Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Fricassee

It's awfully hard not to make jubilant comments about the fact that this is the final Friday in January.  Truly, it's my least favorite month!

I'm sure I'd feel differently if I lived in the Caribbean.

At any rate, it feels good to be back in the Secret Agent swing!  And I need to thank you again for your rabid voting.  As of this writing, MSFV is in the lead with 37% of the votes.  But voting goes on for another whole week, so please keep voting!  (There's a button on the sidebar.)

So let's talk about the changing voice of children's literature.  (My, that sounded lofty.)  I'm currently reading The Borrowers and not really enjoying it.  (Funny, because I remember reading it as a child and liking it, but this reread may as well be my first time, because I don't recognize any of it!)  It's a delightful premise--tiny people living under the floorboards and "borrowing" things? How fun!

But--ugh! It's incredibly blah-blah-blah, and I know that has a lot to do with the fact that it's, well, old.  Language has changed, and continues to change.  Today's children's books are zippier, faster-paced, tension-imbued.

Thing is, when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I don't have an "ugh" response at all, despite the older language style. I adore this book and can forgive its cliches, because they weren't cliches yet when Lewis wrote them.

The Borrowers, which is written for the same audience, is a ponderous read with way too much "adult humor" written into the adult Borrower characters.  (I don't mean "adult" in a seedy sense.  I mean "adult" as in "over the heads of most children".) And the dialogue goes on and on.  And on.

So, does this say something about our modern attention span? Am I a product of the twenty-first century and its penchant for faster-paced everything?  Or can it be that, perhaps, even among the older books, there are some that simply aren't up to snuff.  Just because a book is "old and revered" doesn't mean it's automatically awesome.


The original Nancy Drew books aren't exactly literary masterpieces, but they do keep you turning the pages.  Mystery!  Fright!  A handkerchief laced with chloroform pressed against Nancy's nose and mouth!  Which proves that older books can certainly have good pacing and a refreshing lack of blah-blah-blah.

What do you think?  Am I too saturated with modern children's literature?  Or is it valid to call an older book "ponderous" and "wordy" simply is?


  1. I think it's hard to blame a book for being written to the tastes of a previous generation.

    By the same token, I see no reason why readers can't move on and develop different tastes.

    So often, people leap to the defense of a book when modern readers wrinkle their noses at them, and I think it's a bit silly. Just because it's a "classic" that doesn't mean I have to like it.

    That being said, if you're a fan of Miyazaki's movies (he did Spirited Away, which I ADORE, as well as Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro) he's actually got one out/coming out called The Secret World of Arrietty, which is based on the borrowers.

    I can't wait to watch it. I loved Borrowers as a kid (even made a tiny Borrower home in a suitcase for a school project).

  2. Interesting post. A friend gave my boys a stack of "classic" children's books. They loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but drifted away after only a few pages of The Borrowers. (They're not into Nancy Drew, but do read the Hardy Boys, which is a similar ball park.) Y'all have the same tastes!

    Times, and styles, do change. But it seems that certain classics hold up better than others for the modern reader. (Our family all love Charlotte's Web!!)

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  4. So much depends on the book, I think, no matter when it was written. I was 19 in 1959 when Dear and Glorious Physician was first published. I didn't read it then, I think because I was bogged down in college and no longer was reading historical fiction, which I loved during my teen years. But now, Glorious Physician...The book is GLORIOUS, stunningly written, filled with wisdom, and characters that are so vivid, so human. I just can't say enough about how good it is. I did also read Nancy Drew as I was growing up. I tried one recently, after almost six decades, and thought it was bland. Re: children's literature. C.S. Lewis's books are also filled with wisdom and metaphorical undertones. I think that's why I like them so much. There are deeper more disturbing topics in children's literature today, reflecting the times we live in. Both good and bad. I would like to see children be children much longer than they seem to currently be. This saddens me...saddens me that there is so much more awful stuff that's thrown in their faces that I didn't have to endure as a child in the 1940s. (my deletion above: I seem to be having trouble today getting on paper what's in my head!)
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

  5. It really depends on the book, but you as well. Sometimes we remember things as being SUPER AWESOME from childhood, then we read it and it's... meh. Maybe it was just the concept that blew you away back then, and not the writing.

    Side note, If you want a YA book about littles that is great and unique,and holds up to adults, try Charles de Lint's YA LITTLE GRRL LOST.

  6. P.S. Also, I think that some classic books, if they were submitted today, simply would not get published. So you are right in thinking they might seem wordy and ponderous.

    I've sometimes thought that some classic books are like the emperor's new clothes, and I'm the child that sees the naked truth. But people will defend them because they are classics.

