Monday, November 21, 2016

Re-Reading Favorite Childhood Classics

This November has been a hard month for many of us, including me. My salvation during dark seasons of the soul has always been to revisit the books I loved as a child, loving them more deeply with each re-reading. I pull from my shelf one of the Betsy-Tacy books of Maud Hard Lovelace, or the Shoes books of Noel Streatfeild, or the Moffats books of Eleanor Estes. My friend Diane says (accusingly) that I retreat to my "Betsy-Tacy bubble." The charge is well founded. But sometimes the only way I can survive the reality of the present is to re-inhabit fictional worlds of the past.

Here's what I love most about these books: they are suffused with kindness. This isn't to say that their characters don't quarrel. Betsy and her sister Julia have a heated disagreement in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill in which the whole town takes sides. Lala seeks to destroy her best friend's promising skating career in Skating Shoes. Estes's Newbery-Honor-Book The Hundred Dresses gives a portrayal of bystander complicity in bullying that is unsurpassed since its publication in 1944.

In all of these stories, however, those who act badly - as all of us do sometimes - are heartbroken at how they have hurt someone else. Those who do wrong - as all of us do sometimes - try to make it right. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail. But always they try.

This from Betsy and Julia: "Then from the other side of the bed [Betsy] heard a sound. It was a sob, a perfectly gigantic sob. 'Betsy'! cried Julia, and she came rolling over and hugged Betsy tight. 'I'm sorry.' 'I'm sorry, too,' Betsy wept."

This from Lala: "I've been an awful beast, the nastiest beast that ever, ever was."

Finally, this from Maddie in The Hundred Dresses:

At last Maddie sat up in bed and pressed her forehead tight in her hands and really thought. This was the hardest thinking she had ever done. After a long, long time she reached an important conclusion.
            She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.
            If she ever heard anybody picking on someone because they were funny looking or because they had strange names, she’d speak up. Even if it meant losing Peggy’s friendship. She had no way of making things right with Wanda, but from now she would never make anybody else so unhappy again.

I spent the last two weeks massively revising a paper I wrote several years ago on Ginger Pye
and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes. Last night, I gave it one final proofreading and sent it off as a submission to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. Now it will undergo the arduous process of double-blind review, where two scholars in the field will read it, not knowing my identity as I will not know theirs, and send extremely challenging comments for still further revision, I won't hear back from them for perhaps three months. But at least it's off my desk and onto someone else's, and what a wonderful feeling that is.

Work has also always been for me an antidote to despair. How I love the adrenaline rush of pushing onward toward even a self-imposed deadline, and then the thrill of attaching a file to an email and pushing SEND. But this time what I loved best was the excuse to spend so many hours poring over every line of two of Estes's best-loved books. No one has ever understood what it is like to be a child better than Eleanor Estes. She gives children the gift of being truly seen, with loving eyes, for who they truly are.

I wish all of us that gift in this month of late autumn darkness, for today and always.