The last time I read a children’s book, it took two years. It was E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (you can download it free at Girlebooks), which was my favorite book as a child. The tone is witty, the novel is well-plotted, and I found the children’s adventures with the magic ring riveting and often funny. Nonetheless, I finished only a chapter every two months, because I have a limited interest in children’s books. I must admit I’m very self-centered: I only read children’s books I read long ago, and I am mainly interested in them to see what kind of child I was.
For instance, I first read The Enchanted Castle after my 11th birthday slumber party. The next day, halfway through the book, I fell asleep on the hideaway bed. I wished I were the character Kathleen and hoped I’d have a magic adventure. Maybe I’d find a magic ring in that hollow tree behind the apartment house around the block. No Trespassing, the sign said. It invited us.
Nope. No ring turned up.
Elizabeth Enright’s classic novel, Gone-Away Lake, was another favorite, and I am happy to say it has only taken a year to reread. It isn’t a fantasy, but the adventures of the children, Portia and Julian, two cousins, are equally riveting. Exploring the deep woods and a marsh, they discover an abandoned resort of rickety summer houses. At least, they think it’s deserted. Then they meet Minnehaha (Min) and Pindar (Pin), an elderly brother and sister who have returned to deserted Tarrigo Lake, where they spent summers as children. The lake dried up, and it is known as Gone-Away Lake now.
“I came back. I was gone for years. When my husband died, I found I had no money, or almost none, and I didn’t know what in the world to do! And then I thought, there’s still the house at Tarrigo; I can go and live in that! I’d had enough of the world, anyway. My brother Pindar and I were all that was left of th family, and Pindar, who had fallen on hard times, decided he’d had enough of the world, too.”
Min and Pin wear turn-of-the-century clothes they found packed in old trunks in the houses, keep chickens and a garden, and once a month Pin drives “the machine,” an old Franklin, into town to buy a few provisions with their “limited funds.”
This in itself is a fascinating story: in a children’s book today, no doubt the issue would be homelessness and crashing in a squat. But in this 1957 novel, the issue is self-reliance.
And the children are excited about setting up a clubhouse in the attic of an old house, which they fix up. So charming!
It’s absolutely a lovely book. I first read it when I was nine. I sat in the back yard under two forsythia bushes, whose branches intertwined and made a roof over a hidden spot.
If only, I thought desperately, we could go away to the country for a vacation. Then maybe I’d find an abandoned house…
Believe me, abandoned houses weren’t the norm in the town where I grew up.
How did I find out about these fabulous writers? The great thing about being a child is that you’re not looking for the LATEST book. You browse around the library and pick up anything that appeals: a turn-of-the-century novel by E. Nesbit, or a 1957 classic by Elizabeth Enright.
I also had marvelous teachers and a marvelous librarian at my elementary school. A few years ago a “friend” tried to tell me my school had been no good. I looked at her incredulously. I have no way of knowing what the school is like now, but in my day it was a sanctuary, with earnest book-loving teachers who read us fabulous books like Snow Treasure and A Long Way to Go, and a librarian who, once a month or so, entertained us with readings from Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays and Eleanor Estes’s Ginger Pye.
I’m sure there are many great children’s books written for newer generations, but I have gotten the impression, probably from articles by stuffy critics, that children’s books are more “realistic” than they used to be and now revolve around social issues. I can’t for the life of me say whether it’s true because I don’t read them. But even in the ’60s, Gore Vidal, a fan of E. Nesbit, complained that children’s novels were no longer were written to stimulate the imagination.
He didn’t understand my generation any more than I understand what I call “Generation Text.” He would have had to read a LOT of children’s books to do that.