I once argued against sugarcoating the darker realities of life. I thought parents were wrong for letting Disney convince them of the need to turn stark fairy tales into the visual equivalent of puffy marshmallows. Then I became one--a parent, that is. I don't particularly want to read about birds pecking out eyeballs and children thrown into ovens just before putting my own children to bed. And yet ...
Surely our storytimes together should do more than entertain. Hollywood and paperback bestsellers are more than capable of filling that need over the course of their lives. It's hard to find cause--let alone time, place, and words--for discussing things like death and poverty and violence in ordinary life. Ours is a pampered life.
I'll admit: none of this was on my mind when I lifted Salten's Bambi from the library's shelf. I may or may not have known the Disney classic was based on a novel; at any rate, I wasn't overly surprised to see it sitting there, devoid of a Disney logo across its cover. I had no idea what it'd be about, but thought a gentle romp through Bambi's world--as I understood it, based solely on the film--would be enjoyable. And it was. But not in the way I'd imagined.
For starters, Bambi the novel is much more episodic than Bambi the movie. Plot did not obviously connect the chapters, particularly early on. In fact, plot was not much of an element at all. Neither were the chapters overly connected in terms of character; new characters were constantly emerging, only to be discarded after a few pages in the spotlight. I worried at times that my girls were bored, yet they kept asking me to continue. Eventually, both plot and character seemed to solidify, but never to the point that they took on the central roles they have in most books.
So what holds this children's book together? Theme is the best answer I can give. Nature, itself, holds this book. Carries it. We leave Bambi the character for entire chapters at a time, merely to indulge in seemingly random conversations between seemingly unimportant characters. My favorite example of this--and the chapter my six-year-old requested to read over and over again--is the chapter wherein the last two leaves left clinging to a tree branch in late autumn discuss the nature of death and what it holds for them once they fall. Like I said, my six-year-old had me read passages of this countless times, asking which of the two was the first to fall but otherwise remaining very quiet and still. At the end of it, tears sparked our eyes.
It is difficult to believe such a book was written and is still intended for children. I doubt very much a book like this would make it onto the children's market today. There was no hilarity. No plot. Few charactes appear regularly. All of them die--whether they appear regularly or not, whether their death appears on the page or is merely foreshadowed by the book's focus on mortality. But that's not quite right. The book's focus isn't mortality; it's life and the many cycles life takes.
In the end, this book has imprinted its images more indelibly on my mind than, perhaps, any other. I can't recommend it enough--regardless of the age of the reader or the listener.
Here is what I remember reading in high school: The Grapes of Wrath, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a handful of Shakespeare. These are just the assigned readings. Here are the non-assigned readings I remember: the first page of Catcher in the Rye (yes, just the first page), Tess of the D'Urbervilles, War & Peace, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Villette, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Oliver Twist. Can you guess what I read the summer between 1st and 2nd grade? Great Expectations. See a pattern here? I love the classics—the old classics. The more gothic, the better. (Pride & Prejudice? Pfft. Glorified RomCom. Who's killed? Maimed for life? Hiding an outlaw benefactor / psychotic wife in the attic?)
So Lord of the Flies. It flitted somewhere around the periphery of my attention as a teenager (I remember posters of it hanging in other high schools' halls), but I didn't realize its full significance until college, where it was mentioned at least once in probably every English class I took (and I took a lot, having majored in it). Of course, my reading load was already heavy and, frankly, what I knew of the plot didn't really appeal to me. Then my MFA years--geez, I really need to read that book, I thought at least once a quarter. Then I was employed and commuting over an hour every day, new friends with an English teacher whose students were required to read Lord of the Flies every fall.
"Do I need to read it?" I finally asked.
"Only if you want to."
"But is it good?"
That shrug again.
"Maybe I've read it too much."
For years, every time I stepped into a bookstore, I wandered to the bargain table, where Lord of the Flies could be had for $5-10, on average. Inevitably, I walked away with something else. Until this year. Last month, in preparation for a road trip, I bought and downloaded the iBook edition. And it was freaking incredible! Until the end, when it suddenly wasn't.
We have these boys—these glorious boys with fat cheeks, pinched faces, fair hair, ridiculous choir robes—moving in shadows across the sand. Green sunlight filters through thick palms. Mirages dance everywhere. And these boys go from turning headstands on the sand to killing one another. We watch it happen. More—we know it will happen even before they do, because we're grown (I was, anyway, by the time I read it) and we know what humanity is capable of. This, we rightly interpret, is a tale of lost innocence. William Golding is shining a light on the darkness that dwells in each of us. We see it. We know. And our eyes move quickly across the page because holy cow that gang of boys found the fair haired one and is chasing him like a pig through the wild and there's no possible way he can escape from this, right?? And that's when Golding flops. Because suddenly the ship they've been lighting fires for all this time actually appears on the sand and here's a gentleman naval officer asking who's in charge while gazing at these boys who've gone from being described as tribal, ancient, man-eating savages to the actual little boys that we already know they are and were. A golden, nostalgic light shines on everything, the author inserts himself to make sure we don't miss his point, and the fear of what is possible is immediately, without warning, dropped like dead weight. All are saved. All go home. The End.
Here's my point, folks: implausible endings break the fragile snow-globe world you want to create as an author. Don't crack the globe. For any reason—and certainly not because you don't trust your readers enough to figure it out on their own.
What do you think? What books did you read in high school? Tell me in the comments!