointed. I feel like books are often the only bridge I have to the sense of wonder I had as a kid. I'm starting to re-read a lot of these books with my daughter, and I still love them.

Suelder said...

THE book for me was Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. It was the first book that was ever *real* to me.

But when I re-read it decades later, I saw how melodramatic it was. Such a soap opera! But I still enjoyed it.

Laurapoet said...

This is a very interesting question. I know it can be debated as to wether this is considered a "children's book" but I remember my dad reading me To Kill a Mockingbird when I was WAY to young to fully appreciate it. I'm a senior in high school now and I have read it more times than I can count, but I just know there are still layers of that book that I won't fully understand until I've lived a little more.

I'm also really interested in the very old children's literature... books like The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan. Maybe it's because I have old fashioned sensibilities, or maybe it's just that I like that they are so care free. Of course the characters have problems, but compared to things like the missing father in A Wrinkle in Time, or the starkness of The Giver, they really take you back to a simpler time. These days I know a rambling book like the Wind in the Willows wouldn't make it, but it's still nice, relaxing read away from my busy life, and I think I appreciate that simplicity even more now that my life has upped the stress levels . Wow, okay, I kind of went off on a tangent there, but thanks for getting me to think about this stuff again. I'd also like to say that I really enjoy your blog. It's extremely helpful for a young writer such as myself :)

Adie said...

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my favorite book when I was age 11 -- the same age as Francie at the beginning of the book. I decided to read it to my children when they were younger and was shocked at how much I had to abridge and edit. I think at age 11, some of the more mature content was over my head. I wonder if it is still marketed as a girl's book?

Susan Sundwall said...

The Wind in the Willows will never get old for me. A study in human nature and that never changes. Great, thought provoking post, Nathan.

Bamboo Grovers said...

A friend once asked me if there was an Australian equivalent to Little House on the Prairie, and I was thrilled to be able to share A Little Bush Maid by Mary Grant Bruce. This is a series I read probably 10 times at least growing up. Before I lent it to her I thought I'd enjoy a trip down memory lane and read it myself. Within a few pages my eyes were popping out and even watering a bit as I saw how extremely racist and paternalistic the book was towards Aboriginies and Chinese people. I was so very saddened to see so much that I had never noticed as a child. Obviously the author was a product of her times, but I feel somehow the book is unreadable now, and wouldn't share it with anyone!

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

The Little Prince... It charms me always. My volume came from a favorite uncle - published in 1948. When I hold it, I can hear his melodious voice reading to me. I can't wait to have a grandchild I can (melodiously) read it to and eventually pass it on.

Jaimie said...

I've pulled many a Scott Pilgrim on books I read as a child. Most of them were adult books I was reading as a child... The children books, as a whole, remained good.

Peter Dudley said...

I seem to remember loving Split Infinity as a kid. I started reading it to my then-12-year-old son and got about one page into it before he demanded we choose a different book. And I wasn't arguing.

Susie said...

Great question! A while back I was completely surprised and a bit sad when I overhead a moms' group discussing From the Mixed-Up Files with their daughters. They mostly focused on how dangerous it was to run away from home and how the children could have talked to their parents instead of running away to the museum. As a parent I completely understand, but as a reader who had loved the book I felt they missed the entire point of the book. I also loved the Five Little Peppers books, but now they're hard to read because of the racist undertones.

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

For me, it was "Enchantress From the Stars" and "The Far Side of Evil" by Sylvia Engdahl.

The first one still seemed magical, but the second felt so out of touch, both in technique and subject.

Rosi said...

A few years ago, I re-read all the of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I was not disappointed with one word. I sometimes read older children's books and wonder if they could even be published today. I read From the Mixed Up Files for the first time recently, and I remember thinking it would be hard for the writer to even be considered for publication these days. Maybe I'm wrong, but that is how I felt.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Charlotte's Web to my 7-year-old son; I was his age when my mom and dad read it to me. I was surprised by how fierce and unsentimental Charlotte was portrayed. My son loved the book, but I think I enjoyed it even more if only because of my awareness of how awesome a task it would be to write such beautiful book. This one has aged really well.

Lisa Shafer said...

As a child, I LOVED The Secret Garden. As an adult, I see how very pro-empire/colonialist/hail Victoria it is. I also LOVED Little Women, which I read dozens of times. Now it strikes me as very preachy.

Books that still hold their magic for me from those middle grade years include anything by Zilpha Keatley Snyder or Beverley Cleary. But then again, these women wrote decades later than the former two, so perhaps it's not quite a fair comparison.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

A lot have really held true for me -- the Beverly Cleary books, for example. Of course, they're from a different era and in that scope feel a bit dated, but the emotional make up -- Cleary's strong ability to capture childhood so honestly -- is even more powerful to me as a former teacher, mother, and author.

