And the Curse of Cam Jansen
As a person with a primary-school-aged human in my care, summer break looms, and with it, the prospect of summer reading. After a conference with my kids’ teachers, I got handed a list of suggested books, alongside the obligatory admonition that he needs to read every day, all summer long. I scanned all four pages front and back and thought, Jesus wept.
Options for my kid’s reading level seem to be mostly multi-book series featuring a stultifying array of child sleuths, “spunky” characters struggling with the trials and tribulations and school and home life, quirky opposites-attract friendship pairs of either the human-human, human-animal, or animal-animal persuasion dealing with minor interpersonal dilemmas, denizens of peculiar boarding schools and magic treehouses, or stilted nonfiction written with either the flair of informational brochures or the frantic, doomed energy of someone hired to outcompete Wikipedia. And then there are the ever-present product placement/character tie-in/superhero options.
The reading specialist saw my face and sighed. “I know,” she said. “There’s just not that many great options out there for kids this age.”
What, you may exclaim. How can that be? Thousands of books published each year! Millions sold! Some must be great?
Sure! There are some, and many do indeed have plucky child sleuths, charming odd-couple animals, and beguiling magical adventures. (Hello, Harriet! We love you, Frog and Toad! Hey there, Skunk and Badger! William Steig 4-ever! Nancy Willard is a slept-on genius! Joan Aiken for the win! The Superpower Field Guides are a complete delight!). Still, the ratio of wonderful to not is alarmingly high. In so many book stores and libraries, the early reader section is a dispiriting mess (and too often, “classics” are segregated away on separate shelves, as if they aren’t there to be read by actual children). After the manifold glories of the picture book realm (which, to be fair, is also larded with junk), young humans are consigned to a howling wilderness of truly not-great books. Weirdly, a surprising number of these books are familiar to me from my own childhood. They weren’t great then, and they aren’t great now. (It’s truly astonishing that so very little new and excellent for young readers has arrived on the scene in the last 30-some years considering that kids this age are expected to plow through oodles of books.)
Waiting for this installment: Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Zombie Young Readers Series that WILL NOT DIE.
Kids spend hours reading narrative cardboard, slogging through shelves of filler to build the skills needed to sneak into the real party, where you finally get to read the books that set your hair on fire. It’s no wonder so many never “like” reading. Who would?! No one should have to spend years running a gauntlet of literary inanity.
I suppose some kids must like these books, or at least, not mind them. But even so, if the goal is for kids to actually enjoy reading and keep reading, they deserve more than what they are getting. So writers, a plea: Write more excellent books for young humans. Because kids are, in fact—surprise!—humans: weird, funny, interested and interesting people with an array of sensibilities. They are not “kids,” monolithic demographic and indiscriminate lovers of Kid Products(TM). They are also not undiscerning vessels for profit-oriented word sludge. And (delightfully) they don’t need the same boring adult genres dumbed down and passed backward to them. It’s an open field, glimmering with possibilities, dotted with daisies, for anyone interested in writing wise, wry, funny, sad, clever, magical books.
Anyway, if you, too, have spent several years surveying the young reader scene and recoiling in despair, here is my working list of chapter(ish) books for humans between the ages of 6ish and 8ish that we have enjoyed reading. I’ll add to it as I think of more, along with notes on the books as I find the time (hahahaha). And if you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.
Moving on to books I’ve read lately:
Walter de la Mare, HENRY BROCKEN: HIS TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES IN THE RICH, STRANGE, SCARCE-IMAGINABLE REALMS OF ROMANCE: My kid is right on the blurry edge of understanding what’s real but believing in the reality of what’s imagined. I remember that feeling fondly, the sense of wild possibilities. That a nickel picked up on the sidewalk or a pebble with a hole might turn out to be a wishing charm, that an unusual wind might ruffle a curtain in time and let me step into some peculiar parallel world. And part of it, too, was the feeling that the characters I met in books were so vivid they must be somehow really real, living in some elsewhere place. It added an extra layer of wonderfulness to reading, because a little part of me believed in it in that way. And that’s the the premise of this book. Henry Brocken half believes that the characters he has loved in fiction must actually exist, and one day, riding on his uncle’s horse, Dulcinea (IYKYK), he finds himself in a subtly sinister realm beyond the reaches of the ordinary where Jane Eyre and Rochester, Sleeping Beauty and Gulliver, not to mention the peoples of Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream live in a sort of suspended reality, their stories over or half-told. As his journey grows more extreme and fantastic, he faces a life-altering temptation, leaving the reader to question whether knowing how the story ends is really a gift after all.
Doris Payne with Zelda Lockhart, DIAMOND DORIS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST NOTORIOUS JEWEL THIEF: As a teenager, Doris Payne discovered a knack for shoplifting and the allure of gems, so she set out to become a world-class jewel thief—a skill she honed and parlayed for sixty-some years, stealing millions of dollars worth of jewelry. It’s a rare feat made even more extraordinary by the fact that as a Black woman, Payne automatically faced enhanced attention and overt racism everywhere she went. This as-told-to tale traces her life, from her 1930s-40s-era childhood in West Virginia through her days living a dual life in Cleveland, jetting all over the country and the world to nab rings but returning to her home base in Shaker Heights, where her local connections with the city’s organized crime syndicates led to love and business and allowed her to support her mother and children. It’s an engaging and pulpy read, but there are great big gaps in time, and sometimes I wished for a little more context and descriptions, especially about the ins-and-outs of Cleveland’s vibrantly seedy mid-century underworld. (Payne spent most of her life in Shaker Heights, just down the road from me.)
George MacDonald, THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN: I stumbled across the fantasy stories of George MacDonald as a kid, intrigued by the titles (AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND; THE LIGHT PRINCESS). MacDonald was a Scottish minister writing in the 1800s—perhaps not the most likely author to appeal to a child of the 1980s, but he said he wrote, “not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” That is what caught me, I think, the feeling that his books, beyond the beautiful titles, had more going on in them than I could immediately access. Part of that comes from how MacDonald’s deep Christianity infuses the worlds he conjures—THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN is very much about questions of faith and doubt—but part is MacDonald’s generous and radical humanity. In his books, children and adults are spiritual equals. THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN is the story of two children: Irene, a princess kept locked away in a secure castle, and Curdie, a miner who works alongside his father in surrounding the mountains. By accident, Curdie learns that the goblins who live in the mountains plan to steal Irene, and in trying to protect her, he is trapped, and Irene must rescue him, though how she does it makes Curdie think she has lied to him, until he realizes the truth by taking a leap of faith. It’s a twisty tale that doesn’t bend into an expected shape, with strange and beautiful moments. And I love that the goblins’ downfall is their sensitive feet.
Edward Eager, HALF MAGIC: The story goes that Eager could not find books to read so his son, so he started writing his own (then as now, ha). In this one, four ordinary kids living in Toledo, Ohio, sometime in the 1920s (or before the talkies) face the prospect of a boring summer when they find what appears to be a nickel on the sidewalk, only, of course, it is not a nickel, but a magic talisman that grants wishes. The catch? It only grants half of the wish. Nutty adventures ensue, including small fires, a stint in the Sahara desert, and an unfortunate encounter with Sir Lancelot. It is very indebted to the wayward wish-making E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It (something Eager acknowledges) and it was written in 1954, so there are points to discuss, notably a cartoonishly racist depiction of an Arab trader and some ambient sexism (though I think Eager’s depiction of his female characters, who are complex, clever, resourceful, brave, and stubborn, effectively undercut that). For those reasons, though, this is one that might be better to read aloud together than to hand to a kid to read on their own.
Blogging: Gifts for mothers.
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