Lessons in Small Print: The When and the Where

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Nov 20, 2014

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We know children live beautifully in the present, and we work hard at giving them a future. What about extending an equal taste of the past?

Kids are keen to be offered strong glimpses of times gone by; I see it regularly at a monthly book club with a bunch of them.

A lot changes in five decades, as we learned from responses to the campus shenanigans we tracked together in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Now a milestone in children’s literature, this extraordinary tale of an Upper East Side New York schoolgirl appeared in 1964 to mixed reactions. That she skulked around stealthily, observing friends and family, and jotting her findings in a private diary, was shocking at the time of its publication. The book was damned for dealing with “disagreeable people and situations.” Harriet came across as precocious, nosy, her speech saucy, and her actions questionable, if not totally reprehensible.

A buzz of “Wow, how different” went round the room as the bright brood before me pondered how norms of acceptability shifted through sartorial styles of the day. Illustrated by Fitzhugh herself, Harriet the Spy showed our anti-heroine as a maverick dresser. Slouching in tomboy pants and tees, she was rendered almost androgynous as she pursued what was not her business. With a penchant for “boy clothes,” Harriet sported high-top sneakers (a rarity then). All of which expectedly raised eyebrows. “But they were still way cooler in those 1960’s,” one perceptive boy declared. “Lucky you were born then!”

Egged on by the approval, my colleague Rupal and I decided to dig even further back in time. Our shot at steeping the group in eerie Victorian England proved less successful than we bargained for. The chilling classic The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde drew startling reactions. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic horror novella, set in the foggy back alleys of London, is a British literary masterpiece. It also rates among the top guidebooks to the Victorian era because of its intensely piercing expose of 19th-century outward respectability and social hypocrisy. Hyde celebrated the macabre nature of man unyoked by societal rules, while Jekyll struggled to censor himself as most proper gentlemen of his time did.

While the children were fascinated by the peculiarity of split personality disorder, they stayed surprisingly unmoved by the writer’s brilliant craftsmanship in recreating London’s dark underbelly. We thought the sheer atmosphere took centre-stage, but our young crew didn’t agree. What gripped them was the thrill of interpreting the twisted Jekyll-Hyde schism through a contemporary lens. We were meeting the weekend that the result of the Scottish referendum was announced. R.L. Stevenson’s Edinburgh roots – a city that is itself cleaved into two parts, the medieval slum, inhabited by the city’s poor, and the modern Georgian precinct of clear wide streets – sharply spiked their interest.

Sometimes one tries to involve kids in an era that seems sure to excite, and yet it doesn’t quite catch on.  That happened in a recent discussion of The Call of the Wild. The enigmatic Jack London was among thousands falling prey to the frenzy of the Klondike Gold Rush prospecting in the Yukon, Canada, that started in the 1890’s. Although he failed to make his fortune, he skilfully used that chapter of history as the background for both The Call of the Wild in 1903 and White Fang in 1906.

I found that London’s masterly storytelling and its attendant action made The Call of the Wild a page-turner that obfuscated much else for his awed readers. Asked if they missed denser details about the historical context of the Gold Rush, they clutched their Puffin paperbacks closer and made the point: No. The relentless plot twists forcefully propelling this rugged saga of survival had completely engrossed and overtaken them.

It’s humbling to think how we may never really know what children want.  Not that we’re ever tempted to give up trying.

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

See all articles by Meher

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