A slower plot is just a given, I think, with anything not written in the last 15-20 years. I'm okay with that.

A confession: I was the only kid on the planet not to connect with A WRINKLE IN TIME. Maybe this is the year to give it another chance.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'm pretty lucky in that I still enjoy most of the books I loved as children. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, anything by Louis Sachar: they all still hold up for me. Some I've come to appreciate even more, such as many of L'Engle's other works, as well as some of Cynthia Voigt's.

I guess the ones I experienced most differently were the long, loooong series that I never realized were written by ghostwriters when I was young. I just thought the authors were remarkably prolific! It was rather eye-opening to flip through them and see how much certain elements were used, like the chapters describing the history of the club and introducing each of the girls in the Baby-Sitters Club series. A lot of them had cookie-cutter, template-style plots, too, which stood out to me now that I'm older and know a little about plot structure, etc. It caused such a strange disconnect between my past and present perceptions of them.

Valentina Chandler said...

A Wrinkle in Time, and From the Mixed Up Files... were my two favorite books when I was a kid. It's funny you should mention both of them.

I recently tried to re-read A Wrinkle in Time and found it couldn't hold my attention. I actually wondered if it would have been published today. Everything has to be so fast paced now.

I still love the Mixed Up Files. The story has stuck with me all my life. I still dream of running away and living in a museum! My children never appreciated it as much as I did, though.

M. G. King said...

Most of the time those favorite books still feel like old friends, and it's really fun when my kids fall in love with them too, even the ones that are overly descriptive or "slow" by today's standards.

I think some of the best stories have layers that the adult me appreciates in a way different than I did as a child. Like when I reread The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, imagining what it would be like as a parent, trying to keep your family from starving to death. I didn't understand the level of desperation when I read it as a kid -- just assumed, as a kid would, that her parents would get them through somehow.

I do roll my eyes when I try to pick up a Nancy Drew, and wonder at the nine year old me that plowed through 50 of those.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

When you have your own kids one thing you do is to find the books you loved and read them aloud to your kids (I think this phenomenon is why kids' and YA books have a longer shelf life than adult classics). The books that held up best for me were The Secret Garden and the Little House books. I think perhaps it was because they were the books that transported me to another place and time, and both of them still did that.

Anonymous said...

I actually think it has more to do with the evolution of communication with respect to fiction, and how writing all fiction has changed/evolved in different ways. I took a communications and literature course in college once that was actually a grad course they let me take to fulfill a requirement in my major. It was brutal. At the time I didn't get half of it. But I do now. And I think fiction, with regard to communication and semoitics, has evolved vastly from they way things used to be done...for lack of a better way to put it.

Even writing styles have changed. Which, I'm told, is why John Irving refuses to let anyone but his wife edit his manuscripts before they go to publication.

Lacee Hogg said...

I very much agree with you about the pacing. I just reread The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and realized how many more words YA authors used back then compared to now. They didn't mind slowing things waaaaaay down apparently.

Blayze Kohime said...

There are many books and TV shows and movies that I saw as a child and loved, but if I watch them today I wonder what I saw in them.

And there are some that I go back to and they're still awesome. There doesn't seem to be much 'in between' here either. They are either awesome or terrible.

Neil Larkins said...

The books I remember reading as a pre-teen were the Hardy Boys mysteries. I enjoyed them but thought they were dated even then (late 1950s). For example, growing up in a land-locked state - Colorado - and on the prairie, I didn't have a clue as to what a "motor launch" was when I first came upon that term. But I think I might enjoy them today. Great topic, Nathan.

angela said...

I love re-reading them :) I used to teach middle school English, and I would read many more books than necessary each year "as research". It's definitely interesting to see how the pacing has picked up, even as many of the themes have remained the same.

(Also, great link about reading The Giver. It's one that gets me every single time, and my students had such a difficult time with the ambiguous ending.)

King Family said...

Honestly, I don't ever read books I fell in love with in my younger years. I'm scared that the magic I felt will disappear, and it will no longer be "my favorite book."

abc said...

I read The Giver only just this year (I'd already graduated high school when it came out). I loved it! So moving and beautiful and dark and human.

My favorite books as an almost young adult (middle grade age, I guess) were Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia. I'm a little afraid to revisit them and have that adult perspective, but I honestly don't think I'd be frustrated by the pacing. I do believe, however, that it is questionable if they would be published today. I do think our sensibilities have changed. Not that they aren't good or that people wouldn't like them, but so much of what is put today has a hook. And so much of what I loved wasn't about the hook.

