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>Keeping the unicorns at bay

>Last week on childlit, Monica Edinger mentioned Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, an English fantasy novel for adults first published in the 1920s. I remember this book from my teens in the mid-seventies, a time when lots of long-forgotten “adult fantasy” was being republished in the wake of Tolkien’s resurgence. My friends and I read tons of it–William Morris, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, Mervyn Peake, and E. R. Eddison. We were all chasing the Tolkien dragon, only occasionally finding it in these books that had frequently been forgotten for a reason, dated by style as much as anything. A lot of them went half-read, but I encountered enough books I enjoyed on their own terms to make their adherence (or lack thereof) to Tolkienism irrelevant. (One of my favorites was Jane Gaskell’s trashy The Serpent and its sequels.)

But I don’t think I could read any of them today to save my life. I love the Wee Free Men stories by Terry Pratchett, and recently enjoyed Julie Hearn’s The Minister’s Daughter, but the vast majority of invented-world high fantasy makes my eyes glaze over–and if your taste in spelling runs along the lines of faery, don’t sit by me. While this of course says more about me than about the books, it has me interested in how, as adults, we reject books or genres that spoke so clearly to us at an earlier age. Interests change, certainly, and dare I say, mature. But I wonder if there is also a subconscious rejection going on, a determination to separate the grown-up self from the child self. It’s different from rejecting genres/authors/themes because of indifference; I’m talking about the books from which we run screaming precisely because they meant so much to us at a different time.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, and there’s plenty of room on the virtual couch. How does the dynamic I describe work in/for/against you all as adults invested in books for children?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe before seeing the movie, and it (the book) was so disappointing that I wanted to cry. Now I’m so afraid of further disappointment that I’ll probably never read any of the Chronicles again. There’s something about fantasy that requires the childlike willingness to completely enter a new world. I am now too cynical and grown up to do that, apparently.

  2. Andy Laties says:

    >Roger, it seems to me that you’ve evaded the central question, which is: What’s your adult take on Tolkien?

    That is: since you haven’t criticized him in this comment, does this imply that you still hold his work in high regard, and you simply disdain other “classic” fantasy writers because you see even more clearly how far behind him they fall?

    How many volumes of back-matter has Christopher Tolkien assembled and published? More than a dozen volumes, right?

    I don’t know what to make of my own continuing regard for Tolkien. Why did it matter to me a few years ago when I learned the “true” identity of Gandalf in one of the books of unpublished material??

    And why am I hopelessly addicted to playing the little-guy upstart??

  3. >avoiding the books we used to love . . .
    that would be the same impulse that makes ten year olds look at four year olds and say, “but *I* never acted like THAT!”

  4. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >Helene Hanff, when she was trying to make it as a playwright, got a job to pay bills at Monograph, where they took home a novel at night and had to produce the next morning a short summary. It paid six bucks and she became a skilled speed reader. But Tolkien, when assigned to her, defeated her.
    “When I had to read during that nightmare weekend – taking notes on all place names, characters’ names and events therein – was fifteen hundred stupefying pages of the sticky mythology of Tolkein. I remember opening one volume to a first line which read, ‘Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday…’ and phoning several friends to say good-bye because suicide seemed obviously preferable to five hundred more pages of that.”

    I, personally, can no longer read any children’s books. It makes me sad.

  5. >I run screaming from problem novels and have never had a fascination for the books of Konigsberg etc. I am bored to tears with verse novels because the great majority of them are simply lines broken up on the page,not poetry.

    However, I love historical novels, some fantasy (and alas, am a Faery person, sorry Roger) and think people like Greg Maguire, Philip Pullman, Ursula LeGuin, Patricia McKillip, and Diana Wynne Jones are gods.

    However, an enormous number of fantasy novels coming out right now leave me cold. They are either badly channeled clones like Rowling or Paolini or mishmoshes. I was a judge for the World Fantasy Award three years ago, and will not willingly read the second book of a doorstop trilogy again.


  6. Andy Laties says:


    I still like the books I liked as a kid. I try to respect my childhood self. How could I work with children if I didn’t do this?

