Missing the window on kids’ books

Amidst the enormous pile of cullable books in my bedroom right now were these two books by Kit Pearson about British children evacuated to Canada. They’ve been there for a while because I started reading one of them and got bored, and then I never finished because I didn’t want to face the fact that I have these books about British children evacuated to Canada during World War II that I would not enjoy. That was sad for me. I like books about children being evacuated because of the Blitz. See also Michelle Magorian. Did you like Good Night Mr. Tom better, or Back Home better? Why didn’t Michelle Magorian ever write any other books?

So anyway these books are The Sky Is Falling and Looking at the Moon. They are about a girl called Norah who gets evacuated with her little brother Gavin to Canada. They go to live with two weird rich women who live Gavin much better than Norah because the mother rich lady lost her son in the First World War. Norah struggles to make new friends at school, and the one friend she does make is strenuously disapproved of by her host family. That is the first book. Since this is a book for children, everything eventually turns out okay, and Norah becomes a better big sister. In the second book she gets a crush on a much-older pacifist who ends up realizing that everyone hates war and it’s shirking not to go.

(As a pacifist, that kinda irritated me.)

I missed the window, is all I can say. If I’d read these books when I was a little girl, I bet I’d have liked them. I liked almost any book where the protagonists went off to live with a new party because their parents for some reason couldn’t keep them. But now I am old enough that I want more stuff to be going on. I want there to be themes. Like in Back Home (a book I feel awfully awfully fond of and would like to reread) there are all these themes about independence and returning to an old version of yourself after you’ve experienced another way of being. There was all this tension between the protagonist and her mother where the mother expected her to be the same after all those years but the protagonist had changed tremendously and basically thought of herself as American and wanted to have all these freedoms that her mother wasn’t expecting to have to give her; and there was something really similar happening between her mother and grandmother. And just, oh, Back Home. That book wrecks me. It is heartbreaking.

I remember Ana reading the Chronicles of Narnia a while ago and saying that she felt specifically, personally excluded by C. S. Lewis. That made me sad and it made me think that if I read the Narnia books for the first time now, I’m sure they would feel that way to me as well. I’m Catholic, which Lewis wasn’t and didn’t care for; and I’m a feminist, ditto times infinity, and I don’t like smoking and my sister’s a vegetarian, and these books are not set up to welcome me in. But because C. S. Lewis taught me what stories are starting at age three, this stuff isn’t what strikes me about the books. They feel like coming home (I’ve said this before but it remains true) no matter how many times I read them. I could not read them for the first time now and expect to ever have that experience when rereading them.

So what are some kids’ books on which you missed the window? Or books you loved as a kid and suspect you wouldn’t love quite so much if you read them for the first time now?

46 thoughts on “Missing the window on kids’ books

  1. Ugh The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I LOVED it when I read it like two years ago, so I’m pretty sure it and I would have settled down in the suburbs and had kids if I’d read it as an actual child.

    I also never read any Little House on the Prairies, but I suspect I would’ve thought they were dumb even back then. “And then Carrie got an apple for Christmas! Joyous day indeed!”

    There’re others, but it’s too early in the morning. I skipped Redwall as a kid because talking mice seemed like a silly thing (aside from Reepicheep).

  2. During this whole post, right up until you mentioned them, I was thinking of The Chronicles of Narnia (and not just because it also starts with kids being evacuated during the war). I fell in love with them as a kid, and as a result I still enjoy them, but yes, if I read them now I’d probably wonder what was so great about them. I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz a couple years back and had a similar reaction. It was okay, it was interesting to see where the movie came from and where it made changes, but overall it just didn’t do anything for me. And so many people just love it.

    I will read the occasional YA, even though that’s not really my thing either, but as far as actual children’s books, I’m waiting until I have my own kids. Maybe then I’ll be able to recreate some of the magic, seeing it through their eyes.