But I don't know. I defer to you on this, Nathan. This seems like your area of expertise.

I will say that my own kid has different taste than I did at her age. I was all about ghost stories and drama. She is all about dragons. We may not get to share a love for Old Dan and Little Ann or Leslie and her artistic ways.

Gretchen said...

I think older books can still be loved by today's kids. To assume differently is not giving kids enough credit.

I have taught A Wrinkle in Time to my 5th graders for the last 4 years, and they typically enjoy it and always get immersed in the story. We do read it as a "product of an era" which is an important part of the academic take, I think. They learn a bit about communism and the Cold War, so they can see the perspective the writer had and how she was influenced by her own society.

I will say, when I first taught it, I was surprised by the religious message present, which I hadn't noticed as a kid.

Love the link on The Giver article. The first time I read that one was just before teaching it to my 6th grade class. I LOVED it!! Probably more than my students did. The same was true of Walk Two Moons. I finished it feeling almost like it was equally meant for adults.

Great topic, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

There were so many series I loved as a child, like THE BLACK STALLION, THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW, and THE FAMOUS FIVE. When I look at them now, I cringe and can't believe how badly written they are.

Learning to hone my craft has taken almost all the pleasure out of reading for me.

Anonymous said...

you had me at .. "wrinkle" - love this post

Anonymous said...

I agree with everyone else here, that Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beverly Cleary esp. have held up well. I can remember devouring Enid Blyton books by the dozen as a child, Famous Five, Secret Seven, etc. When I re-read one again as an adult I was shocked frankly, there's no doubt in my mind they wouldn't get past a publisher today.

There are correlations in movie-making as well. Movie makers have had to up the pace of movies, and make everything more exciting.

In editing my book, my writing partner kept urging me to delete quiet moments and 'keep the tension'. Conflict & tension are the holy grail of writers these days.

Yvette Carol

Sarah said...

I re-read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books a couple of years ago when I was living in the Middle East. They were great when i read them as a child in London from about 1968 onwards and they are still great. The only thing that is different is my take on it - their encounters with the American Indians and how the family lugged their own domestic "fetish" (the little china shepherdess from back East) over miles of strange landscape - but wherever they set her up on the shelf Pa had carved, they had their home and their civilisation.

Megan said...

One book series which has changed for the better, to me is THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. I find the books ever so enchanting each time I read them. I still tear up at the very end. I believe some books/ series have more depth when you read them as an adult. It doesn't have to be a negative change either.

Miriam Joy said...

There are definitely children's books that seem different now. Though I'm only 16, so I'm part of a younger generation, I've read a lot of the same books as my parents read when they were kids, in the original 3/6d editions ;)

I think part of the changes are to do with the characters, though. Children who are the protagonists in modern children's books are going to be desensitised to events thanks to television, so can cope with larger-scale events. And they're going to be more informed about the world thanks to TV and the internet, so I think there'll be a larger scope for stories. Plus, their lives are so different - there's less of the playing in the woods thanks to paranoid parents and the attractions of indoor activities. The set up is therefore going to be different, and thus the plot will take completely different directions to the way it would have worked in the past.

Will Overby said...

I've not been disappointed when re-reading the old classics. Whether it's Mixed-up Files, the Little House books, or even (cringe) The Bobbsey Twins, I still get that same excitement I had when experiencing them for the first time. Reading those old books is kind of like a psychological reboot to erase my adult stress and cynicism.

editorialeyes said...

I loved From the Mixed up Files...I read it a while ago and was struck by what an Amber Alert situation this is. As a kid I just thought it would indeed be awesome to secretly live in a museum. As an adult, I think about how terrified the parents must have been for their kids to be gone that long!

Anne of Green Gables is a series I still re-read every few years, and I'm always struck by the bits of early-twentieth-century racism that I never noticed as a kid. Several unflattering things said about Indigenous folk, and Lucy Maude apparently really didn't think much of French Canadians. They're pretty much always described as lazy, stupid, fat, untrustworthy, or some combination thereof.

The later books are also surprisingly unfeminist. Anne fits perfectly well into the time she was written, of course, but for those of us who came to Anne through the CBC movies first, where Anne works because she likes to and never settles for anything less than perfection, it's a bit shocking to modern sensibilities that in the books, the second she marries Gilbert she gives up her job, moves away from the town she loves so he can set up a medical practice, and happily tends his house and bears his children.

Anonymous said...

There were books I was supposed to relate to as a child. My mother gave me my first "novel:" Little Women. I was so depressed after reading it. I had no idea why she would do that to me. She loved it. I hated it. All that self-sacrifice. Yuck.

