The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.
Anyone who has a kid spends an enormous amount of his or her reading time with children’s books. This can be painful. When my son went through his Captain Underpants phase, I had to beg my husband to take over bedtime book duty; I hated those books so much that I was willing to forfeit that very delicious time with my little boy to avoid one more fart joke. When we hit the letter “M” in the very tedious-but-adored-by-children A to Z Mysteries, I didn’t think I could handle reading the rest of the alphabet, so I told my son that the author had died and tragically hadn’t managed to finish books for the letters “N” through “Z.” Unfortunately, by then my son knew how to search the Internet, and one day he announced to me that he had “found” the missing books. Oh, goodie.
The thing is, I love reading to my son, and there is almost nothing that thrills me more than when he begs me for just one more chapter. That he loves books is one of my greatest satisfactions. I just don’t always love his books. That’s why, when we first started The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, I hesitated. I knew nothing about the book except that it had been made into an animated film, which — while not a diagnostic characteristic of a bad book — suggests that the story might be Hollywood-simple or a launching vehicle for action figures. It is neither of those. It’s an exquisite, dark, complicated story of treachery and wisdom and family and character. I suppose it’s a children’s book, but there is nothing in either the writing or the narrative that’s childish. The miracle is kids love it. I think they don’t understand all the language, or some of the more complicated emotions (especially, one hopes, about betrayal and disappointment) but they are gripped by the story of the runty mouse trying to do right in a complicated world.
At first, I thought my admiration for this book was partly a function of its contrast to the more awful reading I’d done at bedtime, but that doesn’t really give it its due. It’s a gorgeous book, by night-light or daylight, transporting and sad and wise.
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