I recently had the good fortune to see a brilliant production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Directed by Richard Jones and designed by John Macfarlane, it was not intended as a production for children; nevertheless, it neatly focused the work using its most child-compelling theme: hunger. The first-act curtain displayed a painting of a proscenium-high empty plate; the second act began with another huge image of a gaping red-lipped mouth with enormous white teeth; the third went back to the opening drop, but now the plate was smeared with blood. The famous “Evening Prayer” tableau gave Hansel and Gretel a midnight feast prepared by the fourteen angels — here got up as chefs à la Sendak’s Night Kitchen bakers, but with heavenly white wings.
As compelling as the production was, of even greater (professional) interest was the conversation in the stalls during the intermission. Although enthusiasm bubbled, questions were asked: where were the pebbles, the breadcrumbs? Somebody was looking for “the woodcutter.” Apparently unaware of the changes the Grimms themselves visited upon succeeding editions of their tales, many commented on the opera’s “changing” the stepmother to a mother. The talk not only displayed an appreciation of the opera but was evidence of art mediating between adulthood and childhood. We in the audience had collective and individual memories of hearing, reading, seeing, and perhaps retelling “Hansel and Gretel”; the evening added to our personal variations on themes first heard long ago.
In this issue, noted fantasy novelist Susan Cooper looks at The Lord of the Rings, a work that may not have the same primacy as “Hansel and Gretel” (though its characters wander in analogous woods) but one that similarly engages an audience of both adults and children. Tolkien’s trilogy was published for adults, but its audience gathered up college students in the 1960s and teenagers in the 1970s and will reach still younger with the impetus of the popular movie.
The movie will also broaden the audience beyond the self-consciously countercultural — reading The Lord of the Rings has long been a mark of coolness for its fans (who are in turn dismissed as geeks by its detractors). Harry Potter, on the other hand, is not about countercultural coolness. You don’t read Harry Potter to set yourself (and others “like you”) apart, you read it because everyone else is, and you want to join in the fun. If LOTR is an adult book that found its truest audience among the young, Harry is more like The Hobbit, a book for children that adults have taken up for their own pleasure. As Christine Heppermann points out in her provocative column on book reviewing this month, a lot of us are in this business because we like to read children’s books, whereas to most of our chronological peers a forthcoming novel by Lois Lowry or Virginia Euwer Wolff is pretty much a nonevent, never mind something to anticipate. And unlike the children’s books that usually do attract adult readers, Harry Potter is indisputably a book for children, not some sanctimonious fable tricked up as a picture book (think The Giving Tree). My partner-the-Realtor says he’s amazed at Harry’s regular appearance on nightstands in tony loft-conversion condominiums whose décor says No Kids Here, Ever. Unless someone wants to offer a theory that putting Harry Potter on your nightstand is an urban variant of burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard in order to sell your house, I’d say it’s clear that this wizard has bewitched an adult audience on his own terms.
As regulars to this page will know, I don’t count myself among Harry’s fans, so my point is not that the sign of a good children’s book is that adults like it, too. Instead, it’s that we should pay close attention to what Heppermann says about respecting, indeed cultivating, our own responses to the literature we provide to youth. To say of, for example, the Captain Underpants books that “these are dumb, but kids like them” is to acknowledge the distinction between critical response and professional observation. I’ve cautioned before about confusing the two; let me here suggest that we can’t trust the latter without investing ourselves in the former.
From the March/April 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.