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From First Things, this month's free article is by Joseph Bottum, and it's titled http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6403' target="_blank">Children

That's just how eye roll.

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Ellen, thanks for the recommendation, those look delightful.

I've been thinking about this phrase more:

The real advantage of a golden age for a literary genre is the elevation of its second-rank authors: Merely good writers become great writers when they happen to live at the right moment.

and the more I think about it, the less it seems to describe where we are today. Today's fantasy isn't giving us new Terry Pratchetts or C.S. Lewis's. Instead, the most popular classics are either entirely adult-oriented (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or pretty wretched (Eragon or Twilight). Of course, this is only those I'm aware of, and I'm painfully aware of how limited is the scope of my knowledge.

That's just how eye roll.

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I find this article mostly bewildering, and would have liked more explanation for his opinions. Some of the juxtapositions are very strange, too--dismissing L'Engle right before praising Gail Carson Levine, for instance. Some of L'Engle's books have problems of pacing, characterization, etc.--but I'd say she's miles better than Levine, both in style and substance. (Ella Enchanted was clever and fun--and much better than the movie adaptation--but ultimately rather forgettable.) I was also surprised that he liked Artemis Fowl, a book I detested . . . it belongs to that particular subgenre of fantasy that delights in taking all the magic, mystery, and awe out of traditional fairy-tale subjects, and replacing them with advanced technology and vulgarity. I don't understand how one could prefer that to L'Engle and Pooh.

I was also surprised by his comment that the G. A. Henty books should be revived. They've all been republished in recent years, and are quite popular in some circles. I found them formulaic and disappointing; the historical setting changes, but the plots remain mostly the same from one book to the next. (And somehow he contrives to have an English protagonist in almost every book, no matter what country or era he's writing about.)

I suppose it works as a list of likes and dislikes, though, or as a list of suggested reading for people who don't keep up with children's literature at all.

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Helen, thanks for those thoughts, and welcome to Arts and Faith. :)

As I hinted at, I totally agree with you on L'Engle. Bottum just isn't getting it there. But his article does work for me, I think, as more than just a list of his personal tastes; the unifying theme he's using is the urge to buy a book as a Christmas present for a young person.

What most ordinary people will do is to go to Borders or Barnes and Noble etc. and look at what they've got. Outside of the awful brightly-colored vampire and werewolf series which anyone with good taste knows to avoid, what are they likely to have? A section of, for lack of a better word, "Victorian" classics like Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Treasure Island for boys and Heidi, The Little Princess, and Little Women for girls; a section of Newberry Award Winners (my usual haunt, I admit); a section of movie spinoffs, especially by Disney; and then the remarkably popular fantasy section, headlined by Harry Potter but also including Inkheart, the Spiderwick Chronicles, etc.

Now, I'm beginning to think that, as advice, his article fails. You can do much, much better than Coraline as a stocking-stuffer. But it's a remarkably positive thing, I think, to have a First Things author complimenting Harry Potter for being "pretty good books". He gets major kudos from me for acknowledging that the classic canon may have been skewed by exactly the process which haunts all art for children: the ones buying it aren't the ones consuming it, and the ones consuming it have tastes that are at best only half-formed. So maybe question to ask is: "What's the next step?" Where do we go from here? Can people like Bottum and people like you and I agree on a canon of children's book to present to ordinary book-buying people?

That's just how eye roll.

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Edited to add: Are you sure you want to create a "canon"? Or would you rather see a few lists of good books that kids like? For me, at least, lists (with comments) are more likely to get me interested in reading something than "canons" are. And I think that going to kids and getting their comments on what they like - and why - is crucial. Think of it as being analogous to the "staff favorite" shelves that many bookstores have.

I used to write for a magazine where kids' recordings (music and storytelling CDs) were primarily reviewed by kids. They give a very fresh perspective on *everything,* and they didn't have an agenda. ;)

Very nice thoughts.

When I said a "canon", I essentially just meant a list of recommendations that has stood the test of time. In other words, a book that came out last year might merit a recommendation, but objectively lacks what The Giver or The Book of the Dun Cow has: testimony which spans time and exceeds the length of our collective foolish fashions. (I am first in line there... I've sung the praises of so much dreck in my time!) The only differences between a canon (yeesh, whadda hifalootin' word, goshdarnit ;) ) and somebody's opinion are a) it's collective, and b ) it's time-tested.

Frankly, I think we differ on the usefulness of comments. What I look for is a sort of introduction, or general prefatory comments, which help me to trust the person writing. (Trust is the key concept underlying everything here.) Once I've gotten to trust them, though, I really just want a list of titles and where I can find them. I can read the first chapter to evaluate the book.

But I think you've really hit on something when you say that we mustn't lose sight of children's perspectives on these books. Does it seem low for me to wonder, now, whether Joe Bottum has any kids? His bio doesn't give us any clues, other than that it's not too late. ;)

(One thing that I constantly bemoan is that my current circumstances have largely divorced me from interaction with kids. I'm not yet married; my younger brothers and sisters are more than an hour away; and I do not have a church community where many families come week after week. ... All right, enough irrelevant personal details.)

Edit: I'm flattered that you think I should write to Bottum; the thought had occurred to me, but I'm reluctant to speak out against someone so much better-read than I am.

Edited by David Smedberg

That's just how eye roll.

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  • 8 months later...

Brilliant thoughts from Noah Millman at The American Scene on Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (A few nuggets on children's lit and lit in general ... and tie-in thoughts on Toy Story 2.)

I won't excerpt anything -- read it all.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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I appreciate the comments regarding two other potentially creepy kid lit "classics," The Runaway Bunny (which WIT almost redeemed for me) and I'll Love You Forever.

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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