19th Century Children’s Fiction

 

It looks like I might make it to 100 books this year, despite the lack of novels on my class reading lists.

I’m not complaining, but every semester spent reading 7,000+ picturebooks (Spring) or 7,000+ page 19th century novels (Fall) takes away time from the Read A Giant Mountain of Books objective. Last fall, I was reading at least 600 pages a week, but those pages were divvied up over three or four titles instead of crammed into one Long, Long Book.

This is my first exposure to the glory that is 19th Century Children’s Literature. And this includes some obvious titles: somehow, I lived almost 26 years without reading Little Women or Tom Sawyer. How did that happen? I have no idea. I was probably too busy reading The Babysitter’s Club.

Anyway, I’m growing more accustomed to the 19th century cadence of language, the Boy Book and Girl Book paradigm, and the sheer force of will power required to make it through a phonebook sized novel with the tiniest words still visible to the naked eye, and I’m finding myself strangely fond of some of the stories.

Our professor told us that, at some point during our semi-chronological reading list, a book would click in our head, telling us  “Oh, this is a book for children!” You see, in the 19th Century, children reading novels was A) not widely possible because a lot of kids were illiterate or too busy being poor or working on a farm, B) not enough of a money-maker to warrant a whole genre to themselves, and C) kind of anti-Christian and immoral. So those 700 page monsters were not really written for children, but for women who didn’t mind reading about a child protagonist.

This week, I’m reading What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, and even after one chapter, I knew exactly what my professor was talking about. THIS was a book for children, and I was enjoying breezing through it this week, even while nursing intense homework assignments and other mental-breakdown type situations.

However, I am not quite accustomed to the 19th Century Children’s Literature Horror: the moment when you are reading when you realize exactly what craziness is going on between author and reader, child and adult, and society as a whole.

I’m breezing along with Katy and her appealing younger siblings. Katy is a freewheeling, Jo March type tomboy, who will obviously need some discipline over the course of the novel. I get that. So she gets on this tree swing, after her curmudgeonly Aunt Izzie tells her not to. Alright, so something bad is going to happen, since the narrator told me that the swing is broken. She’ll fall off, get punished, and then move on to the next chapter-long trial of her character.

I should have seen it coming, but I was completely BLINDSIDED when Katy flies off the swing and blacks out, waking up to find out she is at risk for some kind of SPINAL CORD INJURY, and must now submit to the 19th Century Medical Treatment of Laying Down in Bed, Immobile.

Of course, the doctor says 2 weeks, but the 19th Century Horror keeps her in bed for TWO YEARS.

Moral of the Story:

To discipline an unruly (albeit well-meaning) young woman, you must simply hobble her until she learns the patience, humility, and grace of a complete invalid.

Oh, Contemporary Realistic Young Adult Fiction, you are calling my name…. See you in January of 2011!

 

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