Tuesday 7 April 2009

Still trying fruitlessly to catch up on the kiddy lit

A friend of mine recently lent me Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH because it's her favourite childhood book and she felt I'd been unduly deprived in not having read it before. Indeed, when I returned it to her, a bunch of other people were around and all responded with shock, horror, and perhaps a little disgust when they learned that I'd just read it for the first time.

I really enjoyed this book and know that it would have been an obsessive re-read if I'd discovered it 25 years ago. Now, though, I can't help but question the ideology of it - and if you think children's lit isn't replete with difficult and complex ideologies, you haven't been paying attention.

I mean that most respectfully; I didn't think of kids' books this way either until a friend started talking to me about the work she was doing on Philip Pullman...and now I can't escape it. Nor do I want to escape it, because I like the notion that children's authors imagine sprogs to be invested with the ability to think about what they read.

That said, the issues I have with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH wouldn't have occurred to me back in the day. The rats of NIMH are a group of lab rats who've escaped and are trying to create their own civilization and stay out of sight of the Man. These particular rats, having been experimented on at the National Institute of Mental Health, are the results of tests designed to make them smarter - and it's worked so well that they've escaped, can use tools, can read, and are learning how to farm so they can be self-sustaining.

That's cool. What isn't cool is how benign O'Brien makes the lives of lab rats seem. While this book's idea was apparently based on experiments that were really happening at the real NIMH back in the 70s, the majority of lab animals are tortured and then killed for things as stupid as make-up and, I would think, already well figured out as cleaning products. What bothers me is how O'Brien acknowledges that being a lab rat isn't cool (because being in a cage sucks no matter what) but whitewashes just how uncool it generally is by having these rats actually benefit from what's happened to them.

I think it's better that I don't have kids. They wouldn't be able to just enjoy stories because I'd be analyzing everything for them and telling them what the authors were conveniently neglecting and where their logic was faulty.

Anyway, I still liked the book. It was a good story, and a pretty original one, I think.

In unrelated news...
So, I've begun posting my French literature list - you can check it out in the right-hand column near the bottom of the main page. I'll link to my posts on each book as I write them. Having just read Marie de France's Lais in January, I'm not going to re-read it now.

I am, however, going to re-read The Book of the City of Ladies and The Romance of the Rose because it's been about 10 years since I had the pleasure of immersing myself in them. I love me my medieval lit so that will not be onerous. Also, I just recently found the sequel to The Book of the City of Ladies that I didn't know existed so I need a refresher.

Also in unrelated news, I'm going to Halifax in early May to see my family. What this means is that I'll be visiting all my favourite bookstores there: Back Pages, J.W. Doull's, and The Last Word. In the past 5 years or so, every time I've gone to Back Pages, they've had the same copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel in the same spot. Each time, I've considered buying it and each time I've refrained, deciding I didn't have time for it. Well, now I have time for it AND it's on my French reading list! If it's not there, I'll shake my fist at the heavens in rage at the horrible irony of it all.


R/T said...

I think you're onto something charming and important. Every adult reader ought to set aside some time for children's books (either ones to be re-read or ones to be belatedly enjoyed). Your encounter with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH reminds me that it is time that I return to Tom Sawyer, the Hardy Boys mysteries, and scores of others that first got me hooked on reading. William Hazlitt had it right when he said the best reading experiences come to us when we return to books we have read and enjoyed in the past. Now, on that note, it is off to the bookshelf where I hope to find a copy of Twain's book about being a child in a small town in the 19th century, and I can hardly wait until we get to explore the cave!

Bookphilia said...

Ooooh, Tom Sawyer. I might have to re-read that one myself! My favourite Twain tale, however, is still the very short story "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey" - pure comic genius that.

Bellezza said...

I loved this book as a child, and I read it to my class this year. Many of my children there say it's their favorite read aloud of the year. You have such a good point about the cruelty to lab animals, which is rather glossed over. I guess I liked it because of the writing, and because of the cleverness/community building of the animals. That doesn't assuage your feelings, though, I'm sure.

In many ways, it also reminded me of Watership Down. Have you read that? Maybe it's the personification of the animals in both those books which is so intriguing.

Bookphilia said...

I don't think it's a matter of my concerns being assuaged - sitting directly beside my irritation about the lab animal thing is that it was really well written, and clever, and compelling, and original! I both liked it a lot and felt a little maddened by what it wouldn't look at. But like I said, as a kid I likely wouldn't have noticed the things that weird me out now.

I have read Watership Down and love, love, love it! I think I too am inclined towards books with personified beasties and have something in the genre called Duncton (Dunston?) Wood waiting for me. Some day...