Coming: Classic Children’s Literature

If you’ve looked at my 2012 reading list, you may note that I’ve read quite a few children’s books this year. And yes, you may infer from this fact that I still love children’s literature. While I’ve read quite a few of the “greatest hits” over the years—Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the Little House books, The Chronicles of Narnia—there are still many I’ve missed. So back a few months ago when the Classics Club was looking for someone to host a January Children’s Classic Read-a-long, I jumped at the chance. Even better? Jean of Howling Frog Books will be posting a series on lesser-known children’s authors during the month of January as well.

Classic Children's Literature Challenge January 2013

I decided that rather than simply host a read-a-long, which can be limiting, I’d do something more along the line of Carl’s wonderful R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event, with one part RAL and one part read any children’s classic(s) you wish. The event will take place in January, and despite the “challenge” in the title, is meant to be a fun opportunity to explore classic books from childhoods past that we may have forgotten or overlooked.

The Details

  • During the month of January, we will read as many Children’s Classics as we wish and post about them on our blogs. I will have a link page starting the first of the month to gather posts so that we may share as we go.
  • The optional RAL title will be The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. I plan on discussion the weekend of January 25-27.
  • For those who prefer to read digitally, The Princess and the Goblin is available free in multiple formats HERE or in a HTML format HERE.
  • I think many of us have read more recent children’s books that we may already deem “classics” (for example, many people feel that way about the Harry Potter books), but for this event, I’d prefer if we read books that were written prior to 1960. This will still allow a lot of options, and will hopefully avoid the “but what is a classic” dilemma!
  • Defining “children’s,” especially prior to 1900 or so can be a challenge as some books we think of as “children’s” today may not have been intended that way at the time. Personally, I’d say books appropriate for approximately an elementary-school aged child or preteen (to read or to have read to them) should be fine. I’d also count the various fairy tales, even though some of the earliest versions were not exactly always family friendly.
  • Books from any country, in translation or not, count. I have limited exposure to non-American children’s lit, so I’d love to learn about books from other countries myself.
  • Jean and I will be sharing a suggestions list of some pre-1960 titles closer to the start of the event, but feel free to read anything within the guidelines.

I know my blog doesn’t have that large of a following and there are already some wonderful events being planned for January, so I do feel a little shy about posting this, but I’m hoping that a few of you will join me as I dedicate a month to children’s books. Please let me know in the comments of this post if you are interested in participating, and let me know if you have any questions. Over the weekend when I was working on logos, I got a little Photoshop-happy, so please feel free to use any of the following on your own blogs. I’m just posting the small 200-pixel wide versions, but if you’d rather use a 400-wide version, let me know.

The Princess and the Goblin RAL January 2013
Classic Children's Literature Reading Challenge January 2013
Classic Children's Literature Reading Challenge January 2013
Classic Children's Literature Reading Challenge January 2013
Classic Children's Literature Reading Challenge January 2013

P.S. If you’re like me, you never get as much done in a month as you intend, so feel free to start reading now and post in January. As a warm-up, I believe a number of bloggers, led by Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza and Amateur Reader(Tom) of Wuthering Expectations will be reading Little Women and Good Wives (combined as Little Women in the US), for discussion the first week of January or so. This would be an excellent start to the month if you wish to read along, and I don’t think they’d mind.

Image sources: The primary logo is adapted from an illustration by Scottish illustrator Anne Anderson, and was found on Wikimedia Commons. The ship logo is adapted from ‘Snake and Hawk’ headpiece illustration by N.C. Wyeth, as digitized by plumleaves and found on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. The image for the RAL logo is from a cover illustration for The Princess and the Goblin from a 1920 edition illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. A web version of this illustrated edition is available HERE.

Bookish Intimidation

Books from the Siglo de oro project list.

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?) ~ The Classics Club November prompt

I’ve been thinking about bookish intimidation for quite a while. I don’t remember what prompted my first thoughts. But when I saw that it was going to be a prompt for the Classics Club, I thought I’d save it for then. Of course, I didn’t expect that it would take me to the end of the month to get to it!

Most of my life, I’ve not been intimidated by books, classics or otherwise. Perhaps this is because I had a bookshelf full of chapter books in my room before I could even read them, and my parents read to my brother and I from the time we were born until middle school or so. They are readers, so we became readers. Maybe it’s that my first Bible, that I was given in first grade, was the King James Version. Not much left in the English language to intimidate one after the KJV. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure I ever really read that Bible. But it had pictures! And I still prefer the language of the KJV.) Whatever the reason, I never found books intimidating. Classics were my diet of choice in middle school and high school. I read Shakespeare for fun. (Tip: see the plays performed first—they loose their intimidation factor that way.) A book might be long or might use archaic language—that just made it a bit more of a challenge.

But then I got away from reading. My semesters in college were so busy that they were not very conducive to reading; I was lucky to get my assignments read. And some of those were hard, more difficult than any classic I’ve ever read. (Architectural Theories, not for the seriously sleep-deprived.)  I fell out of the habit of reading. But something pulled me back. I started to pick up books, easier books, it must be said. I started reading book blogs. Books about literature. And I found my intimidations. Suddenly, I was learning about literature I only previously knew by name. Scary books, of streams of thought or high concepts or allegory and arcane references. Words that once held promise of tantalizing challenge now loomed large, taunting rather than tempting. I had found books to be afraid of.

