This summer, I spent some time re-reading Anne of Green Gables, a book that I turned to frequently in my childhood. It was easy to fall into it, but it also made me think of the lessons we learn—the habits we form—when we are young readers.
In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved classic, middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to adopt a boy to help them with their Prince Edward Island farm. But as the result of a miscommunication, instead of a sturdy boy the Cuthberts end up with red-headed Anne Shirley, whose unself-conscious chatter and vivid imagination soon win over shy Matthew and uptight Marilla.
The novel follows Anne as she befriends “kindred spirits,” including her bosom friend the neighbor girl Diana Barry, attends classes at Avonlea village’s one-room schoolhouse (and breaks a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head for calling her carrots), accidentally puts salt in a cake instead of sugar, dyes her hair green, dreams of dresses with puffed sleeves, and excels when she attends teacher’s college.
Anne is a daydreamer, but intelligent and hard working. Throughout, Anne learns and matures, but the book also charts her progress from mistrusted stranger in town—an orphan—to being a member of the community of Avonlea.
Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908, was Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery’s debut. It met with instant success, and Montgomery went on to write nineteen more novels, including five more in the Anne series, a few books that focus on Anne’s friends and children, and the Emily books.
In many ways, Anne of Green Gables is about the commonplace—village life and growing up. But it is also about the power of imagination and storytelling. Anne’s parents die when she is a baby and she is taken in by a Mrs. Thomas, who, according to Anne, is “poor and ha[s] a drunken husband.” Young Anne helps raise the Thomases’ four children, and when the husband dies after falling under a train, she goes to Mrs. Hammond, who has eight children. Of Mrs. Hammond’s family, Anne says, “I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination.”
Anne takes refuge from the real danger of her early life in stories, and it is through making stories that she gains friends in Avonlea. After an absence from school, for instance, Montgomery writes:
Anne was welcomed back to school with open arms. Her imagination had been sorely missed in games, her voice in the singing and her dramatic ability in the perusal aloud of books at dinner time.
(By the way, one of the pleasures of re-reading Anne of Green Gables comes from appreciating the things that the girls do to entertain themselves in the early 1900s.)
But there is clearly tension between the everyday and the imaginative. Marilla constantly disapproves of Anne’s “heathenish” thoughts, and when Anne and Diana dream up a Haunted Wood including a ghostly child who lays its cold fingers on people, both Marilla and Diana’s mother object.
Indeed, what Montgomery calls a sign of Anne’s maturity involves favoring more realistic literature—a movement encouraged and endorsed by Anne’s beloved teacher, Miss Stacy. Anne tells Marilla:
She found me reading a book one day called The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall. It was one Ruby Gillis had lent me, and, oh, Marilla, it was so fascinating and creepy. It just curdled the blood in my veins. But Miss Stacy said it was a very silly, unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it.
As for her own writing, Anne says, “[Miss Stacy] won’t let us write anything but what might happen in Avonlea in our own lives, and she criticizes it very sharply and makes us criticize our own, too.”
Anne is told again and again to turn her imagination to less sensational channels: to favor realism over the gothic or fanciful—that there is a moral superiority to the more realistic even when it comes to imaginative play.
I read Anne when I was maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and distracted by the other delights of the book, I didn’t give a lot of thought to Miss Stacy’s edicts on literature.
But I probably absorbed them, because they were aimed at me—at young women readers. Later in life, Miss Stacy’s message was reinforced by similar sentiments in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Alcott’s classic, it is Professor Bhaer who is horrified by the “blood and thunder” tales that Jo March writes, causing her to change the direction of her work. And in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (a book that I love and on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis), Henry Tilney lectures avid novel-reader Catherine Morland after she imagines his father (and her holiday host) to be guilty of all manner of gothic horrors.
Within these classic, realistic novels about young women by Western, Christian women writers, the idea that realism is somehow fitter—somehow morally and aesthetically superior—is a refrain. And sure, part of this is to defend the work that these women are already doing; it is in the lady novelist’s interests to claim that her own works can be harmless—even beneficial to her readers. Fiction is, after all, a “pack of lies,” and creating a world inside a book is tantamount to challenging God. And accepting money for these labors sure doesn’t help the woman writer’s cause.
