December 13, 2008

Which 3 books changed your childhood?

An incredibly peculiar sensation- wandering up into the attic to find the Christmas decorations and then spending forty minutes leafing through the old kid’s books. Chief memories, I then realised, were-

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child

Every time I bring this book up I’m met with puzzled looks. To reiterate; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road featuring two clockwork mice (a father and son) who require constant winding in order to continue moving, which puts them in a terrifying state of dependency as they journey across a bleak landscape, searching for the other toys they once knew to try and forge familial bonds. Features slave labour, traumatic death and philosophy. When you’re seven years old, the concept of a tin of dog food depicting a dog holding a tin of dog food depicting a dog, etc., is something of a mindfuck.

Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe

I’ve been flicking through Google to see how well Green Knowe has weathered. It mostly seems to appear only on explicitly Christian book sites, which is a shame. The story is familiar- some curious children explore a mysterious (possibly magical) old manor home. A running parallel between the lives of these children and some children from the distant past (now existing as somewhere between phantom and memory) is rudely interrupted by the awakening of Green Noah, a possessed stump of tree and bush (sounds silly, but it’s terrifying) whose beard must never be cut. Noah is taken out by a real deus ex machina- a statue of St Christopher, no less, channelling lightning- but by that stage you were too relieved to care much about religious brainwashing.

Roald Dahl’s The Minpins, illus. by Patrick Benson

The illustrator is important- The Minpins was maybe the one Dahl book that would have suffered from Quentin Blake’s whimsical cartoons. One image stands out in the memory- a tiny boy, staring forward into an enormous boundary of dark, looming trees. It is, of course, the Forest of Sin- ‘none come out, though many go in’, which, the young boy’s mother claims, features monsters such as vermicious knids, the soul-sucking blobs from the writer’s other most frightening children’s book, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The Minpins themselves, generic little Borrower-people, are the weakest element in this story. Far more exciting is the beginning- when a children’s book features the Devil in the first few pages you’re bound to look up- and the end, in which the child, on swanback, battles an unseen monster with the horrifying signifier of a plume of smoke moving through the forest. The ending’s tainted slightly for me now by the echo of Dahl’s ‘slightly older audience’ short story The Swan, in which two bullies torment a younger boy, finally forcing him to attach the wings of a swan they’ve shot to his own arms and attempt to fly from the top of a tall tree. It deserves a mention for being brilliantly disturbing and effective- but, sadly, in a career full of murders, cannibalism and grotesquery, it’s the only thing I’ve ever read by Dahl that was actually nasty.

All of this maybe confirms something me and James Harringman have been discussing - the greatest childrens’ books tend to be the ones that no sensible adult would ever dream of letting a child near...


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