Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nobody Writes Like This Any More . . .

A common refrain, I know. And it’s something I say often after I’ve re-read something like Richard Adams’ Watership Down or Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and most certainly after Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows: Nobody writes books like these any more.

Well, there are a few. William Steig, for one. He approaches childhood storytelling with an honesty we rarely see these days. And by honesty, I mean taking childhood at face value, showing children that books meant for them don’t have to be mawkish or syrupy or try to “teach” them something. Writers like Steig, like E.W. Hildick, like C.S. Lewis – even like J.R.R. Tolkein, if you look at The Hobbit as it was intended: a story for the young – write stories because they enjoy telling stories to children.

Enter Bob Brooks, who with his Tales from the Glades of Ballymore enters this world.

I admit when I started reading his book, I wanted to hate it. The only reason I can think of would be his own review of it on Good Reads, in which he compares it to Grahame’s Willows. Willows is a sacred book in my canon, so any author comparing his book to that one had damn well better be able to back up what he or she claims. Brooks does so in Ballymore, and admirably so.

I’m reminded of a few things as I read Brooks’ novel.

First is a quote from Lewis, which I love to bandy about when people claim they only want to read “adult” fiction:
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. . . . When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
(This is from his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.”)

I’m also reminded of Beatrix Potter’s twee world of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, viz:
The path ended under a big rock. The grass was short and green, and there were clothes—props cut from bracken stems, with lines of plaited rushes, and a heap of tiny clothes pins—but no pocket-handkerchiefs!

But there was something else—a door! straight into the hill; and inside it some one was singing—

Lily-white and clean, oh!
With little frills between, oh!
Smooth and hot – red rusty spot
Never here be seen, oh!

Lucie, knocked—once—twice, and interrupted the song. A little frightened voice called out "Who's that?"

Lucie opened the door: and what do you think there was inside the hill?—a nice clean kitchen with a flagged floor and wooden beams—just like any other farm kitchen. Only the ceiling was so low that Lucie's head nearly touched it; and the pots and pans were small, and so was everything there.

There was a nice hot singey smell; and at the table, with an iron in her hand stood a very stout short person staring anxiously at Lucie.

Her print gown was tucked up, and she was wearing a large apron over her striped petticoat. Her little black nose went sniffle, sniffle, snuffle, and her eyes went twinkle, twinkle; and underneath her cap—where Lucie had yellow curls—that little person had PRICKLES!

"Who are you?" said Lucie. "Have you seen my pocket-handkins?"

The little person made a bob-curtsey—"Oh, yes, if you please'm; my name is Mrs. Tiggy-winkle; oh, yes if you please'm, I'm an excellent clear-starcher!" And she took something out of a clothes-basket, and spread it on the ironing-blanket.
Potter is unashamed to write this, and I am unashamed to read it. So bravo to Bob Brooks for doing the same.

Critics of the twee claim such innosence belies reality and that our action-crazed kids these days just won't put up with books as slow-paced as these. Meh, I say. Give kids a chance and they'll slow right down. They don't want to run as fast as adults do, because more often than not, when they're running as fast as adults do they miss a whole lot of their childhood along the way. I don't want to do that to my kids. I tell them unashamedly I played with teddy bears kintted for me by my grandmother as a (whisper) teenager. We -- my brother and sister and I -- built villages for them and carried on the little domestic scenes many sneer at in Potter's world as sexist, demeaning, and beneath our modern times.

Phooey with that assessment.

I have to wonder, though: Would such a book be published today – another favorite question of the bookish-snobbish set. I’d have to say yes – but how big of an audience would it reach? Childrens’ literature is often a zero-sum game for authors, with only the cream of the crop making a living at it. Brooks’ gentle, easy-going tale in which there are no magic spells, no loud kabooms nor distinctly cliff-hanging conflict but only the quaint and the twee and the innocent and the simple, is a rarity. It stands out with its gentility. It is one I will read again.

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