Childhood Reading and the Adult Writer, or, Popular Fiction Ate My Kid-Brain

by Gillian Murray Kendall

kids-reading-in-the-dark

I used to read at the dinner table.  And in my room.  And, when I wanted no one to find me, in my closet—with the door slightly open for light to read by.  Writing comes from reading; writing is when we join the great storytelling tradition that has gone before.  When we join that tradition, we already have the patterns of childhood fictions in our brains.  All the books I’ve read, then, influenced my fiction—but it’s the books I read when I was 8 or 10, obsessively, over and over, that have probably laid down the basic tracks of plotting and theming and imaging that hold me in good stead now.  Like Ray Bradbury’s tattooed illustrated man, I carry the marks of stories past, and I am shaped seemingly down to the level of DNA by their power.  In particular, the fantasy and science fiction classics of the ‘50s and ‘60s exerted their spell, years after they were published, and I was helpless before their indelible prose.

Books from childhood are like talismans from a far off land. They have shaped my understanding of what a book is.  Good or bad, what fascinated me about fiction when I was 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 still holds sway.  Sure, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and, yes, it has great story power, but Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones was what I read under the covers.  And while I read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl (perhaps before I was ready), it was heavy going next to the entire Tarzan canon and the Black Stallion series.  Best not to tell my Shakespeare or literature students any of this.  And now, here are 5 ½ of the books that invaded my kid-brain and hard-wired me as a writer.

Beware:  if you allow your children to immerse themselves in the following books, they may not be the same again.


 

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis, 1950

 

Four children hide in a wardrobe and find themselves in a whole world called Narnia, which appears to be at the back of this venerable piece of furniture. Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who makes it always winter there; the children must defeat her so that spring, and Aslan, the great good lion, can come again.  Oh, yes, and the animals in Narnia can talk.

Luckily I didn’t recognize, at the time, that this was a Christian allegory.  Instead I saw the mundane world of the probable, and even the exciting world of the possible, displaced by the Otherworld of the incredible.  This is one of the books that made me determine, as a child, to be a writer.  Because, after reading this book time and time again, I was well aware that I wasn’t going to find a Narnia by looking in wardrobes or closets or cupboards.  I knew that, while I might have to wait a while before I could do it, I needed to build my own wardrobe. The Book of Forbidden Wisdom (Harper Voyager, 2016) is that wardrobe, and within it lies a fantasy world.  No actual furniture proves to be necessary.

Here are some caveats about my fantasy world in The Book of Forbidden Wisdom:  C.S. Lewis-like allegory is checked at the door.  No talking animals.  And the text has moved into the young adult realm, where my characters seek power in a book—only to discover that the real power lies in love.

 

2. The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951

 

There were post-apocalyptic novels before The Day of the Triffids (Mary Shelley wrote the first one, The Last Man, in 1826), and there are, heaven knows, plenty after—including my own, The Garden of Darkness (Ravenstone, 2014).  When I was a child, however, The Day of the Triffids impressed upon me the loneliness of a group of survivors in the face of global disaster.  Those Triffids, deadly walking plants, may not now sound more threatening than rutabagas on the move, but to me, they terrified.  Later, when I read George Stewart’s great book, Earth Abides—perhaps the best post-apocalyptic book ever written—I realized that it didn’t always take lethal vegetation to end the world.  But John Wyndham could make Mr. Potato Head a sign of End Times.  His plot laid down significant tracks in my mind—patterns that surely assert themselves when I write.  Again, as in the high fantasy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was seduced by genre.

 

 

3. The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury, 1951

 

At a time before tattoos were sported casually—now even my oldest son has one (okay, more than one)—a man completely covered with tattoos might well be a carnival side-show freak. The marks on the illustrated man’s body, however, were placed there by a time-traveler, and, as the narrator gazes at the tattoos, they come to life and act out stories.

I can’t think of this uncanny book without become at least a little unsettled. The Illustrated Man, it occurs to me now, although it didn’t, consciously, then, is about the writing process, of course, and the way that fiction gets away from us to enact itself to the reader.  Imagination may be the time-traveler that inscribes our stories in ink on a page, like a tattoo on a body, to be read and interpreted. Having one’s book read by those who may be complete strangers is a kind of act of intimacy.  And we, as writers, along with the illustrated man, become part of the freak show.

