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“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.
“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.