Friday, February 20, 2015

Watership Down and the prize-winning re-readability of children's books

I've fought (and conquered!) a cold this week. Conveniently, it's the snowpocalypse and on top of a straight-up snow day, various additional classes and events have been canceled, so I've had plenty of time to lay in bed with a never-ending supply of hot tea. Some of my reading has been student papers to grade or books for dissertation research, but on one of the early days of the cold when I simply couldn't think coherently, I read an old childhood favorite.

I honestly don't remember how I discovered Watership Down. Probably my parents got it for me - I imagine them looking up similar books about animals for their Redwall-loving daughter. (How did they find it? Did they already know the book? Did they ask around? How did people ever find similar things without the internet and its countless "if you loved x, try y" lists?) My copy of Richard Adam's most famous novel is a well-worn paperback with the bottom half of most of its pages pulling away from the spine. I've read it countless times and yet it never ceases to delight.

As I've grown older, I've come to see more and more in it. As a child, I loved the fact that I could tackle an adult book (is it? Or is it officially categorized as a children's novel?). Certainly it was one of the longest books I'd ever read, the first time I read it. I ignored the literary quotes introducing each chapter and just fell in love with Hazel and Fiver and their friends, encouraging them along their journey and cheering the cleverness of their tricks. As I got older, say, high school, I began to see it as political commentary, its four very different forms of government making a clear statement about the ideal of a democratic republic and the perils both of anarchy and despotism. This time through, I actually read all of the literary quotes for the first time ever, and enjoyed the explicit recognition of the Odyssean quest narrative through quotes from Greek dramas, and the later ties to American and British popular cultures through the quotation of ballads and folk song lyrics. And despite my hrair (thousand) re-reads and the fact that I know this book so well I can read its four hundred pages in a single day, it has lost none of its charm.

This is a beloved book. It's one that for me, perfectly exemplifies this recent article in The Guardian, which argues that children's books should be considered for more major literary awards because a children's book is designed with re-reading in mind. As the article writes, "re-reading is a given for children's authors. It's one reason why we try to write books that have many layers and work on different levels, rewarding re-reading by growing richer each time." Thus a good children's book has already succeeded at what adult fiction strives for. A literary prize "asks of books something they're not really designed for: to be read three times in a row by people probing for weakness. Most books just crumble under that kind of pressure: only the most rich, the most layered, continue to dazzle and reveal ever more."

Watership Down, The Dark is Rising, and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, all named in the article as favorite re-reads by prominent authors and literary critics, are favorites for me too. They live in my bedroom fiction bookcase and get pulled down periodically. Chosen each time because of the joy they bring me, every time they reveal something new. Not officially prize-winners, perhaps, but with a re-readability that puts them on the shortlist of my most beloved books.