  3. I had some issues with Louisa May Alcott when I reread Eight Cousins a few months ago. It was too much on the nose, and so preachy I had to hide An Old Fashioned Girl and Jack & Jill, ’cause I didn’t want to hate them too (and even thinking about An Old Fashioned Girl makes me cringe, but I loved it so much when I was little!) But I totally get why they were so good for me back then. I mean, it was like having someone constantly saying you could always be more kind, and that’s something I still need to hear everyday. But probably not in the same way.

  4. I read A Wrinkle in Time a few years ago and enjoyed it, but I’m sure I would have loved it if I first read it as a child. I hate that. I’m trying to get my kids to read some of these books like A Wrinkle in Time or When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) or Freckle Juice (Blume), so they won’t miss the window on great books.

  5. I am so in agreement with you, Jenny, on the Kit Pearson books. I want to love them, I should love them;other people love them; but when I tried them I just couldn’t fully enter into them. They were so … so … historical fiction lite, so obviously contrived to hit all the points on the Social Studies Syllabus… I dunno. Probably would have loved them as a kid, but coming to them as an adult after reading so many other books (including a lot of YA, which I truly enjoy as a genre) they seemed a bit weak.

    I rather agree with Nat on the LM Alcott books; I loved these as a girl and literally read the covers off of them. Re-reading them now I still love them, but I do see all of the cringe-worthy bits. The writing holds up well in the best of them, though. I think I could have read them for the first time now and still thought them marvelous. (And Jack and Jill and Jo’s Boys were probably my favourites. Oh, and Eight Cousins. Rose in Bloom made me want to rip my hair out, though. The whole Charlie situation. Argh. I’ll never forgive LMA for that convenient elimination, or for the situation with Dan and Amy’s daughter – Bess (?) – in Jo’s Boys. I found that quite heartbreaking. “Off you go then, boy, because this lovely girl is too pure for the likes of you…” I kind of accepted it way back in childhood, but in rereading these now I seethe with indignation. ;-) )

    One book I loved as a kid but which doesn’t quite hold its magic now is Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter. I had such a crush on the hero as a girl! But re-reading this a few years ago the sentimentality made me gag. I’m going to give it another try one day, though. :-)

  6. As a teetotaller feminist Mormon who often wears sandals, I’m probably not Lewis’ type. But I’m sure he’s learned better by now. :D He’s one of my favorites, and *I* get to welcome *him.* But that is probably easier since I’ve known the Narnia books forever.

  7. I haven’t got round to reading any completely new-to-me children’s books, but I did finish Narnia as an adult, and know I would’ve been upset about Susan for different reasons when younger (because it would’ve been unfair to miss her out of Narnia and when what made him leave her out isn’t on your horizon yet it would be difficult to understand). Otherwise I’ve read books I’d already read – because there are books I wish I had read, and I’m very aware I wouldn’t appreciate them now, so I guess I just forget about it.

  8. I missed the Freddie books, which Ron loves. There’s a long series of them by Walter Brooks, and I didn’t read them as a kid, so don’t feel as attached to them as he does. We once met a playwright who had read them all and was enthusiastic about them and he and Ron talked about how great they were.

  9. I guess I was just a bit too old for Harry Potter. Who am I kidding? I was WAY too old for Harry Potter! I enjoyed the first two books (I still remember reading the first, sitting in a park in Sandymount, on a sunny Summer’s day) but by the third book, my attention had started to flag and I never finished it. The first two books had a very real charm for me. They struck me as quite old-fashioned (but in a good way) and as being written by somebody who believed in what she was doing, rather than somebody who was just writing to make a few bob. My problem with the third book (and remember, this was around the time the book came out so don’t quote me) related to the fact that Quidditch featured quite a bit at the start and I’m pretty much allergic to any kind of sport, magical or otherwise.

  10. I have trouble with this kind of question, because I apparently have trouble seeing the flaws in books I have loved for a long time. Like, I can kind of see the cringe-worthy parts in Louisa May Alcott’s lesser works, if I squint, but usually I just skim over those parts and read the good bits, so I want to get all defendy. And leavesandpages, I love Gene Stratton-Porter, despite her sentimentality (or maybe because of it, in some ways, it’s a nice clean sentimentality and not at all maudlin), so much that I gave Teresa Girl of the Limberlost to read and was completely shocked by how many people had hated that book.

