Coffee Break

There’s a very good piece  about children’s (picture) books in this week’s New Yorker that dissects some of the ways they “record shifts in domestic life.”

From a social-commentary standpoint, this is fascinating to think about.  As the review points out,

Newspaper-burrowing fathers have been replaced by eager, if bumbling, diaper-changers.  Similarly, the stern disciplinarians of the past … have largely vanished.  The parents in today’s stories suffer the same diminution in authority felt by the parents reading them aloud (an hour past bedtime).

And I can’t think of a more spot-on observation than the review’s description of “a Manhattan playground”:

A toddler whirling into a rage is quietly instructed, “Use your words.” A preschooler who clocks his classmate is offered the vaguely Zen incantation “Hands are not for hitting….”

Ah, yes.  Here in Atlanta, we are equally guilty, guilty guilty.

It happened before I really even noticed, but at seven-and-a-half Elder Girleen has already left those picture book days behind — chapter books are where it’s at.  She reads voraciously.  Her life depends on it.  And it’s an honor — to be able to live vicariously through her,  to be able to experience again that magic of discovery of the written word.

She’s devouring plenty of contemporary books, but she’s dipping into old faves as well.  One of her godmothers already passed on her complete collection of Nancy Drews.  The other gifted her A Wrinkle in Time.  And I, thinking ahead to the holidays, ordered a set of books that I read over and over and over again when I was a little older than Elder Girleen, and still think about occassionally as an adult.  The first of them arrived yesterday; after reading the above-mentioned New Yorker article, I decided to “vet” Uncle Robert’s Secret before tucking it away until Christmas.

These books, half a dozen mysteries that were published in the 60s and 70s as a boxed set, were by a Georgia writer  and (I believe) Atlanta Constitution journalist named Wylly Folk St. John.   Maybe I loved them most for their locales, because they were nothing if not regional.  The dilapidated victorian houses of Atlanta’s West End during urban renewal, a grimy-around-the-edges Savannah(?) or Tybee Island (?).  Pirate treasure.  The lost Confederate gold.  Man, I loved these books.

And the thing I was struck by most, revisiting the first of these as an adult?

What on earth is Elder Girleen going to make of the freedom these nine, eleven and thirteen-year-old protagonists have?  They tell the aunts who are watching them they’re downstairs watching television  — but really they’re heading out to roam the woods, hang with neighbors (who smoke and drink and engage in all kinds of nefarious activities).  They’re rowing boats across lakes; investigating strange lights that glimmer in creepy family graveyards.

The books I loved because they reflected (at least partially) the world I lived in might as well be about the 1870s of Little House on the Prairie for her — an irretrievable, expansive past when children could run wild.


  1. Just found your blog a few days ago and I have been loving it!

    Interesting post. I also think about how what my kids read will affect them or if they will relate to these stories. I love stories about kids running wild in the woods, in the neighborhood, through the park. I want my boys to be those kids, but at the same time it is a little unnerving to think about them OUT THERE alone.

    My boys are still little (1 and 2.5) so there is time to contemplate and figure out a balance between free range kids and home bound children.

  2. My friend Rachel’s book was in that article! Sometimes I’m Bombaloo. It’s a great read on kids and anger. My 7 year old took a particular liking to that one!

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