On Reading Children’s Stories as an Adult

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Adults do read children’s stories. I’m probably the only reader in the English-speaking world, of any age, who hasn’t yet read a Harry Potter book (I know, I know, me of all people…). And I have friends who admit to having read at least one Twilight novel. They usually say in the same breath that it wasn’t very good — but I notice they keep on reading them. The Hobbit is a children’s book. I read it over and over again when I was a child, and a few times in adulthood, too. Yet I couldn’t make it through a single chapter of whichever book is the first volume of The Lord of the Rings.

Well-written children’s fantasy, or a least the kind that appeals to adults (well, to me, anyway) has a kind of dancing, twinkle-toed language that one doesn’t usually find in books for adults, fantasy or fairy tale or otherwise. I adore Angela Carter, for instance, and as I write this, I am flipping through her Collected Short Stories and thinking that I must re-read them. Her prose is beautiful, but her words are more the kind that smoulder, they don’t exactly sparkle and dance. James Thurber’s words, on the other hand, do a nice jig (his collected works are sitting next to hers on my bookshelf, which is why I bring him up).

My latest children’s book binge started about a month ago, when I spotted a mention of the Sisters Grimm series on a children’s book blog. Curious, I picked up the first book, The Fairy Tale Detectives. It’s not bad — kind of a children’s version of the Fables comic book series, and if you have tween-age children in your life who like fairy tales (or whom you want to introduce to fairy tales), this seems like a good series. It’s not exactly adult-readable, though. My first thought after finishing it was not I have to pick up the next one, but rather It’s time for me to read Coraline.

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I’d been ignoring Coraline, mostly because it is a children’s book (I only came to this epiphany about myself recently), but I have seen mentions of it go by on book blogs, and reading The Fairy Tale Detectives, for some reason, pushed me to finally start it. I’m truly sorry that I waited as long as I did. It’s creepy, it’s funny. He writes Coraline’s parents pretty much the way I would be, if I were a parent (it’s probably good that I’m not), and he writes cats exactly the way cats would be, if they could talk.

The cat yawned slowly, carefully, revealing a mouth and tongue of astounding pinkness. “Cats don’t have names,” it said.

“No?” said Coraline.

“No,” said the cat. “Now, you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know we who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Of course, I’m a dog person, so I’m probably biased.

I was especially struck to observe that Gaiman’s tone and voice in Coraline isn’t really so different from the voice he uses when he writes for adults. I’m thinking especially of “Chivalry,” which is one of my favorite of his short stories. Does that mean Gaiman has made a living all these years by fooling adults into reading children’s stories? More power to him, if he has.

After Coraline, of course I had to read The Graveyard Book. I liked that one a lot, too, though I still like Coraline better.

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About the time I finished The Graveyard Book, Anil Balan over at Ghost Cites wrote about the (adult) horror stories of the children’s author Edith Nesbit. I’d read “Man-Size in Marble” before, and Anil’s post inspired me to go fetch Nesbit’s collection Grim Tales from Project Gutenberg. After I fetched it, I noticed that I had Nesbit’s Five Children and It on my e-reader, and all that Gaiman had me wanting more, so I tackled it next. The story is about five siblings and their adventures with the Psammead, or Sand Fairy. The Psammead grants wishes — but for the children, the wishes never quite come out as they planned.

I read a few of the stories from Grim Tales at the same time, and I’m sorry, Anil, but I can totally understand why she’s better known as a children’s author. Unlike Gaiman, Nesbit’s voice is quite different in her adult fiction; her children’s book voice is rather similar to Gaiman’s, at least to me.

Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun as it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse. Yet I daresay you believe all that about the earth and the sun, and if so you will find it quite easy to believe that before Anthea and Cyril and the others had been a week in the country they had found a fairy.

I don’t actually know if I would have liked the book when I was a child; five upper-class British children growing up in a household full of servants at the beginning of the twentieth century are a bit far from my California childhood experiences. But I like it now. Five Children and It is the first book of a trilogy; the Psammead only shows up in the first book and the third, The Story of the Amulet. Amulet is on my to-read list. I will probably read Book Two at some point as well, but I like the cranky, irascible Psammead, and I want to read about him more.

