Wednesday, January 28

Laura Miller, Part 2

Reading Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia was a pleasure on many fronts. We usually enjoy reading about books and writers we like and more often read these after the event, just as we read a movie review after seeing the movie, partly to see what another person thought of it and partly to relive the pleasure of watching it. So all through Miller's book we have a great romp through Narnia. But at the same time, Miller writes about the act of reading and how reading develops in children, and about her own life as well. Here's a passage that speaks to me:

"Like many great readers, Lewis regarded his time alone as his real life. By the age of nine -- the same time as which I was thinking that my hunger for Narnia might kill me -- he too was 'living almost entirely in [the] imagination....' Like Lewis's, my material life often seemed to me nothing more than the drab and shadowy interludes between the hours when I could read and retreat to an interior realm.... I sometimes wonder if this kind of inward-turning, inward-dwelling, probably unhealthy temperament is acquired or inherited....did I perhaps get my dreaming ways from my father, who liked nothing better than to escape the rumpus of family life and work alone in the garden?."

I too sometimes wonder where my predominant traits come from. My parents liked to read but not to garden, and I can see now that they were in some ways people who enjoyed quiet and solitude. For the gardening gene I have to reach back to my maternal great-grandfather, who kept pencilled notes and page references on the endpapers of books and who grew nasturtiums and a vegetable garden in Middletown, Rhode Island.

Continuing the garden theme, Miller writes, "Gardens speak to people of this solitary temperament. Even those of us who don't tend the real ones find the idea of gardens, especially walled ones, evocative.... Garden are man-made concentrations of the natural world, places where nature is trained to seem more itself than it is when left to its own devices. In a way, the artificiality of gardens is like the artificiality of stories, which take the components of life and arrange them into forms that intensify and order them, saturating them with meaning."

Luckily, where I live you can practically garden all year round. Winter is the dormant season, but it's also mild and the ground is rarely frozen. And the long winter nights make lots of time for reading.

Sunday, January 25

I was a reading child.  I got books from our village library, our town library, and the city library.  Books from Providence would come home with my father, who would go there and get three at a time for me, recommended by the children's librarian.  (No -- I never visited a school library, though I'm now a school librarian.) I lived in these books.  Besides playing outdoors, in the small woods and on the shore, and riding my bike all over the neighborhood, reading is where I lived. When my father would come home with three new books, I'd wait till after supper or bedtime, get into my pajamas, then get into bed and examine each one in the stack -- smell it, look at it, savor its promise, then decide which one to read first.  One day when I was about nine, he brought home what would become one of my favorite, most magical books.  It was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Once I went into that wardrobe, my life changed forever.  My bedroom had a large closet under the eaves, and I'd lie in bed at night, KNOWING that if I just believed hard enough I could go into my closet and reach back and enter Narnia. I never got out of bed and actually tried -- so maybe some part of me also knew that it wouldn't happen.  Such is the duality of childhood thinking and desire.  You KNOW that it's true, that the only thing lacking is your lack of faith.  And you're not willing to risk being wrong.  So you go on thinking about your closet and what might happen if you really try.  (Just as, a few years later in junior high school, when I went on a science fiction reading jag, thanks to the tastes of a boy I had a crush on, I KNEW that if I believed and tried hard enough, then ESP would work, and I could silently transmit my thoughts to David Sanderson across the room.)

Narnia was where I wanted to go, and I read the magical book more than once and lived inside it.  But -- and this baffles me -- I never found out till much later that there were other books in the series. I guess I always had enough to read, and I didn't talk about my reading with anyone, and the wonderful and anonymous librarian who sent these treasures home didn't think to send me more Narnia books, so I never knew that there were more.
Then some years later, in college, my friend Jennifer and I discovered Tolkien and also made friends with a graduate student at the Episcopal Theological School and his wife, who was a children's librarian.  And this wonderful woman, Carol Hole, fed Jennifer and me with wonderful new children's books that we'd missed and ones that were new, and we discovered the remaining six Narnia books.  And were not too old or sophisticated to enjoy them with the same intensity as our child selves.  And we also discovered that Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford,England, would send us books on faith that we'd pay.  So we acquired lovely hardcover versions of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings, and Charles Williams, and other writers.  I still have these books, but I doubt that Blackwells is now so free about sending to unknown Americans. 
And now, today, because my job kept me imprisoned for several hours of low-key supervision of teenage boys, I read all of Laura Miller's book about Narnia ("the Chronicles," as she calls them).  Since I'm a huge fan of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books, I've read his virulent opposition to Lewis's fiction and been ambivalent about my own love of the Narnia books.  But the brilliant and articulate Laura Miller has redeemed them for me, putting such criticisms in their place.  I'm not writing here a review of Miller's very fluent and personal book but a suggestion that anyone who has been enchanted by Narnia might like to read what Miller has to say in The Magician's Book.

Saturday, January 24

Out of Print, No Doubt, But Still Great

There are some books that go out of print and stay that way because of changing sensibilities and changing ideas (usually for the better, but we need to think hard before condemning something) about what's good for readers, especially young ones. I have one such at home, and I try not to share it with the children, but I look at it a lot -- in fact, daily, because it's my lap desk, being just the right size. The illustrations are by the wonderful Fyodor Rojankovsky, one of the European immigrant illustrators who came to the U.S. around the time of WWII and found work with the Disney studios and the Golden Book company. His colors are gorgeous, his animals very lively, and his people a bit strange but very engaging. He illustrated lots of Little Golden books and some of the big ones, like this collection, which I remember from my childhood and found a year or so ago in a second-hand store. You can find copies easily on abebooks and other sites, an they're not expensive. There are stories composed mainly of pictures, poems, and regular stories. But the reason it's not currently sold is that some of its images wouldn't be considered appropriate for children nowadays.

While hunting is popular in the part of the country where I live, many modern parents just would not offer to their children a picture like this, with the rifle hanging on the wall behind the contented couple. (Not to mention the crucifix.) There are other pictures, too, which wouldn't be acceptable, like those of the tank and warplane. It's too bad, because it's such a fine book otherwise. Great stories and great illustrations. But it just won't fly.

So, if you're an adult, and you appreciate fine picture book illustration, find a copy of this gem. But you probably shouldn't share it with your youngest friends.

Coming soon: the Babar Question