Every writer is also a reader. And every reader’s journey could be depicted by a long, winding stairway of books, each book another step in their literary journey. We are all accumulating our own little mental library whether we are conscious of it or not. This post (and the ones which follow) will offer a glimpse into the one I’ve been creating over the years, a sort of meditation or reflection on the road that has gotten me to this point both as a reader and a writer. So come join me as we begin our journey in the magical world of…
If I had to pick a book (or series of books) that was emblematic of my pre-reading days, it would be the Raggedy Ann series by Johnny Gruelle. What’s this pre reading, you say? I thought this was supposed to be about books you actually have read. Well, I firmly believe that a readers journey starts before that, in the books you have read to you as a child. The stories your parents and other older folks share with you may have as much, if not more impact on your trajectory as a reader than those stories you choose as an older person.
And the Raggedy Ann books really “baptized my imagination” (to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase) into the world of magic, creativity, and whimsy that dwell in those eternal deep, deep woods of fantasy literature. Most kids naturally gravitate towards the fantastic and a great deal of children’s literature revolves around these elements. Talking animals, faeries, magic, and monsters—these are common place in children’s books. And I can think of no children’s books were these elements are more prevalent than in the Raggedy Ann books.
These books are fantastical, carefree, and fun, but they also have a strong moral thread running through them, another common feature with children’s books. Gruelle’s intentions to create wonderful, uplifting stories are spelled out in the “Gruelle Ideal”, printed at the back of each of his books:
It is the Gruelle ideal that books for children should contain nothing to cause fright, suggest fear, glorify mischief, excuse malice, or condone cruelty. That is why they are called, “BOOKS GOOD FOR CHILDREN”
These stories may not be the most sophisticated ones ever written, but they introduced me to a world where wishes came true, dreams sprang to life, and good always wins over evil. And it is good to know that. It gives you strength when the bullies on the playground come calling, when friends stop calling, or that favorite toy breaks or gets lost. Knowing what bravery, courage, and honesty looks like in the clarity of a story can help you to hear truth’s song in the midst of a noisy and cruel world which wants you to forget.
The land that time (and grown ups) forgot
Sadly, many of us do forget that there is magic in the woods as we grow up. Things like finances and parties and news stories take the place of our fanciful imaginary romps with the princes and the monsters. We have no time for fanciful tales. We have traffic to sit in, and meetings to be late to, and insurance premiums to pay. But we forget that life was once different and that it could be again. We forget that a pleasure enjoyed in youth may be just as well enjoyed as an adult. To paraphrase Lewis, if forgetting that you liked something were a virtue, then senility would be something we should all be striving to achieve.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis’ fellow knight at arms when it came to the fantastical, compared the disdain many adults have for children’s books to that of furniture which has gone out of style:
“The association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.”
-Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
The deep, deep woods
My mother read me the Raggedy Ann & Andy books, but of course she also read me other books as well. Particular favorites which come to mind were Caps for Sale, Mother Goose, and the Golden Books. But it was really the Raggedy Ann series which captured my imagination.
A few years back I read the Raggedy Ann stories to my own kids and was surprised at how simplistic and silly they were. But there is an inventive, playful spirit to them that goes beyond the threadbare plots and derivative style. They are more like waking dreams and “what if” propositions and, if taken for what they are, are eminently delightful. And though I later moved on to other books, it was in the “deep, deep woods” of Raggedy Ann and Andy where my reading journey really began.