Sunday, November 23, 2008

Children's Classics

Jody Bottum has an essay at First Things on children's classics. I find much of the argument mystifying, a sign that Bottum and I have very different tastes and standards in this area. (It is an interesting question, though, why, of all the many Robinsonades, The Swiss Family Robinson has done so well. And I think in this regard it has benefited from the fact that it was not written to be published, and therefore was not written to fit any expectations about what it should involve. Jules Verne, a much better writer in general than Wyss, wrote several Robinsonades; despite his ingenuity, they pale in comparison, because The Swiss Family Robinson is not just a Robinsonade: it subtly combines realism with sheer fantasy. Verne writes his Robinsonades to underline the engineering ability of the human mind; but Wyss's family finds a way to use sea turtles as boat motors. In Verne you get people who overcome a real wilderness. You get the idea of what Wyss's wilderness is from the fact that the family is greeted to the island by penguins and flamingoes, and this is one of the least improbable conjunctions in the book.)

Bottum argues that we are living in a golden age of children's literature:

J.K. Rowling’s success doesn’t just give us a recent series to add as an incidental to the received canon. It also gives us a chance to rewrite the entire list of classic children’s books we’re all supposed to know—for Rowling makes visible the fact that we are actually living now in a golden age of children’s ­literature.

This strikes me as a immensely improbable. There are certainly some good, readable works around; but in the majority of cases it is difficult to say whether this is because they are good works or because they fit our tastes well. A golden age for children's literature is measured by its classics -- and a classic is something that can be read over and over again, even while the tastes of society change. Our era is good at producing books sufficiently to people's taste that they can be read over and over again; but whether they can survive changes in taste is another question. Whether we are really producing any children's classics is a question that will only be settled for sure long after any of us are dead. But the odds are rather considerably against us to begin with, and our ships of the line exhibit failings that may eventually founder them: Rowling is fun, but much of the fun has to do with her playing on features of contemporary life that may change; Pullman is striking, but he has a taste for moral themes whose appeal may well require a very peculiar sort of culture, one very much like ours; Lemony Snicket is clever, but the cleverness, like Rowling's fun, plays on features of our life and culture. Of course we find ourselves charming, and there have been some excellent writers to display ourselves to ourselves in the most charming lights. But whether or not we produce any real children's classics will depend heavily on whether other people can find us charming. It is not so very clear that they will.

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