    Well — when I was eleven years old I had an argument with my grandfather (On Whom Be Peace). The subject: “Was it the Plague that killed the last Vikings in Greenland in the 15th century?” I had produced an elementary-school library book that made this assertion. My grandfather examined this book, handed it back and said–I quote: “The man who wrote this book is an idiot.”

    One of my favorite sentences ever.

    Your citation of the reviewer who despised Tolkien is unremarkable. Edmund Wilson was the most scathing of the early critics. The book sold terribly upon publication (early 50s). It was essentially forgotten for a number of years.

    Pirated paperback editions became an underground craze on U.S. college campuses in the 60s. Tolkien’s publishers awoke very slowly to the strange reappearance of his books among a wholly unintended audience, and finally–when they realized they were missing a major money-making opportunity–moved to reassert their rights. This is a case of something you’ve been stating quite a bit: a Book Reviewer (or, a group of them) damning a book, and helping condemn it to not being read. And, also an example of how You Can’t Keep A Good Book Down.

    As to your statement that you’re not reading children’s books now: I thought you said you’re a Charlotte’s Web fanatic?

  7. >parodying the line “Gallileo from the tune of Queen’s

    Or does that come under a different category, less of a HIGH fantasy?

  8. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    Helene Hanff was not a critic. She wrote some very funny books. This nugget was from Underfoot in Show Business. She worked for Monograph and her job was the read novels and summarize them in about twenty words. it was for the movies to help cull. The idea was everything was a potential movie. It was a cash cow for a lot of out of work actors, playwrights, etc. They’d take home a book, read it, do a quickie summary, collect their six bucks, every night.
    You must disabuse yourself of the idea that I sit around in trees reading Charlotte’s Web with my peanut butter sandwich. I think it’s a swell book but I haven’t read it in years.

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >Andy–truth be told my interest in Tolkien always flagged on the fields of Rohan, but I reread the Fellowship of the Ring a dozen times (always skipping the songs; same as I skipped the poetry in Possession.) Now, no, I can’t read him but my memories remain fond.

    Portia’s post re Helene Hanff (another former favorite of mine with no love lost, just forgotten) reminds me of an aren’t-kids-cute shorthand we often see in movies, sometimes books, where the kid’s preciousness is proclaimed by his or her use of mathematically nonsensical numbers, like, “eleventy gazillion million TWILLION!”

  10. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >Also Andy, I don’t really believe critics can damn a good book into not being read. And there are so many mediocre ones, I don’t think it matters if some drop by the wayside. My rants had more to do with a paradigm shift in the critic’s way of thinking. That was all. A little shift.

  11. KT Horning says:

    >The books I loved as a child but can’t stomach as an adult are the novels by Madeleine L’Engle. Her Wrinkle in Time trilogy were among my childhood favorites, but when I re-read them several years ago, they seemed so contrived (as most sf/fantasy does to me now) and message-driven that I felt I barely knew my childhood self.

    But the worst for me as an adult are her Austin family books. As I kid, I devoured them, but as an adult, I find them so ghastly that can’t find a single redeeming feature in these “domestic fantasies.”

  12. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >Although it makes me sad not to be able to reenter the books I loved, I think, finally, it’s a good thing. My best friend in high school was a Tolkein fan and even wrote me letters in runes which I had to learn in self-defense. Twenty years later, having lost track of her, a letter came in the mail. I was excited to see where time had taken her. Her letter began “Here I sit by candlelight, taking pen in hand….” I couldn’t finish the letter, I was so aghast. She probably had no trouble reentering those books. Eeew. Better to move on.

  13. rindambyers says:

    >Roger’s question made me re-think a bit on my own childhood fantasy favorites, the Chronicles of Narnia. I wanted desperately to LIVE in Narnia, even going to the point of memorizing lines from the books. Is the fascination still there?

    When I re-read the stories now, yes, it is not the same thing as an adult, but it IS more of a complex experience. As an adult in a critical mood, I can pick out the flaws, the messages, the clumsiness…lots of things…but the child underneath, deep inside, keeps pulling me back again and again to how alive the books still remain for me. I can only speak for myself. I don’t think for myself the child part of me ever died, ever was lost, ever was destroyed; it was only covered over. But I don’t know how this is for others. An eleven-year-old once said of me in the hearing of a couple of other eleven-year-olds, with a big, gusty sigh: “Yeah, she’s a child–trapped in an adult body!” I never laughed so hard, but I saw it as a compliment.

