Classic Children’s Literature, Critically
Below I’ve written a critique of this wonderful book. I am always interested in the relationship between children and works of art. The essay below is thick on the scholarly stuff, so proceed at your own discretion! (If you haven’t had any coffee yet, you might want to come back later.) For an example of really amazing children’s literature scholarship, check out David Beagley’s podcasts (ITunes U) on ITunes! He discusses everything from the origins of children’s books to its genres. I talked about him before, when I put up a post on historical realism. I’m also mentioned in an article at LaTrobe University!
Not A Creature Was Stirring…
Some novels are so wonderful they remind me why I write in the first place. The Mouse of Amherst, by Elizabeth Spires. Her children’s book (beautifully illustrated by Claire A. Nivola) tells the story of a little white mouse who takes up residence in the wall of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom! While there, she and Emily strike up a correspondence, passing poems back and forth. The story of their connection mirrors the experience of the writer’s connection to the reader.
I argue that The Mouse of Amherst is not only a wonderful children’s book, but also a work of literary criticism that interprets Emily Dickinson’s poetry as commentary on the nature of literature. So far, my argument goes like this:
1. The purpose of literature to pass culture, tradition, compassion, and knowledge from person to person; and from one generation to the next. The first time I read Emily Dickinson, I was in college. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul– I felt like I was reading a message from a fairy godmother. Emily was reaching out to touch my hand. It was exhilarating. I was alone, spending my nights studying beside the window with a little lamp on. She was alone, too. Life and death were always on my mind. Life and death was on her mind, too. Ah, Emily Dickinson, Patron Saint of Graduate Students!
2. We write to find kindred spirits. Even poor Emily, all alone, was connecting with something as she wrote, some vision or dream that inspired her. She was writing a letter to someone–maybe herself. Or perhaps she really was corresponding with a gentle mouse. She was certainly corresponding with all the American poetic tradition that anchored her (and which she electrified). Written words are whispered secrets. Books whisper secrets to us.
3. We write for children to help them find their kindred spirits. Do you know a little girl who would love Anne of Green Gables? Do you have a child who lives for Harry Potter? Of course, these are children’s books; Emily Dickinson writes pretty serious poetry.
With that awareness, Elizabeth Spires delivers the little mouse as our avatar. We watch her writing notes to Emily, while Emily returns those notes in kind. The little mouse brings us one step closer to an understanding of Dickinson.
4. Children’s literature began with Robinson Crusoe, say some. Yet Robinson Crusoe was written for adults. Children’s books these days are easy, sometimes even facile. We have to remember that children can, and should, be challenged by the classics; these classics make up our culture and help us understand the world. Children can come in contact with the great adult writers of our time. Maybe they will find themselves in Flannery O’Connor; maybe Twilight. But they should try everything, and wander into every room.
5. “It must have been Fate that steered me to choose Emily’s bedroom for my own.” With something like faith, we discover the books that change us forever, the books that hold the key to a garden in the mind, the books and authors that form and un-form and transform us. How wonderful to have a book like The Mouse of Amherst to help children discover the wealth of Dickinson! This children’s book ushers us into the world of Emily Dickinson, and gives children the tools to understand her.
My favorite part of Spires’s book is when Emily and Emmaline, the little mouse in her wall, start to write poems to each other. Emily’s first poem goes like this:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain / If I can ease one Life in Aching / Or cool one Pain / Or help one fainting Robin / Unto his Nest again / I shall not live in Vain.
All writers write letters to readers. The letters are intimate and heartfelt. Emmaline’s face turns ”crimson, as if I were reading someone else’s diary.” I know that I, for one, hope to reach just one child with my books, to add hope and excitement to their world, and maybe ease their pain.
Emmaline responds to Emily’s poem with one of her own:
I am a Little Thing. / I wear a Little Dress. / I go about my Days and Nights / Taking little barefoot Steps. / But though You never notice me / Nor count me as your Guest, / My Soul can soar as High as yours / And Hope burns in my chest!
Doesn’t this poem reflect the wish of all readers to have an emotional experience in reading despite not knowing the author? To feel the impact of that letter? The intimate but anonymous relationship between reader and writer is reiterated when Emily writes another poem for the mouse, a poem that begins: “I’m Nobody! Who Are you? / Are you–Nobody–too? The writer and reader of a book are a pair of nobodies. Their identities are submerged in the poetry.
Writing back and forth with Emily, our little mouse comes to the conclusion that, despite being “a Little Thing,” “It matters what we think, / What words we put in ink. / It matters what we feel, / What feelings we conceal.
Finally, it matters what we think. Isn’t this the message we want to impart to children about reading? What has been recorded in books matters. So get reading!
For more on young readers, poetry, and Emily Dickinson check out this link.