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Talk to the animals - great children's books
One of the first Tales I found both true and Horribly sad is a chapter that comes at the middle of P.L. Travers' "Mary Poppins," an interlude devoted to the Baby twins, John and Barbara Banks, in their nursery.(Jane and Michael, the older and more better-known Banks siblings, have gone off to a party.
) The twins can know the language of the sunlight, the wind and a cheeky starling who perch on the window sill, but they are Ranked when the bird informs them that they will soon forget all of this. "There was a human being that remembered after the age of 1 -- at the very newest -- except, of class, Her." (This "Great Exception," as he calls her, is Mary Poppins, of class.
) "You'll hear all right," Mary Poppins tells John and Barbara, "but you won understand. "This news makes the babies shout, that brings their mom bustling into the nursery; she blames the fuss on teething. When she tries to soothe John and Barbara by saying that everything will be all right later their teeth come in, they just shout harder.
"It won't be all 2C it will be all wrong," Barbara protests. "I don't want teeth 22 screams John. But, of class, their mother can't know them any better than she can know the end or the starling. It's at age 1 that we obtain our initial words.
This story, that made me so melancholy as a woman, is, one of other things, about the price we cover for language, for the ability to tell our moms that it's not our teeth that are upsetting us but something else. It alludes to what we have given up to be known by her and all the other adults, our lost brotherhood with the rest of production. Words are what separate us from the animals, or as Travers will have it, from the elements themselves, from everything that could only be without the scrim of Awareness intervening.
Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, this mournful rift is healed; there, individuals can talk to animals, to trees and sometimes to rivers (as happens in "Prince Caspian"). People have longed to communicate with the world since time -- a deep, longing that was that was mystical. Lewis' friend, J.R.R. Tolkien described this as one of the two "primordial desires" behind fairy tales (after the desire to "survey the depths of space and time"): We want to "hold communion with other living things.
" But since kids are literalists and materialists, not mystics, their love for animals, and for stories about people who can talk to animals, is seldom known as a manifestation of this desire. To say that, as a child, I -- and my brothers and sisters and most of our friends -- loved creatures would be an understatement; much of the time we wanted to be animals. Take us to a playground or some place with a rambling yard, and we'd immediately start mapping out the land for one of our elaborate matches of make-believe.
At first, we pretended to be different woodland fauna, inspired by the "Old Mother West Wind" novels by Thornton Burgess, a series our mother read to us. At the house, one of us would clamber up on the roof of our ranch house (via the top bar of the swing set) to play the eagle who came swooping down to pounce on the squirrels and chipmunks below. This preoccupation with animals begins early.
2 friends of mine, twins named Corinne and Desmond, began pointing at themselves and saying "This is a pup" nearly as soon as they learned to talk. As time goes on the impossibility of these imaginings and by the ache for the touch develops more dire. By age 7, when I first read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I longed for some better rapport with the family cats and the area dogs, with any kind of monster, really.
Animals seemed like relatives left behind in the Old Nation, except that the growing expanse that separated us wasn't a physical ocean but a cognitive one. They stood on the pier, becoming smaller, while we kids saw from the deck, on the way to a new, supposedly better way of being in the world, haunted by the image of what we were losing. Animals, like babies, belong to the enormous nation of those who communicate without words, through gesture, expression, odor, audio and touch.
Children are immigrants from that nation, and like most immigrants still have a foothold on the abandoned coast. I thought, correctly, that I understood creatures better about them more than the adults around 42, and cared. I could faintly remember what it was to be like a monster% 2C things that are complex.
But I didn't appreciate the inverse relationship between the individual self I was building outside of the new words I acquired every day and the inarticulate planet that moved away from me as my identity gained definition. Watching Corinne and Desmond increase up, I have noticed another disadvantage to learning to talk: Speaking also ushers in the point at that grown-ups stop performing anything you want just to make you stop yelling. It's only when you can ask for something with words that people expect you to know the word "no.
" So age 1 also marks the beginning of our entry into individual society suitable, where compromise is the price of entrance. Most adults-- and especially the authors of great children's novels -- view growing up as a kind of tragedy whose casualties include innocence and the capability for whole-hearted make-believe. But kissing Puff the Magic Dragon good-bye happens later, on the brink of pre-pubescence.