Realism, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to build a world—it seems less like an untruth. Realism, then, looks to the unschooled eye more genteel, less subversive, less deceptive, more ladylike, more socially acceptable.
But it is also interesting how drawn both Anne and her author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, are to the “fascinating and creepy”—which itself hints to the reading habits that Montgomery formed as a young reader. Montgomery’s most famous books after Anne, the Emily series, contain light supernatural elements. (For that matter, Louisa May Alcott also wrote sensational stories under her pen name A. M. Barnard.)The title of the first Emily book likely intentionally follows the naming scheme of the Anne books: Emily of New Moon. Like Anne, Emily is also an orphan raised by dour, older people. It’s Anne! But with dark hair and violet eyes! And, as it turns out, psychic visions.
For young me, reading about Emily after Anne—to read a similar narrative about a similar character by the same author only to have the book veer into the supernatural made me uneasy. And that was both because, well, ghosts and seances and any hint of the unknown, and also because it put my relationship with Montgomery’s “wholesome,” realistic books on unstable ground.
But it didn’t disturb enough for me to stop reading the rest of the trilogy or Montgomery’s other (sometimes disturbing) books. Because even though I was unsettled by Emily, I found it fascinating. The capacity was in me to enjoy these books—and in Montgomery to pen them.
I wonder what would happen if women weren’t told so often what to write; if they weren’t faulted for imagining the fantastic and the supernatural.
Now, I think about what would have happened to my outlook—to my reading habits—had I read Emily before Anne, if my expectations for Montgomery’s work had been different. Would it have made me more open to reading more frightening, more sensational, more “thrilling” books? Or maybe I am seduced by the idea of another me who is somehow braver because she can enjoy things that frighten her; a me who enjoys fewer limits on her reading on her imagination who lets her mind go farther, if even in a small way.
It is probably inevitable The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, a new book about a large family living in New York City, is about real estate.*
Karina Yan Glaser’s charming middle-grade contemporary opens about a week before Christmas when the Vanderbeekers learn that they are about to be kicked out of their beloved Harlem brownstone apartment. The Vanderbeekers are a biracial family—Asian and white—composed of two harried parents, a trio of eccentric pets, and five children. The eldest are twelve-year old twin girls—thoughtful violinist Isa and impulsive engineer Jessie—followed by nine-year-old basketball playing Oliver, shy six-year-old Hyacinth, maker of crafts, and four-year-old Laney.
The Vanderbeekers have deep roots on 141st Street. Père Vanderbeeker has always lived on the block, and the children have solidified the clan’s presence.
The Vanderbeekers’ home—a humble red brownstone with a weathervane that spun on windy days—sat in the exact middle of the street. The brownstone stood out not because of its architecture, but because of the constant hum of activity that burst out of it. Among the many people that visited the Vanderbeeker household there was quite a bit of disagreement about what it was like, but general agreement about what it was NOT:
The Vanderbeeker household is, in its way, a hub of community life. While the parents scramble to pack up and find housing, the children devise several strategems to convince their reclusive landlord, whom they call “the Biederman,” to allow them to stay. Each ploy, each scheme, makes use of a Vanderbeeker’s particular talent and character; it showcases their place in the world, but also provides a snapshot of life in their larger community.
I loved it. I was happy to find a realistic, warm book about a close-knit biracial clan living in a multiethnic New York City. I was delighted that the Vanderbeekers could reflect something of my daughter’s experiences growing up in Manhattan. And, well, I found the novel tremendously comforting. For the next few weeks, I started looking for children’s books about big families who live in rambling houses.
The stories I wanted to read had a few things in common: The families in these novels were almost always made up of one responsible sister—usually the eldest—an artistic sibling, a scientific one, and a young sibling who didn’t understand everything that was going on but arrived at simple solutions for ongoing family problems. The books were all written in the third person, with each section closely following one child as they pursued their talents and were allowed to ramble about making music or constructing elaborate structures unheeded and unsupervised by adults.
I read the Vanderbeekers, I read Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, I read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake, about the Melendy family. I just started Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, and of course, I have on hand Sydney Taylor’s portrait of a turn-of-the-century New York Jewish household in All-of-a-Kind Family.
