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Childhood Classics

Why are some books fondly passed down from one generation to the next while others fall into obscurity? The most enduring will appeal to fundamental needs such as security and love.

July 11, 1999|NANCY TREJOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alice will always chase Rabbit down the hole and Winnie the Pooh will always have a thing for honey.

Today, children are just as captivated by Alice's adventures in Wonderland as children were when the Lewis Carroll classic was first published in 1865.

Contrary to the belief that children are not interested in books now that video games and television are around for entertainment, children's literature has not lost its allure--even if originally written for an audience to whom today's lifestyles would seem like one of Alice's dreams.

Even books considered classics but languishing on library shelves have been resurrected thanks to movie and television production companies that have introduced them to a new generation and new editions with more sophisticated illustrations. For example, Winnie the Pooh, introduced by A.A. Milne in 1927, got a boost from a television cartoon series.

No doubt, the children's book industry is changing with the times. Celebrities such as comedian Bill Cosby and actress Jamie Lee Curtis have tried their hand at writing. Didactic books, with previously taboo themes such as sexuality and drugs, also are part of the mix.

"We're modernizing [the stories]," said Sylvia Maxson, professor of children's literature at Cal State Long Beach. "We're giving them a glimpse of the L.A. riots, homelessness. We're tapping into humanistic types of issues."

But librarians and children's literature experts say that many contemporary children's books will have difficulty standing the test of time.

Even some books that have won distinguished awards such as the Newbery Medal, considered the Oscar of children's literature, have fallen out of favor--a victim of changing tastes or social standards.

So what is it about a children's' book that turns it into a classic, allowing a pre-1950 author to engage 21st century children?

Good question.

Most experts say that classics must have exemplary literary qualities: vibrant language, dynamic settings and enchanting characters. Some argue that the quality of writing matters little to a child who finds a book that tugs at the heartstrings.

Arguments about quality aside, a book of the past can speak to the present only if it has themes that can apply to any time period and is not bogged down with local jargon, said Amy Sutherland, who for 2 1/2 years has helped customers choose books for their children at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.

Further, children's classics are stories that appeal to three fundamental needs: security, love and belonging, said Ilene Abramson, senior librarian for the children's literature department of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Many librarians cite "Good Night Moon," written in 1947 by Margaret Wise Brown. The book about a child afraid of sleeping alone has helped many young children get through such fears with its comforting rhymes: "Good night room. Good night moon. Good night cow jumping over the moon."

That kind of empathy is what made "Charlotte's Web," which deals with a child's love for an animal and makes the idea of death less intimidating, such a success.

"Children are powerless," said Lin Oliver, executive director of California's Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators. "They're little, they're vulnerable and they're out of control of their destiny. You love your mother for making things OK. I think that's what a great book does too."

Claire Landau of West Los Angeles has six children ranging in age from 8 to 20 who read such books.

"It's a safe world," she said. "It's good for kids to be able to escape into these books."

Many works of literature considered classics also portray the magical, the whimsical and, often, the absurd. C.S. Lewis's Narnia tales, L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" series, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" all have these characteristics and remain popular among older children.

To be sure, there is no formula to making a children's book a classic.

But some classics, despite being praised for their literary quality, are not attuned to present sensibilities or lifestyles.

"Any book written 50 years ago is written with the beliefs and mores and values of that time, and 50 years ago or more we weren't particularly sensitive to other cultures," said Lee Galda, professor of children's literature at the University of Minnesota.

"Caddy Woodlawn," a story by Carol Ryrie Brinke that is set in Wisconsin during the days when the Midwestern states were being settled, was written in the 1930s and reflects attitudes about women and Native Americans that differ greatly from present attitudes.

"It's a classic. It's a great story and a great read, but there are race and gender issues that make it problematic," she said. "You need to discuss it with children. You just can't read it."

But simply put, children's books live on because youngsters grow up and become parents who pass on their favorite books to their children.

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