My wife and I saw a trailer for the film Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of the famous children’s book by Maurice Sendak. Elysha is skeptical of the movie, concerned that it is expanding too much on the original text. “I’ve never read the book,” I said.
“You’ve never read WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE?” she asked in disbelief.
I was forced to remind her that I did not have many children’s books growing up, and I have no recollection of a mother or father ever reading to me. As a result, my knowledge and awareness of children’s literature extends only to those books that I have read in the past decade as an elementary school teacher.
I knew EB White as an essayist long before I knew that he had written CHARLOTTE’S WEB.
Until I was able to ride my bike to the town library and begin checking out science fiction, mystery and horror novels at the age of ten, I spent much of my childhood reading the half-set of encyclopedias that filled the top shelf of our bookcase (Funk and Wagnalls, A-K), my evil step-father’s World War II non-fiction (a book detailing the Japanese invasion of Wake Island was especially good), the Bible (probably the worst thing for any parent who wants their child to be religious to allow him to do), and a smattering of other novels that I read over and over again, including Peter Benchley’s JAWS, George Carpozi’s account of the Son of Sam murders, and BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, my first Vonnegut novel.
I’m not sure how much this early introduction into adult literature might have damaged me, but I was a very good reader at an early age, and these books allowed me to expand upon my skills like no children’s book.
As an added bonus, my daughter, Clara, and I are experiencing many of the classic children’s books together for the first time. Before long, I expect to be reading Sendak’s classic story to her.
In related news, an online debate has recently erupted over the worst children’s books of all time, with THE GIVING TREE (a book that would be first on my list) and THE POLAR EXPRESS getting a lot of attention. I might also be inclined to include CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY on my list as well. Though I adore Roald Dahl’s stories and his unconventional sensibilities (some of his adult fiction is downright raunchy), CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY becomes a little formulaic as the selfish and bratty kids like Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop begin getting knocked off, one by one, as they make their way through the factory. In fact, a few years ago I became so bored with the novel that I invented two new characters as I read it to my third graders, holding the book up in front of me and pretending to read while making up the story as I went.
So much fun!
Do you have a least favorite children’s book? Something to warn me against when it comes time to read to Clara tonight? My students put together a library for her when she was born, comprised of each of their favorite children’s books, and so far their choices have been excellent.
No JAWS or Son of Sam for my girl!
But I’m sure that there are some stinkers out there, just waiting for someone as ill-informed as me to come along. Help a guy out and tell me what to avoid.