The Allure of Childhood

8 05 2012

Originally published at the Apex Books Blog. Original post lost after a server crash. Reposting it here for posterity:

Remember when your days seemed to stretch on forever? Everything was new. We were just beginning to fathom the realities of the world around us. Is there any wonder that childhood is such a wonderful setting for our stories? From Stephen King to John Irving to J.D. Salinger to Harper Lee to any number of contemporary young adult authors, a variety of authors who work with a wide range of genres from the fantastic to the mundane – authors love working with childhood as the backdrop for their stories. The fantastic is still believable. The world is still perceived through a veil of innocence. Revelations lie around every corner.

I think about these things as I watch my boys play. I watch them as they grow in their understanding of the world. It’s fascinating. Sometimes it is wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking. I have seen my children find the joy of taking a long hike with me to find a hidden waterfall where they can cool off and splash and play. I have seen them climb up a rocky hillside with me and then look down from the top and see how far they’ve come and seen the glint of pride in their eyes at their feeling of accomplishment. These things make me feel good. But I have also seen them have to accept the death of my grandmother and father-in-law. I have seen my oldest boy cry because of a gravestone placed in the front yard of a neighboring house where a shaggy little black dog used to play. The light and darkness, the duality of this world, are everywhere. And to understand the world is to understand both the light and the shadows which compose our reality. It means we must understand both life and death.

The lines between the light and the dark seem more starkly contrasted in our youth. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and moral relativism is still more or less beyond comprehension (at least mentally – there may be an inherent understanding as evidenced by the child who reaches out and steals a grape in the produce aisle simply because he or she is hungry). Authors utilize this contrast to their advantage time and time again.

In a recent interview with author Jeffrey Ford (The Shadow Year, The Emperor of Ice Cream and Other Stories, etc.) for Fantasy Magazine I asked him why use childhood as a setting. He said:

“…I guess these stories deal with some kind of awakening from childhood. ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ stuff. It’s a rich theme, sometimes too rich, but at those points of revelation when you’re a kid, sometimes the effect is so startling the world warps momentarily and things take on the attributes of the fantastic—both light and dark.”

The world does warp with revelations. Our understandings of the world grow and change with our experiences. And, as a bonus – other than the occasional possessed child or “Children of the Corn”-type story – children tend to be universally likeable as protagonists. Yes, childhood is a powerful place for stories.

In no particular order, here is a list of some of my favorite stories about childhood:

Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

The Pigman by Paul Zindel

The Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

When I Was Five I Killed Myself by Howard Buten (This one is not very well known but should be!)

The Body by Stephen King

The Turtle Boy by Kealan Patrick Burke

“You Dream” by Ekaterina Sedia (available in Dark Faith)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

And there have been many, many others. In fact, just this week, I read and enjoyed T.J. Weyler’s “The Neighborly Thing to Do” in Issue 26 of Apex Magazine. I found it to be another wonderful example of a childhood story handling larger issues in a striking way. These were just the first few examples to pop into my head. Something Wicked this Way Comes may be my favorite and possibly the best example of a novel detailing both the wonder and darkness to be found while growing up. If you like your stories a little more on the realistic side, When I Was Five I Killed Myself probably stands out in my mind as one of the most brutally honest depictions of a kid’s-eye view of the world I have ever come across.

So, what stories did I miss? What are your favorite stories about childhood?

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