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And then, right before Christmas, I finished up this binge by re-reading The Five Jars, by M. R. James. Unlike the other books, The Five Jars has an adult protagonist — probably Dr. James himself; he wrote this for Jane McBryde, the daughter of his dear friend James McBryde. The narrator discovers a box with five jars of ointments; each one gives him special enhanced senses. Naturally, there is something out there that doesn’t want him to have the jars.

It’s fantasy, not horror; the story has a few erudite references sprinkled in (it wouldn’t be James, if it didn’t), and voice-wise, it’s actually warmer than his adult writing, without feeling like he’s talking down to his reader. Many people don’t care for the distant, scholarly tone of the ghost stories, the way the narrator pieces the story together retrospectively from old documents and anecdotes. The Five Jars is first person, and is told directly by the narrator as he experienced it; it’s written as a letter to Jane. I like the book a lot; it’s a pity James didn’t write more children’s literature.

He did manage (in 1922) to envision a pretty good version of an iPad-style tablet, though.

It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder.

“That’s where I’d got to,” he said; “he’s just going out through the forest.”

I thought at the first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so “hairy in the hoof”; the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it I should see every blade of grass and every bramble-leaf.

“Ready?” said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The knight shook his rein, and the horse began to move at a foot-pace.

“Well, but he can’t hear anything, Wag,” said his father.

“I thought you wanted to be quiet,” said Wag, “but we’ll have it aloud if you like.”

He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema, you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound, and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn’t a photograph, but the live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail of it.

Fun books, all. If you feel like some light, sparkling reading, give them a try.

10 thoughts on “On Reading Children’s Stories as an Adult

    • Coraline is a lovely book, and, as I said, feels a lot like much of his fiction for adults. The Graveyard Book is good too, and I think almost counts as YA; the main character hits twelve or thirteen by the middle of the book, and he’s fifteen at story’s end.

  1. I haven’t read Potter or the Hobbit and would never dream of redaing Twilight (I like my vampires old school….evil), however I did enjoy the Graveyard Book. E Nesbit’s children’s stories are really charming with magical creatures like the Psammead in Five children and It and Roald Dahl’s stories are a real delight, he has such an insight into how rotten children really are.

    • Ah Roald Dahl! My husband I were just talking about Willie Wonka the other day. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, or seen the movies. James and the Giant Peach, either.

      I also like his adult fiction, especially the Uncle Oswald stories…

  2. I love children’s and middle-grade stories. Over Christmas break, I’ve read book 1 and 2 of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and just finished The Graveyard Book. I enjoyed very much all three of them. I’m now looking forward to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I just realized belatedly that I have read more short stories than books in 2012. Anyway, you’re not alone; I have not read a Harry Potter book myself, although the whole set is glaring at me from my sisters’ book shelf, screaming to be read. Perhaps in due time. Just the other day, before I visited your blog, I have placed in my wishlist Sisters Grimm and I’m excited to read it in the future because (just perhaps) it would prompt me to read Coraline, which I haven’t yet (though I’ve seen the animated movie). Happy new year!

    • I haven’t tried the Mysterious Benedict Society or The Night Circus yet; I’ll have to check them out.

      Coraline is a terrific book! And the Sisters Grimm is cute, too, though I didn’t like the first one as much as I liked Coraline. There is some interesting moral ambiguity in the Sisters Grimm stories (I won’t spoil it for you); I was a little surprised to see it in a children’s book, though perhaps I shouldn’t be.

      Happy New Year to you, as well!

  3. I haven’t heard of the Sisters Grimm but thanks for the rec. I love a good fantasy/fantastical horror/etc. I feel that it kick starts my own imagination especially if I am in a writerly rut. I have only read a small portion of Neil Gaiman but loved the movie adaptation of Coraline and read Stardust. In college, we even read a Sandman graphic novel. I have a feeling that 2013 will be the year of more fantastical books on Acid Free Pulp. Loved this post!

    • Thanks! Since I’ve written this, I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances come out, so to speak, about reading children’s and YA literature. For someone who likes fantasy and fantastic horror, as you put it, children’s/YA is can be a good source of quality writing, I’ve found.

      And the Sandman was great! You should try The Dream Hunters, if you haven’t read it. It’s standalone, and the illustrations are magnificent.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sandman:_The_Dream_Hunters

  4. Pingback: The Marble Child | Multo (Ghost)

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