I was waiting for one of my sophomore classes to begin, my nose in an E. Nesbit story, when another student plopped down next to me.
“What are you reading?”
“A kid book,” I said. “It’s hard to get through anything more complicated in the middle of a semester.”
The other student smiled. “I like kid books.”
Incidentally, so do I, although I didn’t read most of my favorites until I was at least in high school. And it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I discovered E. Nesbit. I have C.S. Lewis to thank for that discovery. Considering that Lewis didn’t discover The Wind in the Willows until he was in his twenties, I suppose I shouldn’t feel so guilty.
Unfortunately, I seem to suffer from a perpetually guilty conscience, at least so far as my reading isconcerned. Such as the fact that I didn’t read all of The Chronicles of Narnia until high school. Or E. Nesbit and The Wind in the Willows until my sophomore year of college. I still haven’t finished Treasure Island, and that doesn’t even begin to cover my [real, in this case] guiltiness over The Lord of the Rings.
My confession goes something like this. I had always associated The Lord of the Rings with video gaming. And I hate video games. As a result, I didn’t touch the series until my senior year of high school. By that point, I had read enough C.S. Lewis to find out that he was friends with J.R.R. Tolkien. I figured that anyone who was friends with Lewis must not be a video gamer, so I decided to read part of The Lord of the Rings for one of my senior book reports.
I picked the wrong part. Partly I blame the library; but my ignorance was the greater culprit. I looked in the children’s section for the first part of LOTR, not realizing that it was more likely to be found in the young adult section. The only part of LOTR in the children’s section was The Return of the King. So I took it home and read it.
Yes, I know that I wasn’t supposed to do that. Unlike Frodo, I don’t believe I’ll have permanent scars from the experience–but it was quite an experience.
But after all, LOTR isn’t really a children’s book, although many children enjoy reading it. According to Tolkien’s friend Lewis, however, that fact is actually a good thing. “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children,” he argued, “is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
Some of the books that I read when I was actually a child definitely fall under Lewis’s ban. They weren’t really worth reading when I was a child, and they’re certainly not worth reading now. At the same time, some of the “kid books” I’ve discovered after my “kid” days were over are more valuable to me than they could have been when I was younger.
Take the story that Lewis neglected for so long, The Wind in the Willows. I disliked most books about animals when I was a child. There was one book about a cat that I read more than once, but I think my main reason was because the cat ran away, got beaten up, and caught (I think) pneumonia. The Wind in the Willows doesn’t have quite that level of pathos. But it is far funnier, as well as more poetic, than my childhood’s volume about the wandering feline. When I was in elementary school, I had no intention of sympathizing with a Rat, a Mole, a Toad, or anything with four legs and fur. Now I consider the Water Rat something of a kindred spirit. My tastes have grown.
When I start feeling guilty about some of the stories that I didn’t read until I was technically too old for them, I remember Lewis’s comments about good children’s stories. I console myself with knowing that I have developed a greater appreciation for quality children’s literature. And I reach for another E. Nesbit book.