Childhood Favorites

Childhood Favorites: Matilda

[Apologies for the delay in today’s post; WordPress ate my first try! — Casey]

By Mariko Turk

I’ve noticed a theme in this series.  All three ‘Childhood Favorites’ selections thus far are favorites because they, in various ways, are about the power words.  Imagine: English graduate students loving books about the power of words.  You’d think we were all studying to be literature professors or something.

Matilda Wormwood, of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988), learns the power of words very early in life: at age three, when she teaches herself how to read.  Unfortunately, though, there is only one book in the whole Wormwood household (Easy Cooking), and so at age four, Matilda begins a series of solo forays to the library, where she devours the whole children’s books section, and then begins to tackle the Western literary canon.  She reads Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Kim, and The Grapes of Wrath all before kindergarten.  Matilda so desperately needs this beautiful world of books because her parents are jerks.  Jerks who believe that bingo, TV, and get-rich-quick schemes are the highest orders of life.  Jerks who only have one book in the house.  Jerks who show no interest at all in their prodigiously articulate, thoughtful daughter.

Someone finally does pay attention to Matilda’s precociousness—her schoolteacher Miss Honey, who is one of the rare adults in Matilda who isn’t a frightful philistine.  With the help of the lovely and sympathetic Miss Honey, Matilda uses her enormous brain power to combat the ugly indifference of her home and the violence of her school (the headmistress of which, Miss Trunchbull, is in the habit of hammer-throwing students who annoy her) and it is all very satisfying in the end.

I read Matilda for the first time in the second grade, and while I definitely loved the main character and her love of words, I’d say the words that struck me the most were those of the sardonic, brutally funny narrator who tells us Matilda’s story.  To me, this kind of language in a children’s book was very new.  This is how Matilda begins:

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.  Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

I vividly remember reading that sentence.  There weren’t any bad words in it, but I still had the sense that I was entering into something that was, to use a word employed frequently in reviews of Roald Dahl, “nasty.”  And I was excited to do so.  The narrator goes on to reveal that s/he is a schoolteacher who suffers greatly from the prattling of “doting parents,” and wickedly composes some imaginary end-of-year reports for the “stinkers” in the class.  For example:

“‘The periodical cicada spends six years as a grub underground, and no more than six days as a free creature of sunlight and air.  Your son Wilfred has spent six years as a grub in this school and we are still waiting for him to emerge from the chrysalis.’”

In his smart, savage, and satisfying way, the narrator pierces a needle into the overblown “twaddle” of doting parents.  I do believe, then, that while the character Matilda encouraged me to be a reader, the narrator probably encouraged me to be a critic.  Certainly criticism does not, as a rule, have to be scathing.  But at the heart of the critical impulse there is a glee that comes from deflating, with carefully crafted prose, that which we think deserves to be deflated.

But while the narrator enjoys taking doting parents down a notch or two, s/he knows that neglectful parents (like the Wormwoods) and headmistresses who terrify instead of teach (like Miss Trunchbull) are much worse people, and never fails to skewer them.  In one scene, for instance, Miss Honey visits the Wormwoods at home.  When Miss Honey asks if the Wormwoods are not intrigued by their genius daughter, Mrs. Wormwood says she isn’t, because books are, in the grand scheme of things, utterly worthless.  Mrs. Wormwood elaborates on her theory to Miss Honey:

“‘Now look at me…Then look at you.  You chose books.  I chose looks…And who’s finished up the better off?  Me, of course.  I’m sitting pretty in a nice house with a successful businessman and you’re left slaving away teaching a lot of nasty little children the ABC.” “‘Quite right, sugar-plum,’ Mr. Wormwood said, casting a look of such simpering sloppiness at his wife it would have made a cat sick.”

Ha!  Insufferable as the Wormwoods and their smugness are, at least we get to imagine a cat vomiting at Mr. Wormwood’s stupid face and Mrs. Wormwood’s stupid philosophy.  There is satisfaction in that cutting little sentence, (even if we would have rather cut those Wormwoods for real).

The snark of the narrator’s words in Matilda is, of course, nicely balanced by Matilda’s pure appreciation for the beauty of words and the stories they can create.  So the novel never gets too cynical or too sweet.  It is just the perfect amount of both.  After all, the biting narrator evinces the highest respect, even a lovely tenderness, for the “brilliant and sensitive” Matilda and her “wonderfully subtle mind.”  S/he is never cynical about her, and there is something very comforting about that.  It is what, I think, makes readers rally to the narrator’s as well as to Matilda’s side, and what makes readers appreciate the value of both kinds of uses of words.  For they both fight to uphold intelligence, sensitivity, and subtlety in a world filled with ignorance, neglect, and hucksterism.  And they both marvelously succeed.

Mariko is a PhD student.

Categories: Childhood Favorites

Childhood Favorites: The Book Thief

By Casey Wilson

Unlike Rebekah, who has fond memories of The Phantom Tollbooth from her childhood, I decided my entry for “Childhood Favorites” would be one I discovered more recently – indeed, one that didn’t come out until just a few years ago. If you ask me for the name of my favorite book, I generally have one answer handy: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

She was a girl.

In Nazi Germany.

How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.

I love stories about the stories we tell. (Related: I love songs about songs.) I especially love stories about how the right words, in the right order, have the power to save a life or destroy worlds. The Book Thief is one of those stories. Words are a lifeline to Liesel, a young girl growing up in Germany during World War II. They are precious to her, and they save her life. Which makes it all the more painful for her – and us – to see them twisted into something violent and awful by her country’s leaders. Words are precious, too, to Zusak; he crafts them meticulously, painting vivid pictures with the briefest of phrases.

