Category Archives: English fiction

Stories with children as the main characters

(Disclosure:  Every book  or DVD link in this post is an Amazon affiliate link. If you buy any of these books—if you go to Amazon via one of the links, and buy anything else—I shall earn a small commission. You pay nothing. Whatever you buy is the same price as usual. My commission is part of Amazon’s operating cost. )

The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, is a WWII story about a young girl who grows up in Munich as Hitler comes to power and WWII begins. Other children also play a key role in the story. It is a deeply moving story told in an original style: it avoids the schmalzy, sentimental style that might have been used, thank goodness; it also avoids the more gruesome and brutal styles of, say, Schindler’s List. Instead, it uses Death as the narrator, and a unique form of synaesthesic images which create unforgettable similes and metaphors.

(I note in passing that Zusak has a new book coming out in October, 2018 called “Bridge of Clay“, and it also has a young person as the main character.)

(I also note in passing that there is a book called “The Book Thieves” also about Nazi Germany, but non fiction.)

Stories which have a child or children as the main character or characters form a special genre of their own.  They’re not necessarily stories for children. “The Book Thief” for instance, is that a book for children? I don’t think so. Yet it has a child as the main character. Fairy stories are of course one example, but as is well known, fairy stories were not originally created solely for children, and in their early forms were often much more gruesome than the versions we know today such as the Disney versions. As a child, the author C.S. Lewis read the Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, “The Worm Ouroboros“, The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe,  “Treasure Island“, “Peter Rabbit” and “The Wind in the Willows, “ of which only the last three were written specially for children.

Wikipedia tells us that

“Even after printing became widespread, many classic “children’s” tales were originally created for adults and later adapted for a younger audience…. French historian Philippe Ariès argues in his 1962 book Centuries of Childhood that the modern concept of childhood only emerged in recent times. He explains that children were in the past not considered as greatly different from adults and were not given significantly different treatment. As evidence for this position, he notes that, apart from instructional and didactic texts for children written by clerics like the Venerable Bede and Ælfric of Eynsham, there was a lack of any genuine literature aimed specifically at children before the 18th century.

Let’s take this as given, although not everyone agrees entirely with Aries’ position. Recently, there has been a trend the other way: stories written ostensibly for children but enjoyed by adults as well. Perhaps this trend is not so new, as Lewis points out that he himself enjoyed reading fairy tales when he was an adult, and in fact some stories that influenced him the most he did not read until he was an adult, e.g. the fairy tales of George MacDonald.

Be that as it may, there is a genre of literature called “children’s literature” and within that genre there is a sub-genre of stories that are what one might call “coming-of-age stories”, about young boys or girls who go through some kind of adventure or ordeal that leaves them more mature, more grown-up, more responsible, wiser than before.

I’m thinking here of many of Miyazaki Hayao‘s movies such as “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind“,  “Kiki’s Delivery Service“, “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (based on a British novel), which all have a young girl protagonist who grows up or goes through a maturing process as the story progresses.

Here is a partial list of some English stories in this sub-genre which I have read and enjoyed. Why not add your own suggestions? I know nothing about Japanese literature, for instance, so feel free to enlighten me.

  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, a story of some young children who trek across war-torn Germany to find their parents. Amazingly realistic for a children’s story (I read this when I was in my early teens). Serraillier was a brilliant story-teller.
  • Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen.  A boy gets stranded in Alaska when the light plane taking him to see his father crashes into a lake miles from anywhere, killing the pilot. No food, no shelter, no radio. In shock, though not badly injured, the boy sets about learning how to survive until he is rescued. The days turn into weeks, and winter approaches…
  • “Where the Red Fern Grows“. A young-boy-and-his-dog story, set in the bayou (Louisiana, I think). This is a whole sub-genre in itself, which I’ll write about later.
  • Education of Little Tree“. Story of a young native American brought up by older relatives who pass away, leaving the boy alone in the world. Said to be autobiographical, though some have questioned the author’s veracity. Still, a deeply moving tale.
  • A Story Like the Wind” by Laurens van der Post, friend and mentor to Prince Charles and many others, author of a war-time trilogy on which the Japanese movie “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was based. The boy also has a dog, so this one might qualify for my “young-boy-with-faithful-dog” list (coming soon). Van der Post claimed to have been partly raised by a Bushman nurse who taught him many Bushman myths and stories, rather as Rudyard Kipling learned Indian stories from his nurse.
  • A Far-Off Place” (sequel to “A Story Like the Wind”). Two white teenagers are witnesses to the destruction of the boy’s farm and the murder of both children’s parents. Hunted by the murderers, they set off on a long, perilous, cross-country journey, helped by a Bushman whose life the boy saved. Made into a movie by Disney starring Reese Witherspoon. Read the comments and summaries for this and “A Story Like the Wind” on Goodreads.
  • My Side of the Mountain“, about a boy who runs away from his New York home and learns to survive, alone, in the Catskill Mountains. One of those magical books once read, never forgotten.

May meeting report

Dear Readers,

For those of you who were unable to attend today, I announced my retirement from this reading group. I will continue until we have finished discussing our present novel, “The Book Thief”.

There are various reasons for this decision: partly my health but mainly because I feel it is time for me to move on and do other things. It has been a most enjoyable journey through English literature with all of you.

Our next meeting will be June 27th, and we will discuss from Part 6 “Death’s Diary: Cologne” (p. 334 in the version we are using).