Nancy Drew / and Sunnybrook Farm novels, even as a child, bored me to tears - even then I recognized them as perky formula novels.

I -not soon enough- gravitated towards science fiction - now THAT was interesting to me -even if sometimes I did have to wade through all the mucky world building to find out where the world was.

It seems to me that YA has gotten a LOT more interesting.I read it today often.And, there is something about "coming of age" that I believe many of us can continually relate to (if it's written in a literate, humorous, or non-valley girl way - and please no more girls going "squee" every other paragraph)in that that's a timeless kind of major transition period, one that we can relate to or that can supports our understanding throughout our life.

I loved A Wrinkle in Time.I loved her sense of the spiritual and also her adult ways of not dimming down in children's literature. I admit I haven't read it in a while though.

Ayn Rand, however, who impressed me -and lots of other women- in my twenties,feels sooooo dated.

And for many, many years, I have some books I will reread again and again. One important one for me is "The Courage To Create" by Rollo May. I consider that required reading every five years.

Mirka Breen said...

The HP Phenomenon is part of the change: Adults lauded the wonderfulness of the lengthening of MG. But they failed to notice that young readers lost all patience for leisurely passages and beautiful prose. Plot must be tight like clingy jeans, with not a sentence (or horror- a paragraph) that do not advance the plot.
It isn’t just us who have changed- the styles have too, along with readers and young editors’ expectations.

lucidkim said...

Yes, usually what sticks out to me is the role of women in the books. I'm struck by it not only because it's often appalling, but also because as a kid I never once thought it was odd. For example, I loved the Mushroom Planet books - but the mom is basically reduced to a person who cooks and cleans. I just recently read The Mixed-Up Files book to my daughter and it held up ok to me - although the adult in me could not enjoy it nearly as much since the idea of my kids running away from home was a horrifying idea. I don't really enjoy the Nancy Drew books - even though she's supposedly a strong, independent woman the books still seem to have a backasswards view of women.

Ti said...

I think the books I cherished as a child had the deepest influence on me, so that when I go back and re-read them, they continue to resonate. The L'Engle books are some of these. My favorite novel is The Last Unicorn, for its portrayal of regret and the irrevocable.

I am always amazed at the Christian overtones that pervade C. S. Lewis books (and, to a lesser extent, L'Engle books). I know everyone says that, but I think, as a Jewish kid, I was particularly oblivious to the religious subtext.

I didn't read The Giver until I was an adult. I thought it was good, but I don't think it haunted me the way it would have if I had read it when I was younger. Same with Ender's Game.

I've been wanting to re-read The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare and see if it holds up after all this time.

Carrie-Anne said...

Some of the childhood/preteen favorites I've revisited as an adult hold up very well, while I wonder what I ever saw in others. I read Lois Lenksi's Strawberry Girl something like 20 times in a row in 4th grade, but as an adult, I found so many issues with the writing and the plot. The same held true for Patricia Clapp's Constance. How did I never notice how unrealistic it was for a teen girl of the 17th century to act like some silly 20th century flirt or for 5 guys to fall for her during the book?

Carolyn Haywood's B Is for Betsy really annoyed me. Betsy and everyone around her is so cloying, and wherever they live obviously hasn't been hit by the Great Depression. (The book came out in 1939.) What first grader would've called her parents Mother and Father, or said things like "Ooh, I'm so sorry I was naughty! I don't like being naughty"? The "naughty" behavior was laughable, like not eating her oatmeal and refusing to wear galoshes. That Betsy, such a first grade rebel!

I do like how older children's books tend to be longer, with more episodic structure, not so fast-paced and plot-centric that things like character development and beautiful language fall by the wayside. One childhood favorite that held up really well for me was Judy Delton's Kitty series, about a young girl going to Catholic school in St. Paul during the 1940s. I enjoyed it even more as an adult, because I appreciated all the touches of the era even more.

Rose Auslander said...

The Little Prince by Antoine D'Exupery was one of my favorite books as a kid, and it's only grown more important with time. It cuts through to what matters -- taking the time to walk to a well for a drink of water, knowing how to reassure a flower, being able to tell a snake from a hat.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rose. It's especially helpful to be able to tell a snake from a hat. (Whew!)

Virginia said...

Saddest re-read ever: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Re-reading it was sort of a coming-of-age moment when I realized that things that were wonderful to me as a child can lose their glow.

