The Book Club

Other Adds to Kid’s Lit Wish-List 

Dear Nell:

May I refine your three very good wishes a tiny bit?

First, I agree wholeheartedly about the value of introducing each work in a book like this; I would even make my introductions go further than yours. I remember, in sixth grade, reading a book of short stories—The Best Short Stories in the World, or some such hyperbolically-titled collection—that included things like “The Lottery,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and “The Lady or the Tiger?” It was a thrilling selection, enhanced by the prefaces before each story telling you not only what to expect, but also what was interesting and special about it. In my perfect anthology, the prefaces would include small bits of information about the author and the genre of writing, in order to put the work in its proper place. If you did it right, it wouldn’t have to be too school-marmish. Some of the things Bloom has included in his book—the poem by Anonymous that begins, “Here we come a piping/ First in spring, and then in May,” which leaves me cold, heartless as I am—would be much aided by a few words about when they were written, and why, and in what general context, so that poetry non-appreciators like me could get the extra help we need.

Bloom’s selections from the authors sometimes perplexed me, too. You rightly identify the Clovis story as second-tier Saki and nominate some better choices from the Saki oeuvre. There are two ways to look at Bloom’s decision to include a more obscure story. One way is that Bloom was trying to be unconventional, trying to get away from the most obvious selections. (That thesis falls down somewhat, as you point out, when you look at the obviousness of many of his other choices, like Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”) The second is that he really does have different tastes from you and me. Which is fine, but I’m less willing to submit to them than I would be if I was still an actual child. He’s doomier and gloomier than I like—the E. Nesbit story is indeed a drag, compared to the many delightful ones she wrote, and I could have done without “The Red Shoes,” one of my least favorite Hans Christian Andersen stories, on account of how it gave me nightmares when I was small.

But of course he’s arguing, as he does in his other anthologies, that these works will provide a solid grounding in literature for people who want to go on to read other things in an educated way. Which is absolutely true—I appreciate getting some Swinburne in there, for instance, because I wouldn’t get it otherwise—but that’s also where his unconventionality falls away and becomes conventional. With some exceptions, like the Mark Twain piece, the works he chooses are the works that someone growing up in England in the mid-20th century might well have been taught in school. These are the sorts of works my English husband was born and bred on: pastoral poetry, tales of morality, lots and lots of Lewis Carroll, who is spectacular but also singularly acceptable to the British establishment in a way that sometimes crowds out other, more obscure choices.

I loved the selections in your dream book, although I could quibble gently with a few of them. From The Phantom Tollbooth, also one of my all-time favorites, I think I would choose the scene where Milo visits the Doldrums and is introduced to those little creatures who lie around all day, resting and procrastinating. From “A Wrinkle in Time,” I might select the visit to the two-dimensional planet, where all the air is sucked out of Meg’s lungs, or to Camazotz, where all the kids are bouncing their balls strictly in time. I would like to have something from Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and would surely include a selection from one of C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” books—perhaps the one introducing Puddleglum, the delightfully lugubrious Marsh-wiggle. I would like to see a scene, perhaps involving the tedious Veruca Salt, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and even something from Maurice Sendak—Where the Wild Things Are resonates at any time in your life when you feel unwilling to listen to voices of authority. Speaking of which, could we put Dr. Seuss in our book, please?

And now I am going to go to Amazon and start ordering some of the things you mention that somehow passed me by. And let me leave you with one of my favorite children’s books of all time, a book that was recently put back into print after a long hiatus, due as far as I can tell to the loud clamoring on the Internet for its re-release. It’s called The Silver Crown, and it’s by Robert C. O’Brien, the same person who wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and it’s breathtaking.

All best to you,