Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Children's Stories

I want to gush.  It seems like lately I've been absolutely enchanted by stories technically classified as Children's books, or Youth books, at the very highest.

There's something about the simple sentence structure, the rapid flow of the plot, the generally easy vocabulary, but most of all, there's something about the unapologetic directness of the story.

There's no complex plot devices, no extensive use of metaphor, no pussy-footing around complicated life issues.  The book says what it means to say, and, depending on the finesse of the author, says it well.

What books might have triggered this reaction?  It's been a long time coming, but these are the books with which I connected or re-connected in the last couple of years:

  • Chronicles of Narnia (of course)
  • Howl's Moving Castle
  • Castle in the Air
  • House of Many Ways
  • Coraline
  • The Graveyard Book

and, the most recent,

  • Heidi

I read Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, as a youngster, probably around 10 years old, and while the story of a girl from the mountain helping a friend from the city walk again enchanted me and reinforced the notion that living in the country was preferable to living in a large town or full-fledged city, its appeal only lasted so long in the face of Jane Austen, who had ROMANCE included in her novels.  Oooo, romance.  Yes, I was captivated by such things even at a young age.  There's a reason my dad called me "boy crazy."

Now, however, the story takes on an entirely new dimension - you see, I've BEEN to Switzerland.  I've been IN the Alps.  I've sat on a bench in the middle of a rural neighborhood and heard the goat bells and seen the green pastures and squinted at the snow on the cliffs.  I've breathed the crisp air, tasted mountain spring water, and napped under the golden sun.

So these things that Spyri describes are very clear and vivid for me.  Add to that the childish innocence, the weaving of well-known stories into the narrative without the reader even knowing until the precise moment it makes the most emotional impact, the kindness demonstrated by so many of the supporting characters, and the clearly unabashed references to God make this an altogether new experience for me, reading as an adult.

Diana Wynn Jones, the author of Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, and House of Many Ways, I recently discovered because I wanted to read the stories that inspired the Miyazaki films.  I confirmed that, as usual, the book is almost completely different than the movie, but I also found that I really, really liked her writing style and the world she created.  These three books are a trilogy in the respect that the event happen in the same universe, but the central story isn't about the same characters.  Characters from previous books make cameo appearances, or are supporting characters, but they aren't the primary focus.

Once again, the simple, matter-of-fact sentence structure and vocabulary dominate the narrative, making for an extremely quick read.  I sometimes had to force myself to slow down to catch all the detail, though.  Jones employs magic in her stories, sometimes of mind-bending quality, but always delightfully expressed.  Howl himself highly entertained me.

Neil Gaiman, who wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book, adds a mysterious and often creepy quality to his stories.  He writes both adult and youth fiction, and I've read a sampling of both.  He has a unique voice and a unique perspective, which I find fascinating.  Again, though, the narrative is simple, straightforward, and often clever.  Gaiman simply adds a new dimension that I don't usually find conducive to a younger audience.  For some reason, though, his exploration of the morbid isn't as disturbing as it could be.  I'd most likely object if it came from anyone else.

All this isn't to say I don't like full-length novels anymore.  Far from it.  I still greatly enjoy Dickens and Austen and Bronte and the like.  I still get involved with contemporary teen series (like Harry Potter), and I still hold LOTOR in awe as the premium example of Epic Fantasy.  I'm just learning to re-appreciate works geared for a younger audience.  I don't care if the reading level is far below what I'm capable, or what challenges me.  I like these stories for their own sake, and I believe it's good for us adult types to take a break from life's intrigues and bask in the subtle nuances of a child's story.

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