As I went through—go through—these books, I have tried to think about why they are so familiar and comforting. I did not grow up in a knock-down house. I didn’t run wild. I never called secret meetings with my sisters and brothers to figure out how to manage my clueless parents or our problems. The feelings these books evoke could almost be mistaken for nostalgia—until I remind myself that I didn’t grow up this way at all.
There is a magical quality to the spaces that the children in these books inhabit. The Vanderbeeker children, for instance, creep out of their windows to meet on the brownstone’s roof:
The tiles made the rooftop welcoming and soundproof. Nevertheless the kids knew to tread in the same manner they did when visiting one another’s bedrooms late at night without waking their parents. They were certain the Biederman could not hear them, because he would definitely have said something about it. And not in a nice way, either.
Jessie Vanderbeeker has also equipped the roof with a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that allows the children to pour water down through a series of seesaws, wind chimes, and spokes, to create a soft melody. It’s a nice touch, both beautiful and whimsical, and it reinforces the feeling of an old-fashioned kind of childhood.
When I try to pinpoint what I find reassuring about this book—all of these books—I consider that it is this image of the siblings meeting secretly in the spaces that they’ve created. Even if the kids struggle to find a place in the larger world, there is at least assurance of a place within a family—where the crushing fights get resolved, where adolescence shakes up certain assumptions but one’s birth order and the love of one’s brothers and sisters stays more or less constant. The structure of family is ballast.
And that is further reinforced by the physical spaces of the kids’ covert meetings. One reason I find the Vanderbeekers and the Penderwicks and Melendys so compelling is because these books also show the ways that children have power in their environment. The four Penderwick sisters can, after all, help their friend James, who wants to go to a prestigious music school. The Vanderbeekers can lure their reclusive landlord back into the community. The Melendys even discover a secret room in their attic, in the children’s space.
“Look how it goes: up to here, and then across to there, and then down again. And look, there’s a kind of a bulge on that side. Like a hinge!”
“Like a hinge,” repeated Rush, light dawning. “Creepers, Ran! Do you suppose it could be a door?”
In dream interpretation, they say that discovering a hidden room in one’s home is a sign of untapped potential—it’s the subconscious’s signal there is more to find within oneself. In The Four-Story Mistake, that extra room is real; the Melendy kids keep news of the room from their father and their housekeeper, Cuffy. It is a place they can hide and plan fierce campaigns. Similar spots—in crawlspaces, in enormous garden urns, in attics and in trees—and covert meetings exist in the books I’ve been reading. From these locations, the siblings effect change, and their grown-ups have no idea that these childhood war rooms exist.
When people talk about having things go back to the way they were, I think sometimes they have in mind the portraits of family life found in these books. And yes, there is a charm in reading about “simpler times,” in kids playing in treehouses and adopting strange dogs from the street—charming, that is, for certain classes of white, straight, cis people.
But for me, I think that the appeal of these books lies in the fact that the children are allowed to be powerful, and where the books themselves serve as a childhood space; the pages are the secret room.
Because despite outward appearances, the larger setting of these novels isn’t all sweetness and charm. The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes, published in 1941, is essentially about the Great Depression and its effects on a widow’s children. Enright’s The Saturdays was published in 1939, and that book contains uneasy mentions of Hitler and strife in Europe. By The Four-Story Mistake (1941), Enright’s Melendys have moved to the country and are actively raising money for war bonds. So much for nostalgia.
I can’t think it a coincidence that both Estes and Enright first published these kinds of stories during these fraught years. And I find it interesting that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, about a mixed-race family—a family whose existence could be considered political—who are not many steps from homelessness and economic ruin—is being released now. They are sunny books, but their optimism is tempered. They are hopeful books, but there are good reasons why these characters need hope. When there is a larger world of dark, adult issues, these novels remind readers that there are still problems that can be solved by the youngest, smallest, most overlooked people.
* I received an ARC of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street via Netgalley.
Look, it’s been another long year, and my temptation this month is to quote blocks of funny passages from Gordon Korman’s 1981 comic middle-grade novel, I Want to Go Home, and just leave them here without analyzing my childhood or my feeelings.
