In the children's section of the City of Books, we tend to have underdog favorites — books that we always recommend to customers because we know that some child, somewhere, will be transformed by them, as we were when we read them. These are books that have fallen through the cracks of the publishing world, or that have fallen off of school reading lists, or that have been overshadowed by the monolithic bestsellers of recent years. We hope that by championing these books, we are participating in a larger project to keep good stories in children's hands, to broaden their minds and hearts, and to ensure that these children remain readers for life.
Which is what made me think, reading Brockman's comments yesterday, that Oprah should leave adult literature to her increasingly snippy, predatory critics and start selecting children's books for her book club. In fact, it just might be what children in our woefully illiterate country need. I know, I know: I'm one of those speciously optimistic advocates of the written word who thinks that if everyone just sat down and read Charlotte's Web there would be world peace, and you're already skeptical of how I've connected daytime television's ersatz cultural guru to any real solution to the present state of primary education in U.S. Call me a philistine, but I've always admired Oprah's ability to persuade millions of people to read and discuss books. Have I turned up my nose at some of these books? Sure. Have I read and enjoyed some of these books? Yes. Do I still love Jonathan Franzen? Madly. But when faced with federal policies like No Child Left Behind, I begin to wonder how we are going to keep teaching children to be truly literate human beings — people who can read road signs and metaphors with the same fluency.
The only way to learn to read more thoughtfully is to read a variety of books, all the time. Why not a populist advocate like Oprah? I've been following the snit over Oprah's book club since the Franzen affair. I've read the arguments — about the homogenization of literature, the packaging and marketing of writers and books as products for consumption — and sometimes I agree with them. But I think we can all agree that reading is a noble enterprise, and that the lack of reading, and the lack of respect for books as objects of empowerment, has made our country less thoughtful, less compassionate, and less admirable. If only children's literature had an advocate as commanding and steadfast as Oprah. Imagine what it would be like if all of the millions of readers Oprah inspired were children? Children everywhere with their noses in books???wouldn't it be beautiful? And these children would grow up enamored of books, in love with reading. As adults, they would know how to navigate a job application, write in complete sentences, and read the heinous subtext of political rhetoric.
If you're listening, Oprah, I've got a few under-read children's books to suggest. First, the Lonely Doll books by Dare Wright. These picture books, by one of the most fascinating cult figures in children's literature, follow the adventures of Edith, an orphaned doll being raised by a Teddy Bear. Relevant issues for discussion include adoption, non-traditional families, and the uses of corporal punishment. Next, Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill. Jenny Linsky, a sea captain's cat, climbs the social ladder of the prestigious Greenwich Village Cat Club; hilarity ensues. Cross the wit of Roald Dahl with the darkness of the Harry Potter series and you get John Bellairs. One of my favorites from childhood, The House with a Clock in Its Walls by Bellairs, has illustrations by the beloved Edward Gorey. Lewis Barnavelt, the orphaned hero, moves into his eccentric uncle's house, which is inhabited by a clock that counts down to doomsday. (Doomsday: a surprisingly common threat in children's fantasy stories; discuss.) An entire year could be spent reading alternatives to Harry Potter such as The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones, Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit, and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence, all well-written books that introduce children to real life issues through captivating fantasy worlds.
There are passionate booksellers, librarians, teachers, and, of course, parents, all over the country who have an effect, every day, on the reading habits of individual children. What we need now is a loud, insistent voice that can reach from coast to coast and across classes, to demand that children learn to read, to really read. Are you listening, Oprah?
Books mentioned in this post