The phrase “instant classic” is a uniquely American oxymoron (emphasis on the moron). Breathless as we all are for the next best thing, and abundant as those dazzling new things are, who has energy to spare for the old? Woe to us.
Nobody guided my childhood reading, and it was pathetically scattershot. I was a devotee of “Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth” and “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse”. Somehow I found my way to Pippi Longstocking and Mary Poppins, but I grew up ignorant of Narnia, Charlotte and her web, that famous little house in those big woods. It wasn’t till I had my own kids that I discovered how much I’d missed. Edward Eager! E. Nesbit! L.M. Montgomery! Dodie Smith! Of course it wasn’t too late–it never is–to enjoy these true classics.
My kids are grown but my education continues. My latest find is the dreamy enchantress Elizabeth Goudge. Some classics–I’m thinking Arthur Ransome’s delightful but poky “Swallows and Amazons”–are a hard sell with today’s kids, but not “The Little White Horse”, first published in 1946. For starters, its cover features a castle and a silvery unicorn bathed in moonlight, along with this quote from K.K. Rowling: “I absolutely adored The Little White Horse.” She’s on record as calling it her favorite childhood book.
Consider the character and place names: Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, Marmaduke Scarlet, Moonacre Manor and the village of Silverydew, the enormous dog (can he truly be a dog?) Wrolf. (Hearing Harry Potter echoes, anyone?)
Lovers of language will be in heaven. Here we meet Maria’s eccentric, tender, puce-nosed governess: “Miss Heliotrope raised her book of essays and held it within an inch of her nose, determined to get to the end of the one about endurance before darkness fell. She would read it many times in the months to come, she had no doubt, together with the one upon the love that never fails.” Wit glints on every page. Our first glimpse of Maria’s uncle: “He had a huge white wig like a cauliflower on his head.”
Goudge’s descriptions are lavish and lush but rarely cloying. We read about embroidered waistcoats, dresses of primrose silk, silver branched candlesticks, luscious meals, whitewashed cottages thatched with golden straw, a vast park sparkling with moonlit frost. Oh, the atmosphere! Readers who love being swept away into other worlds, look no further. Families looking for an all-ages read-aloud, ditto.
There is, of course, a plot, and it’s classic in the happiest sense. Maria, an orphan, is forced to leave her home in London to live with an uncle she’s never met. (Maria, by the way, is big-hearted, curious, and noble as can be, but also possesses a love of luxury and takes great pride in clothing, particularly her shoes–ever since reading the book, I’ve longed for my own pair of boots made “of the softest gray leather, sewn with crystal beads around the tops, and lined with snow-white lamb’s-wool”.) At first all seems too wonderful to be true, and so it is. Maria begins to learn disturbing facts. A tragedy haunts Moonacre Manor, where no woman has set foot for twenty years. The village lives in fear of the wicked Men from the Dark Woods. Maria’s ancestors were guilty of greed and treachery. If it’s true, as Old Parson says, that “Nothing is ever finished and done with in this world”, Maria has work to do.
Goudge was a Christian, and her beliefs color but never dominate her story. Maria sets old wrongs to right, triumphing through courage and smarts, topped by a nice scoop of magic. Needless to say, it’s a happily-ever-after ending, with the bad guys reforming, the good guys–even purple-nosed Miss Heliotrope–finding joy, and a mouth-watering feast.
“However old you are, you never forget the time when you were young, or the people you loved when you were young; indeed, the older you get the more clearly you remember the times and the more deeply you remember the people.” Our classics sit patiently on the musty, dusty shelf, waiting to be re-discovered, waiting to be loved by yet another lucky generation. Please share your own favorites!
Brenda, thanks for mentioning Cleary–yet another gem I missed growing up!
It’s true for so many people, L–that one magic book can create a lifelong reader. It’s something I secretly hope for/fantasize about with my work.
I too had a unguided childhood reading, there are a lot of books that I missed out on reading as a child. Although, now that I have been visiting them as an adult, I still can see some of those qualities that I would have enjoyed. Some of the recent ones that I’ve read are A Wrinkle in Time, Annie of Green Gables and The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary. I hope to read a new one each month, because in some ways it’s like revisiting childhood.
I had a few teachers direct me toward the classics, but my father had trouble with what was considered required (canonized) literature after enduring an English Lit degree, so he read mostly animal adventures to us at bedtime. They were the kind of adventures he enjoyed as a boy; think Call of the Wild and Call it Courage. I remember loving Wilderness Champion. I made him read it twice. I didn’t care for Little House, Little Women, The Little Princess or Anne of Green Gables, but my sister did and I passed them along to my own. My daughter took to the prairies and respects Louisa May Alcott.
I did enjoy The Wind in the Willows and Mrs. Frisby as a child, but, finally, my father handed me The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a friend lent me The Hobbit and I discovered Charlotte Sometimes. These are the memorable and the ones I was most eager to share with the daughter. It was an education reading most of the Narnia series with her, which I hadn’t read before. The Magician’s Nephew is brilliant. I liked The Lord of the Rings even better during bedtime read-alouds.
Like you, I discovered more later on than early, and have happily found books that I think will stand the test of time alongside those already identified as classics.
One thing I love about classics like The Hobbit is how many people have discovered a life-long love of reading because they read it. I hope classics will always be revisited, and maybe even known to be relied upon.