Why I'M Rereading Children's Fiction
Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials', Patrick Ness' 'A Monster Calls', Salman Rushdie's 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' and 'Luka and The Fire of Life'
After I finished my final English exam in my final year, the first books I read for pleasure were my favourite children’s books. I wanted to revisit what it was that had got me addicted to reading in the first place, especially after three years of reading being synonymous with work, essays, and often very depressing, or deliberately unsatisfying, not-so-happy ever afters. So I was surprised when on rereading all of my personal all-time favourites- Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials) and Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking and A Monster Calls)- alongside children’s fiction that I’d discovered more recently by one of my favourite writers, Salman Rushdie (Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luke and the Fire of Life), what I read wasn’t exactly what I’d expected.
I realised that neither happy endings nor light and frothy readings were what had led to these works making such an impression on me. Actually, there was nothing easy or basic about reading these books at all. Children’s authors are often unapologetically dark, direct and painfully truthful, and they treat challenging themes with an open candour that adult literature can lack. These rereads definitely showed me how patronising I’d been, assuming that with children’s books I could go back to light summer reading with a nice touch of nostalgia. In fact, the last thing a young reader wants to be is patronised, and the best of children’s fiction exemplifies this.
Rushdie’s two children’s stories, 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' and 'Luka and the Fire of Life', do show a refreshing return to the fundamentals of storytelling and fantasy, but all while exploring challenging and deeply political themes of race prejudice that you’d see in his adult literature. Here, the fairytale as type of storytelling holds power for Rushdie in its ability to transcend geographical boundaries, while always existing in a process of reworking and remodernising. The critic Andrew Teverson writes that "fairy tales have circulated for centuries in diverse forms […] and have, in the process of their circulation, crossed most of the ideological borderlines that societies have erected to keep tribe from tribe and nation from nation […] Fairytales are fiction’s natural migrants". I love this quote for it’s hopefulness, and I think it’s one that Rushdie would wholeheartedly agree with.
If you read these stories, you’ll notice immediately Rushdie’s emphasis on nationalist metaphors within fantasy lands. The two nations depicted in Haroun’s story represent the anxieties of censorship versus freedom of speech, deep stuff for a children’s book- I was pretty surprised and impressed that Rushdie manages to tackle these themes without reverting to over-didactic preaching. The other nation of the Chupwalas against the Guppees are first written in a clear good versus bad shading:
"How many opposites are at war in this battle between Gup and Chup!" He marvelled. "Gup is bright and Chup is dark. Gup is war and Chup is freezing cold. Gup is all chattering and noise, whereas Chupis silent as a shadow. […] Guppees love stories and speech; Chupwalas, it seems hate these things strongly."
And yet this, highly moralistic, contrast between the two nations is confused in Haroun’s interaction with his first Chupwala warrior and his explication on the complexities of freedom of speech:
"But it’s not as simple as that," he told himself, because the dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly); and that Action could be noble as Words; and that creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of the light. "If Guppees and Chupwalas didn’t hate each other so," he thought, "they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say"
Haroun acts as the intermediary throughout the book and becomes the most powerful character in the story, through his ability to cross and subvert boundaries. Reading this as a child, you can’t fail to be empowered by someone your age holding the power to effect such monumental and positive changes in perspective. It reminds me of Lord Asriel’s comment about Will in 'His Dark Materials':
“He dared to do what men and women don't even dare to think. And look what he's done already: he's torn open the sky, he's opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could think of it?"
My favourite thing about the protagonists of these stories is how the writer’s emphasise their curiosity and open-mindedness. Rushdie’s Haroun asks the critical question that even threatens to overturn the entire story’s genre:
"What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?"
But the fairy-tale or fantasy story, as genre for Haroun and Luka, asserts a confident response to this anxiety for the truth; as most fairy-tale theorists argue, fact is of much less use to the child’s psyche. Both Luka and Haroun, the two novels’ child protagonists, shift between the fantasy and reality worlds; with flying carpets, video games, talking fish and magical word oceans, they dissolve boundaries between the real and magical, where magic is put in place to dispel real-life anxieties. What’s much more important is what is right and wrong, and the growing understanding that this is never straightforward. Tolkien writes that what is true in a fairy story "is not one to be rashly or idly answered". Instead the question of "Was he good? Was he wicked? [the child] is more concerned to get the Right side and the Wrong side clear". I won’t spoil too much of the magic, but Luka, through his adventure, comes to accept that ‘"there’s nothing ordinary about [him]" in such a way that doesn’t act to frighten or alienate; instead he accepts and comes to celebrate of his familial life, that "in this family, we know there’s no such thing". So the fairy-tale can begin to resolve the dark and morality-focused themes intrinsic to the child’s developing and anxious inner reality:
“The monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be […] Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it.” (Bruno Bettelheim)
I want to finish by mentioning how often and how adeptly many children’s authors handle themes of mortality and death. It is impossible not to mention Patrick Ness’ 'A Monster Calls' here, which I encourage absolutely everyone of any age to read. Alongside exploring the muddiness of morality, understanding and processing death is another key journey that many children often must face, sometimes earlier than seems fair. Writers like Patrick Ness, Salman Rushdie and Phillip Pullman aid in this process as one of their duties to their young readers; take Pullman writing heartbreakingly kind characters like Lee Scoresby to help his young readers come to terms with the ugly and unfair:
"Your death taps you on the shoulder, or takes your hand, and says, ‘Come along o’ me, it’s time."
Or Patrick Ness’s monster helping Connor with the burden of an ill family member in A Monster Calls:
"And part of you wished it would just end, said the monster, even if it meant losing her.
Conor nodded, barely able to speak.
"I let her go," Conor choked out. "I could have held on but I let her go."
And that, the monster said, is the truth.
I didn’t mean it, though!" Conor said, his voice rising. "I didn’t mean to let her go! And now it’s for real! Now she’s going to die and it’s my fault!"
And that, the monster said, is not the truth at all."
These books hold the scenes and chapters that I’ve found the most unforgettable of all my reading, and I would encourage any reader to go back to what they loved as a child. This includes the dare-I-say shit-tier Rainbow Fairies and Captain Underpants- you’re bound to find something unexpected.
Andrew Teverson, ‘Migrant Fictions: Salman Rushdie and the Fairy Tale’,
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,
J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson, eds.