Humor can be a balm, an escape—all that delightful, uplifting crap. But what I realized on picking up I Want to Go Home again was that my own humor also became a channel for anger. Whether that served me well remains to be seen.
I read I Want to Go Home many, many times starting in either fourth or fifth grade. In the story, Rudy Miller is sent to Camp Algonkian on orders of his school’s guidance department in order to learn to socialize better.
He runs up against enthusiastic campers, hearty counselors, a dizzying array of athletic activities, and a clueless camp director who begins all of his speeches by hailing back to his grandfather Elias Warden, founder of Algonkian.
Rudy is disgusted by all of his pink-lunged, wholesome, outdoorsy fellows. He refers to Algonkian as Alcatraz and his counselors as clones. His only friend is geeky, sensitive Mike Webster, who shares his dislike of camp, enthusiasm, and outdoor activities. Together, they hatch various schemes to escape the island, including:
Building a dam to flood the island;
Taking off in a boat;
Attempting to escape during a baseball game on the mainland;
Fleeing during a dance at a girls’ camp
What puzzles his counselors is the fact that Rudy is really, really good at all the things he disdains. He’s a fabulous soccer player. He trounces a counselor at chess and earns the chance to be camp director for a day. He outruns the competition at a track meet—and keeps sprinting off the field in an attempt to escape.
Rudy excels at everything and likes nothing. And this confuses his fellow campers and counselors, for whom being good at something means that they should damn well like it.
Gordon Korman was Rudy Miller to my fourth- or fifth-grade eyes.
At this point, Korman has now published nearly a hundred novels for children. But when I first started reading his books, he was young—not that much older than me, it seemed. He’d written his first novel, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, at age thirteen and sent it in to Scholastic, where it became the first in a string of hits. Macdonald Hall spawned a series starring Bruno and Boots, a pair of jokesters given to pulling stunts at their Canadian private school. (The current prime minister of Canada, who is also not that much older than me, named This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall as his favorite Canadian book. This article on Korman’s career is great, by the way.) Korman kept putting out funny, outrageous novels seemingly effortlessly, each featuring more elaborate plots and schemes than the last. He published five books before he graduated from high school.
Young Gordon Korman seemed to have pulled off an elaborate con — except his scheme was to get the adults to give him adulation and money for writing books in which he thumbed his nose at them. He was, like Rudy Miller, the kid who’d managed to outsmart the grown-ups again and again.
I was a very “good” child when I first read I Want to Go Home. I seemed sunny and undemanding. I won prizes at the science fair. I played piano. I didn’t talk back. My parents were also Christian and fairly conservative. At times I was desperate to appear “good” in every form that that word takes: an all-encompassing good that included purity of the soul, competence, and just general prodigiousness.
At other times, my act felt like utter and complete bullshit. I maintained a front out of fear: that I wasn’t actually very bright; that people would find out that I didn’t actually like or respect most of the adults with whom I acted so obsequious. And although I didn’t articulate it at the time, I was also convinced that I lived on the thin edge of the wedge. We don’t use the term “visible minority” as often anymore. But sometimes I feel like it’s an apt descriptor of how I felt. I was in the minority, and I was very visible. My acceptance into most spheres seemed to depend on being perceived as helpful or smart. If I wasn’t white, then by gum, I had to be indispensable, untouchably perfect—both.
But of course, the problem with keeping up the veneer was that it made me really fucking angry.
“You’re different. For instance, your counselors treat you like a prisoner. How come?”
“I am a prisoner,” said Rudy. “We all are, only some of us notice it more than others.”
Now I see that I was—and still am to a certain extent—preoccupied with the gap between my feelings about who I am and my successful performance of goodness and competence. I also see that I still have an equal, forceful desire to sabotage all of that. To rebel, yes, or to escape the narrow and impossible role in which I cast myself.
Nice to see that I’ve matured since fourth grade.
At one point, the extremely competent Rudy Miller says:
“Of course, my parents already have a spot reserved for my future Olympic medals. Maybe I’ll get them a moose head to fill the empty space.”
“You’re so good at everything,” said Mike, his voice filled with awe, “and you still hate sports.”
