Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Monday, December 31, 2018

Best Timeless Children's Books (to Compensate for Your Newsfeed)

This morning when I woke up and remembered how swiftly the old year was rolling towards the new, I responded first by putting off my gym workout, rolling over and going back to sleep (in case 2019 turns out to be as exhausting as 2018).  

Once I’d finally forced my eyes open, I put off my workout again—as well as my yearly personal reflection and goal-setting session—by scrolling through my news feed and reading other people’s reflections on the turn of the year, including Dave Barry's sum-up of 2018’s news, in what might have been a humorous piece for the Washington Post if the reality of last year’s events hadn’t been so absurd…which was a depressing way to face the last day of the year and left me longing for something timeless.

Like books. Good books. The best books. The kind that transform you. The kind that people still read 20 years later because those books still have three crucial things that make a person want to spend all those hours reading and not care if the book actually does have 1200 pages because she doesn’t want it to end, ever:

1. Great stories,
2. Fabulous language, and
3. Unforgettable characters.

As the world gets madder by the minute, I regularly consider dumping my newsfeed altogether and moving entirely to longer mediums like actual, physical books with covers and paper pages and ideas that don’t go out of date by 5:00 pm. Like War and Peace, if you can get through the Napoleon sections, which I keep thinking I really ought to tackle one of these days, after all these years of its looking untouched and attractive on my book shelf. And then something like the Kavanaugh hearings comes up and I’m hooked again. And besides, War and Peace is freaking 1200 pages. With hundreds of pages about Napoleon.

And then you finish with the Kavanaugh hearings and you think, wow, I just wasted hours of my life and it didn’t make any difference at all. And you turn back to War and Peace…or something else, if you’re not up to 1200 pages of Russian history and philosophy with some story mixed in. Something like timeless children’s books, which tend to be much shorter, with gripping stories, brilliant language, and lovable characters, or they wouldn’t be timeless, right? Kids would never put up with anything boring.

One good thing about getting older, I’ve realized recently, is that much of what I took for granted during my childhood is now considered vintage and rare. Like the books I read. And since I spent most of my childhood reading, and then my early adulthood hanging out at used bookstores buying up the books I’d read as a child so my own children could experience those stories, too, a large portion of both my brain and my basement now revolve around these now-so-called-vintage children’s books. The best books. The ones you still secretly enjoy as an adult and use all your powers of persuasion to convince your child to let you read them aloud to him—not because he's so thrilled about that, but because you want an excuse to read those books again.

So, in case you’re not up for 1200 pages of Tolstoy, here are my 2019 New Year recommendations for some of the best timeless children’s books out there, most of which you’ve likely never heard of. I’ve numbered them and alphabetized them because it’s the New Year, and that makes things look organized, but really, whatever.

1. Petronella, picture book by Jay Williams, pictures by Friso Henstra. A flipped fairytale published in 1973 and sadly out of print, packed with clever wordplay, a vibrant heroine, and a surprising, utterly satisfying ending. All of Jay Williams’s books are witty and delightful, by the way, but this is my favorite. 

2. The King with Six Friends, picture book also by Jay Williams, also out of print, also a fairytale cleverly retold, about a king who is out of a job so goes looking for a kingdom to rule and gathers friends with magical abilities as he travels, each of whom help him prove himself worthy of a kingdom.

3.Jingo Django, chapter book by Sid Fleischman. Also out of print, but I’ve found it both in libraries and used online bookstores. Fleischman won the Newbery for his Whipping Boy, but this book is better by far. A nearly perfect book, not a wasted word, full of language to love and characters you’ll never forget, emotionally powerful, with surprising plot twists and buried treasure, but the real gold is the relationship between the two central characters—complicated, difficult, meaningful and heart-yanking.