 

 

3 ½. The October Country, Ray Bradbury, 1955.

 

The Illustrated Man remains with me, reminding me of what writers do—to themselves and others.  In The October Country, it’s the tales themselves that are indelible.  I remember them vividly: a man fears the bones in his body; an impoverished man buys a jar with something amorphous floating in it, and—

And we’re in the October country, from whose bourn no traveler returns—at least not unchanged. This collection is powerful and was probably too macabre for someone my age to read.  Maybe that’s why I remember the stories so vividly:  they were things of trauma that invaded my life.  That is, they showed me just what fiction could do.  What, perhaps, on a good day, I might be able to attempt.

 

4. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911

 

If Hodgson Burnett had been forced to send her publisher a synopsis of The Secret Garden as a condition of its publication, we might be short a classic in literature (editorial alert: Spoilers–kind of).  Ten-year-old Mary Lennox loses her parents to cholera while the family is living in India.  Mary is shipped back to England to live in the crumbling estate of her Uncle, Archibald Craven.  While there, she discovers, hidden away, her ten-year-old sickly cousin, heir to the estate—and she also finds a secret garden.  Bringing the now-wild garden back to life brings Mary and her cousin to life as well, and they thrive as the roses bloom.

The End.

No kidding. That’s it.

But the plot isn’t the point.

Doors are the point. The mansion has 600 rooms, many of them shut up, and as Mary passes through them, she discovers more and more about herself and the world around her.  One of the great pleasures to be found in reading The Secret Garden is to be a silent onlooker (onreader) as Mary opens the door into the secret garden itself, a fairy tale place of what the children think of as magic.  Plot has its place, and this book is, indeed, well-plotted, but this beloved children’s classic is strong in theme, in mystery, in the exploration of the unknown.  Like all good books, it’s a door too.

 

 

5. The Chronicles of Prydain: The Book of Three; The Black Cauldron; The Castle of Llyr; Taran Wanderer; The High King, Lloyd Alexander, 1967.

 

The Chronicles of Prydain are books of high fantasy, of deep enchantments, high quests, prophecies and the clash of good and evil.  There’s an evil horned king, the Cauldron Born (think zombies) who are almost impossible to kill (because they’re dead), and, as hero, a young man who starts in life as an Assistant Pig-Keeper. The Book of Three opens with the eponymous hero yearning to join the battle for good and evil, while his mentor turns him to more practical matters:  “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.”  Taran’s hunger for the deeds of high fantasy (the sword) are made comic through the mundane reality of what he’s going to make (horseshoes).

Tolkien may be the king of high fantasy, but Lloyd Alexander, who writes for a young audience, has an ingredient to his work that Tolkien has only a small ear for: humor.  Lots of it.  The whole series uses humor as a kind of fuel for plot.  Hen Wen, the prophetic pig, sets the tone as she escapes her sty and takes to the woods, Taran following (and thus beginning his adventure).  From that moment, the distance between what Taran would be and what Taran is provides Lloyd with priceless moments of dramatic irony, until we are utterly ensnared by him.  The series ends well, of course:  “And thus did an Assistant Pig-Keeper become High King of Prydain.”

But it does not end before imparting to this child reader something I’ve never forgotten: the deeply serious carries within it great comedy.  High fantasy does not preclude humor—from wit to farce.  Alexander doesn’t take himself too seriously, and because of that, his prose charms.  To put powers of prophecy into a very piggy pig is high art as well as high fantasy.


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Gillian Murray Kendall is a professor at Smith College, where she specializes in Shakespeare. She is the author of The Book of Forbidden Wisdom (Harper Voyager, April 12, 2016) and The Garden of Darkness (Ravenstone, 2014). Gillian lives with her husband, Robert Dorit, in Northampton, Massachusetts and has two sons, Sasha and Gabriel.  You can learn more about her at www.gillianmurrykendall.com, or on Twitter:  @GillianMKendall

 

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