That Was Then and This, Sadly, Is Now

saturdaysMamacita says: Even when I was a child, I was a reader. Not just a reader-in-school, either; I was a READER. When I wasn’t climbing the apple trees next door, skating around the block, or riding my bicycle, I was reading. I read at home. I read at church. I read at school, between little short assignments that took ten minutes but which were alloted an hour.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Gone with the Wind when I was in the third grade. My favorite book in fifth grade was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and that one is still one of my all-time favorites. I somehow skipped over the condescending large-print novella-type baby books and went right from The Little White House in first grade to Heidi, the unabridged version. My second grade teacher borrowed Heidi from me and attempted to read it aloud to our class, but she gave up after two days because so many kids just simply couldn’t comprehend some of the vocabulary, and apparently they weren’t able to put two and two together via CONTEXT CLUES, either. (Be careful if you want to get Heidi for your kids; there are tons of bad, bad translations out there. A good indication of a bad version is when Klara’s name is spelled “Clara,” when Fraulein Rottenmeier becomes Miss Rottenmeier, and when the goats are named Little Swan and Little Bear. I mean, the story takes place in SWITZERLAND and GERMANY, for crying out loud. Dear Lord, I hate bad translations and condescending vocabulary that assumes our kids are idiots.) As for shortened versions of books, well, whoever thought THAT up should be dragged out into the streets and shot. Abridgements are the devil, and, yes, I do mean THAT devil.

(I scoff in the general direction of abridgements. I sneer at them. I loathe them. They cheapen our literature and encourage our children to believe that reading isn’t fun. Please, I beg of you all, do NOT buy the abridged version of ANYTHING! Abridgements are the ultimate literary condescension.)

How do we expect our kids to learn cool new words if all they get in school or at home are stupid short little stories with simple short words?  What’s that?  Your kid doesn’t KNOW that word?  Well, he will once he reads the story and applies context clues to it.  What’s that?  Your kid doesn’t know how to do that?  Yes, he does.  Get out of his way, stop condescending, and watch him soar.  I sincerely hope there’s a special level of Hell for adults to stand in the way of a child who is perfectly capable of learning, soaring, marveling at the universe.  Sure, it can be risky.  Back off.  Encourage the riskiness.

Besides my literary snobbery when it comes to children’s and YA books, I am also ecstatic that the BEST kids’ books are still about kids who get up off their asses, go outside, and do things.  Harry Potter and his friends didn’t spend their lives sitting on a sofa wiggling their thumbs at a screen.  Neither did Percy Jackson, or Laura Ingalls, or ANY self-respecting literary character.  Then again, a book about a typical modern kid’s life – sitting around, watching television, playing video games, and carefully riding a bicycle up and down the sidewalk in front of the house whilst wearing kneepads, a helmet, and being watched by anxious parents – would be boring beyond belief.

We used to call THOSE poor kids “sissies.” That’s because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything without their parents right there, holding their hands, fighting their battles, and making darn sure they didn’t FALL DOWN and GET HURT.

The sight of a little kid like me, bruised from head to toe and covered with bandaids, hanging upside down from an apple tree or calling out, “Look Ma, no hands!” on my bike would have sent some of these modern mothers into hysteria. Then again, I belong to an era when mothers didn’t faint and then sue when their kids came home from the playground with a broken arm or a gash. That’s just what happened when kids played.

It still is, but a lot of parents these days just can’t deal with such awful things. Some of them can’t even deal with dirt. Poor kids.

Here’s an excerpt from A New and Different Summer, by Lenora Mattingly Weber, who is one of my favorite authors. Her books were written long before “my time,” but it doesn’t matter, because a good book is a good book.

In this excerpt, Katie Rose is babysitting for a spoiled little boy she refers to as “The Prince,” because he must be catered to in every way. Her little brother Brian has ridden his bicycle to The Prince’s house to deliver a message to her:

What a noticeable contrast between the slim, tanned, hard-muscled Brian and the overweight, flabby, pampered Charles!

. . . the prince couldn’t bear not to be noticed. He pushed up to Brian. “Is that awful old bike yours? I’ve got a brand-new one. I ride it up and down the sidewalk while Mother watches from the porch.”

Brian gave him an unbelieving look. “Why does she watch you from the porch?”

“Because there are real mean boys in this block, and they ram their bicycles into me.”

“You ought’nt to let them,” Brian said almost gently. “When you see them making for you, you ram them first. Nobody rams us.” He gave Katie Rose a look of both puzzlement and pity, swung onto his hard worn bicycle and rode off.

