Archives For Children’s Books

C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

August 17, 2022 — 6 Comments

Do C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have anything in common, besides authoring books enjoyed by children?

Looking back, I must have been deprived of opportunities to read common children’s books. I recall my mom having many of Dr. Seuss’ classics, but don’t remember more advanced works such as those of Beatrix Potter or E.B. White.

I suppose that is why Roald Dahl’s name means little to me. By the time I was aware of his popular works, I was too old to appreciate them. Added to that was my intense dislike for the cinematic presentation of his Chocolate Factory, which has permanently (and probably unfairly) soured my impression of the poor man.

In Matilda, published in 1988, Dahl offers a rather curious homage to the Inklings. The young protagonist offers to her teacher the following observations.

“I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

If you are intrigued by this brief interchange, you would probably enjoy reading “Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien.”

Curiously, a number of people have offered their evaluations of Lewis and Dahl, vis-à-vis one another. Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C.S. Lewis invited diverse contributions to the debate eight years ago on LibraryThing.

A Christian blogger offers a faith-based appraisal on an entertaining website called “Like but better.” It’s entitled “How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better).”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A BBC Culture article is quite critical of Dahl, despite his popularity. The introduction to “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” aptly describes the essay.

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

An article by a Jewish journalist refers to both of the authors discussed here. It describes his bitter introduction to the major flaws of an author whose work he enjoyed as a child. “Why I Hope My Kids Never Read Roald Dahl” is, for me, most valuable for the way in which the journalist regards the faith which underlies the tales of Narnia.

As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.

And so it was with Roald Dahls “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl’s protagonists Charlie and later James (of the “Giant Peach”) both provided early models for how to find a better way through a hostile world where I always felt like an outsider.

Given that personal history, the announcement that Netflix has acquired Dahl’s entire catalog and plans a robust lineup of multimedia adaptations ought to feel like good news. . . .

Seeing his work still celebrated fills me with sadness, leaving me caught between attachment to something that mattered to me as a boy and commitment to the principles that, I hope, make me the man I am today.

Because I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.

There are cases where it’s complicated to ascribe modern values to figures from the past and as a reader, my feelings, my emotions, are just not going to be consistent. I don’t share C.S. Lewis’ religious views . . . J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is, I’m sad to say, bound up in long histories of racism.But my childhood copies of their books still occupy my shelves, some missing covers and pages, and I bought new copies for my kids and tried – with mixed success – to share my love of those stories with them. It’s hardly new for readers of one generation to struggle with the views of authors from another.But Dahl is different. He passed away in 1990, only 31 years ago. And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so.

While I would challenge Perry’s modest critiques of the Inklings, I am delighted he is able to look beyond his adult disappointment with their imperfections to commend them to his own children. As for Dahl . . . this article reinforces my lack of regret in being unfamiliar with his work.

Enough, now, of their differences. I promised readers a surprising similarity between the two British authors.

And What Is Their Unusual Commonality?

In 1951, C.S. Lewis was approached by Prime Minister Churchill’s office to accept an honor occasionally bestowed upon renowned literary figures. He was invited to become a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lewis declined, because he felt the political implications might overshadow the nonpartisan spirit of his writings. He was, however, honored to have been offered the honour.

This decision brings us to the peculiar similarity between the two writers. It turns out that Roald Dahl also passed up the invitation to join this chivalric order.

And the two were not alone. In 2012 a list of deceased individuals who had declined related honors between 1951 and 1999 was published.

Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley . . . joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children’s author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic F.R. Leavis, Booker [Prize] winner Stanley Middleton and the authors J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

An aspiring literary historian might do well to research whether and why successful writers might be more inclined to dismiss such an honor than other British citizens. I wonder if that inclination would carry over to other nationalities or cultures.

Ultimately, I assume most writers care less about receiving honors, than having their work read. And, perchance, having their literary efforts improve the lives of one or two others along the way. [This statement inspired vigorous debate when I shared this draft with members of my critique group.]

That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.

Avoiding Gadzookeries

August 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

gadzookeryWriting quality historical fiction is challenging. This is especially true if one wishes to avoid the common crutch that a talented writer of the last century first labeled “gadzookery.”

And just what is this faux pas we should avoid when writing about the past? Well, it relates most directly to the dialog placed on the lips of historical figures. The offensive technique involves the overuse of archaic expressions or phrases. (Some would argue it includes any use of any archaisms.)

If the word gadzookery sounds a tad, how shall I put it, “goofy” to you, you may prefer using another word that means the same thing: “tushery.” Tushery was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson. Way back in the nineteenth century.

Gadzookery is a newer version, insulting the same lazy writing technique. I believe it may have been coined by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). Sutcliff’s historical influence has exerted a literary influence on my life second only to C.S. Lewis.*

The article about Sutcliff in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature praises her work, saying, “She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’”

Having tested the waters of historical fiction myself, I know this to be far more difficult that it may sound.

Sutcliff had several things in common with C.S. Lewis. Both wrote for adults and for children. (It was her young adult series about the decline of Roman influence in Britain that sparked my own lifelong interest in Rome.)

