Culture  Musings on myth

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik discusses the timeless pleasures of children's lit

A dam Gopnik is one of the few people nowadays who pulls off the role of the non-academic intellectual. If one had to say what Gopnik’s job was, it would be staff writer at the New Yorker, but Gopnik tends to spread himself everywhere that wittiness, intelligence, and a large vocabulary are needed, from the American culture entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, to the BBC documentary Lighting Up New York, to the talk show Charlie Rose.

Gopnik is also one of the consummate craftsmen of writing today, celebrated less for coming up with big ideas than for his simple artisan-like mastery of prose. So when Gopnik comes out with a children’s novel like his recent The Steps Across the Water, readers are afforded the double pleasure of looking forward both to reading the book, and to what it will give Gopnik occasion to say about children’s literature in general. Last Friday, they found out, when Gopnik delivered a public lecture at McGill on the subject entitled: “The Library of the Early Mind: The Meanings of Children’s Literature.” The following day, Gopnik went over the themes of his lecture in a phone interview with The Daily.

Gopnik, borrowing from C.S. Lewis, believed that “what makes children’s literature so interesting is that it’s about the marvelous that we recognize as myth – the marvelous that we can see as myth.” Gopnik is uninterested in kid’s lit’s didactic purpose as part of society’s parenting of its children, and he’s downright antagonistic about attempts to treat children’s literature as coded allegory for the miscellanies of cultural repression. Gopnik even took Lewis’s own Narnia series to task for indulging in Christian allegory that “is so obvious as to be uninteresting.”

This leaves children’s books with an ambiguous relationship to reality. Yet for Gopnik, children’s stories have to contain an imaginative reality of their own, or they end up stifled by “a point-by-point application of a series of symbols to something that’s real in the world.” By generating myth, children’s literature affords the reader an imaginative space separate from our own reality. “Writers [encourage] children to value their imaginative side,” Gopnik said. “I don’t see it as sort of analgesic, you know, ‘they shouldn’t have the rational side,’ that’s a wonderful side. [But] freedom to imagine, and imagine other worlds is one of the great powers we have, and it’s worth cultivating.”

Gopnik’s own recently-released children’s book demonstrates these – and other – rules the writer has for the genre. Perhaps the most surprising is his assertion that the child hero has to feel “contempt” for the adults of the book. Children are powerless, he reasons, and thus contempt becomes one of their only weapons of confronting the absurd systems adults have forced on the world. Gopnik’s belief that disaster and catastrophe are necessary to children’s books may make you wonder about his sensitivity toward younger readers’ minds, but he seems to disdain those who think chilren need coddling. As he told me, “I think the smartest thing ever said about children’s literature was Mitch Hedberg’s line that all literature is children’s literature if the kid can read.”

The Steps Across the Water tells the story of a young girl from New York, Rose, who discovers a mystical portal to a super New York – U Nork. U Nork is in danger, and, surprise surprise, Rose is the only one who can save it, if she can just figure out how. The book shows Gopnik trying out the form for only the second time, and it has its awkwardness. Rose’s story ends with a satisfying and even touching resolution, but a lot of the secondary characters’ stories, particularly the U Norkians’, feel half-told. The worst thing for me was the realization that corporatized, brand-named technology has made its way into children’s books. Gopnik points out, probably rightly, that kids wouldn’t buy the contemporary setting of the book if it didn’t include the iPods and Macbooks that fill their world. But when, at the novel’s climax, the malicious ice queen is preparing to cast a spell and we get the lines “Ultima took out her BlackBerry and pointed it at Louis. Two tiny pellets of ice shot out of its end,” I reserve the right to cringe. Say what you will, magic and microchips just don’t go together.

The best thing about Gopnik’s book is that it isn’t, as I cynically half-expected, a grand and belaboured effort to demonstrate everything that children’s literature should be, but a fast-paced, energetic and low-key read for tweens. Though it lacks some of the bite and humour that makes his writing for adults such joy to read, it shows that Gopnik is an earnest writer, not a self-absorbed thinker. He writes about what he cares about; whether it’s fiction or prose, he told me, “I see all of the activity of writing as taking hold of something that really matters to you, something that haunts your imagination, whether it’s somebody else’s book or your daughter’s imaginary city, and exploring it.” The most genuine elements of the book are those that Gopnik says arose from his own fascinations – winter scenes, a city’s mysteries, and the magical allure of snow globes.

Gopnik is no academic, and his steadfast belief in myth and his unyielding hatred for allegory may not form some perfect thesis that will transform the way we view writing for children. His own book breaks many of his rules, particularly, as Gopnik himself noted, the idea that child heroes should succeed based on their own merit, not some magical inheritance (Rose, in the end, is Ultima’s daughter, which is complicated for a while but mostly gets sorted out). Despite this, Gopnik still gives us a refreshing way to look at children’s literature – one that doesn’t define it by its intended readership, but by its form, which he calls “comic mythology.” This is a big part of what makes his views on children’s literature so attractive. Forget “adult-edition” Harry Potter dust jackets – in Gopnik’s view, children’s literature is available to anyone with a taste for the imagination.