    I loved to read myths and tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood and fairy stories as a child and adored Rudyard Kipling.

    I am missing Alan Garner and Patricia Wrightson in my local library, fantasy writers I discovered later in life and really like. I have NEVER enjoyd L’Engle much at all and won’t touch Philip Pullman both of whom I find too “preachy” for this well-preached-at by congregation and choir preacher’s daughter. Leguin is admirable for her imaginhation but is stiffled by such a boring prose style! I read Tolkien like Roger does, skipping the boring parts. I have never been a fan of C.S. Lewis adult fantasies at all.

    Perhaps, it’s not a bad thing to be both adult and child at the same time in one’s inner self.

  14. >One of my very favorite books as a child was HARRIET THE SPY. I reread it recently and enjoyed the first half very much, but found the rest horribly dated. I had forgotten Harriet had a “shrink.” And somehow I don’t think kids sneak into the homes of strangers as often now as they did then.

  15. Roger Sutton says:

    >You mean my fears about people at the window was JUSTIFIED?

  16. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >No. They were in the closet. And frequently under your bed.

  17. Andy Laties says:

    >I still don’t understand why anyone would reject their childhood reading matter. So what if it’s dated. Or if it was “awful” — looked at through mature eyes. The act of rejecting such formative texts is the same as rejecting a part of oneself. To say, “Eew, did I like THAT? Not now, since I’m all grown” is itself a rather adolescent reaction.

    But then, I’m just a big baby here. And I use that gazillionty-jillion language several times every day in quoting prices and offering change to kids aged 3 to 8.

  18. webshred says:

    >I’m finding these comments very depressing. Of course a lot of childhood favorites would seem less than stellar to the adult mind. Why would you expect anything else? But why should that elicit such a visceral reaction against them?

    I read a lot of children’s and YA fiction, especially fantasy, and though it takes more and more to impress me these days, I still find a lot of books that I admire and enjoy. But I don’t read them for a living, and I wonder if those of you who do are exposed to far more of the bad and mediocre titles than the rest of us? If I HAD to read dozens upon dozens of bad titles to get to one good one, I would probably run screaming from ANY genre.

    On the other hand, I think MWT might have a point. To find the books we used to love sadly lacking now is probably the price of growing up. But to be horrified by them, avoid them completely, maybe even “run screaming” from them, smacks of some kind of rejection of the childish self. And that always feels sad to me.

  19. webshred says:

    >Sorry. I posted the last comment before I saw Andy Latie’s.

    I should have just written, “Yeah–what Andy said.”

  20. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >I am with Roger on this; no love lost, just forgotten. Or as Bill Bryson says, there’s three things you can’t do. You can’t make a waiter look at you until he wants to, you can’t I forget the second, and you can’t go home again.

  21. >It isn’t always the case that as you get older, you can see the flaws that you didn’t see when you were younger. Some of it is just that you need things at different times of your life. From about age 15-23 I read Harlequin romances voraciously–this was back when they were all originally published in Britain, so that was part of the appeal. But I very suddenly simply lost interest in them, and haven’t picked one up since. I don’t think it has a thing to do with their writing, and I suspect that some of them were pretty good and some pretty awful. They just weren’t the right books at the right time anymore.

    K.T. I agree on L’Engle–I’ve never cared for the Austins, and as an adult, I’ve always been able to *see* her at her typewriter banging out the sequels to A Wrinkle in Time. There is something very overwrought about them.

    Didn’t like Tolkien then, don’t like Tolkien now, live in a house full of Tolkien worshippers. They just never satisfied anything in me. Bartimaeus, on the other hand…

  22. >I still like lots of books that I loved when I was a kid, though I’m often bemused by the minor place of details that I remember vividly and can’t figure out why “If I Ran the Zoo” had such a fascination for me. Of course, when I re-read these books now, I’m not lost in the experience in the same way I was then. Even when I am caught up in a book for younger readers, I can separate from that experience and look at it. (My excitement when reading a book as good as *Feed* is partly my excitement on behalf of teen readers. Being in the presence of craftsmanship is also a positive pleasure.) I feel the same separation when I read books from a previous era in history: these reading experiences are intellectually interesting regardless of how viscerally engaging each particular book might be, since I am not the intended audience. Ellery Queen mysteries are very badly written and, like lots of old popular literature, ideologically off-putting, but I enjoy reading them nonetheless. It’s interesting. But I also genuinely enjoy even baby board books sometimes (I’m a big fan of *Sam’s Car*), if they have captured life in some engagingly artificial way, as artists are supposed to do (“Sam smacks Lisa.” [page turn] “Lisa smacks Sam”).

