What We Gain: Children’s Literature and the Self

What We Gain.png
Illustration by Victoria Liao

Allan Stratton is a University of Toronto alumnus, playwright, actor, novelist, and a really nice guy. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him twice.

The first time, he was giving a talk at my former high school’s library and a friend I’d been visiting there convinced me to go. He read an excerpt from The Phoenix Lottery (“I wish you were alive and everybody else was dead. I do. I really, really do” reads the teenage diary of Lydia, directed at her cat) and I introduced myself afterwards. We talked about writing, Victoria College, and his characters, and I got a copy of his book which I enjoyed later that summer.

I met him again more recently at Harbourfront Centre. The Forest of Reading, a children’s literary festival where Stratton was nominated for (and won) the Red Maple Award, had taken over for the week, and my job was to ferry authors, excited students, and stressed teachers to the right events. On our way to his Q&A I reintroduced myself and we talked as long as the walk down the hallway would let us.

He was talking about his latest book, The Dogs. It follows a young boy named Cameron and his mother as they run from his abusive father and look for another new start in a small town, where they move into a farmhouse haunted by the ghostly dogs of a previous owner. It was clear that kids loved it, so I read it the next week and enjoyed it as much as an adult reading a book written for twelve year olds can – a decent amount. It was an exciting story and while the supernatural was my favourite part, it contained enough of the real world to be scary on its own.

Good children’s literature offers more to adult readers than just an entertaining story. Thank goodness, for the sake of anyone who has to read to kids regularly. And lots of this literature is also speculative: the most popular YA books out there involve magic and the supernatural, to say nothing of the talking animals and fairy tales that dominate picture books. Lots of classic speculative fiction novels, like Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia, are also definitive works of children’s literature – and they’re praised and enjoyed by all ages.

As we grow up and interact with stories differently, we gain and we lose. We gain the inside jokes and the Easter eggs that are intended to be entertaining only to adults. We gain the grittiness of folk tales and the integral darkness of our culture. At the very least, we gain a better understanding of the plot.

But we lose perspective, and the unique ways children deal with problems. Sometimes an obvious solution, to an adult, requires much more creative problem-solving from a child. I’m sure I can come up with an example of a basic story plot that I didn’t understand as a kid and for which I had to create my own complicated solution.

The kids at Stratton’s Q&A were really interested in the reality of the book – a major theme that leaves a lot up to the reader. Questions about whether the ghost was real or imagined, the truth about a character’s ambiguous death, and even what Cameron looked like, were passionately called out from the audience for most of the session. Even in a speculative world, the search for the concrete lives on.

The Dogs definitely does horror well, and the creepiness is probably why the students who voted for it enjoyed it so much. Cameron thinks he sees faces out of his bedroom window. There are disturbing drawings left behind by a long-dead child, and scratch marks in a dark basement. At one point he fears that the attic of his house has bodies in it.

It’s creepy, but it poses more than enough questions to overcome the fear and read on for the answers, as Cameron himself does in the story. And while he’s busy dodging bullies and spirits, his mom grapples with her own fears of Cameron’s abusive father finding them. She’s more afraid of him than Cameron ever is of the violent dogs and uncovered bones.

Revisiting anything can be emotional, but as kids our identities are complex as they change and take shape. Earlier this year I re-read some of the Narnia books and rediscovered so many things I’d forgotten, and how they shaped me. What still rang true about these books I’d loved so much? I’ve always loved the world-building offered by The Magician’s Nephew. As an adult I was more drawn to the humorous misery of Edmund, but when I was younger, Susan had been my clear favourite.

Ask anyone why stories are important and they’ll tell you it’s because they open us to new perspectives. But children’s literature does this in a unique way by giving us back our old perspectives: it’s the the familiar hidden in the alien. Even if we are not a story’s target audience we can still learn about who we are, and who we were.

-Contributed by Risa Ian De Rege

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