Both authors also received the Carnegie Medal for their work. When Lewis was awarded his, he received a congratulatory letter from Pauline Baynes, who had illustrated several of his books. He responded quite graciously.

Dear Miss Baynes, Very nice to hear from you again, and thanks for sending on the book, which I have returned to Lane. Thanks for your congratulations on the Carnegie, but is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text. I am well, and as happy as a man can be whose wife is desperately ill.

Although C.S. Lewis had married, quite late in life, the two authors were alike in spending most of their life single. Sutcliff, in fact, lived with her parents during most of her life, having suffered crippling arthritis as a child. She did not resent remaining unmarried. In a 1992 interview she said,

Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy—after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.

Another similarity between the two was that they both fell under the powerful sway of myth during their childhoods. They used their familiarity with its rich echoes to imbue their own work with themes that flowed far beyond the familiar channels travelled by other writers.

Each of them took their readers seriously, and refused to speak down to them. That is why they share one more quality I wish to mention in closing—their high standards. Neither Lewis nor Sutcliff could tolerate poor writing. And their finely tuned skills meant neither ever needed to resort to gadzookery.

______

* Excepting, of course, the Bible itself, which is literature of an entirely different sort. I don’t consider it fair to compare mortal writers, no matter how inspired, to a volume I regard as God’s written word.

What Children Read

August 1, 2013 — 14 Comments

young readerI recently reread C.S. Lewis’ brief essay, “On Juvenile Tastes.” In it he ponders two basic questions.

First, what do children prefer to read? And second, why do they evidence that preference?

Lewis set the stage by discussing the state of children’s literature in 1958, which was of course, more than half a century ago. Nevertheless, like most of Lewis’ observations, there is much that is timeless about his argument.

Not long ago I saw in some periodical the statement that “Children are a distinct race”. Something like this seems to be assumed today by many who write, and still more who criticise, what are called children’s books or ‘juveniles’. Children are regarded as being at any rate a distinct literary species, and the production of books that cater for their supposedly odd and alien taste has become an industry; almost a heavy one.

It seems little has changed during the intervening decades. If anything, this concept has become much more deeply entrenched. No one can doubt that the publication of “juvenile” literature has expanded dramatically. (To maintain the entrenchment allusion, we might say it has “exploded.”)

Lewis, however, does not accept the notion that children have unique—in his picturesque words “odd and alien”—literary interests. His first argument is that their preferences are by no means monolithic.

This theory does not seem to me to be borne out by the facts. For one thing, there is no literary taste common to all children. We find among them all the same types as among ourselves. Many of them, like many of us, never read when they can find any other entertainment. Some of them choose quiet, realistic, “slice-of-life” books . . . Some like fantasies and marvels . . . Some care for little but books of information, and so do some adults. Some of them, like some of us, are omnivorous. Silly children prefer success stories about school life as silly adults like success stories about grown-up life.

So, in Lewis’ opinion, we witness great difference in the tastes of children, as well as adults. He attributes changing literary emphases to human nature, rather than chronological considerations. The difference enters with children’s focus on enjoying literature, which provides them immunity to literary fads.

Surely it would be less arrogant, and truer to the evidence, to say that the peculiarity of child readers is that they are not peculiar. It is we who are peculiar. Fashions in literary taste come and go among the adults, and every period has its own shibboleths. These, when good, do not improve the taste of children, and, when bad, do not corrupt it; for children read only to enjoy.

Of course their limited vocabulary and general ignorance make some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movements, and literary revolutions.

Lewis’ critique of the publishing arena follows. Since these literary phases fade in and out, it is here where contemporary literary critics may fairly evaluate things differently.

This has one curious result. When the literary Establishment—the approved canon of taste—is so extremely jejune and narrow as it is today, much has to be addressed in the first instance to children if it is to get printed at all. Those who have a story to tell must appeal to the audience that still cares for storytelling.

The literary world of today is little interested in the narrative art as such; it is preoccupied with technical novelties and with ‘ideas’, by which it means not literary, but social or psychological, ideas. The ideas (in the literary sense) on which Miss Norton’s The Borrowers or Mr. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are built would not need to be embodied in “juveniles” at most periods.

Lewis ends his essay by contrasting two disparate approaches to the production of so-called children’s literature. I suspect the two general categories still hold true for most. However, having only dabbled in writing for children, I’m by no means an authority on the subject. As for the creator of Narnia . . . I’m persuaded he possesses the credibility to speak with some modest influence.

It follows that there are now two very different sorts of “writers for children”. The wrong sort believe that children are “a distinct race”. They carefully “make up” the tastes of these odd creatures—like an anthropologist observing the habits of a savage tribe—or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the “distinct race”. They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in.

The right sort work from the common, universally human, ground they share with the children, and indeed with countless adults. They label their books ‘For Children’ because children are the only market now recognised for the books they, anyway, want to write.

Right or wrong, like Lewis I cast my lot with those who write for children from their shared humanity with them. After all, they may be slightly less mature than most grown-ups, but they are not truly “alien” (even if they occasionally behave that way).