About six months ago, the Sunday New York Times Styles section ran an article about a (supposed) trend in which adults were flocking to entertainments created for children. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had just been released, so of course there was a lot of verbiage dedicated to that, but there was also a run-through of Playstation games, young adult novels, cartoons, pop music and the amount of time spent enjoying this stuff, rather than pursuing adult pursuits like building retirement plans or meaningful relationships with other people. There were interviews with fab young persons who embraced their Potterphilia with pride. There were representatives from the other side of the coin, who found this sort of thing depressing at best and the death knell of enlightenment at worst. Because this was the New York Times, which never fails to give a cheesy name to the supposed trends it supposedly spots (as witnessed 10 years ago, when it tried to rename the part of the Lower East Side that lay below Houston Street as BoHo; the next day, graffiti sprung up all over the neighborhood declaring THIS IS NOT BOHO), they found a pair of marketing consultants, who dubbed the people who followed these pursuits “rejuveniles.” I hated this tag on site, and asked myself once again if the pleasure of finding an old college friend’s wedding announcement was worth the pain of reading the rest of the Styles section every week.
Naturally, Plastic picked this story up, and the Potter fans, news nerds and inveterate trolls wasted no time in airing opinions. I think my sole contribution to the dialogue was a confession that reading this article made me want to kick the marketing consultants in the head, but was afraid of being branded a rejuvenile delinquent, har de har har. And I wonder why my karma is so low. (For those not familiar with Plastic, posts can be rated by a floating band of randomly-chosen moderators, who can vote your posts up or down, thus awarding you “karma points.” I have been posting to Plastic since February 2001, two weeks after it went live, and all I can say is that I must be either dead obnoxious or dead boring, because every day some bright young thing creates a Plastic account, and within a week, his/her karma score gives mine a severe pantsing. Not that I am obsessed with my karma in the least. Heavens, no.)
I hate the whole idea of rejuvenilia, and the unspoken assumptions behind it, that we are all a bunch of overgrown children who refuse to move onto the more important things in life. I hate the whole notion that we are a bundle of either/or impulses. Either you like Queens of the Stone Age or you like Cole Porter. Either you spend all your time in front of your Playstation, or you go outside and play with others. Either you read Big Serious Adult Nonfiction or you read Stuff Aimed At 12-Year-Olds, and never the twain shall meet. I blame this on Crossfire, with its not-so-subtle message that there are 2 sides to an issue, and they both involve a lot of shouting. Of course, I could be taking this too personally, out of spiteful defensiveness, she-who-loves-Cartoon-Network-to-death. Or it could be because even when I was younger, the question of kids’ stuff vs. grownups’ stuff was a false dichotomy. I was lucky in that I was encouraged to read pretty much anything I was interested in. There was the usual parental eye cast out for sex and violence, not by virtue of their being sex and violence, but because I might not understand the context in which the sex and violence took place, and thus might find it confusing or upsetting. (I note, though, that at the tender age of 10, I was allowed to read The Cracker Factory by Joyce-Rebeta Burditt, which is full of sex and adult explorations of alcoholism and mental illness. It was also very, very funny, which taught me that sometimes humor will let you get away with a lot.) Other than that, though, the only criterion was that if it looked interesting, it was fine to read.
This got me off to a good start in life, both as a precocious kid and a don’t-call-me-rejuvenile adult. It meant that I was able to read some truly good books before I got to high school, when the desire to read them is usually beaten out of one. And you don’t have to live in a snobby, rarefied or isolated environment to feed this enthusiasm early. All you have to do is sit down next to your mother, who is watching Crime and Punishment on PBS, starring John Hurt as Raskolnikov, and you are so fascinated by the way he literally sweats fear and guilt and dread that you announce to no one in particular “I want to read that,” and hey presto, there it is under the Christmas tree, waiting for you. Ditto The Count of Monte Cristo and Gone With the Wind, which was not nearly as good as the other two but was still a Really Big Book, which was impressive to the other kids when I lugged it around at school. It was also fun to see my teachers freak out at the cover, which included an illustration of Vivian Leigh spilling out of the bodice of her gown, breasts almost completely exposed. “Oh, gosh,” I’d say, “I didn’t realize that classic literature was inappropriate for the classroom,” and they would retreat, thinking they were not getting paid enough to deal with smartasses like me. (My stepdad was a social studies teacher at the same school, so my teachers were his colleagues, which meant that my smart mouth eventually caught up with me.)
