In praise of childhood favorites that have lost their magic

At Book Riot, a nice post from Laura Sackton: In praise of childhood favorites that have lost their magic

I recently reread A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most beloved books from my childhood. I’d just given the graphic novel version to my five-year-old nephew, who loved it, and with the recent movie, the book has been on my mind. I decided to listen to it on audio, one of my favorite ways to reread books.

The audiobook is excellent. I enjoyed falling back into a world that I loved so much as a kid. I wasn’t disappointed by it, I didn’t dislike it, and I didn’t find it troubling or problematic like some other childhood favorites I’ve revisited. It was perfectly good. But it didn’t make me feel much. The magic was gone…. at first, this made me sad. I craved that feeling of immersion I’d had when I was a kid. I wanted A Winkle in Time to be what it had always been for me. …

Maybe these books don’t lose their magic because they’re not good enough, but because their magic is specific to the experience of childhood. Maybe there’s something in these books that speaks to the open curiosity of children, to the feeling of being a small human in a big world, or a young person with a brain still discovering itself. Maybe the very best books from our childhoods—the ones that shaped us, the ones that made us fall in love with reading and taught us how strong we were and showed us the dizzying array of possibilities in the universe—simply have a magic that adults can’t understand.

A wonderful point. Children’s books are meant for children (or should be). It’s not necessary for adults to love them (though they may).

I still find some of my childhood books touching and lovely — A Little Princess, say, and Little Women. I haven’t tried one of the wonderful E Nesbit stories, such as The Phoenix and the Carpet, for a very long time, so I’m not sure how that would work for me these days. I will add that I no longer care very much for A Wrinkle in Time, though I might eventually see the movie. I think every now and then of re-reading the Narnia chronicles. I wonder how those would strike me now?

This reminds me of a hilarious recent thread on Twitter, by Ursula Vernon, re-reading and commenting on Swiss Family Robinson — which I loved as a kid (so did she). Not the sort of book that is likely to stand up to a re-read, I gather. I had completely forgotten some of the details that catch Vernon’s sardonic eye. You really must click through and read that thread — especially if you remember Swiss Family Robinson.

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11 thoughts on “In praise of childhood favorites that have lost their magic”

  1. Narnia is a bit of a mixed bag. A lot of it boils down to how much you get distracted by the religious allegory elements. The Horse and His Boy has some uncomfortable racial stereotyping, and The Last Battle is basically overtaken by the religious allegory elements and stops being a real story, but The Silver Chair, Prince Caspian, The Dawn Treader – those hold up pretty well.

    Last time I checked them out, I thought the Taran Wanderer series held up pretty well, but it has been a while.

    I’m always a bit scared to say it, given the fanaticism of its fans, but I don’t think Harry Potter has held up as well to revisits – it’s fun and all, but it’s a world and story that doesn’t bear too much close examination.

  2. When I picked up Wrinkle with the thought of passing it on to the not-yet-Teen, I bounced off, hard. If the n-y-Teen gave it 5 minutes before dropping it I’d be surprised. It actively put me off, which I hadn’t expected – I’d once loved it and sought out other L’Engle. At worst I expected to find it uninteresting.

    Narnia…. sigh… I loved it as a kid. When I read it to the very young n-y-Teen, I noticed some jarring language switches, especially in Prince Caspian. Adults were speaking Shakespearean (more or less) and the kids … weren’t. They were “I’m just a kid” level. Which made it accessible, I’m sure, but puts my teeth on edge now. And then there’s the worldbuilding, which feeds into the language: how does one go from the kidspeak to adult formal? And all the rest of the mishmash Lewis put in.

    I also bounced off the Lloyd Alexander (Taran ) series last time I looked at it, and it never got the kid’s attention. I still have his solo about Sebastian with the cursed fiddle, though. But haven’t dared look at it for some years.

    Harry Potter is a great source of discussion – there’re so many holes to fill. :-) I’ve dropped in on some sites where the people disagree with me and admire their persistence in finding something of value in it. (Example, Hogwarts Professor which today has at the top this article: The Passion of Harry Potter, according to Saint John the Evangelist. No. Just… No.) I actually occasionally have tried to see some of what they see. I can’t.
    I hope it doesn’t last. Although something will as long as they keep churning out installments.

    (deletes long Potter focused rant.) Ahem.. back to childhood favorites…

    Nesbit holds up well in my experience. It’s weirdly like watching Rocky and Bullwinkle or Looney Tunes as an adult. Less farcial, though.

    Earthsea (original trilogy only) holds up, too. Ibbotson seems to as well, although I get tired of people pointing to her “Platform 13” book as should’ve been Harry Potter. No, it’s not one of her better ones.