“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”

Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell.

I love stories about the families we choose. The families that we aren’t born into but find anyway. The Book Thief is one of those stories. Liesel suffers great loss before she finds herself the foster child of Rosa and Hans, and it takes her time to find her place with them. But when she does, she finds friendship and love – enough to welcome a hideaway Jew into their midst, when things are already so very bad. And Max, that Jew whose very presence puts all their lives at risk, becomes part of the family, too.

Rudy bowed. “My pleasure.” He tried for a little more. “No point asking if I get a kiss for that, I guess?”

“For bringing my shoes, which you left behind?”

“Fair enough.” He held up his hands and continued speaking as they walked on, and Liesel made a concerted effort to ignore him. She only heard the last part. “Probably wouldn’t want to kiss you anyway—not if your breath’s anything like your shoes.”

“You disgust me,” she informed him, and she hoped he couldn’t see the escaped beginnings of a smile that had fallen from her mouth.

I love stories about the friends that are there, even when we don’t deserve them. The ones who see our complexities and love us anyway. The Book Thief is one of those stories, too, on all angles. Not just with Rudy and Liesel, but the entire neighborhood, a place which is full of people at the center of their own stories, riddled with tragedy and joy.


I’ve seen so many young men

over the years who think they’re

running at other young men.

They are not.

They’re running at me.

I love stories about outside observers of the human race, who can see both the beauty and the horror of our actions. The Book Thief is that kind of story. Death is our narrator, and he is so, so tired – as he would be, during the Holocaust. But when Death chooses a story to share with us, it’s not his own – it’s Liesel’s, and her story is entirely human.

I’ve always thought of The Book Thief as a Christmas book. Not because of any ties to Christmas itself, but because that’s when I read it, most often: in the dead of winter, when that peculiar combination of sadness and hope seems necessary. When I talk to people about this book, I often say that it destroys me, which it does. But the real reason that I love The Book Thief is because it is not a book based in destruction, but in promise. The promise of words, the promise of family, the promise of friendship. The promise of humanity. Even when the world is as its worst, it has people like Hans, Rosa, Max, Rudy, and Liesel to make it a little bit better. And whenever I read The Book Thief, my own world is made just that much better, too.

Casey is a PhD student who will be teaching The Book Thief in the fall in her class “Writing About the Young Adult Bestseller“.

Categories: Childhood Favorites

Childhood Favorites: The Phantom Tollbooth

[This is the first in a series of posts this summer in which we here at the blog will talk about our favorite children’s books — either from our own childhood or ones we have discovered more recently — and share the reasons we love them. We hope you enjoy! -Blog Admin]

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

My favorite book from childhood is, hands down, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  It remains to this day a book that I reference in my daily conversations and think of whenever someone mentions the doldrums, a spelling bee or Rhyme and Reason.

My parents read me The Phantom Tollbooth chapter by chapter every night before bed, as they did many other books, including The Little Prince (my second all-time favorite, though I still question it is for children, book), Stuart Little, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit and scores of others.  As a child, I delighted in the adventures of Milo and his watchdog Tock (an unfortunate name for a dog whose giant watch goes ‘tick’).  They traveled through an unknown land, battling beasties, defeating tricksters, experiencing beautiful sunsets and met kings and princesses.  It was a fantastic story, all about a bored little boy who found an adventure in his own room by making use of a magic tollbooth that simply appeared in his room. What could be better!

It wasn’t until I got older, into high school, that I revisited The Phantom Tollbooth and realized that while the book had been entertaining for a child, it was HILARIOUS for an adult.  I had not realized, having the book read aloud to me as a kid, how many puns, homonyms and plays on words were used to comedic and sometimes dramatic effect in the novel.  I was so busy being delighted at the concept of eating words or playing the sunsets by conducting an orchestra, that I hadn’t paid close attention to all of the word play taking place.  The actual words on the page, while conveying the plot of the story, also conveyed the pliable and flexible nature of language itself.  The use of homonyms (calling the old crone, Faintly Macabre, a ‘Which’ and not a ‘Witch’) adds layers of complexity to a somewhat archetypal story line.  Further, the war between the two kings, King Azaz the Unabridged, ruler oof of Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis, over whether letters or numbers were more important still rings true in some ways (at least as certain government officials decry the uselessness of humanities as compared to STEM majors).

The literal interpretations of English idioms remain my favorite part of the book.  I love that when Milo gets ‘stuck in the Doldrums’ he is actually moving extremely slowly through a physical space called “The Doldrums.”  The physical act of leaping to conclusions brings Milo and the Humbug flying off to an island. I still shiver in fear at the mention of the Senses Taker (especially a few years ago when a real live Census Taker showed up at my house!)  And I still cheer anytime Rhyme and Reason are returned and Wisdom reigns throughout the land!  The illustrations, by Jules Feiffer, help the younger reader navigate the hilarity of these literal interpretations, making it clear that not every saying that comes out of an adult mouth makes complete sense!

Perhaps it speaks to my existence as a life-long lover of language and the power of words that I remember this book most fondly from my childhood. I heard that this book was adapted into a film.  Also a play.  Also an opera.  But let me tell you, I have absolutely no interest in seeing any of those adaptations.  To me, the book will always exist in its already perfected form and I need no adaptation to see what I have missed.  This book is new every time I read it and it changes in meaning each time as well.

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Childhood Favorites

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