“With a passion,” agreed Rudy emotionlessly.
The gap between parental expectation and my own desires was something I identified with strongly. But what was interesting about I Want to Go Home was—is—that it stated baldly and often that you didn’t have to enjoy something you seemed good at. You didn’t even have to feign liking it.
In fact, the book presented a third option: you could be good and trapped, you could be angry—you could also be funny.
When Rudy becomes camp director for the day, his wit becomes immediately apparent to the rest of the campers:
“Your attention, please. This is your camp director speaking.” There was an enormous cheer from all the campers, as well as stamping of feet and banging on plates. “Tonight,” Rudy went on after the rumpus had died down, “the counselors’ tag championships will take place.”
“After that, the counselors will entertain by singing the ‘Anvil Chorus,” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi.”
Rudy makes the counselors run around obstacle courses and play tag in the mud; he puts them through what the campers do and makes no bones about his wish to upend the status quo. He tells everyone he dislikes baseball, running, soccer, crafts. He openly plans to escape. If he doesn’t actually get away, he at least gets away with saying everything on his mind.
Because at least he’s funny.
That’s what I concluded, too—for better or for worse. I read the book and laughed—and I tried to be funny. In trying I often said terrible, vicious things. Sometimes my jokes weren’t productive—they often aren’t useful for Rudy, either. Humor was as much a defense mechanism as it was offensive. I could take vengeance through a cutting remark. I could be angry. But it could also be a way of being honest, of allowing me to say exactly what I felt to almost anyone at any time.
My default is still to make fun when I’m feeling riled. I’ve been doing it a lot, lately.
I maintained my image as a good kid through junior high and high school. Of course, I never tried to steal a boat or run away. But I spoke many of the best and worst things I could think of out loud. Sometimes I think I got away with a lot—sometimes too little.
I was halfway through Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking when I decided that I didn’t particularly want to re-read it anymore.
Pippi, first published in Swedish in 1945, is the story of an irrepressible redheaded girl. She lives in a house by herself with a pet horse, a monkey named Mr. Nilsson, and a suitcase full of gold coins. She’s also very, very strong, able to lift her horse with one hand and thwart robbers with the other. She doesn’t go to school, she drinks coffee, and she sleeps with her feet on her pillow. Her father is a former pirate and is the king of a South Pacific island—described as a cannibal island.
Pippi lives a child’s dream of disorder. The adults in the village she lives in despair of her. The one time she goes to school, she riles up the children, shows she can’t do math, and tells wild tales about her time abroad. In another chapter, the centerpiece is a tall tale she recounts about a man named Hai Shang from Shanghai. “His ears were so big he could use them for a cape. When it rained, he just crawled under his ears and was as warm and snug as you please.”
The story is so clearly unrealistic that the little girl and Pippi’s friends doubt its veracity. Pippi continues to elaborate and weave her tale. And just when the children start being convinced, Pippi says of her story, “You must know that’s a lie. You mustn’t let people fool you so easily.”
Pippi is a fabulist within her own unrealistic story. The grown-ups in the novel are the ones who are confused and stick to seemingly useless rules. It’s supposed to be fun and absurd, and yet I find that I can’t like it. Because even topsy-turvy worlds have rules, and within the universe of Pippi, some of the tall tales about the cultures Pippi has supposedly encountered turn out to be true—Pippi’s father is the white king of an island of darker-skinned people, for instance. There’s a whole sequel about it called Pippi in the South Seas. The people whom Pippi has encountered on her travels end up as merely props to the chaos she insists on. Within the gleeful disorder of Pippi Longstocking lurks a very familiar order.
In a way, Pippi was the book that enforced my decision to not shove the stories I’d read in childhood at my own kid.
Many of my friends are passionate about books and understandably want to share with their children the joy of reading by giving them these classics.
I am happy to pass that love and joy onto my child. It’s the rest that gives me pause.
For the record, my daughter has read Pippi Longstocking. (Pippi in the South Seas is difficult to spot on library or bookstore shelves these days.) But I’ve talked with her about realism and tall tales, and how Pippi’s descriptions of the cultures and people she has supposedly encountered are inaccurate—and the fact that some of the cultures described are part of hers and my background.