But then came a challenge. O of Délaissé wanted to read Ulysses, she wanted to read it on Bloomsday, and she invited others to join in. I knew I wouldn’t read the entire book, but I thought perhaps a taste, just a morsel. So I borrowed a copy from the library and on the day in question dipped in. I realized something: these are just words. Normal words, obscure words, foreign words, words shoved together or placed in unusual ways, or with unexpected punctuation—but they are still the same building blocks that we use everyday, in speech or writing or reading.

When I watch TV I knit. Sometimes simple things like washrags or blanket squares. But more often, something complex adorns my needles: lace of yarn as fine as embroidery thread, sweater pieces full of cables. These projects can be intimidating to new knitters—they look so hard, so complicated. The truth of it, however, is that knitting is made up of only a few basic stitches: knit, purl, make. That’s it. It’s the combinations that make something simple or complex. Master the simple and build, gradually or quickly as you dare, to the next level, to higher heights. Reading those few pages of Ulysses this summer and I realized it was the same with books. They are only intimidating when we let them be. Rather than something scary to be faced, they should be a challenge to embrace. Some are difficult, but the difficulty is often only truly in the amount of work we have to put in to read them. Perhaps we have to work up our skills to meet the hardest. Or perhaps we just have to be willing to put in the time and effort to face the truly daunting. But books needn’t be frightening. They’re just words.

Good? Great? Or, Why I Read These Books, Part 2

This is Part Two of my response to this month’s Classics Club question, “Why do you read the classics?” (Part One HERE.) The post is actually about a month old, but I didn’t have a chance to put it up before now, and it seems to tie in well with the Classics Club question. It began as a mid-reading response to Geraldine Brooks’s debut novel Year of Wonders, but turned into a reflection on the books I choose to read.

At 60 pages in, there’s something, I can’t quite put my finger on it, that dissatisfies me about this novel (while at the same time finding it completely engaging). It seems to lack weight or something; it is just a story, well-told. Yet…are any of the Victorians any different? I believe that I read somewhere that novels currently being written are pretty much in one of three strains: 1) modernist 2) post-modernist 3) neo-Victorian. That is, I’m under the impression that most novels that aren’t “experimental” or “Literary” (important capital there), are still in the Victorian mode. So what I’m really struggling with here is why are certain novels, that seem to be primary story/plot, still read and considered “classic”?

There’s certainly the importance of “firsts” or “precedents.” The first [genre] writer, the first use of [technique].  I’ve seen the suggestion that classic status is determined based on what influences other writers. We certainly still read these books, presumably writers do as well; certainly writers of previous generations read their Victorian and Modernist predecessors. Dickens was important not just for entertainment value, but for social issues. But then, why do we better know Charles Dickens than Elizabeth Gaskell? Is there a difference in quality of prose, is it a gender issue, is A Christmas Carol just more memorable than any other Victorian novel? Do we still read John Steinbeck because of the important social issues (poverty) he touched upon? Why then F. Scott Fitzgerald, when his stories speak more of the very wealthy, a rarefied class most of us don’t belong to and therefore don’t so readily relate to? Classics are supposed to touch upon the human condition–but would not a novel such as Year of Wonders (which covers the response of a seventeenth century English village to the plague) also touch upon that? Or is that what I’m stumbling up against, that the focus on the story has yet to reveal human condition? I AM only 60 pages in….

What I wish to make very clear, is that this is not at all a complaint. Year of Wonders is very engaging as a story–so much so  that I managed to continue to read it while in the middle of an hour and a half wait in line, not something easy for me to do. I find the writing at times poetic. I’m enjoying it, I in no way regret picking it up. But. It’s that little niggling suggesting in the back of my brain that there’s something just not there…what I really wish to know is “what is missing? What is different about this book?”

But this is why I want to do this reading project, the Personal Great Books/Classics Club–to look at acknowledged greats alongside possible greats (future), to work out why some books are praised and other aren’t. This is why I want to read widely (if not deeply), because I want to know if the only reason Gaskell was nearly forgotten is because she was a woman or if it was something more intrinsic to the writing; if for the sake of diversity we are allowing into the pantheon of “greatness” what is merely “good,” or if the power structures that were/are have allowed “good” into the pantheon because it was by the “right” player while the “great” work of the “other” was kept out. Essential to this, of course, is my belief, that there is good and bad, good and great. Starting with books we call “classic” begins to give me an entry into the definition of great. I begin to realize the need for comparison/contrast. I need to look at books that aren’t great–merely good, perhaps even bad–to see the difference. To perhaps find that this acknowledged classic isn’t so grand. That the ignored is underrated. Or that the mass consensus is right after all. But I can’t do that without knowledge, and the knowledge comes from the reading. So to the reading I must keep.

