7 Children’s Classics You Should Read Again
Nancy Springer shares how how much you can see on a second read . . . or third, or fourth . . .
Wise readers know that an excellent book for children is also a treat for adults. What they might not realize is how many such titles there are: dozens, even hundreds. Unable to choose among so many, I have confined myself to books I myself read as a child and have make a habit of revisiting ever since–for the excellence of their writing, for poetry within their prose, and sometimes for hints and intimations, a sense of wonder and transcendence that I cherish. As I am getting long in the tooth, and as these titles are so very old to me, I hope some of them may possibly be new to you. With my best wishes for your enjoyment, here they are, alphabetically by author.
1. In National Velvet by Enid Bagnold a horse-crazy girl named Velvet Brown comes into possession of a nearly uncontrollable horse, works with it, and goes on to win the Grand National Steeplechase. Trite horsie book, right? No. Velvet Brown is a butcher’s daughter who ends up riding amidst aristocrats. Her horse, The Pie, is a piebald (spotted) creature any proper British rider would scorn. In order to race, Velvet must pass as a male, which means facing the jockeys’ locker room. She was given the horse in the will of an old man who committed suicide. Throughout this very well-written book, Bagnold quietly confronts classism, sexism, and the stigma of mental illness. Ultimately the hero is not the horse; it is Velvet’s sturdily sensible lower-class family. National Velvet is well worth another look.
2. Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is about an orphan, Elizabeth, who is thoroughly “understood” and protected by her city-dwelling aunt–until it becomes necessary for her to go live with rural cousins in Vermont. Very shortly Elizabeth becomes Betsy, and instead of being “understood,” she is included as a member of a hard-working farm family and assumed to be capable of taking care of herself. With penetrating compassion, the author fosters understanding, rather than censure, of the opposing viewpoints of Betsy’s guardians. Understood Betsy presages with uncanny accuracy the present-day controversy over “free-range” children.
3. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame could easily be mistaken for just another book about anthropomorphic animals. In it, Mole ventures away from his underground home to discover the romance of life along the River, friends and enemies, the mysterious dangers of the Wild Wood, and in the most mystic of encounters, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, who cast a lifelong spell of wonder on me. In Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece The River is far more than just a river; it runs into the Wide World, and the title suggests the transcendence whispering in every tree–and every line of the story.
4. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a volume of short stories, the first three of which are about Mowgli, a man-child raised by wolves defying the enmity of Shere Kahn, the tiger. Kipling writes of life-and-death Law-of-the Jungle matters, quite the opposite of the Disney movie’s monkeyshines. That anyone could take The Jungle Book’s potent, dark prose poetry and turn it all tum-tiddley is anathema to me! *huff, sigh, back to topic* Equally serious and worthy of a mature reader’s appreciation are the remaining stories, especially the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, which demonstrates that one should never underestimate the courage of a mongoose.
5. Because of its unfortunate title, My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara sounds like just another horsie book, but not so; the author’s scope is as wide as the Wyoming rangeland of which she writes, and her insights as deep as its mountain roots. Ken, the daydreaming boy who nearly dies for the sake of the wild filly Flicka, is the foremost of many protagonists: his gentle mother and militaristic father struggling to maintain their horse ranch and their marriage, his antagonistic older brother, ranch hands, and Banner the stallion protecting his mares . The turmoil of Ken’s family plus the predations of a panther plus the fierce land and weather of Wyoming itself, all contribute to a sweeping saga that continues in two more novels–Thunderhead and The Green Grass of Wyoming–but please do start with My Friend Flicka.
6. And then there’s Bambi, Felix Salten’s story of the life of a deer in all its woodland beauty but also in all its grim realities. The Disney take on Bambi certainly is appealing in its own way, but take heed: it is to the book as My Pretty Pony is to Pegasus. Bambi’s story, far from being a flowery romp in the meadow, is shadowed sometimes to the point of bleakness. Even as a kid I recognized the extraordinary quality of Salton’s writing, and I discovered in his storytelling a mystic, shiversome immensity for which I had no words–not back then. Even now I’m not sure whether to call it fatalism, destiny, doom or transcendence. I must read the book again.
7. My Name is Aram by William Saroyan, is a book of short stories about Aram Garoghlanian and his large Armenian family. The setting is Fresno, California, and it is perhaps because of a cultural disconnect that Aram’s narration achieves such a strong quality of whimsy, mystery, and powers beyond the scope of human understanding, as witnessed by the uncertainties of the cooking of rice–sometimes hard, sometimes sodden, sometimes salt, sometimes just right–and the inexplicable summer of the beautiful white horse. It was the horse, of course, that attracted me as a child, but it is the growing up of Aram, an Armenian boy in America, that claims my continued attention as an adult. Saroyan is a joy to reread.
Nancy Springer has passed the fifty-book milestone with novels for adults, young adults, and children, in genres such as mythic fantasy, contemporary fiction, magic realism, horror, and mystery—although she did not realize she wrote mystery until she won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America two years in succession. Born in Montclair, New Jersey, Springer moved with her family to Gettysburg, of Civil War fame, when she was thirteen. She spent the next forty-six years in Pennsylvania, raising two children (Jonathan and Nora), writing, horseback riding, fishing, and bird-watching. In 2007 she surprised her friends and herself by moving with her second husband to an isolated area of the Florida Panhandle where the bird-watching is spectacular, and where, when fishing, she occasionally catches an alligator.