It is now consensus that children’s literature is a thoroughly valid field deserving of complex thought and serious considerations. I don’t claim to have consulted any academic sources before writing this; indeed, I probably should have. After all, I’ve been working over this long vacation as an online tutor for primary school students, whose parents are anxious to make use of this endless coronavirus summer and improve their children’s reading levels (or, let’s be honest, desperately in need of reasonably priced childcare).
For this reason, my reading over the summer has mostly composed of kids’ books. Initially this felt somewhat regressive: surely, as (half) an English student, I should be finally tackling Joyce or preparing for Shakespeare. However, after a month spent with Roald Dahl, E. B. White and L. M. Montgomery, I am now a humble advocate for returning to our childhood favourites: these stories’ well-known endings are soothing in our current predicament, offer intriguing intellectual dialogues that rival their adult counterparts, and are deeply revelatory in their explorations of the emergent self.
The poetic references embedded in Matilda completely flew over my head when I first read it at age 10, but it does appear that Roald Dahl had a true penchant for the Romantics. Miss Honey, the extraordinarily kind schoolteacher, recites Dylan Thomas as she leads Matilda into her barren cottage; meanwhile, the awful headmistress Miss Trunchbull is “neither a thing of beauty nor a joy for ever”, playfully parodying Keats’ Endymion. This general atmosphere of romanticism is made a subject of irony in the book as well: between magical practical jokes and beautiful walks in the English countryside, the core issues and conflicts in Matilda are surprisingly dark and relevant. Our heroine’s hilariously terrible parents are caricatures for the vapidity of unequal wealth, and in allowing the precocious Matilda to find salvation in public libraries and schools, Dahl makes an impassioned case for education as the keeper of our secular society’s collective soul. Remarkably, Dahl was also unflinching in his portrayal of Miss Honey’s abuse and trauma; having suffered ritualistic cruelty at the boys’ schools he attended, it is no wonder that Dahl finds it important, even necessary, to acknowledge pain and suffering as a part of many childhoods.
We often think of children’s literature as an idealistic realm; however, some of the genre’s most brilliant moments come from breaking free of a fantasy-dominated image and examining life among discomfort and sadness. The orphan hero, a well-known archetype, is imaginatively realised in Anne of Green Gables, and Anne Shirley is an amazingly complex child protagonist. Trauma makes another appearance: a foster child with a history of displacement, Anne is deeply afraid of being asked to leave Green Gables, and her moments of desperation and pining for a real home are heartbreaking. Her new parental figures, ageing spinster siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, must then attempt to deal sensitively with Anne’s past. While young readers may be entranced by Anne’s fantastical imagination, captivating personality and funny adventures on the idyllic eastern coasts of Canada, adults cannot help but see her daydreams and sense of wonder as mechanisms for mental escape from a childhood rife with abandonment. Anne’s story, in return, offers us perfect escape: hers is a kinder world tinged with old-fashioned Presbyterian morals, in which suffering is temporary, hard work is rewarded and nature is always brimming with delights. Matilda, moreover, takes escapism to a fantastical level: the children’s clever pranks never fail to make the most cynical adult giggle, and every exhilaratingly funny scene with Matilda’s parents provides sweet, sweet vindication.
By virtue of family-friendliness, children’s literature isn’t exactly known for being a baton of radical politics. However, as a returning adult reader, one becomes deeply, and sometimes painfully, aware of their coded omissions and whispered messages. Remember Miss Trunchbull’s bizarrely military style of dress? Might Dahl, a former RAF fighter pilot, have been privately poking fun at bellicose attitudes and warmongering? Also, did anyone notice the sheer depth of homoerotic undertones in Anne of Green Gables? Canada’s beloved redhead was proclaiming undying love for her female ‘bosom friend’ and swearing eternal devotion in picturesque woodlands long before ‘cottagecore’ became a lesbian TikTok phenomenon. Sure, she marries Gilbert in the sequels and they make an adorable icon of equal partnership by Victorian popular fiction standards, but Anne’s long string of exaggeratedly passionate friendships and instances of (mostly platonic) intimacy with women throughout the series make for fascinating queer readings. Before readers accuse me of that classic English-student blunder of overthinking, please note that even Margaret Atwood agrees: according to her, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s depiction of Anne and Diana “[recalls] not only the Book of Ruth but also Romeo and Juliet”.
Whether or not Anne and Diana should have ended up together, the models of friendship and personal relations offered to us by these children’s classics deserve attention. Matilda isn’t particularly lengthy, yet still provides us with unique iterations of the ‘sidekick friend’ and ‘powerful upperclassman’ through Amanda Thripp and Hortensia. Anne’s relationship with her adoptive family, on the other hand, clearly demonstrates that education is never one-sided: just as she needed a place to call home, her revelatory imagination and innocent wonder were the exact ingredients missing in siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s lives. Their creation of an atypical family life, rife with innovations upon traditional hierarchy and attempts at adaptation to social expectations, remains deeply relevant to us today as heteronormative nuclear families are taken off the cultural pedestal and parenthood is unlinked from biology.
Childhood is a simpler time, but the foundational potential for love is introduced to little humans from their first lullaby onwards. Matilda and Anne of Green Gables both take on premises that appear to unsettle this assumption, yet they both end with protagonists finding love in non-normative places and relationships. Revisiting these childhood classics gives us an important reminder for these definitely non-normative times: seek happiness in the unlikeliest places. Love is patient, love is kind, but it is also a little shy and very, very funny.
Just don’t read Charlotte’s Web. Even for a grown woman, it’s way too sad.