Why I Read These Books: Part 1

Phew. September was a crazy month. Crazy busy, at least. My feed reader is in a dreadful state and I’m afraid I’m going to have to apply the dreaded “mark all as read.” But I’m otherwise caught up now, and with a backlog of posts I need to write, of course. I hadn’t intended that any of that backlog include the monthly Classics Club question, but that is in part because I’m a month behind, and October’s question, as it happens is one I ponder with some regularity. I’m going to cheat here, and make this a two-part response. I’ll link this post, Part One, as it’s the more emotional response and therefore just more…fun! Tomorrow, or perhaps Monday, I mean to post as Part Two some thoughts on reading that came to me as I was in the early part of Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, which I initially intended to post a month ago. This is the more intellectual response, and as such probably not the post that will convince reluctant readers to try Old Books by Dead People. So I link this one!

Why do I read the classics?

I’ve touched on why I read “classics” in the past, several times. Why I want to work on  a personal “Great Books” project. Why I Read, at all. Having read many classics in middle school, high school, and college (university), I can say that many I just plain enjoy. No great motivation, no attempt at some sort of intellectual sophistication. Sure, Shakespeare sounds intimidating (looks intimidating–have you tried his plays without any notes?!), but a good live performance of one of his plays and you know how entertaining they can be. I found one of the earliest mysteries, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone  unputdownable. And Dracula? Dracula I found so purely enjoyable that I’ve read it twice and would gladly read it again. But it’s not just that. To say it’s just surface enjoyment seems inadequate. Earlier this year, I was reminded of how powerful reading great books (many of which we call classics) can be, and I don’t think I can explain it better now than I did then. (Full original post HERE.)

But this year, so far, most of  my reading has been outstanding. And I’m reminded how much I like the “difficult” books.

The truth is, not all books are equal. Some are just plain better than others. These are usually the sorts that make the lists. But how we define what is great, what is good, what is a classic, that is a mystery. We can’t really predict, not truly, what will endure. My own experience leads me to agree that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino) These “great” books, these classics–they’re the ones that don’t let me go, that I can’t escape. Returning to them with gusto this year–and reading one or two that aren’t–I remember why I prefer them. It is a response both emotional and eventually, as I learn, analytical. It is critical. It is visceral.

And this takes me back to the early days of this blog.

Way, way back, before anyone really read this, I proposed for myself a goal of searching out the greats, of trying to learn why they are so classified, what elements make them great or best. It was an analytical goal. But I’m learning that it is an emotional goal as well. It’s one I’ve neglected, but as I find myself returning to the best books, I find I don’t want to abandon it again; these are too good, too powerful to ignore. I want to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions.

This is why I read, why I read the great books. I’d just forgotten it for a while.

Why “Classic”?

A true Classic

All the recent bloggish debate over “what is a classic” and “what is wrong with the Western Canon” and just discussion in general has gotten me to thinking about terminology and the arts.

I think I may have mentioned in the past that I have a much greater knowledge of the eras and history of art, music, and architecture than I do books, despite a lifetime of reading. This is thanks in no small part to the many semesters I had in school of such history: art history, architectural history, architectural theory,  a semester of “Understanding Music” (history/music appreciation for Western Art music), plus a lifetime of listening to “classical” music. What these arts all have in common, besides a general time-frame development, are fairly well defined (albeit loosely) “periods.” For example, when discussing music, we can talk about the Baroque period (approx. 1600-1750), followed by the Classical period (approx. 1750-1830), followed by the Romantic period (approx. 1815-1910), and so on. (My sometimes faulty memory tells me that these periods align approximately with similar-name architectural/art eras as well.) So, although we can talk about “classical” music to refer to art music from any of these eras, we can also get more specific by saying, “It’s one of the best symphonies from the Romantic era.”

Now, I know enough about literature to know that there are phases like this as well: Romantics, Modernists, etc. But it seems like the conversation usually doesn’t use these terms unless it is taking a more academic turn. Instead, we hang on a label of “classic” to talk about “old” books and then get all hung up in definitional and linguistic arguments. And often, the determining factors seem to be 1) is it old and 2) is it still available, rather than the quality or worthiness of the work. (Admittedly, factors also open for debate.)

My question is why? Why can Composer X create a brand new work (which could be Minimalist or Postmodern or whatever) and it may be automatically considered “classical music” but we have such dogfights when it comes to books? Does this imply an issue of accessibility? That is, does the label “classic(al)” imply that, whether we’re talking music or books, we’re required—or think we are required—to put in some work to appreciate it, and therefore intend it as a term of honor? Has “classical” become a shorthand for “hard?” (And therefore allows a form of elitism or snobbishness when saying “I read classics.” Although that statement’s a touch cynical.) To the best of my knowledge, we don’t apply “classical” to art and architecture in the same way, instead relying on styles or time periods: would we be better served by talking about books in the same manner?

I think a lot of us, when we say we want to read “classics,” what we are looking for is a reassurance that the book is worth reading, that it has some value, that it is part of the cultural currency of book discussion. I’m just wondering if we’re going about this the wrong way.

I don’t have any answers, do you?