    That much said, it has been quite difficult for me to explain Ma’s racism, in the Little House books, to my children. I love those books and re-read them every year for a while, but explaining Native American-pioneer relations to a four-year-old is not a fun or a simple task.

  11. I would never, not ever, have evacuated you girls. Unless to relatives. Then maybe.

    I just got Robin’s Country in the mail, and I fear that I may have missed the window; time will tell. I KNOW I would have missed the window on LOTR; I would never finish them if I read them now for the first time – as it is, I want to throw them out the window every time I encounter a female character. And pretty much, I missed the window on the Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper.

    But wait, what? People hate Laura Ingalls Wilder? How is this possible? People hate A Girl of the Limberlost, with its awesome green message? And surely no-one could hate An Old-fashioned Girl, my favorite favorite forever!

  12. Darling, wait until you have children (or your sisters do). I cannot tell you how much fun there is to be had in reading books to children. I caught up on SO MUCH children’s literature I missed the first time around, and with my son to share it, enjoyed it enormously.

  13. I love this post, Jenny. I totally agree with you about missing the window. Unfortunately I’ve done it too often since I’m reading a lots of the ‘children’s’ books as an adult. Narnia is the big one for me. I’ve read a few of the books in the series but I didn’t love them.

    I’ve encountered an interesting flip side to the problem though. Some of the kid’s books I’ve read somewhat recently (Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and A Little Princess) I’ve absolutely adored. I think I would have really disliked them/been bored by them if I had read them as a kid though.

  14. The Moomin books. I desperately want to like them, and I just can’t enter their world. Drawn and Quarterly has published them in beautiful hardcover editions, and I’ve collected them all. I’m thrilled to say that my sons have read them, and that my middle son is reading them now and just loving them. I want to feel like an insider in a world that has a Snork Maiden. Alas, I missed my ride to that sense of belonging.

  15. I read those books when I was a child, and they didn’t do much for me then, either. It’s hard to remember just what turned me off them, but I think I didn’t like Norah. I will, however, be forever grateful to those books for introducing me to the Swallows and Amazons series, which I still love. For some reason I was willing to take book recommendations from an author I didn’t really like, and I’m very glad of that.

    The flip side of all this is the children’s books that I didn’t like, or wouldn’t have liked, as a kid, that I liked when I read them as an adult. The Moomin books creeped me out when I was a kid, but I like them now; I didn’t encounter The Mouse and His Child until recently, and I liked it, but I don’t think I would have been able to make head or tail of it as a child, even though it’s supposedly for children.

      • It’s AWESOME. It is a bit strange and sad but (spoiler) triumphant at the ending. And, as you like it, working from isolation toward relationship.

    • We just listened to Swallows and Amazons in the car on cd, and it was wonderful! You could write a thesis on the orientalist discourse in the book, but that aside, it was so refreshing to listen to a story that did not rely on cliff hangers ever other page to keep its plot going. My husband and I were so charmed by it, and amazed at the kids’ independence. Our youngest two (8 and 5) just loved the story and the camaraderie of the siblings.

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  18. “Historical fiction lite” is the perfect description.

    I am sad about this Louisa May Alcott anger. I thought the Rose in Bloom thing with Charlie and Rose was heartbreaking — here was this screwed-up person Rose was very, very, very fond of but just not in love with, like that he was someone she couldn’t trust enough to fall in love with him. I didn’t think his death was convenient AT ALL, or that it had overtones of “this lovely girl is too pure for the likes of you”. I thought it was more — this girl needs to admire the person she’s in love with, and you make it hard for her to fully admire you. You know?

    I haven’t read Jo’s Boys nearly as much as the others. Maybe once or twice, tops, and a long time ago. I should go back and read the subsequent Little Women books. If I go into them knowing that they won’t be Little Women, they shouldn’t disappoint me as previously. :p

  19. I can see that that would be hard to explain, but to me that’s part of what makes the books so good – that we can see, without being told, that Ma is in some ways very narrow-minded and bigoted, and that Pa and Laura are trying very hard not to share those beliefs, but that we also come to see, over the course of the books, what a strong character Ma is in so many other ways, what a hard job she has and how well she does it.

