Fresh or Frozen?
For many of us of a certain age, there comes a time where we want to impart to our children, or children we know, the culture that we got at their age that essentially made us “us.” What I mean is, when our child is nine, we really want them to love the books that we loved when we were nine. That we read over and over again. That we can instantly recall incidents and episodes from; as well as the smell of the couch we would lie on when we read it; the ache of our hearts and taste of our tears from the sorrow of a character dying, experiencing cruelty or even just going through heartbreak. The same goes for movies. Cue me excitedly putting on Grease for my then-nine-year-old daughter in the hospital room TV as she waited to be wheeled down to surgery for her tonsils to be taken out. Wow, bad idea on so many levels. She didn’t enjoy it, not just because she was a nervous wreck about the impending surgery, but also because she didn’t get it. The movie went right over her head—thankfully. (I was mortified to be watching it with her. And felt like the worst parent!) And let’s just say the film has not aged well in terms of values, in terms of feminism, in terms of #metoo, in terms of America as a white world, in terms of anything frankly. But happily, for the most part, many of the books I loved as a child I have been able to read to my children with more confidence in my parenting skills—and with the added bonus that my kids loved these books too.
What is the Common Denominator?
Jonathan Rosen spoke here on the MUF blog about his nostalgia for the books he read as a child which have inspired the spooky books he writes today. And Marjorie Ingall, who reviews children’s books for the New York Times and is a culture columnist at Tablet Magazine, while on the faculty of the TENT writing residency mentioned The Carp in the Bathtub “as a book that holds up for today’s kids and isn’t purely a nostalgia exercise for adults.” I started thinking about this idea of nostalgia when I was planning a tribute to Judith Kerr and the relevancy of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
What other middle grade books from my own childhood stand the test of time—both for me and for my own kids? Is there a common denominator? When I first started writing my middle grade novel HONEY AND ME, my eldest daughter was at an age where I had begun to read to her some of my favorites as a child— Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family. My daughter is now fourteen, but I have been reading these to my sons too—currently ages eight-and-a-half and nearly eleven—and they’ve also loved them. One of the things I think connects these books is writers who deeply understand the magnitude of the smaller dramas of every day life, and are interested in the details of them. (What I particularly loved about the All-of-a-Kind Family books was that they did this about being Jewish, in a way that was both integral and incidental.) I very much try to bring this sensibility to my own writing.
If Not Now When?
Beverly Clearly’s Ramona books (the first one is from 1955), all the Judy Blume books, but especially the Fudge series (first one is from the 1970s) and All-of-a-Kind Family (first one is from 1951) all particularly still feel fresh and relevant. But I do wonder: could these books be published today?
I clearly like the old-fashioned—or lets say the character-driven and safe-feeling. But in my own writing I constantly feel like I come up against (probably rightly) what works for today’s audience. It would seem that with all the above books all still in print, the market generally does keep the books worth keeping. However at the same time, the fashions have changed so when it comes to what is being published today even when something has an old-fashioned feel to it, it’s still done in a modern way. I’m thinking for example of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser—it’s reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright’s beloved The Saturdays, but when I tried the episodic The Saturdays with my then-eight and ten-year-old sons they were bored—whereas The Vanderbeekers has a modern-feeling plot structure and they were immediately sucked in. (Just to say also, I think of my sons’ reading tastes as a litmus test—if they don’t like something it’s not necessarily conclusive, but when they do like something, especially novels that you wouldn’t automatically think to hand to tween boys, it is telling about the strength of that particular book.)
…. Then again, just because something has gone out of print doesn’t mean that is deserved. I recently tracked down two 1980s favorites to read to my kids: This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman, about the antics of a duo called Bruno and Boots at their boarding school—which was still hands-down hilarious to both my sons and me; and Here She is Ms. Teeny Wonderful by Martyn Godfrey about a girl who likes to jump BMX bikes and to her utter dismay becomes a finalist in a national beauty pageant. I haven’t read this last one to my sons yet, it’s next on the list (we’re currently on Rita Garcia Williams’ One Crazy Summer: historical fiction and over their heads that they’re still enjoying)—but when I read it again myself I was delighted to see that notwithstanding the cover, it was still funny, fast-paced and feminist. I should also mention that the Bruno and Boots books (there were several sequels) I was able to find were a 35th anniversary edition, reissued by Scholastic in 2013, and the Kindle editions are still available for purchase.
Some things never change
So perhaps this is all to say: a well-constructed book with sympathetic characters, emotions you can relate to and dramas you feel invested in no matter how similar or foreign they might be to your own life, will always have the power to suck a young reader in so the pages keep turning. And long after they have turned the last page and closed the book, or perhaps even started the whole thing again from the beginning, —the story, the experience of reading it, and the memories of that experience—will become baked into their very being. And one day, many years later, they will wish to impart this multi-faceted cultural experience on to the important young people in their own lives. Just as we did to them.