  7. I picked up a children's book that a NBA winner loved and cited as a favorite. I was sadly disappointed. The book was 50+ years old, and yeah. It felt sloppily written, plus, the characters were so cardboardy! The Villians were Dastardly and the Sweet Young Children were just that, sweet, and there were no surprises and it was melodrama from the first line. Urk. I even notice a difference in YA books published prior to Harry Potter (and some books published afterwards where the bulk of the author's career is pre-HP) and the ones now. The pre-HP books feel very, very telly and summarized, a bit condescending, and so short you feel like you just started reading, and it's over. I'm not saying there aren't 50K word YAs today--but most of them feel like they have more meat to them, you know?

    Funny how writing styles change.

  8. I've noticed the same thing in regard to not only books, but movies I loved as a child and now don't enjoy at all.

    I think changing tastes is part of it -- we really aren't the same person we were as children -- but mostly I think it's because children look for different things in books, movies, etc. than adults. It's not a matter of taste, it's a matter of focus.

    Adults are focused on different things than children due to more experiences and a larger perspective and world-view. Adults dismiss things that to children are new and thought-provoking. That can turn a book, movie, or even a conversation into a very different experience for an adult and a child.

    (At least that what I've noticed from highly scientific and in-depth studies (hear my sarcasm?) of my own children over the last 15 years.)

  9. I couldn't get into The Borrowers as a kid, even though it was a popular book. A story's got to MOVE, man. The language can be as florid or stilted or dated as it wants to be, but it cannot be lethargic. I have no explanation for why certain lethargic stories still make the Big Hit list, but that's a question for every generation, yes?

  10. When you read aloud to a child, the failures of a poorly written book are magnified, and it becomes torture for both parent and child.
    While we may have shorter attention spans, I do think there are some "classics" that simply do not deserve that title. Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White is an example. Difficult to believe it was written by the same author as Charlotte's Web and even Stuart Little. Extremely ponderous, preachy, stereotyped characters and a boring plot.
    On the other hand, we've read many modern books we thought were terrible (Tale of Despereaux), and we loved Chronicles of Narnia, so it may just be a matter of taste.

  11. I read Borrowers as a child and I enjoyed it, but as an adult with a writer's eye I agree it is slowly paced. My daughter read it a few years ago and loved the concept, but she didn't like it enough to finish reading the book. I took that opportunity to point out how different the language was compared to today's language and that poeple's lives were slower paced then they are today and the book was a reflection of that time period, which helps us to understand the past.

    I also loved Laura Ingall's Little House books as a child, but my daughter said they were boring. I read aloud some of the passages that she could relate to. For ex. making snow candy and how it compared to when we made it. I also read about how excited Laura was to get only one doll for Christmas & compared it to how many more gifts my daughter received. Again, this helped her to understand the time period, which is why I think it is good for our children to read or partially read some of the classics along with all the well written books of today.

    In 7th grade she had to read Call of the Wild for her english class, she liked the book a lot and commented on how some kids didn't like it because it was so old. Call of the Wild is certainly more action packed then Borrowers and the Little House books, but just maybe she enjoyed it and apprectiated it more than her classmates because of her prior exposure to some of the classics.

  12. I suppose it would be interesting to take a stack of revered pieces of children's literature and compare them to some pieces of today, see if agents would have gone for those books or if they would have the same non-interested reaction.

  13. I think it's perfectly fair to call a spade a spade, no matter when it was forged, cast or carved.

    You actually make the same point from a practical perspective by referencing C.S.Lewis. Timeless writing remains timeless, in part because the plot, character and dialogue continues to resonate despite changes in linguistic form. The Borrowers, though beloved of many, did not succeed on the same level as a work of fiction.

    You can see the same phenomenon in new books too. Some bestsellers are the kind you can read a thousand times, while others seem ponderous (despite modern prose).

    I think what you're seeing is a contrast between a truly world-class, timeless writer (C.S. Lewis) and a good, solid writer whose work simply doesn't stand up outside its niche.

    And's always fair to like a book, and equally fair not to like one. The beauty of publishing is that there's room on the shelf for everyone.

  14. Definitely agree with you on The Borrowers. Tried to do it as a read-aloud w/my kids, but just bored me to tears. Same with the classic "The Wheel on the School" by Meindert deJong. And I used to like The Borrowers! BUT when I read The Rats of Nimh aloud or the Little House books, they were better received (by me AND my kiddos!). I have to say that growing up with the King James Version of the Bible, you learned some longer/archaic words and integrated them into your vocabulary earlier back then.