Travers, in her chapter on poor John and Barbara Banks, appears to be saying that the smallest kids have already suffered a heart-breaking separation, before they leave their cribs. Words also introduce us to our maximum implacable enemy: time. Developmental psychologists think that memory starts with the learning of speech; to speak (or more accurately, to know speech, since most kids can grasp before they can articulate) is to remember.
With memory comes the capacity to reside on the past and to anticipate the future; without memory, how can we know our lives and our selves And without understanding these things, how can we own them But as Travers' mournful little parable would have it, to speak is also to forget -- to forget what it is not to remember, to forget what it feels like to live the way creatures do, in a perpetual now, oblivious of death and out of time. Animals inhabit the world of raw experience we've left behind; creatures are the people of our lost homeland. To a child, an animal appears like a compatriot.
The attachments that I had to the creatures I knew were every bit as strong as my feelings toward, state, my siblings (and less ambivalent, too, since I wasn't competing with the family cats for my parents's focus or a larger share of the French fries). It's true that some adults still feel this way about their pets, and if you ask them why, the explanation often has to do with the transparency of animals' affection, their sincerity, which also turns out to be connected to their lack of speech. Animals can't talk, ergo, they can't lie.
Yet the cherished fantasy that is monsters in children% 27s are speaking animals. If we have combined feelings about the gifts of language and consciousness, we have no goal of. Rather, we want to draw creatures along with us, into the solitude of self- knowledge, perhaps trusting that they'll make it a less alone place for us.
Children are more likely than adults to fantasize about speaking beasts because children don't have the logical faculties to see that giving creatures the power of speech will surely spoil everything we enjoy about them. Talking creatures were one of the things I loved most about the Chronicles as a child, but over the years that aspect of the novels has lost its old allure. After I would have given anything to join the Pevensie siblings at the round dinner table at Mr.
Beaver's snug little house, trading stories about Aslan and eating potatoes and freshly caught trout. What I now enjoy about creatures -- their lack of self-consciousness -- I know to be intimately bound up in their speechlessness. As a little girl, I guessed them of having inner lives much like my own, if just they could (or would) tell me about it; now, I recognize that their charm lies in their lack of these key thoughts.
If my neighbor's cat, my friend's dog, the squirrel who sometimes treks together my flame escape, peering in on me while I'm reading on my couch, could talk, would they really have anything to say that they can't currently communicate well sufficient in their average way: by purring, snuffling, wagging, chitteringStories about speaking creatures are not, of class, solely the province of children's literature. Folklore -- that is made by and for adults -- has its share of them, too, but it always uses speaking beasts didactically, to personify a particular principle or Characteristic: the wily fox, the fearsome wolf, the methodical tortoise. The creatures of fairytale and fable are used to signify an identity that is easy and unchanging.
Require the scorpion who breaks his guarantee by stinging the frog who has consented to carry him across a river; when requested how he could betray his rescuer, he answers, "It's my character." People repeat this parable as a way of asserting that a thief is always a burglar, and a liar is always a liar, so it's best not to trust either one. Adults rarely tell every other actual tales (as opposed to fables and parables) about animal characters because the adult thought of a great story -- especially now, a couple hundred years into the history of the book -- needs psychological change, enlightenment, growth.
When a modern book with animal characters appears -- Richard Adams' "Watership Down," for example -- if in most ways it meets the criteria of mature fiction, its moorings there are not secure. Odds are it will ramble, sooner or later, to the children's bookshelves. Children publicly and delightedly identify with the characters in animal stories, often more easily than they identify with kid characters.
Children's authors know that what insults an adult reader -- being likened to an animal -- delights young one. Robert McCloskey's celebrated picture book, "Blueberries for Sal," for instance, is only an extended conceit on the similarities between the toddler Sal and Small Bear -- to the degree that at 1 point the two youngsters accidentally swap moms. Curious George is ostensiblyalthough a mischievous fighter, but his dedicated realize that being readers that he is also a wayward three-year-old.
And in Narnia, God is an animal.
