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Why Books about Childhood Are Really about Adults

Even though I wrote a novel about a global disaster, I knew right away that my story would focus on just a few characters, one ordinary family, and especially one young girl.

I guess it's not surprising that I chose this point of view. Some of my favorite novels focus on childhood. I love how radiantly The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides captures suburban adolescence, how he somehow relays not simply the events of high school, but also the dreamlike way we remember those events as adults, the mythic quality of memory itself. In Housekeeping, through the haunting description of a much stranger childhood, Marilynne Robinson creates an amazing portrait of a family, adults included. And Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which is perhaps my favorite literary love story, is all the more heartbreaking because we know that his young people won't live long enough to be anything ever but young.

For me, a great book about childhood is always also about adulthood. Children aren't some separate species.For me, a great book about childhood is always also about adulthood. Children aren't some separate species. They're just adults waiting-to-be, filing away memories before they can fully understand what those memories might come to mean when they're older. I think it's the only time in life when so much is happening and yet we're so ill-equipped to process it.

The young girl in my book is named Julia. As the world struggles to adapt to a world remade by the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth, Julia is also experiencing a series of other small-scale firsts: realizing her parents have flaws, learning how quickly friendships can form and fall away, and falling in love for the first time. In Julia, I hoped to capture both the intense emotions I felt when I was living through that age, as well as some of the perspective and insight I've acquired in the years since then.

Of course, adults don't know everything either. We're all living with only a partial understanding of ourselves and our world. Maybe that's another reason that reading about childhood can be so satisfying. These stories make literal a feeling that we never quite grow out of, the feeling that we don't fully understand what is happening to us, that all we can do is carry on, even in the face of the unknown.

But maybe the thing I love most about writing about youth is that it always means writing about a subject that obsesses me: the passage of time. In my book, Julia is looking back on what she has lost: her childhood as well as the world as she once knew it.

And in a way, every coming-of-age story is about a lost world, a time and a place when we were young. Reading books that capture youth best always reminds me of one of the simplest, most poignant facts of human life: time moves in only one direction. You can look back, but you can never go.

÷ ÷ ÷

Karen Thompson Walker is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA program and a recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb magazine fiction prize. A former editor at Simon and Schuster, she wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Age of Miracles
    Sale Hardcover $6.98
  2. The Virgin Suicides
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. Housekeeping
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  4. Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro
    Used Trade Paper $6.95


Karen Thompson Walker is the author of The Age of Miracles

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