curiouser and curiouser

Sabrina Grimm by Girl Child

The more I talk about the children and young adult fiction I read to myself, for myself, I learn of other adults who also read literature meant for a younger audience. One of the most intriguing discoveries of late is that I am far from alone.

As a young reader, I think I somehow skipped over all the fabulous books written for me. My family of origin are not readers. My literature exposure came from public school and an aunt who favored grisly stories by Stephen King, Dean Koonz, and, in every Sunday newspaper, Max Haines. I certainly had no problem ingesting a broad range of horror stories from my aunt but books from school were often boring or, worse, intended to teach me something. Nothing more dreary than sneaky morals to dry out a story. From about age ten onwards, I did my absolute best to read only what was intended for adults (beginning that foolhardy race to adulthood that so many young girls do).  Popular adult paperbacks in particular were much more entertaining than the limited number of insipid children's stories available to me and the lessons learned were equal parts accidental and juicy.

Still, my favorite book, along with millions of other children, was Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland. The combination of fantastical with a female child heroine just hinted to the wondrous possibilities that may be found in life, if one just pays attention.  Even if one is a girl. 

Of course, Wonderland stands as a brilliant counter point to dreary everyday life, particularly in public schools where teachers would gleefully thwack any child speaking without permission with a ruler and punishments were doled out to children who colour in more than one direction.  Imagine a world where you can kick over the dictators with your foot and cause a great explosion of cards and chaos.  Besides the caterpillar, that is my favorite bit.

It wasn't until I was an actual adult by age and association that I found my reading niche.  Though I read many kinds of books and usually go through a couple non-fiction books a week, I become truly excited to read some darkly humoured narrative with amusingly grisly happenings.  With Douglas Adams I learned that horrible things can take place, such as the end of the world, and yet it can be really quite funny at the same time.  Terry Pratchett taught me how to handle the things in life bigger than myself with a bit grit and humour, and that death need not be feared because even though he has an unfortunate duty, he is a rather nice chap with a horse named Binky.

I would be tempted to think of the grim and funny to be the providence of adults who have the experience to know that shit just happens, but I think that this perspective, or really, the enjoyment of it, is rooted in childhood.  I could never count all the hours that I spent scaring myself for my own gratification.  The haunted houses, the nasty neighborhood witches, the scary stories and games played where one would be caught and boiled alive and eaten by cannibals.  Left to their own devices, childrens games are often macabre and frightening.  It is hard to tell when children play together whether they are shrieking from joy or terror.  Often times, it's both.

Of course, with children, good overcomes evil in the end.  But not before suffering all sorts of nasty adventures and terrible happenings.  Children aren't afraid to shoot each dead and stab one another's guts out, have wars, fall in love and bare dozens of babies.  Their plots are often convoluted and nearly impossible to follow yet the themes remain close to life's most elemental and universal experiences.  Perhaps it is because they are frightfully near to one edge of life longevity, while the rest of us are mired somewhere in the middle, distracted - perhaps by design - by the thousands of mundane details we convince ourselves we must take care of. 

When Girl Child was born, I discovered the charm of board books, and a year or two later, the sophisticated simplicity of picture books.  Readers, intended to teach grammar and phonics bore both Girl Child and myself horribly, but finding writers such as Lemony Snicket, Michael Buckley, Roald Dahl, Katy Towell, Edward Gorey, and Neil Gaiman, who are often playfully wicked and dive headfirst into gloomy topics with dignified glee, refreshed our love of reading and, ironically, life.  Each day, in addition to our breakfast and before bed picture books, I read out loud for half an hour or more to the children.  It is usually a chapter or two of a book that Girl Child and I are reading together, while Boy Child plays nearby, listening without obligation, and it is genuinely the time that I feel most alive and connected to my family.  

From Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies

It's hard to underestimate the influence these writers have had on our life here.  Girl Child will often vocalize her feelings using the idiosyncratic language and character of the books we have read together.  For instance, she will say, "School makes me feel ennui, a phrase which here means, bores me so so so so much I think I'm going die."  Through reading these books, we have developed an esoteric set of phrases, references, and meanings that we use to articulate deeper layers in ourselves that our utilitarian Canadian English leaves wanting.  We connect and communicate through this literary universe to the point where it has seeped in and irreversibly shaped our characters.

Of course, it helps that Girl Child and I share a similar sense of humour and feelings of justice.  Also, Girl Child is, by her nature, one who 'gets it', where you do not have to explain why something is funny or what to read between the lines.  She has an intuitive grasp of hidden and implied meanings and is well trained to be suspicious of the overly bright and humourless.  

