A Treasury for Today's Kids - Book ReviewJohn J. Miller
The National Review Treasury of Classic Children's Literature, selected by William F. Buckley Jr. (National Review, 528 pp., $29.95)
The first thing I ever read to my oldest child, now a spirited boy of five, was an article in Commentary magazine by Francis Fukuyama. Brendan was a baby then (a neocon -- literally!), his mother was away somewhere, and the kid needed a nap. No amount of rocking him in my arms, feeding him a bottle, or simply setting him in his crib would work. So I decided to read him something in what I hoped would be the soothing sounds of my voice.
The experiment was a success -- for about eight or nine minutes, at which point the boy erupted in protest. I'm a proud pa, and like to think that Brendan is above average in many respects. A part of me wanted to believe that he was listening to my rendition of Fukuyama and meant to quibble. ("The fourth paragraph contains a logical fallacy, Daddy.") Alas, the noise had a different source. There was a diaper to be changed.
The ritual of reading bedtime stories began in earnest some months later, with Margaret Wise Brown board books and the like. We've since marched through Mother Goose, Curious George, Dr. Seuss -- even Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: Speed Trap. Brendan now has a storytime companion in his sister Josie, a giggly three-year-old. Soon Patrick will join them; he's already received his first doses of Goodnight Moon.
Yet it was with some trepidation that I picked up The National Review Treasury of Classic Children's Literature. My parental forays into books without pictures on every page have met with what I will charitably call mixed success. Brendan once carried around a paperback copy of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan everywhere he went for a week -- he loved the cover illustration but lost interest in the narrative after just a few pages. We've resorted to a picture-heavy retelling of the old novel, plus the Disney movie on videotape.
So I am pleased to report something of a breakthrough. We're not talking complete comprehension -- the 44 stories and poems in this volume, mostly collected from St. Nicholas Magazine, a monthly children's periodical that published between 1873 and 1940, are aimed mainly at kids a few years older. The target audience, I would guess, is children aged seven to fourteen, give or take. There are pictures, but they serve as decorations rather than focal points. Kids may close their eyes and just listen to these stories (or do the reading themselves).
My own kept their eyes open and their mouths shut as we zipped through installments of "The Happychaps," a serial verse by Carolyn Wells about a faerie people who fall asleep during the American Revolution and wake up more than a century later to build a town called Jollipopolis. When we finished one of these stories, my audience of two would plead for more, in the same tone I hear when they want more pudding after dinner.
Other parents will enjoy similar experiences with this book. So will grandparents, aunts and uncles, and teachers -- anybody who spends a significant amount of time reading to small folks. People like us are always on the lookout for quality kids' literature; the NR Treasury is stuffed full of it.
Imagine the top writers of our own time -- Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Thomas Mallon -- churning out material for children at a steady clip. That's the feat St. Nicholas Magazine and its longtime editor, Mary Mapes Dodge, accomplished every month. Louisa May Alcott, Lewis Carroll, Bret Harte, Jack London, and Mark Twain all wrote for it. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book debuted on its pages. The NR Treasury collects samples from each, as well as from a host of worthy writers whose names aren't so familiar -- and whose stories and poems are now rescued from obscurity. One of the finest is a novella-length adventure by Allen French called "Sir Marrok," and it's a wonder this tale isn't better known. Another story is "The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey" -- the only children's yarn ever written by William F. Buckley Jr., and one of only two in the collection that wasn't originally published in St. Nicholas Magazine.
The whole enterprise harks back to a time when our culture was driven more by the written word than the frenetic image -- before there was a Cartoon Network or a Super Nintendo. Even comic books aren't as popular as they once were; we can argue over their merits (I happen to think they have a few), but the anti-comic crowd must admit that at least kids have to engage in the discipline of reading them.
I recently noticed that Nickelodeon -- a cable-TV channel full of programming for youngsters -- produces a children's magazine. The cover of the latest issue advertises a forthcoming movie; it also promises to reveal "Video Game Cheat Codes." This is a magazine whose mission is to get its readers to quit reading and do something else. Today, there's just nothing like old St. Nick.
To be sure, the publishing industry still produces lots of books for kids, some of them quite good. But much of this corpus is of middling quality, and a portion of it is even downright unsavory. Take Philip Pullman, the celebrated author of a trilogy called His Dark Materials. These books have sold more than a million copies in the United States. By all accounts, Pullman is a gifted stylist. But he places his gift in the service of a loathsome project. "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief," he told the Washington Post last year. "Mr. [C. S.] Lewis would think I was doing the Devil's work." A lot of people -- even churchgoing people -- probably buy Pullman books and give them to children they know without realizing any of this. Pullman's on the bestseller lists, right? The highbrow critics love him, right? What great stocking stuffers!
No such worries about subversion with the NR Treasury. Granted, its stories and poems commit the crime of being fun to read -- this will be their primary appeal to kids. But they also teach lessons about patriotism, loyalty, devotion, and so on. They are, as Buckley notes in a warm introduction, "wholesome." That's a deadly adjective these days. As Buckley explains, "In the modern age people tend to think that wholesome goes with Cream of Wheat, marshmallows, and Kool-Aid, inducing tedium soon, nausea later." Yet the NR Treasury is wholesome in the best sense of the word. It induces neither tedium nor nausea -- only excitement (at first) and wisdom (later on). Grownups can trust its content, and give it to children without worry. They can even feel good about what they've done.
And if NR ever produces a sequel -- I've picked up some loose talk about this around the office -- maybe we can convince Francis Fukuyama to write something for it. I hereby promise to read it to my brood.
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