As libraries are cut, reality TV shows spread, and Moonrise Kingdoms emerge, great works of children’s literature should be remembered
I recently watched Moonrise Kingdom, the latest cinematic helping from lauded director, Wes Anderson, in which two kids, in all their youthful idealistic zeal, run away from home to start a new life together. Without going into the specifics of the film, what struck me was the prominence attributed to the reading of fictional, fantastical tales. Like the bookish nerd I am, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh. Em. Gee. He’s, like, totally describing me right now, that’s like, so, the kind of thing I would read when I was little!’
So inevitably the film got me thinking of my own childhood favourites and recalling the joy of a kid yet untarnished by the sewage and misery of the world, taking welcome retreat in written imagination where new realms opened up, heroes existed, and I didn’t have to do the washing up.
I began reminiscing about the cheerful days when I would drag my reluctant father to the library and spend what probably felt like forever to him scouring through the shelves, picking out books, selecting my favourites, and memorising the names of the others I would make sure to come back for. With a massive grin on my face, arms laden with six books – the maximum number I was allowed to borrow – and my dad trailing behind, I would go home practically bursting with anticipation. I would drop them all on my bed and flip through each one, feeling the thickness of it, the smell, weighing up which one I would delve into first, and imagining what untold excitement was lurking inside.
I wish I could say I’m presenting a romanticised image of my early childhood experiences with books, but it’s a pretty literal rendering. I can barely explain how I felt the day I became old enough to take out ten books at a time. I imagine it was pretty close to how Charlie Sheen feels when he’s ‘winning’ or y’know, how Barack Obama felt when he became the first black president – pretty, freaking psyched to say the least.
The best literature is that which is adept at capturing our young, still bourgeoning imaginations, and keeps a firm grip well into adulthood. Back then, we were willing hostages to each fictional dream world, being firmly lassoed and then joyously yanked into imagined spaces inhabited by personalities and role models reflecting who we aspired to be.
For me, it was Mary Anne from the Babysitter’s Club, the secretary who was arguably the most boring and mundane of the lot, but I genuinely looked up to that pristine image of hers. She never, ever made a written mistake, she was always calm, collected, and all the other girls sought solace in her when teenage calamities struck. Wow, what a girl. Kristy, the founder of the Club, was also up there as a favourite, she really spoke to me – tomboy to tomboy. Then there was Nancy Drew, oh how I adored this lady. She occupied my mind as the ultimate female hero well before Buffy came onto the TV and stole my heart away.
I can’t in good conscience not also mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Every once in a while I think of those books and ponder the genius of an author who is able to put to paper a world so magnetic, mesmeric, and alluring in its portrayal, and so undeniably real. It was so cleverly written, that I almost believed it was unravelling the secrets of this world – even though every human had a daemon (like a pet, but a physical manifestation of something akin to one’s soul), giant polar bears could speak, and the very fabric between realms could be cut open with a knife.
I look back at these stories and wonder, who would I be without books, words, language, and expression? Honestly? I reckon I’d be thick as shit. I’m pretty sure my brain would be a wasted organ spending its time watching unfunny sitcoms and reality shows based in Essex about what I can only assume are human-sized oompa loompas, in between picking my nose and nibbling the findings.
Instead, I can’t help but fret. I wonder whether children these days are engaging in the magic of written stories, because I’ve always had this wild, crazy notion, that every child should know the pleasure of reading, to know the sweet release from the shackles of illiteracy. In my opinion, children should have the chance to experience that before they are swayed into thinking reading is ‘geeky’ or ‘uncool’, or that it’s too difficult because they never gave it a chance in the first place.
Once a mind can grasp the beauty and intricacy with which words have been weaved together to form a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, to communicate ideas or emotions, then suddenly you’re feeling it. Next thing you know, you’re welling up, smiling profusely, clenching your fists – whatever the reaction is, it’s the sensation of experience evoked through the mere wizardry of words knitted together.
Today, people are more inclined to argue about the format in which stories are relayed. “Books are dying out because Kindles are the devil!” I hear again and again. I think they miss the point. The ideas communicated through the words are what matters, not the means through which they are read. While I obviously adore books in their physical form, I cannot deny that in this digital age, I’m just glad words have not yet been completely replaced by moronic ‘vlogs’ on YouTube.
So while I continue to worry about whether kids are reading these days, I’ll take some solace from the inspiring example of Malcolm X, who discovered such delights during his prison life after years of illiteracy:
“I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.”
I just read that, smile, and think, ‘Well, maybe there’s still a glimmer of hope after all.’
Image from: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/06/books-moonrise-kingdom-vice-fiction-issue-looks-jd-salinger/53309/
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