And yes, I understand the book was written long ago. I understand that it was written by a mother who started out just telling her kids stories to entertain them, and that she was reflecting the concerns of her time and age and viewpoint. She clearly never imagined that someone who looked like me—or my kid—would be reading them. That’s fine.
But I am also a parent of a time and an age and a particular viewpoint—and I have other choices now. So does my child.
In March, shortly after its release, I bought my daughter a copy of Susan Tan’s contemporary middle-grade novel, Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire.
Like Pippi, Cilla Lee-Jenkins is a story about a girl who makes up stories and is disenchanted with the grown-up world.
Unlike Pippi, Cilla Lee-Jenkins is set in a realistic, recognizable universe. The protagonist is a plucky mixed Asian and white second-grader living in Boston with her parents and near her two sets of grandparents. Cilla—short for Priscilla—is getting a new baby sister. This has her alarmed, and as a result, she decides to become a famous writer so that she won’t be forgotten after the baby is born.
Cilla sometimes annoys and shocks the adults in her life. To her parents’ dismay, she calls her unwanted soon-to-be-sibling “the Blob.” In one episode, she pours glue over her head. But in Cilla is a recognition that the world is more complicated than simple binaries of order and chaos, adulthood and childhood. At one point, Cilla notes:
No one minds if you slurp your soup in Chinatown (which I can’t do at home) and no one cares if your elbows are on the table (my Grandma Jenkins is VERY concerned about this).
Cilla knows that manners—one of the things that Pippi lacks, to the horror of the adults—can be different in different contexts. The “other” culture with different etiquette is treated matter-of-factly—and it is Cilla’s culture, too. So-called disorder and reversal of adult norms—let’s face it, Western adult norms—is not the business of the day. Rather, in this book there is an acknowledgment that the world contains many kinds of order, many ways to be.
It’s not really a fair comparison: two books from different times that are trying to do different things.
One is an enduring classic. One of brand new—it’s too early to tell what it will be. But readers’—people’s—lives and perspectives are never exactly equal. And the work that these stories do, especially in the lives of the children who read them, are not necessarily measured in endurance or popularity or cultural reception. Sometimes books and characters do the best work by simply being put in the right hands at the right time.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins was written by someone—Tan herself is mixed—who can acknowledge someone with my heritage, my kid’s, as a reader. And it is one book that shows that my child the possibility that she can be the story—she can shape it—rather than exist an oddity in another person’s narrative. This and novels like this one are the ones I’m urgent to share.
I’m going to write my first-ever book right here in this journal, and I’m going to become a famous bestselling author (with an EXCELLENT new name) before the baby is born. Then no one can forget about me.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire is about a kid growing up and wanting to make sure that she’s seen and heard. And by encountering this character, maybe one kid out there will also know that she hasn’t been forgotten.
In Summer Light, Zibby Oneal’s 1985 book about a seventeen-year-old girl’s season of self-discovery, is one of the last young adult novels that I read as a young adult.
In it, Kate Brewer, daughter of renowned painter Marcus, has been recovering from mononucleosis and writing a paper on The Tempest. Kate has a fractious relationship with her father because she sees the way the household is ordered around Marcus’s moods and because of how he treats the work of the women who surround him—his wife, his daughters.
Marcus is the kind of man who says things at dinner like, “Painting is like making love.”
He’s your basic old white man artist nightmare, and Kate is now mature enough to dislike the way he dismisses Kate’s mother, Floss—herself a former painter who now devotes herself to her garden and her husband’s moods. Marcus says of one of Floss’s canvasses:
“There were artists all over New York doing that those years. In fact, when I met Floss she was doing one. Remember that big thing, Floss? What did you call it? ‘Coney Island’?”
Kate’s mother paused, serving a spoonful of peas. “‘Jones Beach,’” she said.
“Oh, right. Well, I knew it had the name of some swimming place.”
In a few casually brutal sentences, Marcus dismisses the only painting that Floss has ever seen fit to keep.
Kate herself has tried to paint and encountered a similar reaction from her father, resulting in her giving up her artistic ambitions. But when graduate student Ian Jackson arrives to catalog Marcus’s paintings for a retrospective, Kate begins to reconsider how her choices are dictated by her father, and decides to explore where her talents lie.
