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The Children's Book


The Children's Book Cover

ISBN13: 9780307272096
ISBN10: 0307272095
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. Why is this novel called The Children's Book? Discuss the many possible meanings this title suggests.

2. How are fairy tales important to the novel—both to the story and to the characters themselves? Byatt has said in interviews that fairy tales and the children's books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as E. Nesbit's magical stories and The Wind in the Willows, inspired her to write the novel; do you see echoes of any of your favorite children's stories here?

3. We follow a huge cast of characters for nearly three decades over the course of the novel; whom did you care about most at the end? Many of the characters are not who they seem; how did your feelings about these characters change as the story developed?

4. What secrets are the many families in the novel—the Todefright Wellwoods, the Basil Wellwoods, the Cains, the Fludds, and even Elsie and Philip—hiding from each other and from outsiders? Which of the characters' betrayals did you find most shocking?

5. How does class constrain the characters in the novel? Olive and Elsie both marry outside their class—are they similar in any other ways? Which is the greater divide for them and the other characters in the novel: class or sex? How does Philip's absorption into the Wellwood circle differ from his sister's?

6. From the opening scene, pottery—the craft of it, its history, the contrast between fine art and factory-made pieces—is a recurring presence throughout the novel. Does Olive do the right thing in apprenticing Philip to Benedict Fludd? How does Byatt use the metaphor of clay to enrich the story?

7. A German puppeteer is a surprise guest at the Wellwoods' Midsummer party at the beginning of the novel. What role do puppets play in the novel, and what do they represent? How does the relationship between the German and British characters change as the novel unfolds?

8. What is the significance of the Tree House? What does it mean to Tom—and to his siblings?

9. Motherhood is a crucial part of the novel, and of Olive's stories; Olive herself is something of a "Mother Goose," as in her story "The Shrubbery" on pages 105–114. But is Olive a good mother? What about Violet, and the other mothers in the story?

10. How does the notion of lineage—of knowing who one's real parents are—affect the children in the novel? Does knowing "the truth" ultimately make much difference to the adults the children grow into—or do the people who actually raise them, and the way they are raised, make more of an impact?

11. A number of the adult characters are artists in one way or another; many of them—through their art or their actions—cause damage to the other people in their lives. Discuss how the artists in the novel both create and destroy.

12. Discuss the Fludd family. Why do you think Byatt chose not to divulge the specifics of Benedict's acts? What do you think he did?

13. In an essay she wrote for the London Times, Byatt wrote, "There is a strong case to be made that the Edwardians enjoyed school stories, magical tales, and tales of children alone in landscapes—woodland camps, secret expeditions—because they were themselves reluctant to grow up." How do the adults in the novel reflect this idea? What distinction do the characters make between childhood and adulthood? What distinction is Byatt making through the novel?

14. Several characters embrace the notion of free love, or of sex outside marriage. What is the result? Is it good for any of them? How do these attitudes resemble, or not, those of the 1960s in the United States?

15. How is Dorothy—who doesn't share her mother's love of stories, who is the serious daughter, and who becomes a doctor—different from her siblings? How does Humphry's revelation, and his betrayal, change her?

16. Several characters undergo transformations. Is Charles/Karl's the most obvious, or the least?

17. Olive writes stories for each of her seven children, which are bound into their own private books. As the novel unfolds, the story written for her oldest and most beloved son, Tom—"Tom Underground"—becomes more and more important. Why does he cling so tightly to this fairy tale? What does the metaphor of shadow signify? Why does he see the play his mother writes as a betrayal?

18. On page 562, Dorothy tells Tom that he's responsible for Philip's success. Is this accurate? Why or why not?

19. What is the significance of the stone with a hole that Tom picks up on page 586?

20. Why does Hedda try to destroy the Gloucester Candlestick? Is it a coincidence that she chose this item? How does the suffragette movement affect her and the other women in the story?

21. Reread Julian's poetry. How does it reflect upon the novel itself?

22. The Children's Book is a historical panorama that encompasses many political and social movements of the early twentieth century. Were you familiar with the figures and movements Byatt discusses: the Fabian Society, British socialists, women's rights, etc.? What is your understanding of their purpose in the novel?

23. The acknowledgments give a glimpse of the research that went into the novel; what subjects did you most enjoy learning about? How does Byatt's erudition enrich her storytelling?

