16 September 2009

Children's books.

Three recent reads that dovetail together nicely:

The Book of Dragons, E. Nesbit: Nesbit wrote some of the greatest children's fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I say this boldly, but I must confess I had only read Five Children & It, long ago, my curiosity piqued by references in Edward Eager's wonderful, wonderful Half Magic (or maybe Seven Day Magic? One of Edward Eager's wonderful, wonderful, mid-century reads, which I wore to shreds as a little one). This collection of dragon-centered tales sums up her style, though: ordinary children matter-of-factedly experiencing the incredible.

The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt: While I was reading this, I didn't want to be doing anything else. Not working, not eating, not sleeping. I just wanted to read my book. It's a family saga, essentially, but also a brief history of England from 1895 to the end of the Great War, with special emphasis on radical politics (Fabians, Russian anarchists, brick-throwing suffragettes) and art. A main character, Olive Wellwood, is clearly a fictionalization of E. Nesbit herself, down to the socialism and the open marriage. It's probably the best book I've read this year, and Byatt makes it look effortless. Towards the end, she even tries her hand at some Great War poetry, and darned if she doesn't have Sassoon and Owens and Graves nailed.

The Magician's Elephant, Kate DiCamillo: I'm reading this now, and it feels like it was recently discovered in an attic in London, in spidery brown ink on yellowing parchment. Like Nesbit, or at least Olive Wellwood, or, definitely, Kate DiCamillo, who understands the rhythms of fairytale like almost no one--except children--does anymore.

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