At another point in the book, Oneal notes:
It was the sort of conversation that she and her mother sometimes had, not so much for the sake of what they said, but because their voices moving back and forth were a kind of touching.
In Summer Light is beautifully written. Sections from this book might seem at home in the pages of TheNew Yorker. Indeed, with its spare, evocative prose and the restrained feelings of its characters, In Summer Light is also for me associated with a certain kind of story about privileged white people. This level of spareness and restraint can only happen in the absence of having to explain the world in which the book takes place. The implication is that if the reader doesn’t understand the nuances and modulations, she should learn.
This is a setting in which the loudest noises come from the clink of wine glasses above the strained silence of a dinner party. The two “lower class” characters—housekeeper Mrs. Hilmer and her daughter Frances—are treated with disdain by Kate because they ask openly for what they want—they are too direct.
In the same way, the reader of In Summer Light is schooled to value what is unsaid and read between lines—sometimes, the relationship of text to reader is like the way Kate and her mother communicate, “not so much for the sake of what [is] said, but … voices moving back and forth.”
The reader builds meaning into the silence. She works to keep up with the prose—not the other way around.
This is not to say that I dislike In Summer Light. I loved it as a fifteen (or sixteen) year old, knowing that I didn’t understand all the currents and nuances swirling in its pages. I wanted to master this way of looking at and being in the world. And part of the answer, for me, was to stop borrowing books that were supposedly aimed at me.
On rereading, I still love In Summer Light because it is so insightful about the practical and emotional work that women do, because it captures so well that feeling of straining toward adulthood, of learning one’s worth and power. And yes, I love it now because it has kind of beautiful writing that I trained to appreciate after first having read it. But of course, part of that training is learning to look down on what In Summer Light is—a novel for teens, a book written by a woman for young women.
I’m going in circles, aren’t I?
At least, that’s how I’ve felt trying to write this. But this is what I got from all of my reading and fancy degrees: that there are hierarchies. That epic poetry—by Homer, by Virgil—is more important than lyric poetry—Sappho. That literary fiction is better than genre fiction. That the genres most looked down on are mostly written for and about women and girls—romance and young adult fiction. And here is Oneal, who has written a book about young women and their work in a style that can be approved by men, in a genre that is not.
What I’m trying to say—what In Summer Light shows—is that a lot of the work of women is quiet or dismissed. And that women’s artistic output ends up being hushed or lost, too. It’s almost, almost as that work doesn’t exist:
“There were artists all over New York doing that those years. In fact, when I met Floss she was doing one. Remember that big thing, Floss? What did you call it? ‘Coney Island’?”
Kate’s mother paused, serving a spoonful of peas. “‘Jones Beach,’” she said.
“Oh, right. Well, I knew it had the name of some swimming place.”
In Summer Light met with acclaim after its 1985 publication. Oneal also had also written two earlier YA novels, The Language of Goldfish (1980) and A Formal Feeling (1982, nominated for a National Book Award for Children’s Fiction). She penned children’s books and non-fiction. A Google search revealed that she was still teaching writing as recently as last year. But despite praise for Oneal’s work, all of her young adult novels appear to be out of print.
When I was in (maybe) first grade, children’s book writer Robert Munsch came to my school and performed The Mud Puddle.
In the story, Jule Ann puts on clean clothes—pants, shirt, socks, shoes—and goes outside on a sunny day, only to be jumped by a seemingly sentient mud puddle. She returns to her house, sopping and dirty. Her mother washes her until she’s squeaky clean. She puts on new clothing. But the mud puddle is waiting for her.
Munsch performed it without consulting a script, using a huge paper doll and paper clothes, to illustrate the story to a crowd of elementary school kids. He was exuberant and rubber faced. By the middle of his performance—I remember so clearly the giddiness, the joy—all of us were rolling around on the library floor, helpless with laughter.
It is maybe one of my favorite memories.
Munsch is probably best known for books such as The Paperbag Princess, the story of an unglamorous royal who, using her wits and determination, saves herself in more than one way, and Love You Forever, a divisive—usually deemed either heartbreaking or obsessive—story that follows a mother and her boy until the son is a grown man and the mother is frail and old.