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

Makes me wonder how our grandchildren will feel about Harry Potter. ;)

Being in possession of a very high tolerance for meandering plots and cheesiness, I'm rarely less impressed by an old kids' book when I re-read it as an adult. A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels can still make me cry. Lewis' Narnia books are even more fun now that I recognize the symbolism and am familiar with the mythology. (At seven, I had no idea who Bacchus and the Maenads were.) Little Women will be part of me forever even if I never read it again.

What I miss about those old days is that as a writer, you were allowed to be more innocent in theme and more adult in voice and perspective. I love me some Percy Jackson, but my own young characters tend to come out more like Sara Crewe. Could Sara Crewe sell nowadays? It's hard to say.

Finally, I read The Giver for the first time this past year. I wondered at how much logical impossibility she got away with, but was just floored by the breathtaking sympathy and relevance of Jonas. Also, I sobbed off all my mascara. Possibly some eyelashes, too. Sheesh.

Mira said...

Occasionally, I'll re-read a children's book and it will lose its magic. But usually, I look past whatever is dated, and can still feel moved by it.

I've also had the strange experience of re-reading a children's book, disliking it and feeling I've out grown it, only to read it again years later, and fall in love all over again.

Go figure. :)

Great topic, Nathan. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved Enid Blyton as a child . . . and after many years have read them again to my children - and loved them still :)

Katherine Traylor said...

I've read some that disappointed me in retrospect, and some that impressed me even more as an adult. Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles stand up really well (I know they're not old, but I was a kid when they came out). Robert C. O'Brien's The Silver Crown was also a pleasant surprise: I remembered it as being very weird, but it's actually beautiful, with a lyrical fairy-tale voice and a very unusual story.

Craft is craft, I think. If you can spin a good yarn, but don't pay but attention to style and structure, you may well get away with it for awhile, but your stories might not hold up when the idiom changes. Classics are classics because they have both craft and story. : )

Anonymous said...

Tuck Everlasting gets better every time I read it, and my middle-school writing students usually love it, too. Charlotte's Web is, in my experience, equally timeless, and paced more like today's MG novels, in my opinion (not a lot of meandering--although White's Trumpet of the Swan seemed full of long-winded speeches when I reread it to my kids). Also, I loved Eleanor Cameron's The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and found it equally charming as an adult (so did my kids) because it celebrated the universal childhood joy of discovery via innovation and fearlessness. Lastly, I must mention The Giving Tree, which is my favorite picture book to read and to use for a teaching tool. The Giving Tree embeds many layers of understanding for kids, so that the book becomes more meaningful as the reader matures. What starts out for the youngest, most literal readers as a story about the nature of friendship and giving will later become a parable about the ever-giving friendship of Nature itself--a friendship not fully appreciated or respected by humans.

Based on what everyone said in the comments above, I think that books that age like fine wine for us AND appeal to today's kids are the canon-worthy titles. Perhaps the Newbery award submissions should be judged by a multigenerational panel?

Plus, something that no one said so far is that rereading books we loved as kids benefits not only our own writing and understanding of trends in literature, but also our self-understanding: we learn so much about who we were via what we treasured as kids; and we should focus on what we are surprised to have once adored, for those surprises can reveal so much about how we, personally, have evolved into our adult selves. If I were a therapist, I'd assign my patients the task of rereading an old childhood favorite book as a means of remembering what moved them and WHY it did.

Now back to my own attempts at timeless writing for kids...

Thanks, Nathan, for evoking so many useful thoughts!

Susan L. Lipson said...

Oops, I didn't want to be anonymous, in the 1:02 post above. I am Susan L. Lipson, and I'm always happy to connect with other readers of Nathan's great blog.

Mira said...

I'll share that I'm just finishing The Phantom Tollbooth for the upteenth time. It gets more delightful every time I read it.

Will said...

I've been delighted to find as I grow older that the books I read as a child have more to say to me now than they did then. Or perhaps I just still enjoy a good story for story's sake. C.S. Lewis wrote an essay "On Juvenile Tastes," arguing that treating certain stories as "children's" stories and others as "adult's" is harmful or useless: "Fashions in literary taste come and go among the adults, and every period has its own shibboleths. These, when good, do not improve the taste of children, and, when bad, do not corrupt it; for children read only to enjoy. Of course their limited vocabulary and general ignorance makes some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movements, and literary revolutions."

Kentish Janner said...

Enid Blyton books can make for some slightly uncomfortable reading these days, with their just-dancing-on-the-line colonial racism and 'fifties sexism and class snobbery. If you can ignore all of that though, the actual stories are still pretty good.
I remember loving Little Women as a child, but reading it back now it seems quite saccharine and a bit preachy. I still LOVE Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass though. And it's only since re-reading The Rose and the Ring that I realised how many subtleties I missed as a child.

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