The way we were
Why are adult readers so drawn to children's literature? A lavish new Norton anthology suggests some answers.
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE is big business, as J.K. Rowling's phenomenal success makes clear. To be big business, it has to appeal to adults, since even if we think we're buying it for our children and not ourselves, we buy them what we can imagine loving, often what we ourselves once loved, and even love still.
But the publication of the new "Norton Anthology of Children's Literature"-a volume as gorgeous as the wonders it promises its readers, both child and adult-reminds us of a melancholy truth about growing up: Our adult delight in children's literature is not an innocent delight. As adult readers of children's stories, we're aware, as children are not, that their robust confidence in the world, at least while they are enraptured by a story, is ephemeral and fragile, endangered by every step they take toward adulthood. For us, the child becomes almost another character in the story, responding with a wonderfully heedless delight or dismay to things as unreal as the adult world she imagines. But we know what's coming, how evanescent the child's world is-and we feel for her what she cannot possibly feel for herself.
If all poetic faith is, as Coleridge called it, "the willing suspension of disbelief," in reading children's literature we suspend disbelief, on the child's behalf, in the permanence of the world. But we know that this suspension is itself impermanent.
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The contents of the Norton Anthology, comprising mainly writings in English, are divided into various types, ranging from fairy tales to alphabet and conduct books to science fiction to comics to nursery rhymes and nonsense verse. But rather than categorize the works collected here by genre, we can usefully modify the Roman poet Horace's dictum on poetry-that it should instruct or delight-to arrive at two or possibly three kinds of children's literature.
There is, first of all and most balefully, literature written by adults to instruct children-that is, to educate or lead them out of childhood (the root meaning of educate is "to lead out"). But unless the pill is well-sugared, as in, for example, C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series, no one-neither adults nor children-wants to read literature that has this kind of design on its readers. Lewis himself (who is not in the anthology) is a perfect example of a writer whom adults enjoy less than children do-because we see more of what he is up to, and often don't like it. Lewis, one senses, wants to make children feel guilty and depraved, to see themselves as wicked-for example, in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," where children are supposed to recognize Edmund's selfishness and greed in themselves. But fortunately they don't, and we can take pleasure in their insouciant obliviousness to this moralizing.
The second kind of children's literature is more appealing: literature in which adults try to enter into the experience of their audience by undertaking the work of remembering what it was like to be a child. Although a good storyteller, Lewis wasn't particularly good at that. But other British writers were, including E. Nesbit, represented in the Norton by "The Phoenix and the Carpet"; Rudyard Kipling, represented by "Stalky & Co." and one of his "Just-So Stories"; and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose "A Child's Garden of Verses" is reprinted in its entirety in the anthology. We might add American cartoonist Bill Watterson-whose "Calvin and Hobbes" strip isn't in the Norton but was just published in a complete edition-since no one better than Watterson understands the point of view of a lively and lonely 9-year-old.
A third possible category, the oral traditions handed down from older to younger children, might be the truest version of children's literature-except that much of it wouldn't be written down at all if it weren't for the work of Iona and Peter Opie, those anthropologists of the playground whose seminal works "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" and "The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" read like the discovery of a new continent. These nonsense rhymes, like "How many miles to Babylon?" or "Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross"-both of which are in the new Norton-survived for centuries (Banbury Cross was destroyed in 1601) without the aid of any adult.
Dr. Seuss, whose work belongs to all three categories and appears in Norton, could only be truly successful in the first, pedagogical undertaking because he had a powerful sense of children's experience from their own point of view-which meant that moral prescription wasn't his prime goal. The same could be said about Charles M. Schulz's comic strip "Peanuts" (which is not included in the anthology). But of course Seuss and Schulz were grown-ups who remembered intensely what it was like to be a child, but who could also see how fragile and ephemeral that experience was. Their characters are frequently bewildered, but they see or think they see how things could go better. This reassures children, who crave and fear anarchy: In the world of Schulz and Seuss the anarchy is always more or less set right, and the bewilderment resolved. But for adults, they depict what we'd almost forgotten: our first, imperceptible introduction to the irresolvable experiences of adulthood.
Freud says of jokes that we like them because they remind us of childhood, and of what it was like to be happy in our lives. This is an odd thing for the analyst of childhood pain and unhappiness to say, but it captures the same thing that Watterson does in "Calvin and Hobbes": the adult's knowledge of unhappiness in the child's experience that the child herself is unaware of. If this kind of literature appeals to both kids and adults, it's because the adults know that the kids aren't aware of the melancholy shadow already being cast by life.
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All great children's literature reminds adults of the ephemerality of childhood. It does so because it is written by and for adults thinking hard about their own lost childhoods even as they interact with real children.
One of the finest less familiar figures in Norton's anthology is the British Romantic poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who was highly influential on Coleridge and Wordsworth. Childless herself, she adopted a niece and ran a school and wrote extraordinary poems about her own childhood (not included by Norton), as well as about the political issues of the day. Her attitude towards children was not schoolmarmish but intensely sympathetic. The paradox is that intense sympathy isn't and needn't be a part of the child's experience. We don't want children to notice it.
Such sympathy is the fruit of deep introspection. The Romantic writers learned to take their own childhood selves as a model for the experience of childhood. They saw in themselves how they had changed, and they saw that change as the experience of life itself. Yet, as Wordsworth put it, recollections of early childhood give intimations of immortality, because the sorrow and sympathy one feels for a lost archaic self are so direct and childlike that one feels the loss of childhood as a child would feel it, and this means that the loss isn't total.
What can make children's literature great is that it makes us think more consciously about what it was once like to respond as a child to literature, and what it must be like now for the child-reader implied by the book. For the adult reader, this child becomes another character we imagine and respond to and feel for, even or especially when the child isn't feeling what we are. Unlike so many characters we have later learned are fictional-Santa Claus, Cinderella, even, alas, Christopher Robin-we know the child-reader is real, at least for now.
This is a point made even more poignant by Stevenson in "A Child's Garden of Verses." In its last poem, "To Any Reader," he says of the child whom the reader might try to call to when she sees him, "through the windows of this book," playing all alone in a remote and Eden-like garden:
He does not hear, he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.
For Stevenson, children play and adults read. What moves adults most, in one way or another, is reading about children, both those who are still at play and those who are already lost in a book, trained in their alphabets and able to read, like the grown-ups they are well on their way to becoming and the children we still are.
William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis University.