I’ve been rereading books lately (including The Geography of Nowhere, reviewed here) and reading magazines, but here are two books I read with my kids in the past month.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
My seventh-grade son Nicholas read this book in school and then, coincidentally, was given a copy by his sixth-grade cousin who’d also read it in school. They recommended it to me.
Jonas is an eleven-year-old boy in a highly-structured society where each age has its special privileges and responsibilities, until Twelve when each child is assigned the career they will do until they are Old. Jonas is apprehensive because he doesn’t see himself as having any particular skills, unlike his friends. Upon turning Twelve, Jonas is appointed Receiver of Memory–a position he didn’t even know existed. The former Receiver now becomes the Giver, transmitting to Jonas all the memories of life before their culture became what it is now, the memories the general population is unable to handle. In the process, Jonas learns that the people of his community are lacking many wonderful experiences and that they are hiding some gruesome secrets.
This book is a little different from anything else I’ve ever read! You could call it dystopian, but it’s really more about hope and empathy than about suffering. Although many of the cultural routines are explained in detail, there’s an intriguing sense of mystery about exactly how they accomplished some of the drastic changes that make their society far more restrictive than simple conformity ever could. There are three other books in the series, and I’m going to have to read them all!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W.W. Denslow
I grew up watching the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz on television every spring (it was always shown during tornado season!) from the age of three or four. Later, I read the original book and several others in the series. Nicholas also was introduced to the film first and the books later. My daughter Lydia, who is three and a half, started with the book–because she spotted it in the library and asked me to read it to her–and I think this is a very good thing.
The film, though wonderful in many ways, tells only part of the story found in the 272-page book originally published in 1900. Most notably, the film ends soon after the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion all get their wishes fulfilled, with the Good Witch she met upon arriving in Oz reappearing to explain how to use the ruby slippers. In the book, all the guys get what they want, but Dorothy is left unfulfilled and has to make a long journey to ask a different Good Witch for help. Her three friends and her little dog Toto accompany her for many more chapters of adventures before she finally gets back home to Kansas.
I understand why the filmmakers went with a more classic plot arc and deleted many scenes in which the Tin Woodman hacks up monsters with his ax and similarly scary things–but reading about these things is less frightening than seeing them, and Lydia never tired of the ongoing adventures.
Old-fashioned vocabulary and complex sentences are less troublesome than you might think. When a young child is interested in a story, the words just flow over her, and she gets a lot of them from context. She had no problem understanding sentences like, “The waiting was tiresome and wearing, and at last they grew vexed that Oz should treat them in so poor a fashion, after sending them to undergo hardships and slavery.”
Modern parents, take note that this is a story in which a little girl is unquestionably the main character and does many brave things. Her male companions help her, but each has his weaknesses. The male wizard turns out to be a fake, whereas the female witches have real powers. It is Dorothy herself who strikes the climactic blow against evil. Great story! (It’s in the public domain now, and you can read it for free at the Library of Congress.)