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Not kidding around with kids’ books

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.


I have loved books since I was a very small child. I clearly remember my parents teaching me to read as I sat on their laps and slowly sounded out words from semi-awful Step-into-Reading books. Once I got past that rudimentary process, however, I discovered books that thrilled my mind and sparked my creativity. There were certain books that I loved when I was a child and, as an adult, I have returned to a lot of them. I was shocked to discover when I returned that these books that I had adored as a child were still really awesome books.

There are some really fantastic children’s books out there that are so great because, while being written with diction meant for children, they still resonate with adults and they don’t speak down to their target audience.

One of my favorites is actually not a book but a series of books; I love “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. The seven novels, published between 1950 and 1956, recount the adventures of various children as they find themselves mystically transported to this fantasy world: Narnia. As the children grow up, they are replaced with new characters and, while this would usually hurt a series, it strengthens “Narnia” because no one gets stale. (Spoiler: Nearly all the Pevensie children of the first book do return for “The Last Battle.”) While in Narnia, the children always have to battle some bad guy and save the people.

Now there is a heated debate among Lewis fans concerning the order in which the books should be read. Some argue order of publication while others argue chronological order. I don’t feel I can write about these books without weighing in. Publication order—plain and simple. They were published that way for a reason. (For those of you willing to read these books despite your advanced age, that means this order: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”; “Prince Caspian”; “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”; “The Silver Chair”; “The Horse and His Boy”; “The Magician’s Nephew”; then “The Last Battle.”) Beginning with “The Magician’s Nephew” gives away a lot of secrets that make the first five books so entertaining. It’s like flipping to read the last page of a book (something not done in polite society).

These books remain so lovable because every time you read them you get something else out of them. When I first read them, they were romps in Narnia with talking animals, cool fights and neat mystical creatures. When I got a little older I had an epiphany that went something like this: “Holy crap, Aslan’s Jesus!” Reading the books now and getting the Christian propaganda sprinkled throughout them is like playing hide-and-seek. I love it.

But enough about Mr. Lewis’ phenomenal creations; if full-on fantasy is not your thing, you may want to consider Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel “Bridge to Terabithia.” “Terabithia” focuses on two children, Jess and Leslie, who form an unlikely friendship (though not as unlikely as “Freak the Mighty”) and together create a fantasy world to play in. They use this pretend world to deal with the slings and arrows of the fifth grade and of life.

Now, I am not going to give away the ending of this book but I will say that it is shocking and will stick with you. Often children’s books try to remain uplifting and positive; Ms. Paterson recognized that the world is not all sunshine and daisies and she wrote a book letting kids know that as well. It’s well and good to be upbeat, but bad things still happen. Due to the somewhat tumultuous ending of this book, there is great debate about whether or not children should be allowed to read it. Luckily none of us are children and should have no problem reading it—in fact, give it to your younger siblings; just be on-hand to discuss it with them when they finish.

Not all children’s books find their home within a world of fantasy, either “real” or imagined. Lois Lowry’s 1989 novel “Number the Stars” is firmly grounded in reality—and a grim reality at that. “Number the Stars” is about Annemarie Johansen, a young Danish girl, whose family takes in her best friend, Ellen Rosen, in 1943 to protect the other girl from the Nazis by pretending she is a member of their family.

I have read a lot of Holocaust novels directed at children; I did after all go to a Jewish day school. This is the best Holocaust novel for children and one of the best in general. The setting allows readers to see the brutality and harshness of Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War II while being able to leave some of the more disturbing WWII facts out of the book without being inaccurate. (While plugging “Number the Stars,” I feel the need to plug another of Lowry’s books that I enjoy: “The Giver.” Just do it.)

Propelling us back to the future is Margaret Peterson Haddix’s 1995 novel “Running out of Time.” And “propelling into the future” is the proper term here. The novel features a 13-year-old girl named Jessie who has lived nearly her entire life in Indiana in the 1840s. She is a curious girl who sometimes feels closed in by the confines of her town and she desires adventure … and she gets it. When the children in her town begin to fall ill, her mother sends her out to find a doctor and get help.

And that is how Jessie steps out of the 1840s and into 1996. (This happens very early in the book; I promise I’m not giving anything away.) It turns out Jessie has been living in a historical recreation that tourists pay money to watch. She now needs to navigate this new world 150 years in the future before time runs out and the children die.

We get to follow Jessie as she learns about the world in which she could have been living, about her parents’ past decisions and about what she wants for herself for the future, whether that future is in 1996 or back in the 1840s.

Taking us back into a world of complete fantasy, Gail Carson Levine’s 1997 novel “Ella Enchanted” also provides the reader with a strong heroine. Ella of Frell is unfortunate enough to be the recipient of a “blessing” from the fairy Lucinda that she must always obey commands. Naturally that doesn’t work out so well for her. This retelling of the Cinderella story, set in a fantastical world full of fairies, ogres and hunky princes is entertaining the entire way through.

As great as Ella is, my favorite characters in the book are Hattie and Olive, her step-sisters. They are just such terrible people yet so well-written. Whenever Ella routs one of them, you cheer along with her, but, conversely, whenever Hattie does something really obnoxious to Ella, you laugh along with her, both out of real amusement and sheer disbelief. This, admittedly, is a book for girls. I don’t know if guys like this book but I don’t think they would. Also, if you have seen the movie starring Anne Hathaway and thought, “Wow, that was terrible,” just know that the movie was terrible and was nothing like the book; the director took a lot of liberties.

Lastly, Louis Sachar’s 1998 novel “Holes” was my favorite book when I was a kid. I must have read that book at least 50 times. It became a running family joke that whenever I’d ask for something to read, they’d suggest I reread “Holes” for the umpteenth time. “Holes” is very odd for a children’s book because it has a complex set-up of three stories at three different time periods, which the book switches between, and it deals with issues such as murder, revenge and racism.

The main story is that of Stanley Yelnats, a young boy who is sent off to Camp Greenlake, a misnomer as there is no lake anymore and it is not a camp but a youth detention facility. Stanley blames the family curse, which we learn about when we switch to the story of his great-grandfather Elya Yelnats. In between all this, we get to learn about Kissin’ Kate Barlow, a Wild West robber, and her exploits.

The book fits together so well that by the time you get to the end you will be saying: “Louis Sachar, thank you for blowing my mind.” I am still blown away by how cool this book is and how well-planned it was. Once you pick it up, you will not put it down until you have read it at least twice.

Also, check out Mr. Sachar’s collection of related short stories “Sideways Stories from Wayside School”; they’re a blast.

Just because these books were written for children does not mean that we, as adults, cannot enjoy them. After all, an adult wrote them and they clearly meant something to their authors, whether that something was religious belief, strength in the face of overwhelming odds or mind-blowing awesomeness.