24. The Great War seems to take nearly all of the characters by surprise; were you surprised by the scope of the damage it inflicted? Which character is most changed by the war? Did it change the way you saw the characters' sexual and personal secrets—and how they themselves saw their own lives?

25. Reread page 675, the last page of the novel. Is it a happy ending? What emotions are conjured by this reunion, which takes place in a far different setting than that which opens the novel—and around a bowl of soup?

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

cariola119, November 29, 2009 (view all comments by cariola119)
What can I possibly say about this book that hasn't been said by other reviewers, on LT and elsewhere? It's a collection of fantasies--not just Olive Wellwood's evolving children's stories and Stern's marionette shows, but the fantasies lived out by the adults in the decades leading up to the first World War. The exposé of these fantasies is at the heart of the novel. Olive and Humphrey believe in the fantasy of free love: that it causes no jealousy between spouses, nor that it damages any of the seven children in their household, born from various liaisons yet raised to believe they are true siblings. Love, sad to say, does not conquer all, and some in the novel who give it too freely pay a heavy price. Another fantasy: that freedom allows children to grow up happy and full of potential; but freedom taken too far borders upon neglect, and not all children are by nature independent. Another set of fantasies: that art can change the course of world events, and that genius is always to be indulged for its own sake. The list goes on and on. Like the characters' fantasy lives, Olive Wellwood's stories are delightfully magical on the surface yet dark and dangerous underneath.

The novel's style and structure are inseparable, both building on the possibilities and threats in the space between fantasy and reality, between the Victorian age and the new post-world war period. Some readers have complained about excessive details in the first part of the novel; others complain about the brevity of the last. I feel this is intentional on Byatt's part, a verbal realization of the changing cultural and political milieu. The late Victorian period was still addicted to rigid social morés and manners, embellishment of one's person and one's home, etc.--and, as such, it gave birth to a myriad of reactionary movements, most of them equally pompous in their moral (or amoral) certitude. On the other hand, the rapid and extensive devastation of the war, a political killing machine gone amuck, left people back home stunned and empty--as reflected in Byatt's quickfire, almost callous list of the young men, fantasy-world Fludds and Cains and Wellwoods, cut down by a reality beyond their once-imagined control. Like Stern's marionettes, they dance in a world of fantasy, unaware that they are manipulated by strings that control their every move.

Yes, the book is massive and complex, and it takes some concentration to keep track of the various characters and their relations to one another. It's the kind of book that, when you finish it, you need to think about it for awhile, and then you know that you will need to read it again to fully appreciate its genius.
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pebbeb, October 22, 2009 (view all comments by pebbeb)
I first heard about this book months ago when I listened to an interview with A.S. Byatt as she talked about it. After the interview, I immediately went online to order The Children's Book but discovered the book wasn't to be released until October. But it was well worth the wait. Fascinated by Victorian children's authors like E. Nesbitt, J.M. Barrie, Kipling, and Kenneth Grahame I am drawn to the story of a Olive Wellwood, an author of children's books, and how destructive it can be to use the lives of one's own children as grist for the mill. Byatt crafts a tale that deals with the power (good and bad) of art, industrialism, and the events that led up to World War I.
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Product Details

Byatt, A. S.
Runaway children
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.32x6.58x1.70 in. 2.21 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Children's Book Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$8.95 In Stock
Product details 688 pages Knopf Publishing Group - English 9780307272096 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Bristling with life and invention, it is a seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer."
"Review" by , "Pitch perfect, stately, told with breathtakingly matter-of-fact acuteness, this is another winner for Byatt."
"Review" by , "Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent in the author's vintage manner."
"Synopsis" by , A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize-winning author of Possession spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children's book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.
"Synopsis" by , From the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, a dazzling new novel that spans the years from the Victorian era through World War I and centers around a famous childrens book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.

When Olive Wellwoods oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museuma boy who could be a character out of one of Olives magical talesshe takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends.

But the midsummer bacchanals the Wellwoods host at their rambling country houseand the private books that Olive writes for each of her seven childrenconceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these livesof adults and children alikeunfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods is slowly uncovered. Yet a far larger danger awaits: the Great War lies ahead, and it will leave no one unscathed.

Suspenseful, seductive, at once sweeping and intimate, The Childrens Book is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers.

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