  23. shewhonowwishestobecalledportia says:

    >And some books that I thought were a real snooze as a kid, like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, was just GREAT when I read it to my kids. Wouldn’t have been good just as a read for me. I think I would have done what I did when I was a kid, which was abandon it halfway through. But reading it to one daughter who loved it too, I couldn’t WAIT to get to the next chapter each night. Is it bedtime, huh, bedtime, now, want your story now, huh? Huh? I’m sure, Roger, you have already conceded that this is NOT at all like bringing a kid to do your movie review for you. This is a portal into childhood that closes as soon as your child outgrows it.

  24. Anonymous says:

    >What a disheartening conversation. It casts a shadow of doubt on the validity of reviews in a journal edited by people who profess to have forgotten or actively dislike the experiences they had reading books as children. Why bother with new children’s literature if it is so hard to recapture, or even remeber, the perspective of youth?

  25. Roger Sutton says:

    >I certainly haven’t forgotten my childhood reading experiences, nor do I recall them with anything but pleasure–surely I’m not the only reader who has always counted his happiest hours as those among books. It’s just that the same books don’t bring me pleasure now. Some do–Beverly Cleary, for example. And there are many I missed or disliked as a child that I love now. I’m only thinking that knowing the difference is probably a key part of the equation for those adults who work with children’s books.

    K.T. and Susan, I was reminded of L’Engle’s novels from the 1950s when I read the new Garret Freymann-Weyr, Stay with Me. Really respectful of adolescents, with nevertheless a little elite tinge of these-problems-couldn’t-happen-to-just-anybody. Kind of like Gossip Girls for nerds.

  26. >Although I’ve rejected very few of the books I loved during my childhood, I have definitely rejected many of the *genres*, particularly fantasy. It upsets and depressed me at times, especially since I honestly can’t tell if it’s me or the books. It may have something to do with being bombarded by so many titles, rather than getting to discover them on my own.

  27. >There are books of my childhood as well as books I taught and read aloud when I started out teaching thirty years ago (!) that no longer work for me. However, I don’t think this is because I’m unconsciously trying to separate my grown-up self from the child self as much as it is about experience. I do know more now, I’ve read tons, and am much more aware of what I think is good writing and what is not. It is harder for me to fall into the world of a book than it was for me as a child. I’m guessing all of this affects the way I revisit books of my childhood and young adulthood.


  28. >Roger, I have a different question for you from the one you posed: why were those works of fantasy so appealing to you back then?

    I just think there is something that we need to try to ferret out about the appeal of fantasy developmentally, keeping in mind the huge range that the genre encompasses and the unfortunate stereotypes associated with it. I mean, I can giggle with the best when I read of folks hopefully hanging about Midsummer’s Eve waiting for faeries [sic], but this is a genre that has both Frodo and Lyra.

    I think we grown-ups involved with children and their books need to consider what is going on in terms of child development and particularly what is going on in terms of imaginative play. And further, how is fantasy literature tapping into this developmentally? For today only a handful of my 4th grade students acknowledge playing imaginatively the way I did at their age (creating elaborate worlds with toys and dress-up and then acting out/being in stories). I see a few involved in sword battles during recess, but more often they tell me it is something they did when younger. But I still often see kids sitting together and writing or drawing wild stories of fantasy, stories they never return to, never reread. As for reading, they become completely lost in works of fantasy. If they are plot-driven readers, they can BE in the Redwall world. If they are character-driven readers, they ARE Cimorene. I think reading fantasy, as it was for me at their age, is tapping into their need for imaginative worlds in which to play.

