In a recent Slate column, Ruth Graham stirred up controversy by saying, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
I completely disagree with Graham, but that’s not exactly why I’m here.
Instead, I want to draw your attention to a handful of wonderful books about childhood. Books about childhood are really for adults, even if the language in them is sometimes simple enough for a child to decode (but not to fully understand). After all, it’s only in hindsight, in being able to see childhood through the eyes of an adult, that we begin to understand. Sometimes you first have to lose something before you can find it.
There are so, so many novels and memoirs that are about childhood, in one way or another. Here are five that may be less well-known and deserve to be more widely read.
1. Paul Horgan, Things as They Are (1951). The first and best of the novels in Horgan’s so-called Richard Trilogy. It does not matter what your own early years were like. When you see “things as they are” through Richard’s eyes, you will be transported back into that other world that we call childhood. Finely observed, sensitive, wonderfully restrained, lyrical in spots. David McCullough wrote of this book, “[I]t is a small classic, among the most beautiful and moving American novels I know.”
2. William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980). Novelist and National Book Award judge Craig Nova had this to say about So Long, See You Tomorrow: “[It] is so perfectly executed, and the tone is so right, that it becomes part of a reader’s interior life, since the book reaches down into the reader’s most private places or those places where all our doubts and fears are so perfectly located. This is not just a novel, but literature. And by that I mean a dramatic and beautiful portrayal of all that is best and worst about human beings.”
3. Cristina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (1940). A fascinating, hard-to-read, raw novel about Sam Pollit, a domineering and narcissistic man, his long-suffering wife Henny, and their seven children, who include Louisa, Sam’s daughter by an earlier marriage. In a 2010 essay that appeared in the New York Times, novelist Jonathan Franzen said about this dark masterpiece, “[Y]ou can’t help being dragged along through Louisa’s bloody soul-struggle to become her own person, and you can’t help cheering for her triumph. As the narrator remarks, matter-of-factly, ‘That was family life.’ And telling the story of this inner life is what novels, and only novels, are for.”
4. Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family (1965). A children’s book in name only. Too magical for me to ruin with description. Here’s a quote from the story: “The days went by for him, all different and all the same. The boy was happy, and yet he didn’t know that he was happy, exactly: he couldn’t remember having been unhappy. If one day as he played at the edge of the forest some talking bird had flown down and asked him: ‘Do you like your life’ he would not have known what to say, but would have asked the bird: ‘Can you not like it?'”
5. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980). Devastating. Unforgettable. “There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness not having meant to keep us waiting long.”