Munsch is not as well-known in the United States as he is in Canada. Nevertheless, Love You Forever is one of the bestselling picture books in North America of all time.
When he came to our school, he probably would have been early in his career as a children’s writer. The Mud Puddle was his first book. He performed a couple of other stories—we were a delighted audience. I don’t remember what they were.
There is a lot I don’t remember clearly or accurately. That troubles me, because this column is about, among other things, the impact of my childhood recollections. I say I was maybe in first grade when I saw Munsch perform. I say it is one of my favorite memories. But the truth is that my recall of it is piecemeal. I didn’t know it was Robert Munsch who read to us at the time. I had no idea who he was. I don’t remember being told that we’d get a special treat that morning or afternoon. If my parents asked how my day was, I probably forgot to tell them.
But even as I write this, I’m trying to put it back together, trying to figure out when I remembered—when I knew, when this story grew to greater personal significance. I pulled up pictures of my first elementary school, Betrun E. Glavin, on Google maps and learned from an architecture site that it still stands, that its “design avoids ornamentation beyond the beauty of its limestone facing.” That it was built “to express the learning philosophy of open spaces and individual progress without need for external distractions.”
I can remember the outside of the building with its tetherball poles and climbing structures—now replaced. The sunken library in the middle where Munsch read to us. I found a picture from 2014 of my third-grade teacher, Ms. Copp—she looks very much the same. She was interviewed on the closing of her parents’ garden center and convenience store, a store my friends and I biked to buy candy and Wacky Packs. I can’t find my first-grade teacher, though. Although now I realize that she was probably very young when she started teaching us.
There are later, more defined memories of my fifth-grade teacher, Monsieur Campbell, reading us The Paperbag Princess in French. (By then I was at a different school.) There is one picture where Princess Elizabeth flatters the dragon—and M. Campbell pointed out how the dragon was checking his nails, preening. By then I think that Robert Munsch was a household name in Canada, but I don’t think I made the connection that he was the person who’d come to perform for us long ago.
I suspect that it wasn’t until Munsch began to appear regularly on a children’s television program that I figured out the truth. By then, I knew his name, and even though I was supposed to be a cynical teen, I made time to watch it. He wasn’t even the headliner. The host was a clown named Piccadilly Circus. I can’t recall her whole schtick, but I think there was some mime involved. I don’t remember the name of the show. I’ve tried Googling variations of “CTV,” “children’s program,” “Piccadilly Circus,” and “Munsch” to see if I can find clips on YouTube.
This morning, I wiled away an hour on Musipedia trying to place the theme—a fairly well-known classical piece for piano. I can play back the tune on the keyboard, but the title remains elusive.
Chasing down every thread leads to another thought, another flash of recollection, another small part of my life. These fragments seem like loose ends. But as I gather the memories of this one person—one storyteller—together, I see how all these bits appear at so many stages of my youth, how they are woven into all aspects of my childhood. How astounding that one person’s stories permeate the texture of so much that I do and don’t remember.
A more recent memory: last year, my daughter brought home a copy of Moira’s Birthday. The book, first published in 1987, was in her class’s library. She thought it was very funny, and she asked me to read it out loud to her—she knew that it was a book that should be read out loud.
“For my birthday, I would like to invite Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, and Kindergarten,” Moira tells her mother.
When her mother balks at the number of children involved, Moira goes to her father. “For my birthday, I would like to invite Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, and Kindergarten.”
Her father tells her she can have six children over. But when the day of the party comes around, who shows up? Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, aaaaand Kindergarten. The joy in the book—in most of Munsch’s books—is in establishing the rhythm of storytelling and humor, then changing it up. It’s in the repetition of elements (Grade 1, Grade 2, etc. etc.), followed by absurd variation.
Afterward, we had a good time looking up people reading Munsch’s other stories on YouTube. My daughter still sometimes brings that book home.
My husband tells me that I read Moira’s Birthday differently. That become more animated. I yell. I exaggerate. I tell him that when I read them, I guess I’m performing them the way they’re supposed to sound—I’m reading them like Robert Munsch.
But it’s funny, because I think I still sound very much like me.