These days, sissy, flabby, chicken-shit Charles would be more common than independent Brian. Sad.  And whose fault is this?  Hello, hovering, interfering, cowardly, dysfunctional, clueless Mums and Daddums.

If you are looking for some great books for your children’s summer reading, I highly recommend anything by Elizabeth Enright. Her characters leave the house -after chores – early in the morning, usually carrying their lunch with them, and don’t return home until the sun is going down. They have adventures. They talk to strangers. They build things out of scraps and junk. They befriend tramps and orphans and stray dogs. They also go to the opera and the art museum, and know how to behave themselves in restaurants.

One of the trademarks of a good children’s or YA book is that it can be enjoyed by adults, too. In fact, I think I’ll get out my stack of Elizabeth Enright’s books and get started.

Hello, Rush, and Mona, and Randy, and Oliver Melendy. How ya doin’, Portia, Foster, and Julian? How are you, Garnet? What’s new, Mab?

These kids walked out of the house and did things. Even if such things had been invented back then, they would have stared in horror at the very idea of staying home all day, sitting on the sofa watching tv or exercising nothing but their thumbs. And their mothers had better things to do than stand around watching their kids breathe, gasping when they fell and insisting that 45 minutes was plenty long enough to mess around in the back yard. Elizabeth Enright’s kids and their mothers would have laughed at a parent who came along when the kids played, or called another parent to arrange a playdate instead of just letting the kids out in the morning to play with whoever else was around.

Yes, bad things do happen to our children.

Some of those bad things are their lack of freedom, initiative, adventure, creativity, and self-made friends of all ages. Another bad thing is the inability of so many of them to even READ about these kids.

Of course, reading for fun isn’t encouraged any more. It’s reading for Satan carefully monitored grade-level standardized tests that’s important now.

A lot of modern kids don’t even know how to skate or ride a bike or climb a tree. I’m not putting down computer games – I like them myself. But such things should be done AFTER a normal day, not in place of. I hate television, but most people like it, and most kids watch way too much of it. A little is fine; a lot is not.

No wonder so many of our kids are fat and stupid. Sheesh. Some of them have never fatkidsbreathed fresh air in their lives – they go from hermetically sealed homes to hermetically sealed schools, with the occasional jaunt to air-conditioned WalMarts and malls. I bet a lot of “allergies” are really just the body’s reaction to fresh air. It’s the lungs gasping and saying, “What IS this stuff?”

Ah, American childhood. Sofas, and gamepads, and chicken nuggets, and french fries, and macaroni & cheese, and carefully supervised & timed playdates, and DVD’s to occupy every spare moment, including riding-in-the-van-time, lest they have a moment to sit still, look around, notice things, and think.

Poor kids.

P.S.  You really don’t want to get me started on families that are ruled by the children.  No, you really don’t.


That Was Then and This, Sadly, Is Now — 4 Comments

  1. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote great YA novels set in Roman Britain, with a young male protagonist. She also has great versions of many classics – Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Arthurrian Legend, Tristan and Isolde, etc.

  2. If it came to putting on makeup and styling my hair or reading for another 15 minutes, the reading always won out–still does! I am reading The Lodger about Shakespeare in London, Endangered Minds, Becoming Ray Bradbury, and McCullough’s biography of John Adams (again). I pity people who don’t know the joy of reading, and I do all I can to get my students to find an author, a genre, somewhere to start that will get them hooked. I am fighting a losing battle against parent apathy, child addiction to video games, and the general yuckiness of “culture” today.

  3. Thank you so much for your comment. I tolerated Nancy Drew, insipid and repetitive as most of the books were. Not familiar with Grace Harlow, but will definitely look her up. My favorite teen detective is Judy Bolton, who actually GREW UP in the course of the very long series. Hardy Boys were from the same author subset but maybe because they were coughcoughBOYScoughcough, they got to have better adventures. Books make our lives better; I used to pity non-readers but now I just mock ’em. Life is full of choices! Thanks again!

  4. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! I was reading many of the same at much the same age. Some I wanted to read were banned by the Legion of Decency….one of the reasons I am no longer a practicing Catholic. Read massive amounts on WWII in later elementary school. Read much of the same mysteries as my Dad. Did you ever read any of the Grace Harlow books? She was a heroine way before Nancy Drew (blech) and Cherry Ames (tolerable). Always read the Hardy Boys and couldn’t figure out why Nancy Drew was such a wimp…..Can’t imagine my life without books!

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