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.