‘When I was a child, I had a fleeting glimpse’

chocolatewarBeen thinking for some reason about books I read as a kid. I got into reading early and became a Ben Hanscom trekking to the library in the Derry that I grew up in. I have an image of that library as a warm, silent beacon in the dark of the town. Silence is expensive. Noise is cheap.

I began reading books written specifically for kids before picking up a Stephen King book and getting on to the hard stuff of adulthood. Before that, I read all the classic children’s books, Enid Blyton, E Nesbitt and all that, Tintin and Asterix. Literary critics have remarked on the nastiness of bestselling children’s authors. King has said that it’s easy to upset little kids, easy to make them cry, and that the best children’s writers have always known this and fed on it. You remember Bluebeard’s room long after the happy ending – what was the happy ending, by the way?

True, a lot of the Blyton stuff was propaganda with a nasty edge, even I could see that at the time. The contemporary novels by Paula Danziger and Judy Blume were the same, in a different way – the story is built around an issue, like drugs and divorce, that the teenager can expect to face in real life. All very worthy and ticks the right boxes but kids are smarter and less kind than adults think, and they generally prefer story to sermon.

The best children’s authors I read during that time were Paul Zindel and Robert Cormier. Paul Zindel was a man who knew how to tell a story and did not talk down to his audience. As his wiki says, the books were very dark in places, but they were compulsively readable and, perhaps, educational in a way that Danziger, Blyton and Blume could never have been. The  novels taught you that you never really know people and that things don’t always work out. The elaborate titles and bizarre storylines conceal strange and gentle truths.

I remember crying over one of Zindel’s books. I don’t remember the title. It was about a kid who takes his friend on a road trip across America, looking for his dad, and all the way boasting of glamorous professions and situations that his dad is involved in. I wasn’t old enough to see the twist coming and it hit me hard. This was one of only three books I’ve ever wept over.

Robert Cormier was another writer who made a big impression on me. Like Zindel, Cormier dealt in hard truth. The Chocolate War is simply a modern classic. Anyone wanting to understand the hierarchies of adolescence and the reality of schools will come first and last to Cormier. I still remember a line, from another of his books (again, title forgotten): ‘Deep in his lair, the monster also cried.’

I don’t read many kids’ books these days. I love Phillip Pullman but his stuff transcends the genre. Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, which began as a story for his kids, is marvellous and rewards an adult reading. I like the Harry Potter books – Rowling is not a great writer, but she’s a good storyteller and you can understand why the series took off like it has.

She is nowhere near as good as Zindel or Cormier were, though. It strikes me that I should maybe reread their books. I wonder if anyone else remembers them.

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One Response to “‘When I was a child, I had a fleeting glimpse’”

  1. Ashley Says:

    All these books are great, but I think it is still good for adults to pick up a children’s book every now and then and escape into magical worlds!

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