    Others not mentioned yet that cross the years and generations: Elizabeth Enright, Robert McCloskey (Homer Price!), DW Jones.

  3. There’s also the writerly side of things: once you start to read with a critical eye, toward improving the tale, it’s hard to turn it off when it’s someone else’s work.

  4. Oh, I forgot Diana Wynne Jones – I guess I just assumed she was so solid I didn’t have to say anything. Ditto Tamora Pierce’s Lioness books.

  5. Oh, of course, DWJ. I read almost all of hers as an adult, and they certainly are excellent for readers of whatever age. Similar experience with Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire; I just read those a couple years ago and loved them. Tamora Pierce goes both ways for me. I see too-young-for-me plotting in many of her books, but I like them anyway. And the Bekka Cooper series may have flaws … that last book is pretty slooooow even for me … but it definitely is not too young.

    I actually never really liked the Taran series. The comic relief character … Gurgi? … I have always detested that kind of character, even as a quite young child.

    I enjoyed the Harry Potter books very much, mostly. Of course there are ENORMOUS worldbuilding holes, but she was not trying to build a tight world, so this didn’t bother me as it would have in other stories.

    Mary, I am lucky because I can still enjoy (many) books even when they have significant flaws. It depends on what those flaws happen to be. Then I do wind up analyzing what makes this book work for me even though the worldbuilding is ridiculous or the characters are so one-dimensional or whatever, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the story.

    Granted, it is especially wonderful to pick up a book and fall in love with everything about it. Sometimes you think, “Oh my God, I should have written this exact book!” The Goblin Emperor was like that for me. I wouldn’t change a word in the whole thing.

  6. My issues with the Harry Potter books were more about the characters – I thought that aspect deteriorated quickly starting around book 5 or 6. Harry gets a lot less sympathetic, they try to redeem Snape, which I don’t buy at all, the heroes all get romantically paired off at the end in ways that don’t make sense or feel earned…I just didn’t think she stuck the landing very well. Granted, I haven’t revisited in a while, but I just thought the back half was disappointing, which colors the earlier part of the series.

  7. I thought the back half was too long (We are going to wander around in the woods for HOW long?), and some aspects of the plotting annoyed me, I think. But I haven’t re-read them and don’t remember them as well as I might. I DID want a redemption arc for Severus, but I wanted it handled in a completely different way, so I have an unfair reaction of “But that’s all wrong because it’s not the way I would have done it!” to the way she actually did it.

    Plus a character died whom I wanted to live. I hate that.

  8. Allan Shampine

    I read a lot of Lawrence Watt-Evans back in college. Recently I noticed that his “Legends of Ethshar” series was up to 14 books or so and decided to get caught up. It’s been long enough I just started from the beginning. They are not nearly as good as I remember. Each one seems to be based around one moderately clever hook that he then bangs out. Not bad, but I’m on the fence as to whether I’m going to make it through all fourteen. On the plus side, they go pretty quick.

    It is really rare for me to reread anything anymore, so this is a new experience for me. I know that you reread things pretty regularly. Do you find that your tastes change over time?

  9. Yes, but only over quite a bit of time and not very much at all as I get older. That’s why the Narnia series would be interesting: I haven’t read those since I was a child. In contrast, things I loved when I was in high school and college, I nearly always still love now. So that’s different from your experience with the Ethshar series.

    When I was young, I guess pre-high school, I really loved The Sword of Shannara. By the time I was in college, I couldn’t imagine what I had ever seen in it. So that was probably a period during which my tastes were developing and changing faster than has since been the case.

  10. I devoured the Oz books as a kid–at least the original ones by Baum–and can’t stomach them now. That’s rare for me, though, most of my childhood favorites still resonate with me: Narnia, Prydain (anything by Lloyd Alexander, really, I’m still mourning his death and the loss of any more books by him, I don’t care that they all followed the exact same template), Susan Cooper’s books, Edward Eager–in fact, I assigned The Time Garden to my American Lit class and found myself laughing out loud as I re-read it; I think I got more of a kick out of it than my students. E Nesbit is trickier; her tone jars more now I’m an adult, and when my husband read Five Children & It to our 8yo for a bedtime story, she loved it and he could barely get through it. One non-fantasy book that has held up beautifully is Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy–my kids and I read through that this winter and we all adored it. My experience with it was completely different reading as an adult from reading as a kid, but I loved it just as much.

  11. I love the idea of assigning The Time Garden to a class. Great way to make history feel like a real thing.

    I’ve never heard of Understood Betsy — I’ll have to check that out.

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