I met the most charming adolescent in a used bookstore. He saw I was reading Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and proceeded to converse with me with astounding alacrity about Fitzgerald’s short stories, the Great Gatsby, and our shared favorite, This Side of Paradise. He was eleven, and said his father had read these before bedtime.
I’d realised immediately that I was to be outgunned by him when he is my age. He, like most of my literary friends, had gotten something of a “leg up” on me.
This encounter got me thinking about my own childhood, about the books read to me by my parents: there was the dark refulgent story by Roald Dahl entitled The Minpins that made me writhe in fear of the various beasts that stalked the forests. My dad read to me the first four books of Harry Potter. There were more, shelves full. Looking back I can see that mine was a childhood filled with books, and from the confines of the WASPy Chicago suburbs I ventured into worlds strange and strangely familiar.
It’s dawned on me that children’s books are often incredibly dark. Good Night Moon can be read as a meditation on death, and most adventure-type books always carry the tropes of defying authority, dancing with mortal peril (even if not mentioned explicitly), and the protagonist overcoming the limits of his youth and inexperience to become, through cleverness, not brute force, the hero-figure. His maturity, his grownup-ness is validated.
I used to view children’s books as an entity unto themselves. To view literature in this parallax view now seems, at least regarding more complex stories written for older children, a bit misguided on my part. In reading some of these books again, this time aloud to my cousins, I see them as microcosms of the literary world. Like training wheels on a bicycle the experience of reading (or listening to) these stories contains the intellectual potential of “real” literature; the degree of verisimilitude between “real” and children’s books is a function of simplicity, and varies inversely therein.
But this comes back to the kid I met today, who hadn’t been read a “children’s” book since he was “seven and one-half” years old. Although he lacked the knowledge-base to make claims about certain books (“Moby Dick is allegory for the English-Irish struggle,” suggested a particularly outlandish friend of mine) he was capable of discussing its central themes of greed, wrath, and vengeance, and provided several examples of each within Melville’s dreary nautical-themed oeuvre. Instead of having insights spoon-fed to him in children’s books, he elected to have a torrent of information and themes and a degree of intricacy most aren’t capable of processing until high-school directed toward him, whereupon he could pluck from these works their salient points, become articulate in the language of literary criticism, and wax poetic to me.
His father came over. A tall bespectacled man of east-coast provenance with a glint in his eye shook my hand. “My name is Jason Rowley, and I’ve had a great conversation with your son about several authors and books. He is precocious, more so than I was when I was eleven. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.” I fumbled the last bit.
“Name’s Mr. ______, but call me Andrew. Glad you had a nice chat with my son. Studying English at school?”
“Passively so, but I feign literary competence more often than not.”
“Where’d you say you [went to school]?”
“University of Chicago.”
“Tough place, my brother went there. I’m a Harvard man myself.”
And he was.