Carlo Rotella

The gift of good stories

Real Christmas magic is in the generations-tested books that all kids love

By Carlo Rotella
December 22, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

THIS TIME of year, I try to stay out of Who-ville. When the Whos go into their holiday frenzy, cranking their seasonal tunes and maxing out their credit cards on iHoohoodlers and high-definition humdingers they can’t afford, I retreat to a bar way up on Mount Crumpit where one can brood in eternal saloon twilight while listening to Merle Haggard and Otis Rush on the jukebox.

But my daughters, being kids, are into Christmas, and I have some other gift-giving obligations, so every year on the Saturday morning before Christmas I come down off the mountain and make a trip downtown to buy presents. My main destination is a bookstore, and as soon as I get there I start feeling better about things. The place is always packed during the days before Christmas with a crowd that radiates excitement and contentment, and that itself is encouraging. People still read, and still regard the giving and receiving of books as something special.

And the old long-haul reliables I remember from childhood, generations-tested books you can read to your kids when they’re little and they can then read for themselves and go on rereading into adolescence and beyond, are still for sale, often in fine new editions: books like Scott O’Dell’s “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, John Dennis Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman adventure “The Eagle of the Ninth,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Charles Portis’s great comic Western “True Grit.”

These aren’t children’s books, exactly. They’re good books that appeal to kids because they feature young protagonists (or a child-size one, anyway, in the case of “The Hobbit”), often venturing beyond the protection of their parents, and because they address the reader in language that is both beautifully turned and accessible. I can still remember the first time I read the scene in “True Grit” in which 14-year-old Mattie Ross dickers over horses with the orotund stock trader Colonel Stonehill. “I would not pay three hundred and twenty-five dollars for winged Pegasus,” says Stonehill, but Mattie, a formidable girl bent on putting her murdered father’s affairs in order before setting out to catch his killer, gets her price out of him.

These books cast a spell on young readers and listeners without treating them like simpletons — a point driven home to me whenever I run across their opposite, one of those heavily branded Disney or Barbie or Star Wars books that reads as if an automated data-mining program had generated a product placement by extracting plot points and characters from movies and theme-park rides.

My girls are city kids, but many of their favorites among the old reliable books tell stories about young people in the wilderness or on a frontier, often facing trials that carry them into the undiscovered country of adulthood. These books are guides, maps, that kids can return to over the years, tracing and retracing alien terrain and exotic place names until they become familiar.

Right now, my kids are still in a developmental sweet spot. If you were to offer a wager on the nonexistence of Santa at 7-to-2 odds, they could probably figure out that the smart money says there’s no Santa — but would still bet on the jolly old elf. Just in case he does exist after all, it’s better not to antagonize him.

A few years up the road for them, as readers, lies another sweet spot, the period of deliriously pure readerly engagement that comes around the age of 13. You’ll never again lose yourself in a book the way you can at that age, and the books you love in your early teens tend to stay with you forever, becoming the foundation of a sensibility, a sense of beauty, a world view. For my girls, there are a few Christmases to go between now and then. It’s my job to make sure that in coming years Santa delivers more of those old reliable kids’ books that aren’t really just for kids. They’re gifts for life.

Carlo Rotella is a director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.