Lost wilderness of childhood

Michael Chabon mourns the loss of The Wilderness of Childhood in the New York Review of Books.

A striking feature of literature for children is the number of stories, many of them classics of the genre, that feature the adventures of a child, more often a group of children, acting in a world where adults, particularly parents, are completely or effectively out of the picture. Think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Railway Children, or Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy presents a chilling version of this world in its depiction of Cittàgazze, a city whose adults have all been stolen away. Then there is the very rich vein of children’s literature featuring ordinary contemporary children navigating and adventuring through a contemporary, nonfantastical world that is nonetheless beyond the direct influence of adults, at least some of the time. I’m thinking of the Encyclopedia Brown books, the Great Brain books, the Henry Reed and Homer Price books, the stories of the Mad Scientists’ Club, a fair share of the early works of Beverly Cleary.

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans—Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone—when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Yes! The Little Orange Books (Childhood of Famous Americans series). I loved it. And I loved exactly what Chabon is talking about. For the most part, the kids were on their own.

I grew up in boring suburbia with two (two!) parents. I thought it was incredibly unadventurous, so I escaped to fiction. But compared to the safety-first way kids are raised now, we were bold wayfarers.

Chabon wonders if children’s imaginations can develop in a parent-protected bubble. His daughter learned to ride a bicycle, but isn’t allowed to ride anywhere on her own. And when she ventures out (with dad tagging behind), they meet no other children.

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

It will be boring.

Via Stuart Buck.

The latest Harry Potter movie is under attack from nannies who disapprove of the young wizards drinking “butterbeer,” mead and a “liquid luck” potion.

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  1. I love this country with all my heart. As the only born American in a family of Danish immigrants, however, the nannyist view on alcohol so many in this nation have just annoys the frack out of me.

    First off, butterbeer is only mildly alcoholic (something that is made abundantly clear in the books). There isn’t enough to actually inebriate anyone larger than a house elf.

    Secondly, the mead was for a celebration. It is precisely this uptight view of alcohol which leads to binge drinking. The keg-standing morons in college are the ones who were never allowed to drink at home. The ones who kill themselves with alcohol poisoning are the ones who were never taught how to handle alcohol. Those for whom it’s always there and never a big issue are, by and large, not the ones who have problems.

    There are real dangers in this world. They are part of life. Those parents who proverbially wet themselves at the slightest hint of it are guaranteeing that their children will be ill-prepared to handle it.

  2. Margaret says:

    Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome – kids, boats, an island in a big lake, little parental involvement. The “sequels” are equally good; unlike modern series fiction the stories are different enough that it doesn’t feel like the same book over and over, but the theme – kids and boats – is the same. Written in England in the 1930s, they could never be published today: there is no mention of life jackets.

  3. Homeschooling Granny says:

    cf. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.

    Our children are being raised to be environmentalists, theoretically, but with pathetically little actual experience in the out-of-doors. How can anyone appreciate, protect and preserve nature with no first had knowledge of it?

  4. A theme that consistently runs through a lot of modern kid lit is the need for or the loss of a parent, a protective, loving parent. In Percy Jackson, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Graveyard Book, and Harry Potter the main or a primary character is seeking out a lost parent or parents or mourning the loss of the same or seeking a reunion.

    I wonder what that says about modern children and parents.

  5. Mark G. says:

    These stories of independence from parents (though the trend of dead or missing parents is at first troubling…look at any old Disney movie) I think are important for helping young adolescents imagine themselves as independent and capable as opposed to parent-dependent.

    Recent YA lit seems to focus less on character-building adventure and more on teen angst, social maneuvering, etc… presented under the banner of “this is what they experience, so this is what they want to read about.” Whereas the old lit gave kids the chance to see themselves as burgeoning adults, more YA lit today only feeds the idea of perpetual teenagerdom and that petty social problems are “real problems.” Not all YA is this egocentric, but much is.

  6. “My name is Walt Disney, and your mother is dead.” John Irving likes to kill off mothers, too, for an adult example. I think it has much to do with the need to separate one’s identity from one’s parents’. Classic Jungian archetype.

    I wonder if this archetype is fading in YA because so many children really are missing a parent.

    Chabon’s essays are brilliant… I did hear a piece not long ago about “free range children” that addressed this modern problem. I’ve been kicking my kid out of the house all summer — but I make sure she has her cell phone with her.

  7. But all those old dead white guys were racist, or non-green, or mean to animals or trees. PC-ness has killed any sort of respect for American explorers (unless a minority), soldiers (murderers), statesmen (graft), and so forth.

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    Obi-Wandreas, I absolutely agree that the laws governing alcohol in much of this country are simply schizophrenic. But I don’t think it can all be blamed on a “nannyist” view of the matter.

    When I was in the Army 40-odd years ago, several buddies from the deep south — Georgia, Alabama, places like that — were candid: the wet-or-dry by county ordinances (that in fact still exist in a great many southern states) have little or nothing to do with what was then known as the “Baptist lobby”, i.e., fundamentalist mores writ political, and everything to do with bootleggers buying off legislators in order to keep amd maintain a very profitable illegal and tax-free business.

    I expect you also will find that prices for all types of liquor are typically significantly higher in states where such is a state-controlled monopoly — that is, you only can buy it in a state store — compared to the largely open-market approach in California. That’s because the states in which such laws prevail see liquor sales as a state revenue stream. Again, nannyist public morality has nothing to do with it.

    There is of course, no telling for the really crazy laws. I understand that in Utah, you can buy liquor by the drink, but bars and restaurants may not advertise that they have liquor available for purchase. Go figure.

  9. A theme that consistently runs through a lot of modern kid lit is the need for or the loss of a parent, a protective, loving parent.

    Isn’t that a theme that runs through a lot of classic kid lit as well?
    The Secret Garden, whose heroine’s parents are killed by illness in India and the rich boy’s father has long been withdrawn into grief by the death of his wife, the boy’s mother.
    Anne of Green Gables – an orphan, who is adopted by parents who eventually work out to be warm and loving.
    Little Women – father is away at the American Civil War.
    Mowgli, in the Jungle Book – abandoned in the jungle.
    The Children of New Forest – parents die in British Civil War, kids escape their house being burnt down.
    A Little Princess – she loses her father.

    I think the advantages of losing a parent, in terms of kids’ literature, is that firstly it creates conflict and tension, necessary for all stories, secondly the loss of a parent allows the children more freedom.

  10. I know this is following the previous red herring, but not only is price higher but selection is also much lower in states where the state runs the liquor/wine stores. Also, the South doesn’t have a monopoly on senseless/apparently senseless laws; until recently South Dakota allowed beer sales on Sunday, but not wine. Very frustrating when you suddenly feel like beef burgundy on a Sunday…

  11. deirdremundy says:

    Re: Alcohol laws

    In Indiana, stores can’t sell alcohol on Sundays. Whenever the legislature considers changing the law, the liquor store owners protest. If the law changed, they’d have to be open on Sundays or lose business to grocery stores and Walmart. With the law in place, they get a day off….