Sometimes I think I would be happy if for the rest of my life I was forbidden to read anything other than children’s books. That isn’t really true. But sometimes it feels like it could be. Here are some works of children’s literature that are also works of genius:
Watership Down (Richard Adams)
Oh my God, it really doesn’t get any better than this. It really doesn’t. The movie is equally genius and highly recommendable. In terms of the movie, what does it say about U.S. versus English kiddie films, if in the U.S. stories like Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid and Pocahantus becomes love stories with happy endings, while in England a bunch of cute cuddley rabbits turn into this:
Yeah, that just about sums it up. Except no, it really doesn’t!! This book is so much more than that! Here are just some reasons why this book is genius:
1- It creates an incredibly rich, Tolkein-like universe by giving the rabbits their own vocabulary, religion and myths.
2- The way it invokes Joseph Campbell and mythology in general (like the hero’s journey, the descent into darkness in order to gain knowledge, the role of the seer, etc.)
3- The comparison of rabbit society to early primitive humans, especially in the role of storytelling and oral tradition, and how that helps them cope with and make sense of traumatic, violent experiences.
4- The environmental message, which basically consists of how humans are destroying the planet. Or as one rabbit puts it at one point (Captain Holly, to be specific–ha! ha! ha! That’s right, I knew without needing to check!!): “There’s terrible evil in the world and it comes from men. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals. They destroyed the warren just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves…”
5- The parallels with contemporary politics and culture. Is General Woundwort’s warren a commentary on fascism? (This is particularly strong in the movie, where the rabbits from his warren all have blue eyes, in stereotypical Nazi Germany style). Is Cowslip’s warren a commentary on modern humans who are fat, lazy and completely alienated from nature and their original purpose? I found the passages about Cowslip’s warren and the way they invented these weird rituals and symbols for themselves ESPECIALLY fascinating in the context of all the books I’ve read about religion this year, in terms of how religion helps humans cope and make sense of their experiences.
This list is just skimming the surface of how deep the waters run in this book, of course. Watership Down is an absolute classic and one of the best ones ever written, and I’ll fight anyone to the death (Bigwig-versus-General Woundwort style) who dares to contradict me.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien)
This book is genius, I tell you. GENIUS. The movie is also really good but I can’t find a good version of it on youtube. It’s weird how the movie invents a crazy subplot about this magic red stone, which is how Mrs. Frisby ends up moving her house because, like, she has a really pure heart or something? I can’t remember. But anyway, the point isit’s weird how the movie ended up with this big magic subplot, because the book is ALL about the science. Did you know that NIMH actually exists?!
Reading about how this book was written sent me down a rabbithole of research that eventually led me to discovering the behavioral sink experiment, a research study involving mice that apparently inspired this book. It is some CRAZY stuff. It is so fascinating to me that I cannot stop myself from summarizing: basically, this scientist built this mouse utopia, in which they would have all they would ever want or need in terms of food, water and lack of natural predators (paralleling the existence of most modern humans). The only thing that was limited was available space. Initially the mouse population exploded, but then some really weird things started happening:
Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers… Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.
I highlighted the parts in bold because oh, I don’t know, they reminded me of something.
That was a long digression, but anyway, this is a great book. Similarly to Watership Down, it has another very pro-environmental, anti-human destruction message that I am not embarrassed to admit that I found very powerful. I also found the scene in which the rats invade a library (not included in movie) very moving:
What I liked best was history. I read about the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and the Dark Ages, when the old civilizations fell apart and the only people who could read and write were the monks. They lived apart in monasteries. They led the simplest kind of lives, and studied and wrote; they grew their own food, built their own houses and furniture. They even made their own tools and their own paper. Reading about that, I began getting some ideas of how we might live.
We wondered. If rats had stayed ahead, if they had gone on and developed a real civilization–what would it have been like? (pg. 133-134)
Another big difference between the book and the movie that I’d forgotten about is that in the book, JUSTIN DIES (or at least it’s strongly implied that he does). Wow, was I bummed!! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I am sorry for you, and I urge you to take steps to amend this situation.
Z for Zachariah (also by Robert C. O’Brien)
Not only is this book a genius work of children’s literature, I think it could easily be considered a classic in the post-apocalyptic novel genre, period. No matter how many times I read this book it never gets old. It’s suspenseful and tightly plotted (even though I’ve read it SO many times it still makes me feel so nervous and tense when I read it, like the jittery wiggling around kind of nervous–this is why I can never read suspense novels). It is also still extremely relevant and contemporary. Like I said, a work of genius.
The Dark is Rising series (Susan Cooper)
These books are still the main reason I want to visit Cornwall (apart from the fact that it’s Tori Amos’ ‘hood, of course). Apparently the second one got turned into a movie (?!) that sounds absolutely DREADFUL. Thank God my radar missed it.
These books are genius for the way they seamlessly combine Arthurian legend, Celtic mythology and English & Welsh history with a rocking and rollicking kid’s adventure story. Most of the plots in these books involve QUESTS to solve riddles and find things like swords and chalices and golden harps. Who doesn’t love a quest, especially when your only clue is a rhyming poem?
I especially loved these books when I was young because I loved the idea of getting trained or taught to be a wizard (who knows, if Harry Potter had come out just a few years earlier, would I have been an obsessive Harry Potter fan? As it was I think I was a leetle too old for them–I liked them, but I was never SUPER into them). When I was really little, I always had this secret daydream about learning how to be a Jedi Knight. Basically I just wanted to dress in black and move things with my mind and cut stuff up with a cool glowing sword. Oh my God, I just had the thought that maybe that’s why I’ve been getting into meditation this year, because it’s my adult substitution for Jedi Knight Mind Training. Gaaaah! Craziness!
Anyway. So there’s no Jedi Knights in the books but you do get the Old Ones who are like immortal wizards. My favorite of the five books in the series is…… hmmm, that’s a tough one. I guess it’s a tie between the first and second (Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising respectively). Over Sea, Under Stone is good because it’s basically a straightforward detective story–there’s virtually no magic, which makes it a somewhat interesting introduction. The Dark is Rising is cool because it’s all about wizard training, oops I mean Old Ones training–whatever, same thing. I think David Mitchell (in a recent NY Times interview) encapsulated this book’s appeal better than I ever could:
Many children are natural fantasists, I think, perhaps because their imaginations have yet to be clobbered into submission by experience. When you’re 10, there is still an outside chance that you might find Narnia behind the wardrobe, that the fur coats could turn into fir trees. The state of childhood resonates with life inside a fantasy novel. If you have no control over how you spend large chunks of your day, or are at the mercy of flawed giant beings, then the desire to bend the laws of the world by magic is strong and deep. I don’t mean that kids can’t distinguish fantasy from reality — the playground bully will clarify the matter gratis — but fantasy offers a logic to which kids are receptive, and escapism for which kids are hungry.
These books made me very fond of England when I was a child, and as I re-read them recently, that same fondness glowed like a tiny little fire in my shriveled expat’s heart. England! What a crazy country! I went for a walk for today, for example (NOT a hike, which is called a “trek” here in England–nope, here what you do is WALK, homeboys), and I stumbled onto a field filled with–wait for it–DONKEYS and SHETLAND ponies wearing pink and purple coats that said things like COTTON CANDY and CANDY CANE in delicately stitched white cursive letters. It was the single most amazing moment of my life, basically. And the best thing is that it’s not even that far from my house, so it won’t be too difficult for me to return with apples and carrots. Ponies!! I love ’em. England; what a crazy country, with their Welsh myths, Arthurian swords and Old Ones-Jedi knights.