This latitude paid off in further dividends in my early 20’s, when I got a job as the children’s book buyer for Tower Books in Philadelphia. This job meant that I had to read a lot of children’s books—picture books, chapter books, YA novels, nonfiction, the lot—and I had a blast. I learned what a complicated dance a good children’s picture book was, that trying to tell a good story in 100 words was much harder than it looked, and how the best editor will raise the pairing of author and illustrator to an art form. (Because there is a perception that “anyone can write stories for kids,” the market is flooded with ill-considered picture books like the truly awful The Adventures of Ralphie the Roach, co-written by Paulina Porizkova and illustrated by her stepson Adam Otcasek. Pointless story. Ugly, ugly illustrations. This is what happens when children’s books are written by and for cynical adults with hollow senses of humor.) I learned that Mem Fox was the queen of picture books, and that Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are the best friends of wacky children everywhere. (Raise your hands if you have ever read a copy of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales to a giggling 7-year-old.) I learned that Daniel Pinkwater can do it all, picture books, midgrade fiction and YA, and be hysterically funny in all genres. For my money, the best YA novel ever written was Pinkwater’s Young Adult Novel, which is about a group of high-school Dadaists. I don’t miss much about that job, not the general indignities of retail, nor the often-sociopathic mood among the store staff, certainly not the lousy pay, but I miss the books, and the sense of sheer unadulterated fun that came from reading them, picking out the best stuff for the store and helping baffled adults pick out something that their kids would just love to read.
It is in this spirit of happy enthusiasm, not don’t-call-it-rejuvenilia, that I am pleased to boast about some of the goodies I got for Christmas, and to recommend that you check them out if you love children’s books, or if you have pre-teens and young teenagers in your life. I have been laughing myself stupid over Louise Rennison’s series of books about 14-year-old Georgia Nicolson: Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God (published in the UK as It’s Okay, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers) and Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas. I’ve heard people compare Georgia to Bridget Jones, but that is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Georgia has more in common with Adrian Mole, the hero of a series penned by Sue Townsend in the 1980’s. I would have married Adrian years ago if he only he weren’t a fictional construct. Like Adrian, Georgia is self-absorbed, brighter than she is given credit for, and a dab hand at funny observations.
I was also glad to pick up The Slippery Slope, Volume 10 in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. (Trivia buffs may want to know that Lemony Snicket also trades under the name of Daniel Handler, author of The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth, and accordionist for the Magnetic Fields.) This series, which is about a trio of orphans tracking the truth about their parents’ deaths while trying to elude the evil, murderous, fortune-hunting Count Olaf, is my chapterbook wet dream: hardbound (yet affordably priced), acid-free paper, notched signature, beautifully-drawn endpapers with a built-in Ex Libris plate; in short, books built for keeping. The stories are dark, very dark, but although the Baudelaire siblings are in constant peril, they always manage to save themselves from almost-certain death at Count Olaf’s hands. The editorial voice is a scream, filled with wry definitions of words and phrases, and includes useful information like how to make puttanesca sauce. I have actually made puttanesca sauce following Snicket’s instructions in The Bad Beginning. It works. And I am nuts about the introductory paragraph to The Slippery Slope:
A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called “The Road Less Traveled,” describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is now dead.
If I were a 9-to-12-year-old reading this book, I would be thrilled and flattered that Lemony Snicket found me smart enough to share this information with me. It is the best author-reader relationship I have ever read, anywhere. Rejuvenile, my ass.