    For all the fantasy pouring out post-Harry Potter, I have yet to see educators really embrace it within their classrooms despite its clear appeal to so many children developmentally. Teachers tiptoe around it still in my experience and stick with genre that they like (e.g. realistic fiction) resulting in the periodic media frenzy when someone writes an op-ed piece about the dreary realistic books in schools that his/ her kid has to read.

    So what is it about fantasy anyway?


  29. Roger Sutton says:


    I was a bit older when my Tolkien craze struck–I chased it for several years because my adored older sister read them, but it took me a while to get hooked. I definitely enjoyed the sense of immersion you described, the sense of actually being in another place with rich landscapes and weather.

  30. Andy Laties says:

    >Isn’t the Fantasy genre we’re speaking of really sort of a combination of the “Romance” with the “Modern Novel”? (“Romance”, in a technical sense–like Sir Walter Scott–or Cervantes–and, “Novel”, thinking Defoe, Dickens, etc.??) That is — you take the themes and concerns of the Old-Time Romance and play them out in a Novelistic way, with conversations and interior emotion and judgemental narrative?

    Out of my depth here.

    Also, I’ve read the argument that a lot of “Fantasy” is a sort of repositioning of Swashbucklers (Scarlet Pimpernel, for instance) — or, in a more crude transposition, Westerns — and — Seafaring Chronicles (Hornblower=Star Trek) —

    So — sometimes the mediocrity of some Fantasy may relate to its highly derivative quality?

  31. Andy Laties says:

    >This “transposed” aspect of Fantasy Novels is a sort of sub-text to The Lord Of The Rings. The premise underlying the “novel” is that there’s a book called “The Redbook Of Westmarch”, which is a chronicle started by Bilbo and then Frodo and then Sam and carried on by Sam’s descendents, and that somehow Our Novelist (AKA Tolkien’s alter-ego) has access to the Redbook and is writing a book for us Readers Of Today that’s drawn from the content of this ancient chronicle. Our Novelist also has access to a whole corpus of other material (The Silmarillion, etc.) — and Tolkien had actually written all this stuff.

    So — again — if the Modern Fantasy Novel is effectively a transposition of the traditional Romance into Modern Novel form, then Tolkien’s project is a sort of analog of this — he created his own “primitive” source materials, and then wrote a Novel that draws on them.

    (Of course he was part of a club, The Inklings (including C.S. Lewis), who were all embarked on analogous projects. Much of their work was created partly just to read to one another. It’s not their fault if we’ve repurposed their books!)

  32. Andy Laties says:

    >Also — Fantasy has been grappling with its “outsider” status for quite a while. “But Is It Literature?” — this is a horrible question, and one which led to the creation of the Hugo and Nebula Awards (Fantasy & Sci Fi). Ursula LeGuin has written eloquently arguing the case the Fantasy and Sci Fi deserve equal billing with Official Literature (whatever that is — which ambiguity is THE point!)

  33. James A. Owen says:

    >Followed this link back from Roger’s most recent note –

    I’m a voracious reader. And as much as I love books that I feel appeal to both adults and children (to me, several of Garth Nix’s books fall under this heading, as do Philip Pullman’s), there are books in my library whose place is most definitively in bygone years.

    Some books I read as a child I can reread, and reread again – but some, the Narnia books among them, are just too difficult. The problem lies in the fact that I’m comparing my current experience (in both senses of the term)to a well-entrenched, very fond, recollection. Impressions. Reverberations. And those attachments are impossible to recreate, for a lot of those books.

    Roger mentioned being unable to reread Tolkien, but acknowledged fond memories. And I think that’s what’s most important – not to try to recapture the original impression, but to cherish it. I adored (and still do) certain books – but a few passages, a few favorite scenes, are enough to EVOKE the impression the books once had. And it’s those impressions that I’m able to pass along to my own children, so that they know I loved the books.

    I don’t have to reread all of PRINCE CASPIAN to thrill at the rediscovery of Cair Paravel; three paragraphs and a quick skim will do it. I don’t have to reread all of THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW to get excited over the creation of Lantern Waste – a few pages, and the memory of the joy I once felt comes rushing back. And it is enough.

    And maybe, in passing on those impressions, my own children will be more encouraged to read those books – for their first time – and create their own impressions that they’ll keep, fondly, throughout their lives. Whether they reread the books, or not.

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