    However, classics can be well-written or not. I guess the storyline itself is the classic, enduring thing in some of them, and not the writing style.

  15. Besides the changes in language, we have to remember that reading is subjective. I can love a book that my friend hates and vice versa.

  16. We are having a very warm January in North GA - 60 degrees today! Yay!

    What strikes me is the differences in themes in kid lit.

    When I compare a classic like The Penderwicks to books by my current favorite authors (Gary Schmidt & Kate DiCamillo),the themes are so different.

    There are definitely more themes of loss, death, alcohol abuse, child abuse, etc. in these current works (or maybe I am just drawn to these books.) As a school counselor, I see these very real themes in children's lives each day.

    In many ways, seeing kids live, deal, and thrive in spite of these very difficult experiences can give hope to kids who are living these lives.

  17. Thanks for your fab blog, authoress. I've been lurking but decided to comment because the topic interested me.

    I've got a theory that all books come with a use-by date. Once the themes, langauge and/or voices accumulate a critical mass of features that screams "dated", the book stops resonating with the readers. Some have longer use-by dates than others, because the merits contiue to out-weigh the flaws.

    You mightbe interested in this tale about Nobel prize winning author, Patrick White, whose langauge was seen as dense and convoluted even back in the 70s when he was at his most prolific and popular. Recently, the first page (chapter, maybe?) of his best known text was circulated among (Autralian) publishers/ agents and he was unanimously rejected. The work was neither recognised nor appreciated. Yes, despite being the darling of the Aust literature scene 40 years ago, the appeal has not lasted. Even a Nobel prize is no guarantee of timelessness.

  18. I loved The Borrowers as a child and have re-read it as an adult and still love it. Mary Norton was masterful in the building of their miniature world. Personally, I think there was a sense of wonder in the works of her era (Narnia, Green Knowe, Gone Away Lake) that many modern writers try to capture, but it eludes them. J.K. Rowling is able to capture it, and I think that is a big part of Harry Potter's appeal. Of course, I am a that may make me (and my opinion) older than most of the readers of this blog.

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  20. Yep. Done that with books and movies as well. Sometimes its personal, sometimes its cultural, what we've become accustomed to. Had a publisher epub an award winning bestseller from 12 years ago w/o letting me take a whack at shaping it up. It really needed to be updated to be accessible to new readers.
    It's true of a lot of things. In fact, I go for laughs on my vintage lifestyle blog poking fun at how much the way advertising, articles and attitudes have changed. A lot of times its all in the presentation that makes it seem awkward or funny to us now.

  21. I think that what it boils down to is that there is a rule today that probably didn't exist then... don't talk down to children. They can spot a fake a mile away. But today's child is more sophisticated... more avenues are open to them such as television and radio. The "now children listen to me" days are gone and thank goodness. Books that read as well today as they ever would probably had the X-factor writer just as we do today. Some books today pass by virtue of being politically correct rather than well written while others will become evergreens.
    Same with adult writing. Look at Jane Austen and how we can still consider her prose very readable and explorable. And even quotable such as her excellent grasp - still being upheld as one of the best opening sentence in P & P.

    I saw the reader I first had in first grade had been reprinted with Spot the dog... This is Spot the dog... jump Spot jump... and wonder why I even bothered to learn to read it is SO uninspiring. Kids today don't have such grinding boredome to guide them through the magic kingdom of books (thank goodness)

    Greetings from Oz
    Zara Penney

  22. I loved The Borrowers as a kid and looked forward to reading it to my son. We tried a few months ago -- sadly, we were both bored before the end of the first chapter. I did re-read my #1 childhood fave, The Secret Garden. I still loved it, got a fresh glimpse of my childhood self, but found myself editing all the way through -- too wordy! But The Chronicles of Narnia never grow old.

  23. Beautiful Blog....NEW follower.

    I am stopping by from the Top Writing Blog competition.

    Just wanted to say hello. This is a great way to find new blogs and visit ones you haven't visited in a while. :)

    Elizabeth - Silver's Reviews

  24. Hi, Elizabeth -- thanks for stopping by! I think your blog better qualifies for "beautiful" -- the photograph in your header makes me want to jump into it and take a walk by the water!

    Very glad to meet you -- and your blog!

  25. My gosh, do I ever agree with this... including the Nancy Drew books, which I find just as enjoyable now as I did when I was twelve.

    I recently re-read THE GIVER, which I loved when I was younger... but now that I've studied the craft and am familiar with current bestsellers, I couldn't believe how slow it was.

  26. Interesting observations in the post and comments.Some books never date.