4.     The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, novels by L. Frank Baum. Though The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is of course the most famous (also—need I say it?—far better than the movie, which ruined the fantasy by explaining it away as Dorothy’s fever dream), the other Oz books are every bit as zany and exciting, and Baum wrote something like 14 of them. Luckily, my public library had them all, but these two were my favorites. Marvelous introduces us to the boy Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead, and the witch Mombi. Ozma contains one of the most disturbingly memorable characters you’ll meet anywhere in children’s lit—Princess Langwidere, who collects beautiful girls’ heads and never changes her clothes; instead she swaps out heads when she wants a new look. Very creepy. In a delightful sort of way.

5.     The Dark is Rising series, novels by Susan Cooper. Dark and brooding, full of myth and magic, this series made me want to be a Welsh bard when I was 11. But I’m cheating a bit, because the series has three more books: Over Sea, Under Stone, Silver on the Tree, and The Grey King. Luckily, two of these won Newberys, so they tend to be available.

6.     The Princess and the Goblin (and The Princess and Curdie) novellas by George MacDonald. MacDonald was a Scottish writer who inspired the fantasy novels of both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. My 8-year-old son wasn’t excited about the covers or the old-fashioned language at first—it was written in 1872, after all—but soon he was forcing me to read these aloud for hours until I lost my voice—every day until we finished them. And I didn’t mind, really. We’d get home from wherever and he’d shout, “Princess and the Goblin!” and then we’d run downstairs to read together. Great story, characters, magic, everything you want in a kid’s book.

7.     The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, by Roald Dahl. These short stories are for older readers than Dahl’s usual audience, but as magical in their own way as James and the Giant Peach. I have happy memories of my mom reading Henry to me and my siblings when I was about 14 and far too old (I mostly thought) to be read to. There’s something magical about a great read-aloud intended for teens and even adults.

8.     Still, don’t miss James and the Giant Peach, also by Roald Dahl, just because you’ve already seen the movie, as well as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Charlie and the Great, Glass Elevator. The movies completely omit the subtle humor and savory language of the written stories, though Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox does admittedly have its own quirky humor. Sadly, many kids never encounter these older stories of Dahl’s in book form, which I believe are better than many of his later books, like The Twits. Ok, so that was four in one. But I need room for
9.     Ursula K. LeGuin’s Annals of the Western Shore series: Gifts, Voices, and Powers. Technically, these can't be considered vintage since they were published in 2004, 6 and 7, but hardly anyone I've met--even the LeGuin fans--seems to have heard of them, and they’re brilliant and posses every quality of timeless literature. Le Guin’s language is characteristically beautiful, her characters alive, the magic believable, the worlds richly imagined and complicated; they pull you in and make you forget you’re not actually there, in this place that doesn’t exist but feels as if it must, somewhere, somehow. And yes, all right, that’s three in one.

10. Diana Wynne Jones’s Dogsbody.
It was written in 1975 so I should have encountered it during my childhood, but didn’t actually discover this book—or Diana Wynne Jones—until I was an adult. Accused of a murder he didn’t commit, Sirius the Dogstar is punished by being sent to Earth to experience life in the brain and body of a dog. Of course, because this is Jones, it’s complicated, delightful and surprising, full of magic and sinister plots, but also resonates emotionally—the real reason Jones isn’t just your run-of-the-mill fantasy writer. Her books pack power because they’re about being human, her characters lonely, often lost, and reaching for meaningful connection. While you’re at it, you really should read Jones’s The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Charmed Life. And also The Dalemark Quartet…all written in the 70’s but missed by me until they were already sort of vintage-y. And then there’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which wasn’t even written until the 80’s but still timeless, and if you’ve seen the movie, is nothing like it whatsoever. Other than the green slime scene. And the moving castle....

Ok, so 10 books is a lie. That’s more like 20. Or so. A good start. But not actually alphabetized, either, just incorrectly numbered. And granted, this list is not entirely what you could call vintage, but every book on it I deem timeless and worth reading to the kid on your lap, the kid under the covers with a flashlight—or the kid in yourself, who really needs a break from the news feed for 2019. I give you permission not to read War and Peace this year (unless you're a masochist or Russian novel addict like me), but to delve into a  timeless kids’ book instead. Read it aloud if you need a ruse, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself sneaking a peek and reading ahead when your kid’s not looking.

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