Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 11, 2008

Love and Critique

A hazard of teaching children’s literature is facing students’ slumped shoulders after they reread a book they once loved and feel it didn’t measure up to their memories. I try to assure that critique can be another form of love. The world isn’t really divided between those who love fairy tales, for instance, and those who despise them; you can still love them, and see elements that as an adult you’d want to change. The world isn’t divided, as some feel, between the good guys who are crazy about Harry Potter and those that sneer at the heroic orphan. There are people who adore the series, but can still point to some flaws in the writing. It’s not about finding middle ground, I don’t think, but about embracing stories while calling everything you’ve learned about plot, prose, and human behavior over the years.

One student felt she returned to Oz to find it lacking, and she felt the same disappointment re The Secret Garden. “It’s the writing, really,” she said, explaining she thought the prose of Este’s One Hundred Dresses and Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia finer. Of course Frances Hogdson Burnett came from a tradition of writing big and fast – she produced dozens of books, plays, and stories. Since the modernists of the 1920s, we tend more to an aesthetic in which sentences, paragraphs, and pages are pruned. While I might not want to change a word of Charlotte’s Web, it’s probably largely because E.B.White already did that. He wrote at least eight seriously studied and changed drafts. In the late 1800s, Burnett wrote in a white heat and didn’t look back much.

Yet so much is there. We looked at the Garden of Eden motifs – the jealousy, the eating: the views of imperialism – the Rajah Colin running an empire of servants from his bedroom; the nature imagery, including Dickon as Pan and whether it made a difference that the robin was male. Hey, it’s an English class. But my bet is what they’ll remember is their professor sniffling and dabbing her eyes as I discuss the end of the book. When Mary, Colin, and his father stand together in the garden that nobody cared for, but is cared for now.



  1. Such an interesting topic. I’ve been sad rereading books I loved as a child but like your idea of “embracing stories while calling everything you’ve learned about plot, prose, and human behavior over the years.” Bringing my past love to my critiques and possibly finding a new kind of love and/or respect along the way.
    I like that!

  2. Jeannine,
    I read this early this a.m., and it’s been bubbling in my brain while I puttered (my designated task this morning!). At first, I couldn’t quite get what your students were feeling…then I realized, these are people who read these books probably once or twice years ago, then come to them again as adults. Makes me think again about kids’ writers and if/how we’re different. Because for most of these books, I just don’t have that gap of years between readings. I have read books like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables and, yes, Tolkien’s books, over and over since I first found them–often with only two or three years between readings. So I must not go through that disconnect that your students are experiencing–somehow, the books have come along with me through the years, instead of having to try and bridge a span of decades.
    Yes, I’ve felt this way a few times, when I found a book in my thirties or forties that I had read once as a kid and then forgot about–where it wasn’t written as well as I remembered thinking at the time, BUT…I still can step back into the magic I felt at the time.
    Is this why I write for kids? I think it’s probably a big part of it. This post got me thinking about those books again and looking at them from a critique point of view. I’m starting to suspect that my MC and Anne (of GG) have some character traits in common. Now I want to go back and reread and see how Anne’s quest for justice and her personal indignation at unfairness affect the plot of that story.
    Thanks again for stirring the juices.
    When are you going to set this class up online?! 🙂

  3. Thank you for saying this was helpful! (not that it’s always easy to embrace and critique at the same time — but it can happen in waves)

  4. Thank you for saying I got you thinking, Becky! It is a real perk of being with people not so immersed to hear their perspectives. Sometimes I hear comments really immediately after a rereading, and, after the initial surprises, I expect many do get back to that place of love as more time passes.
    Anne of GG, a good connection. There is a link in this week’s PW Bookshelf to a wonderful article Margaret Atwood wrote about her for her 100th birthday in the Guardian. You can try pasting in,,2269001,00.html

  5. What an interesting post, Jeannine. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed at rereading a childhood favorite; it’s more noticing things with an adult’s critical eye, and being able to put the book in the perspective of its time period, etc., making it a new and telling experience. I do agree that kids’ books are more heavily edited now.
    I was also thinking about Dickens, and novels that first appeared in serial form. They’re measured against a different set of standards (or should be). They were written “big and fast.”

  6. That is encouraging to hear that you haven’t been disappointed. At least in class, I should mention, disappointment does get somewhat balanced out as many read books that are new to them — or they are only stories they’d heard in, say, the Disney version, and that can be so wonderfully eye-opening to savor the original. (I was going to say partake the original, then thought of your teas, and said uh, no.. but ended with savor. Oh well. It is almost supper time….)

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