  20. My mother really loves Girl of the Limberlost so I expect I will too. I don’t know why everyone keeps bringing up poor Louisa May Alcott! I think her books hold up amazingly well. They’re didactic, but they’re not saying anything that horrific — just, like, practice temperance and you’ll be happier.

  21. Really? See, the experience I had with Eight Cousins wasn’t that bad, but Rose in Bloom made me rebel against Alcott like I never thought I would. It was painful. So now I think about An Old-Fashioned Girl, which was my favorite book in the world and reread it well into my teens, and all I remember is colored by my fear of it not being as good as I thought. I don’t think I’ll reread it until I’m old enough to start reading fairy tales again, like C.S. Lewis said :P

  22. What? Why Rose in Bloom, how come? How come? I reread Rose in Bloom recentlyish and was impressed with LMA’s emotional insight. What was so bad about it for you?

  23. Oh, I need to reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I had to read it so much in school, I was a little burned out on it by the time I got out of eighth grade. And haven’t reread it since!

    (I skipped Redwall too. I tried to love them but I could not.)

  24. I enjoyed the Wizard of Oz books as a kid, but I was growing out of them even before I got to adulthood. I never loved them enough for the nostalgia thing to kick in and make me keep on loving them, you know?

  25. Oo, I did not like Freckle Juice. I liked some Judy Blume of course, but Freckle Juice not among them. Wrinkle in Time I straight-up loved however. Mumsy reread it recently and said all the magic was gone from it, which makes me really sad.

  26. Hm, interesting. I was reading the Harry Potter books fairly young, but my mother read them the same time I did and enjoyed them a lot. I agree that they come off quite old-fashioned-in-a-good-way, and I loved how they got darker and awesomer the longer they went on. But I know they are not for everyone.

  27. Hahaha, luckily we have a very large family all spread out across everywhere. If you ever had needed to evacuate us, you could probably have found some relatives to take us.

    Oh no to the Robin’s Country thing! Eek! Really? You still love the other Monica Furlong books, right? And to Susan Cooper, it may be that her books are just not that good. I didn’t miss the window, I read them when I was a kid, and I never ever liked them. I only like King of Shadows.

    Mumsy! People of course hate Laura Ingalls Wilder CAUSE SHE’S RACIST.

  28. SISTERS HAVE CHILDREN. I WANT TO BE AN AUNT SO MUCH.

    Ahem. I would like to be an aunt very much, and I am looking forward to reading to my future nephews/nieces.

  29. That makes me so sad. The Narnia books are so foundational to me, I can’t imagine not loving them.

    Would you have been bored by those books as a kid? I didn’t love Anne of Green Gables as much and I still don’t, but I loved all the other LM Montgomery books I read as a kid. And I love love loved the Frances Hodgson Burnett books. I read them a hundred times.

  30. No, I agree! But why does everyone get to yell at C.S. Lewis for being didactic if you’re going to stand up for LMA so much? I like LMA a lot. She occasionally gets saccharine, but mostly she’s pretty badass.

  31. You’re quite right, of course. Part of what I mean is that gray areas like that are hard to explain to a four-year-old. You can be a racist bigot and still be a good person!

  32. Freddie is a clever pig who tries out lots of different avocations, like detective and magician. Part of the humor in the books is that the oddness of animals talking is acknowledged.
    The playwright is Anthony Clarvoe; he writes good plays (and he has read a lot of chess books, as research for one of his plays!)

  33. One thing that can affect your enjoyment of a book when you’re older is a certain sense of deja-vu. I read a lot of Diana Wynne Jones as a kid and J.K. Rowlings’ books reminded me of her, specifically the Chrestomanci books. Discovering who or what the author drew on for inspiration can affect your enjoyment as well. Take Lewis. He was a total magpie – a kid goes through a wardrobe in a story by Nesbit (‘The Aunt and Amabel’) for example.

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