Although as a girl I adored Aslan, the lion god Lewis invented to predominate over the imaginary nation of Narnia, he is another part of the Chronicles that no more moves me as it after doing. This is just partly because I now watch, also clearly, the proselytizing Christian symbolism, the theological strings and levers behind Lewis' stagecraft; the great lion appears less a character than a creaking device. Because I have because grown into the freedom I was only that was experimenting with loving Aslan also stop.
The kind of story in that a distant, civic presence hovers behind the scenes, ready to step in and save the day at the moment when hope appears lost -- a story safety web of sorts -- annoys rather than comforts me. I no more need this in the same way that I no more need to hold someone's hand while crossing the street. Still, being able to browse traffic on your own doesn't maintain you from wanting to hold someone's hand every once in a while, if for different reasons.
Holding palms feels fine that has kept its charm for me. Unlike the God I was increased to worship, he is a god you could touch, and a god who asks to be touched physically in his darkest hour. In the darkest hour in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he says to Lewis' 2 little girl characters, Lucy and Susan, "Lay your hands on my mane so that I could feel you there and let us walk like that.
"Later, the girls rise on his "warm, golden back," bury their hands in his mane and go for a stunning cross-country ride through a Narnia you could nearly flavor, thanks to one of Lewis' maximum exhilarating winners: "Have you ever had a gallop on a horse Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the bits and imagine instead the nearly noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or grey or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about double as fast as the racehorse.
But this is a mount that doesn't need to be directed and not growing tired. He rushes on and on, missing his footing, hesitating, threading his way with ideal ability between tree trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller flows, wading the larger, swimming the biggest of all. And you are riding not on a street in the park even on the downs, but right around Narnia, in spring, down solemn paths of beech and across sunny glades of walnut, through crazy orchards of snow-white cherry trees, ago roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes, and across the shoulders of heathery hills and together giddy ridges and down, down, down again into crazy valleys and out into meters of blue flowers.
"It is almost impossible to find the plain, untrammeled joy in being alive that Lewis catches in Lucy and Susan's "romp" with Aslan in the traditional Judeo-Christian canon. The scene is blissfully lusty. It ends with all three together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs. " It will be hard to imagine the two girls sharing the same closeness with a god in the form of a guy -- or, instead, it's imaginable, but only with embarrassing undertones.
"Animal" is a word sometimes used as a synonym for "carnal," and not in a great way, but Lucy and Susan's desire to touch Aslan, and Aslan's desire to be touched by them is orgasmic without ambivalence because he is a real creature. Like most adults of his time and place (or adults of maximum times and places, for that thing), Lewis had combined feelings about sex, but in this scene, at least, he escapes into a pure delight at physicality that's almost but not quite, erotic. And although I myself am ambivalent about having to use the word "pure" to characterize that delight or -- worse yet, the word "innocent," that I've so much handled to prevent -- there is no other adjective for it.
Even if I would prefer not to think that sexuality contaminates experiences, I have to admit that ambivalence about novelty does just that. Lucy and Susan's romp with Aslan is as much fun as you can have in a body without sex -- that is, without sex and the ambivalence that come with it. It's also transcendent. "Whether it was like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitty, Lucy could never make up her mind," Lewis writes.
What Susan and Lucy are tumbling around with on Narnia's springy turf is something titanic and formidable, not just their own carnality with all its dormant, inconsistent possible, but a divinity who have just unleashed snowbound Narnia into the rampant energy of spring. Yet if you're going to romp with a thunderstorm, what better form could it take than a gigantic kitten Play and childhood, too, are forces of nature. When I read picture books to my toddler friends, Corinne and Desmond, they like to sidle up close to me.
Their little fingers creep under my watchband and twine around my thumbs like the ivy that, under Aslan's management in "Prince Caspian," pulls down all the man-made structures in Narnia. The twins can't sit still; they have to fiddle with locks of my hair, scale on my shoulders and into my lap. I usually end up with a foot in my solar plexus and a head blocking my view of the book I'm supposed to be studying.
They make me feel like a patient older dog, beset by puppies, my ears chewed on and paws squashed. I suppose they'll only be able to get away with behaving like this for a couple more years, when, inevitably, self-consciousness will place in. Except, of class, with animals, who have only had this way of showing their love.
Excerpted from "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by permission from the writer