Our chalkboard wall often holds quotes from our favorite books.  We are just likely to write words as draw pictures.
Talking about children's literature with other adults leads to more fabulous authors.  Not a day goes by now that I do not get a notice for an interlibrary loan at my public library, a service where I can request books from any pubic library in Canada.  So many great books, I could never find them all on my own, using only what's readily available.  Some I read to Girl Child, some I keep just for myself. 

Are there readers here who like to read children's literature?  Please share with me some of your great finds.


  1. I'm currently enjoying the "How to Train your Dragon" series by Cressida Cowell, or rather, I'm enjoying reading them to my 8 & 10 year old sons. Both of them also enjoy Roald Dahl. I also love the various series by Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce and Meridith Pierce all of which are aimed at younger readers.

  2. We love books, though our's are usually in the form of Audio so that my daughter and I can both get crafty while "reading." We just listened to a series called, "The Enchanted Forest," that we found to be pretty funny. Our theme lately seems to be strong princess, despite the fact that my daughter is not into princesses at all (unless they have a horse).

    The down side of audios is that we miss out on the pictures, but I figure that will add a new dimension to book once she is ready to read it on her own.

    I recently stumbled onto goodreads.com where you can track what you have read/want to read. You can rate the books, write a review, or give/receive recommendations. I have even gotten a few suggestions already.

    Off to see if our library has any of the authors you mentioned.

  3. I don't remember reading any of the good books that my daughters are enjoying!!! So, I'm really enjoying them now.

    Adam of the Road; Understood Betsy; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh; Paddington; Skippack School; Thee Hannah; Bears on Hemlock Mountain; The Courage of Sarah Noble; Mary Poppins;

    I've read (but not my girls yet, they're a bit young for these) Ella Enchanted; Redwall; Mousenet;

    I, too, use the online reserving and requesting feature for my public library (and bookmobile!). And I use PaperBackSwap to "trade" books and thereby get new-to-us books. And I just discovered AbeBooks, where they sell used books for good prices.

    I love books!!! I love reading!!! I'm hoping to get some more ideas as more people comment here!

  4. Thank you for this post!! I, too, love children's / YA fiction. My kids love Roald Dahl & the Narnia series (something I did not love as a child but appreciate more now) & I love Lemmony Snicket. As I was looking for a new series for them & online guides were of no help! Thanks for the list of authors to look up! My suggestions: The Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look & for an older crowd: the "Life As We Knew It" series by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Alvin Ho is not macabre but very clever (a 3rd grader who swears in Shakespearean!) & the "as we knew it series" is a "post apocalyptic" story from different teen points of view.

  5. My college roommate and I bonded over our shared love of the "girl with a sword and a horse" sub-genre of YA fantasy. We both still read young adult fiction voraciously. Tamora Pierce is a guilty pleasure in that genre, as are some books by Robin McKinley. We also both became quite fond of the "keys to the kingdom" series by Garth Nix. We'd get audiobooks from the library and sew and craft while we listened.

    There are so many childrens/YA books still on my shelves. If I could read Diana Wynne Jones all the time I probably would - her novels are delightfully dark, and the adults aren't to be relied upon.

    Others I liked that you didn't mention: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, The Phantom Tollbooth, The House with a Clock in the Walls by John Bellairs, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, and Ella Enchanted. And the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Dealing with Dragons, etc.) which I think someone else commented about.

    I read kid's books when I'm sick or depressed - just curl up and read the whole thing start to finish (well, modulo breastfeeding. I have a baby). It's great. These books did a huge amount to inform my personal vocabulary of ideas as a child, and they're still with me in my adult life, with lots of additions.

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  7. This seems to be a common theme among my friends lately. :) I occasionally read children's book. My big discovery in adulthood was the classics written by Edith Nesbit. I really love The Enchanted Castle and The Phoneix and the Carpet.

  8. I just finished the 5th book in the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games.) I enjoyed all five of them!

  9. I have tried posting twice here from my iphone and had it delete my posts both times. This may be for the best though, because I have thought of even more books to add to my original list.

    Original 1am list:

    The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings. By Megan Whalen Turner. I love these so much that I own them as paperbacks, ebooks and audio books that I had to get shipped to me through a forwarding company.

    New additions, which mostly seem to be Australian authors, so I don't know how easy they'll be to find:

    The Tomorrow, when the War Began series, by John Marsden

    Most of the young adult fiction by Victor Kelleher. Most specifically Del Del, Taronga, The Makers, Master of the Grove, Bailys Bones and The Green Piper

    If you're in the mood for a bit of a cry, then I love Black Foxes by Sonya Hartnett

    The Obernewtyn series, by Isobelle Carmody

    Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

    And if you have a child who likes stories that are a bit gross, (in the realm of being a magnet for garbage, or being in a house buried in bird poo) I would suggest any of the Un- series, by Paul Jennings. (Unmentionable, Unbelievable, Uncanny, etc)