“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart. Slowly this, too, is filled up. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart." - Jane Yolen
As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many essays over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child, and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.
I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the 1960s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.
I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.
My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.
What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, the unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the sole source of her misery and shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.
We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.
In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.
Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.
Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.
One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.
"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"
The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"
"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."
It's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. More than fifty years have passed, yet that unwanted child is at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone. Months passed, years passed, and no one did, so I was parented by books instead.
It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.
"I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."
Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted Little Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.
Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.
None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.
Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.
Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013).
Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.