After I finished blogging this morning I emailed a friend from the 5th grade to see if she could remember the title of the novel we read in Mrs. Wistow’s class. Then I went to see the Magic Books exhibit at the Bodleian and then I went on a long walk around Oxford. And everywhere I went, I saw ancient walls and in every wall there was a door. Tonight I sat down to blog and as soon as I chose a title for this post, I went over to Google and searched for “children’s medieval novels.” And what do you think came up? The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli. I’m almost positive that’s the novel we read in the 5th grade! Wikipedia supplied this useful quote: “If thou followeth a wall far enough, there must be a door in it.” Which only stirs that same mix of bliss and shame…why search for a door when they built the wall to keep me out? Why doesn’t my understanding of their intent to exclude diminish the value of whatever lies within the walls?
Last week I had a chance to hear Alison Waller give a talk at Hunter College on her latest research project about how adults recall and re-read childhood books. I met Alison at Roehampton University in 2008 when I presented at their Children’s Literature and the Environment conference. In my paper I discussed The Secret Garden as a book I have revisited often since childhood. A few days later I completed final revisions (fingers crossed) on my Jeunesse article and one of the sources I added was A Narrative Compass: Stories that Guide Women’s Lives. In that essay I focus on the fantasy novels of Ruth Chew, which I discovered around the same time we moved from Pickering to Scarborough. The Magic Cave stayed with me for years—a summer storm tears apart an old tree and Merlin is discovered inside by two children who had been playing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I realize it must seem incredibly self-indulgent to continuously examine the books I loved as a child, but there is value in this type of reflection:
In their anthology A Narrative Compass: Stories that Guide Women’s Lives, Roberta Seelinger Trites and Betsy Hearne ask women scholars to identify “one story as a particularly valuable source of inspiration” (xi), a project worth undertaking since it enables academics to “understand the relationship between text and context, between the subject they study and their own lives,” thereby enabling them to “draw on their internalized knowledge of storytelling to help analyze what they study” (xiv). In a way I am indebted to Ruth Chew for planting within me a seed that would eventually blossom into a deep and lasting love for Brooklyn, urban parks, and the power of everyday magic that can be conveyed so effectively through children’s literature. As a child reader I was enchanted by The Magic Cave, and if I am no longer enamored with the novel, that does not necessarily diminish the impact Chew’s narrative has had on my imaginative and intellectual writing. Trites and Hearne argue that “Self-aware storytelling is an interdependent methodology: Narratives rely on other narratives for their creation even while they generate more narratives in their telling” (xvi). My critique of Chew’s novels stems not from a desire to condemn, but rather to reconcile the dreamer I once was (and still am) with the black feminist critic I have become. The story I tell of my evolution as a scholar and speculative fiction writer may impact contemporary fantasy writers as they craft their tales as well as critics who choose to analyze this rapidly expanding body of work.
I keep saying I’m done with academic essays but I feel one percolating in my mind right now. On Friday I attended a talk organized by Cara Bartels-Bland, convener of the Children’s Literature Oxford Colloquium. I reached Oxford just after noon and managed to find my hotel without much trouble. The talk was at 4pm so I went to the visitor center and bought a map. I managed to find St. Cross College but couldn’t figure out how to open the ancient-looking door! A man came up who also planned to attend the talk and we tried to figure out how to enter the building. “I’m Nick Swarbrick,” he said and I immediately recognized his name because I also cite him in my Jeunesse essay! I told him as much and so we chatted before and after Jane Suzanne Carroll’s fantastic talk, “Landscape History for Imagined Worlds.” Jane and Nick both gave me a lot to think about but I’ll save that for tomorrow. I haven’t slept through the night yet and want to see if this fierce storm can lull me to sleep (and keep the pub crawlers at home)…