Thursday, April 15, 2021

Kid Lit from James W. Ziskin

Do you ever read children’s books (not including reading them to your children)? Do you think children’s books have changed from when you were a child?

I really have no idea if children’s books have changed since I was a child, since I don’t read them today. That’s perhaps a logical consequence of having no children myself. But, I suppose, if I had been so inclined, I might have continued reading children’s literature into my adult years, middle age, and now dotage. Instead, my tastes changed and I explored other genres.

Given the reasons cited above, I can only tell you about the books I read as a child. I began my journey reading my mother's childhood books. These were picture books, poetry, adventure stories, and tales of far-off places. Her books all bore muddy brown-and-white lithograph bookplates, picturing a young girl in a wood and bearing the mysterious inscription "Ex libris Elizabeth W***." (Her last name is what my middle initial stands for, and that name—like Rumpelstiltskin’s—must remain a secret.)

When my mom was seven, her parents gave her a beautifully illustrated translation of the Decameron. For me as a young boy, the language seemed old and dusty, and I never paid any attention to the book until I was studying Italian literature in grad school. That's when I discovered just how downright filthy many of Giovanni Boccaccio's stories are. If you don’t believe me, try Googling “Alibech and Rustico” for one modest example. Clearly, my grandparents hadn't done their due diligence when selecting an appropriate book for their seven-year-old daughter.

It’s a coincidence, I suppose, that my last book, TURN TO STONE, relied heavily on the Decameron for its narrative framework. I even used a couple of stories from the Decameron to provide clues to the eventual solution of the mysterious death at the center of my book. Fully attributed to Boccaccio, of course, even if the words and interpretations were my own.

Back to this week’s topic. The Decameron notwithstanding, I began my lifelong love of words and storytelling with my mother’s books. Here’s a partial list of the first literary milestones that marked my journey:

• Highlights Magazine. "Goofus and Gallant." I was Team Goofus.
• Alfred Noyes's “The Highwayman.” “Then look for me by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.” 
• The King's Stilts. My favorite Seuss ever. 
• The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf 
• Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton 
• Beatrix Potter 
• James Whitcomb Riley, “The Raggedy Man” 
• Grimm’s Fairy Tales

A few years later at school” 

• 7th grade: Great Expectations. Took two semesters for our class to finish it. 
• 8th grade: Ivanhoe and Ethan Frome. Inspired choices for easily bored teens. 
• 9th grade: As You Like It. They told us it was a comedy. Good thing, because we couldn’t tell.

Early Teens

• Murder on the Orient Express, my first Agatha Christie. 
• Archie comics. I could never choose between Betty and Veronica.

I’m sorry that I can’t comment on today’s children’s fiction. Some of it looks fun. Some of it appears to rely heavily on scatology and various bodily functions. But I think more and more books are promoting diversity and showcasing under-represented voices that have been excluded for too long. Still a lot of work to do, of course. 

Maybe someday soon I’ll check out some new kids’ books, if for no other reason than to try to recapture a small measure of the joyous wonder of my youth.

4 comments:

Catriona McPherson said...

Ivanhoe? IVANHOE? My condolences, Jim. I come from the city with the Scott Monument as a major landmark and I don't think thy sell Ivanhoe in the giftshop.

James Ziskin said...

Oh, yes, Ivanhoe. I remember little of it. Was there a beautiful Jewess?

Jim

Susan C Shea said...

Ferdinand was a childhood favorite of mine that I foisted on my boys to little effect. You might have loved Stuart Little, the real novel not the dumbed down Disney version, Stuart was a small gentleman of great intelligence and courage.

Susan C Shea said...

Ferdinand was a childhood favorite of mine that I foisted on my boys to little effect. You might have loved Stuart Little, the real novel not the dumbed down Disney version, Stuart was a small gentleman of great intelligence and courage.