Three Children's Classics to Enjoy Right Now
Can we read? No. 108: From guest writer Dana Gaskin Wenig
Once a month until September, Dana Gaskin Wenig takes my place in your inbox to share her own extensive knowledge of, experience with, insight into, and love of children’s literature.
Below, find Dana’s recommendations for July.
Three Children's Classics to Enjoy Right Now
The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952)
The Borrowers by Mary Norton was a favorite of mine as a child, and it’s the first chapter book my daughter took from my hands to read to herself. I had already read past “This is the last chapter and then bed,” at least once, and now I was done. It’s categorized as fantasy because the Clock family — Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty — are so small they live in the walls of an old house and borrow what they need from the Big Person household they border. The entry to their home is through the grandfather clock, hence their last name.
I’ve always wondered if I might be a giant in someone’s small world, or if I’m a tiny person in some giant’s world. Maybe many of us share this fantasy, or maybe it reaches back to being a child (small) and wondering whose world it really is. Whatever the reason, I love these books, and I still wonder if I’m very small, or a giant. In all, there are five titles in the series: The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged. The edition I bonded with is the American version published in 1953 with detailed line drawings by Beth and Joe Krush, but the first British edition has illustrations by Diana Stanley, which are also lovely.
The Borrowers stories tap into this idea of whose world it is and what our place is in it, but it also touches on family secrets, safety, and what kinds of jobs kids are ready for (Arrietty really wants to go borrowing, but that’s her dad’s realm at first, because what if they get “seen”!) Arrietty is eventually seen, by a boy visiting the big house. What unfolds from this meeting changes the Clock family’s whole world. It pulls Pod and Homily out of their safe, staid existence and presents them with more adventure and connection than they ever would have found on their own. Arrietty’s authentic movement into the world, and Pod and Homily’s dedication to their relationship with her, pulls them out of the small world they built to raise her in and helps them open their minds to the big/Big world. Isn’t that one of the greatest gifts children bring into our lives?
In writing this review, I realized for the first time that these books have influenced my work in assemblage collage. (I create small houses with tiny furniture I make out of things I’ve found around the house — see below. I also create small dolls.)
The Krush’s illustrations show Arrietty’s bedroom as one of those elaborately beautiful cigar boxes set on its front edge with the lid stretched out to make a beautiful ceiling. Her bureau is a stack of matchboxes, and her Borrower tools of trade (safety pin, tiny pocketknife, etc.) hang on the wall. An empty wooden spool of thread becomes a stool at their kitchen table (which I believe Pod borrowed from a doll house in the Big People nursery). Arrietty helps with dinner by rolling a potato her father borrowed along the corridor into the kitchen so her mother can slice off a few pieces for dinner. This innovative streak of using small household things for purposes other than expected is charming and, for me, recalls times when “making do” was a necessary skill. I love it. (I suppose one could say that the Borrowers are stealing, but that is also addressed in the books. They feel they are taking such a small amount, and from Big People who seem to have so much, that they feel okay about it. This appeals to me also.)
Of the five, going on six, movie adaptations of these stories, my favorite is the 1992 version starring Penelope Wilton and Ian Holm, with the BBC/American version with Jim Broadbent and Celia Imrie a close second. Even Studio Ghibli has a version titled The Secret World of Arrietty (2010).
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (the original)
I suspect the classics are considered a bit dusty now for many parents, caregivers, and others who read aloud to children of all ages, but I highly recommend reading Winnie-the-Pooh in the original. Pooh is a friend of mine. The original Winnie-the-Pooh — the one that just went into the public domain in January of this year, the one with illustrations by E. H. Shepard — is the one my mom read me when I was a kid. In researching this book, I came across a collection at the British Library that says of Shepard’s contribution, “After the Pooh books were published, A. A. Milne realized how important Shepard’s illustrations were to the series’ success, and invited the illustrator to share royalties with him — that is, to earn money for each book sold.”
I lived in a small community with my mom as a kid, and we spent significant time assigning the characters of Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo, Piglet and Pooh, even Christopher Robin, to members of the community. Mom was Pooh, which somehow made me Piglet. I still feel comforted when I think about that. Of course, all the original Pooh books are comforting: they were written to be just that as the world reeled after the First World War.
Disney started producing a steady stream of brightly colored stories loosely based on Winnie-the-Pooh in 1977, which I have learned many people think is Winnie-the-Pooh. It isn’t. Of course, I take issue with the Disney-fied illustrations, but what really makes the Disney collection different, in my view, is that the stories have been modified to express moralistic values rather than the simple stories of adventures between friends that Milne wrote for his son based on their time together.
Fairy Tales by e. e. cummings
Lastly, please read Fairy Tales by the poet e. e. cummings (with the delicate pictures by John Eaton) if you have not already done so. My mom also read these to me, and I read them to my daughter; the copy I have now is a thin paperback my mother gave me decades ago that is now split at the top of the spine.
This collection consists of the hilarious and witty, “The Old Man Who Said ‘Why,’” “The Elephant & The Butterfly,” “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” and the very smartly worded “The Little Girl Named I.” These are by far my most favorite fairy tales in the world. cummings wrote these for his daughter Nancy when she was a little girl, and I can’t understand why they aren’t more well known.
My favorites are “The Elephant & The Butterfly” and “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” because they are both improbable and very sweet and gentle love stories. “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie” begins,
“Once there was a house who fell in love with a bird. This house was tall and empty and had a great many windows. Nobody lived in him because he stood on top of a high hill away off from anywhere, with no one except the morning to play with and no one except the sunset to talk with and no one except the twilight to confide in.”
If that’s not the most beautiful invitation to read a story, I don’t know what is. If you can, find this book with the John Eaton illustrations. They pair with the text as beautifully as an elephant and a butterfly, as delightfully as a house and a bird.
Dana Gaskin Wenig is a writer, writing teacher, and former bookseller. She lives in the Seattle area.