I hope to see you again at the end of June.

September meeting report

At our August meeting, we read and discussed chapter 1 – “Arrival on Himmel Street” up to chapter 2 “Saumensch” of “The Book Thief”.  The page references in this blog are to the 10th anniversary Black Swan edition  of 2016.

For next time, we will read up to the end of Part One – The Gravedigger’s Handbook. Next time will be Wednesday October 4th.

Some of the ideas and themes we discussed in our August meeting were:

  • the final solution, an expression which now has only one, stark, meaning for all Jews and Europeans everywhere.
  • “the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle” (p.28) is perhaps a reference to Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech in which he says

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause”

February meeting

Our February meeting was held on Feb. 4th. We welcomed a new member.

We started reading a new story: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway.

We discussed the introductory paragraph and its meaning and style, and the possible significance of the leopard carcase.

We read up to the end of the first section, where Harry says, “I don’t like to leave anything behind.”

Our next meeting will be March 11th.

January & February meetings

Happy New Year, everyone!

Our first meeting of the year was on Jan. 14th, and at that meeting it was decided to stop reading “Reading Lolita in Teheran”.

Our next meeting will be Feb. 4th and we will be reading Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

I referred to some other books and a movie that also tell about life in Iran after the Revolution. Here are the details:

  1. Unveiled Threat: A Personal Experience of Fundamentalist Islam and the Roots of Terrorism by Janet Tavakoli. (This book is only available in Japan as  a Kindle book. As far as I know there is no Japanese translation as yet. It is a short book.)
  2. Whirlwind by James Clavell (author of “Shogun”). This is a  long book, but in typical Clavell-style, it includes much background information about Islam and Iranian culture. Again, as far as I know there is no Japanese translation as yet. I bought the cheaper Kindle version.) It is a novel, but based on real events, with all the names changed. It is far less intellectual than Nafisi’s book, and in my opinion, gives a much more rounded picture of life in Iran at that time.
  3. An animated movie, Persepolis., made in 2007. It tells the life of a young girl growing up in Iran.

February 2014 meeting

In our February meeting, we read chapter 8 and started reading chapter 9 of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”.

One topic we discussed was “philosopher-king”, the ideal ruler, according to Plato in his “Republic”. (Click here to read the Japanese Wikipedia entry).

For our next meeting, the reading assignment is

  • the rest of chapter 9
  • chapter 10
  • chapter 13

Our next meeting will be March 26th. I look forward to seeing you all then.

October meeting

October’s meeting: Wednesday, October 30th (Hallowe’en!)

Next reading material: Nafisi’s “Lolita in Tehran”, sections 1-5 inclusive. (See the September post for links to the English book, the Japanese translation, and the Kindle versions). At the next meeting, I will ask everyone if they want to continue reading this book, or change to another one.

In September’s meeting, we finished reading Kipling’s Jungle Book story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. Many thanks to all who attended.

For our next book, I have chosen a longer and much more challenging book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi taught English literature in Iran during the days of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule. She is very well read and makes many references to various authors and works of literature. I have not read many of the books she refers to (including “Lolita”), and I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to have read the books she refers to – although obviously it will add to one’s enjoyment of the book.

While reading her book, I did find myself using Wikipedia a lot! For example, early in the story, when one of Nafisi’s students comes to her house wearing clothes decorated with a large butterfly, Nafisi says, “Did you wear that in honour of Nabokov?” I did not understand the connection, but Wikipedia told me that, as well as being a writer, “He also made serious contributions as a lepidopterist and chess composer.”

Some of you have already started reading the book, but whether you have or whether you have not, please take a few moments to write down your thoughts and impressions about the following topics. I am interested to know your knowledge and impressions BEFORE you read the story.

  1. What do you know of Iran, and what are your impressions of that country?
  2. What do you know of Iran in the time when this story takes place (1975-1997)?
  3. What do you know about the novel “Lolita”, and what are your impressions? Have you read it?
  4. What do you know about the author of “Lolita”?
  5. What do you know about Gatsby, James and Austen?

I like to know what people look like, what they sound like, and if you are interested, you can use the wonderful tool called the Internet and find audios and videos of Azir Nafisi and see what she looks and sounds like. You can also find videos of and about the author of “Lolita”, as well as clips from the movie “Lolita”. You can also find, of course, articles about “Lolita” (the book and the movie), and you will find criticism and controversy as well as praise.

Let me just give you one: the beginning of a short TV movie, a dramatization of “Nabokov’s lectures on Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis. The part of Nabokov is played by Christopher Plummer.”

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September meeting

Update: Today, we are changing stories. Today’s (September 25th) meeting, we will finish reading Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” story, then read the first few pages of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” with Japanese translation.

(Original post:)

Dear Readers,

Thanks very much for participating today. We still haven’t quite finished Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” story (we read up to the 2nd paragraph on page 13; contact me if you want a copy of the text). We’ll finish next time.

Next meeting will be September 11th  25th.

What shall we read next? “Pygmalion” by British author George Bernard Shaw seemed to be a popular choice. It is available online for free from the Gutenberg project here:

Another suggestion (which I made a long time ago) was “Reading Lolita in Tehran” because it’s written by a woman and because it’s about a reading group like ours, but in post-revolutionary Iran, based on the author’s own experiences.

or you can buy the Kindle version at half the price

There is, I discovered today, a Japanese translation available:
It’s a little expensive but there are some cheap second-hand ones available (see the link above).