Here are four classic children’s books that I explored recently – the first two on audio with my children.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. Narrated by Barbara Caruso. Print Atheneum, 1971. Audio Recorded Books, 1993.
I read and reread this book as a child, and Stephanie at Views from the Tesseract has mentioned it more than once as a rare fantasy book where a mother plays an active role. Mrs. Frisby, a mouse, is a widowed mother of four. When her youngest, Timothy, gets too sick to move from their winter home in a farmer’s field, she is willing to do anything to save him. Her own kindly nature helps her, as she saves young Jeremy the crow from their mutual enemy, the cat who killed her husband. Through him, she meets first the wise owl of the forest and then the mysterious Rats of NIMH. While Mrs. Frisby is herself courageous and daring, the book shows its age somewhat in the second half of the book, where all of the active rat characters both in the present and in the history that Mrs. Frisby hears are males. The story is still an exciting one, and Barbara Caruso’s slightly old-fashioned narration fits it perfectly.
The BFG by Roald Dahl. Read by David Williams. Penguin Audio, 2013. (Print Jonathan Cape, 1982.)
This was me playing classics catch-up – though I owned and read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a child, I’ve read very little other Dahl. My then six-year-old was very proud to be the only one of us already familiar with this book. Our heroine here is orphaned, bespectacled Sophie (see the great list on Speculating on Spectacles again at Views from the Tesseract ). For anyone else under the rock with me, Sophie meets the Big Friendly Giant one night, journeys with him to giant land, and eventually plans with him a way to stop the nine other child-eating giants who live in giant land with him forever. The plot, though, might be secondary to the sheer fun of exploring another one of Dahl’s fantastic worlds, this one filled with bottled dreams which the BFG mixes to delight children. There is a short moment of sexism where he says that boys wouldn’t like girl dreams, but overall, the book is great fun. David Williams narrates beautifully, and the production is enhanced with sound effects.
Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White. NYRB Kids, 2016. Originally published 1946.
This book and the next one were sent to me for review purposes by the New York Review of Books Children’s Collection, which is issuing new, brightly colored paperback editions of some of their favorites. Mistress Masham’s Repose was again a childhood favorite. It’s a delightful mix of language, action and ethics. Orphaned Maria lives on a crumbling British estate, cared for by a cruel governess and vicar, Miss Brown and Mr. Hater, but helped by the Faithful Cook and the absent-minded Professor who comes to tutor her. When she discovers a colony of Lilliputians on a small island on the estate, she must first find out how to treat them ethically herself, and then save both them and herself from the vicar and her governess. It’s especially funny if you take time to read through everything – things like the manor having 365 ¼ rooms, the names of the hallways, or nearby towns called Monk’s Unmentionable Cum-Mumble. I know I missed some of that humor as a child – but this could make a great family read-aloud, with an adult nearby to explain some of the more obscure humor. (There were a couple of metaphors involving Native Americans which I’d consider mildly inappropriate these days, but it was overall much better in terms of racism and gender roles than one might expect of a book of its age.) I enjoyed it, if possible, even more than I did as a child.
An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden. NYRB Kids, 2016. Originally published 1955.
This was the second book which the NYRB sent me for review, one with which I was previously unfamiliar. It’s the only realistic fiction of this group, set in post-World War II London, where the struggling neighborhood of Catford Street meets up against an upper-class courtyard desperately trying to preserve their territory separate from the lower classes nearby. The opening was rather difficult, told from the point of view of middle-aged Olivia, unhappy with her life, in pain, not standing up to her sister. It also didn’t keep a steady flow of time going, so that it was hard for me to tell what was happening when. This difficulty cleared up as the story shifts to watching the children who are causing a ruckus in the courtyard and the story of how and why 10-year-old Lovejoy Mason convinced 12-year-old Tip Malone and 5-year-old Sparkey to steal earth from the courtyard. Lovejoy is an angry, neglected girl, who like Mary Lennox some 50 years earlier, finds meaning and redemption in creating a forbidden garden. That’s putting it very simply – there is a whole lot going on. (It says early on that people of all colors live in Catford Street, but the most colorful we see close up are Tip’s Irish Catholic family.) Though it’s a good story, I’m still not sure after finishing it if it is a story for children, or a story about children for adults, and my library keeps a copy in both places. I also didn’t agree that the ending was happy, though it was presented as such. I’d definitely recommend it to adult fans of British children’s literature, and perhaps to children who enjoy challenging themselves. Both of these editions look sturdily bound and make one appreciate the feel of a physical book in the hand.
More of my favorite classics are in my Top 10 Classics for Kids list. What are some of yours?