Let’s ignore the sexism of the title quote and focus on the sentiment (especially as Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft who I like to think told him off for any gender assumptions) I was prompted to think along these lines a few weeks ago when I watched the moving and joyous BBC4 documentary B is for Book.
I don’t generally write about children’s or YA fiction, but I felt quite inspired by the documentary showing the jubilant discovery and magic of the written word. My Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge has some kids books on it, so this week I’m channelling my inner child (not that difficult, tbh)
Firstly, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943), ranked number 4 on Le Monde’s list; it is the most translated French book and the fourth most translated book worldwide. And how is this for a CV: Wiki describes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as “writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator”. I feel so inadequate.
The Little Prince is narrated by an aviator who crashes in the desert, where he meets a visiting alien prince. The prince is from a planet where he lives alone, and which is so small that the sun is always setting:
“For as everyone knows, when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France. If you could get to France in a twinkling, you could watch the sunset right now. Unfortunately France is rather too far away. But on your tiny planet, little prince, you only had to move your chair a few steps. You could watch night fall whenever you liked.
‘One day,’ you said, ‘I watched the sunset forty-three times!’
And a little later you added:
‘You know, when one is that sad, one can get to love the sunset.’
‘Were you that sad, then, on the day of forty-three sunsets?’
But the prince made no answer.”
This melancholy tinge continues throughout the tale. The prince is a sad character and remains mysterious to the aviator. It is a children’s book though, and has some lovely touches to stir the imagination:
“On the morning of his departure he set his planet in good order. He carefully swept out his active volcanoes. He had two active volcanoes – which were very useful for heating up breakfast in the morning.”
The prince describes his travels, in which he has met six adults, also living alone on isolated tiny planets: a king (who rules over no-one), a vain man, an alcoholic, a businessman (who wants to own the stars), a lamplighter (who constantly lights a lamp for no purpose) and a cartographer (who has never been anywhere). Thus the story is a critique of adults placing meaning in acquisition and status rather than in emotional connection and adventure. The aviator is an adult himself but does not hold adults in high regard:
“Grownups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about important things. They never say: ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?’ Only then do they feel he know him.”
The Little Prince is a sweet, sad tale, one which will appeal to children for the adventure and imaginative leaps, but also has a great deal to offer adults, as a fable regarding a search for meaning in the world.
“You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
It is also illustrated with gorgeous watercolours by the author (yet another string to his bow):
Secondly, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906–1907), number 68 on Le Monde’s list. This classic of Swedish literature has been immortalised on stamps, on currency, and Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Nils is a self-centred, lazy, cruel ungrateful boy. Bunking off church to stay at home, he gets on the wrong side of an elf. Everyone knows you don’t mess with elves, Nils. Of course the elf wreaks his revenge:
“For in the glass he saw plainly a little, little creature who was dressed in a hood and leather breeches.
“Why, that one is dressed exactly like me!” said the boy, clasping his hands in astonishment. And then he saw that the thing in the mirror did the same thing. Thereupon he began to pull his hair and pinch his arms and swing round; and instantly he did the same thing after him; he, who was seen in the mirror.
The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn’t a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was – himself.”
Nils’ family goose, who has the excellent appellation of Morten Goosey-Gander, decides to follow a flock of wild geese on their migration to Lapland and Nils tags along, riding on Goosey-Gander’s back. As an elf, Nils finds he can understand animals’ speech, and learns to be kind rather than torture them.
“The wild geese challenged the white goosey-gander to take part in all kinds of sports. They had swimming races, running races, and flying races with him. The big tame one did his level best to hold his own, but the clever wild geese beat him every time. All the while, the boy sat on the goosey-gander’s back and encouraged him, and he had as much fun as the rest.”
Lagerlöf was commissioned to write this by the National Teachers Association, so in the course of reading about Nils’ journey, you learn about wildlife and Swedish geography: win/win.
“Just as the first spring showers pattered against the ground, there arose such shouts of joy from all the small birds in groves and pastures that the whole air rang with them, and the boy leaped high where he sat. ‘Now we’ll have rain. Rain gives us spring; spring gives us flowers and green leaves; green leaves and flowers give us worms and insects; worms and insects give us food; and plentiful, and good food is the best thing there is,’ sang the birds.”
“He didn’t know exactly where on earth he was: if he was in Skåne, in Småland, or in Blekinge. But just before reaching the swamp, he had glimpsed a large village, and thither he directed his steps. Nor was it long before he discovered a road. Soon he was in the village street, which was long, and had trees on both sides, and was bordered with garden after garden. The boy had come to one of the big cathedral towns, which are so common on the uplands, but can hardly be seen at all down in the plain.”
Nils’ wonderful adventures also include seeing off his arch-nemesis Smirre Fox and learning to think of others rather than being such a deeply unpleasant person. For a book with such a didactic purpose, it really doesn’t read as instructive and moralistic. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is written with a real lightness of touch and is great fun.
To end, a taster of my favourite book from when I was a child: