We sometimes hear the rather silly question, ‘Do you like children'? No one would ask whether we like people. The only rational answer would be that we like some children and not others.
Children are at least as varied and complicated as the rest of humanity. The same is true of children's books. Writers writing for the young create fables, science fiction, road stories, comedies, utopian tales, fantasies, and pull-no-punches narratives about what young people face out in the world: danger, drugs, despair, death.
So this is not the essay on children's literature, but one essay among many.
I read children's books the same way I read other books, from start to finish. I gaze at every illustration. In my teens I read the books my little sister and brother brought home. When I babysat while in college, I read Good Night, Moon while the toddler napped. Any time I give a book to a child I read it first, and not just to check that it is appropriate.
I got a subscription to the magazine Chandamama recently for a children's lending library next door, and when it came to filling in the postal address, I put in mine. Now I can peek at each issue before I rubber-stamp it and send it on to the library. It is a trip back in time. As children in a faraway land, we gotChandamama by seamail, each copy filled with stories of moneylenders and farmers, Jataka Tales, and the riddles put to King Vikramaditya. The pictures were rich — the sweetmeat sellers had rolls of flesh spilling over their dhotis and the apsaras were impossibly beautiful.
The moneylenders and shopkeepers are now gone, but the Jataka Tales are still there. Vikramaditya still solves the ghost's every riddle and the ghost still slips out of his hands every time.
Also stalled on its way to the library are one or two paperbacks out of a generous pile donated by a young book-lover in Chennai. I held on to Stuart Littlefor a couple of days, ostensibly to tape up some tears but actually because of the august names on its cover.
The illustrator is Garth Williams, who brought the Little House books to life. The author is E.B. White, who also wrote Charlotte's Web. White was more than a children's writer, he was a writer's apostle. He revised William Strunk Jr's The Elements of Style, which many call “the little book”. It advocated clear, brief, bold writing. White added a chapter, in which he writes, “The constant use of the adjective little(except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating.”
Stuart Little is a mouse born into a family of humans. He sails boats on the pond in Central Park, teaches a class, and drives out into the wide world in search of love.
When a master of style writes a children's story, it is not always clear, brief, and bold, but it is full of marvels. Just like The Elements of Style. Read them both.