Thursday, December 19, 2013

nostalgic over kid lit

Came across this piece of publishing news today: "...nostalgia is one of the main driving forces behind the rising juvenile fiction sales in Poland."

Awww. Is it because it's Christmas season that everyone's getting all sentimental? Whatever the reason, it's sweet that people are going back to their literary first loves. There's just something about children's fiction that is so comforting, like you know you're in safe hands, even though you may be swept away to foreign lands and meet terrifying villains and mean children.

What books did you read when you were young? And by young I mean below 13 or before secondary/high school. For me, these books kept me well-entertained in the pre-Internet age:

1. The Doomspell trilogy, by Cliff McNish

I remember how the Doomspell trilogy kept me glued to the pages when I first read it when I was 12. I finished the first book in a day, curled up in the couch and completely entranced. This was the first fantasy series that had ever rendered me useless in the face of a compelling story. Others came along, but you never forget the first one.

2. Double Act, by Jacqueline Wilson

It's about this pair of twins who are polar opposites of each other in personality, and how they deal with the changes in their family and their lives, drift apart and find each other at the end of it all. It was the first Jacqueline Wilson book I'd ever read and also my favourite, although her others. I remember this awful story I wrote when I was 13, which mimicked Wilson's writing style, back when I was still trying out different voices and find my own. I threw it out along with my diaries I'd kept since I was 11, as well as the very first "novel" I wrote for a contest. Still, it was fun experimenting with different writing styles.

3. Island of the Aunts, by Eva Ibbotson

Oh, Eva Ibbotson. She's this wicked lovely blend of Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. Her stories are thrilling without being too sinister, with characters innocent but not naive, and her writing style is the sort that makes me nostalgic for kid lit. I can't describe it. You know how you read a children's book and sort of smile to yourself because the voice of the narrator is so friendly and engaging without being too mollycoddle-y? It treats the young reader as sensible and smart, but doesn't wreck his or her innocence. Island of the Aunts was the first book of hers I'd read, and remains my absolute favourite.

4. Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren

She's the first strong, smart and feisty heroine I'd come across in a book. Being raised on a steady diet of Disney films (I re-watched Sleeping Beauty almost everyday - hey, we didn't have Internet back then), Pippi Longstocking was a culture shock. She didn't hang around waiting for her prince to come, or loiter in forests singing with woodland animals, or ogle at cute boys on ships. Okay, so Belle from Beauty and the Beast wasn't so bad, but she was locked up too many times for my liking, first by the beast and then by Gaston. But Pippi was in a league of her own. I wanted to be her sidekick and get strung along on her adventures (because I was too chicken to go on adventures on my own, like her).

5. (More) Tales from Fairyland, by Enid Blyton

Personally, I think no kid lit list is complete without good old Enid Blyton. It is mind-boggling that kids these days don't know of her. Hello? She's a kid lit classic! There may be people who think her stories are too morally-righteous and repetitive, but she was the first author I remember reading (just before I entered primary school, if memory serves me well). My dad recommended her to me and bought me The Lost Beads, which was the first of her books I'd ever read. And her stories are so charming and delightful.

6. A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I think I read it when I was 9? I identified with the main character because she was really close to her dad, and the story is about the days after her dad's untimely death and her chronicles in the boarding school she was subsequently sent to.

7. The Witches, by Roald Dahl
Yup. I've yet to find someone who doesn't like Roald Dahl. (Don't you just hate it, by the way, when pushy mothers squawk, "Read Ronald Dahl! Read Ronald Dahl!" at their kids in bookstores? Like, back off, woman, and get the pronunciation right.) I LOVE The Witches. It was just the right blend of sinister and exciting and sweetness. The BFG is a close second, along with Matilda. But The Witches hit all the right notes with its creepiness. My favourite chapter was the one around the beginning, where the narrator's grandmother taught him how to distinguish a witch from normal women. Delicious writing.

8. And of course, Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Of course. I picked Order of the Phoenix because it's my favourite of all the seven. Mostly because it's the longest and I got to hang out with the characters more and linger in the wizarding world longer, and also because there is action and emotion and character quirks and interaction building up to the climax that made the scene at the Ministry of Magic all the more heart-wrenching. Plus, the Weasley twins giving their best fuck-you to Umbridge. Nothing can top that. (In my head, Fred is still alive and having the time of his life managing Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes with George.)

I could go on and on with this list, but I think children's books that sprouted even after I'm "too old" for them are also worth a mention. I completely do not buy into the whole "too old for children's book" spiel literary snobs like to give. Kid lit is definitely not inferior to adult lit - it requires just as much effort and skill to craft a story that will entice young readers and keep them glued until the very last page. To think that adult lit is a more worthwhile form of literature than kid lit - or in fact, any form of literature is superior to others - is to undermine readers of the latter.
And really, where does anyone get off deciding what is the right thing to read at a certain age? With so many distractions nowadays, we should be glad children are still reading at all. It's so common to see kids glued to their smart phones and gadgets these days that to find one kid who reads* while he is walking makes me ridiculously happy. So happy I almost asked to take a photo with him.**
*(He was reading Bridge to Terabithia, if you're curious. Yes, I peeked.)
**(I didn't, eventually, mostly because I was afraid it might deter the kid from reading in public ever again.)
Anyway, my point is, you are never too old for kid lit, just like:

There are so many lovely children's books these days that I wish I were a kid again and discovering them the way I had discovered the above books. 
Here are some recommendations, along with one from my To-Read pile (which, at last count, has hit the ceiling at 156 books):
1. The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart

Who it's for: the kid who loves solving puzzles and fantasizes about going on adventures. It's a little on the long side, but it's like Order of the Phoenix, such a fun read you'd rather it kept going on. 

2. Wildwood, by Colin Meloy

I read this one a while back, but I think it's about this pair of children who venture into Wildwood, another world of its own - nay, a kingdom - ruled by animals, because the girl's baby brother was abducted or something. Fun read, reminiscent of The Mysterious Benedict Society. Only with animals that talk.
3. Drift House, by Dale Peck

Read it, loved it, and later found it in the National Library book sale, yay!

4. From my To-Read pile, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, by Maryrose Wood 

Children's books sure have prettier cover designs these days. Not that those in the past were awful, but I mean look at the cover illustrations! So cute. Can't wait to read this!

So what books did you read when you were young, and what children's books are you still reading now?

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