There are some of us now reaching middle age who discover themselves to be lamenting the past in one respect if in none other, that there are no books written now for children comparable with those of thirty years ago. I say written for children because the new psychological business of writing about them as though they were small pills or hatched in some especially scientific method is extremely popular today. Hugh Walpole Introduction to "The Story of Doctor Dolittle"
"What's this? I thought he was going to leave aside all that magical stuff and talk about more realistic things this time!" I am sure you are saying something similar to this right now. But the truth of the matter is that I looked at all the classics I enjoyed as a child (for that matter, I still do enjoy them!), and I find that there are still a lot of books dealing with the magical, the ridiculous and the utterly fantastic that I haven't told you about. So bear with me while I take you on another voyage to the land of magic and I promise you that I will introduce you to the more mundane (yet magical in their own way) books of childhood the next time! So get set and strap yourselves in for the ride!
When I talked of children's classics last time, I forgot to mention one of the greatest of them all - "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"! This marvelously imaginative book which has White Rabbits with waistcoat-pockets containing watches running all over the place, Caterpillars who smoke hookas, a Queen of Hearts who say "Off with his head!" every once in a while, a cheshire cat which keeps on appearing and disappearing, mad-hatters and a whole lot of strange and mystifying things mixed in, is a book which can never be forgotten (though I did manage to forget it in my last article!).
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and a further adventure of Alice entitled "Through the Looking Glass" were written by Lewis Carroll, who in reality was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - a professor of mathematics at Oxford in England. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so pleased by "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" that she asked that the next book by the same author be given to her immediately - and the next book turned out to be a long (and possibly boring) discussion of mathematics!
I first read a translation of "Alice in Wonderland" around the time I was in grade 3 and though I was enchanted by the book, I did not experience the book fully till I'd read it in English. It is such a strange book. It takes us to a strange world where things don't work exactly as they do here - common phrases can have very different meanings over there and people do the oddest things but have their own explanations as to why they do the things that they do! It also has some really funny poems such as "Father William" and you end up wondering whether Alice's Wonderland is the strange place or whether this world we live in is stranger still.
Then there is P.L. Travers' immortal character - Mary Poppins. I came across Mary Poppins quite by accident. I used to decide on books by looking at the title and I didn't think "Mary Poppins" would be that much fun. Then one day, there was no other books to read and I took up "Mary Poppins" just on the off-chance and it turned out to be excellent! The story is about a nanny (called Mary Poppins) who's got magical powers and has relatives who are strange and do weird and wonderful things. She looks after two children who are suddenly whisked away in to a magical adventure when Mary Poppins decides to teach them something or wants to reward them. The movie by the same name from the Disney Studios was a bit too light and sweet for my taste because the Mary Poppins of the books was a strict disciplinarian but her character in film was completely different. Still, the books are a real treat to read.
Talking of films, another children's classic that has been turned in to a musical is Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle. The lovable doctor who talks to animals and travels halfway-across the globe to treat a sick animal was again not portrayed properly in the film version, so let us forget it and talk about the books. You have to be slightly older to enjoy Dr. Dolittle because the writing style is a bit different from the other books which have got lots of conversations while this has a bit more descriptions in it but the stories about Dr. Dolittle and his adventures are really entertaining. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the "pushmi-pullyu" - a strange animal with two heads facing in opposite directions - and the stories about Polynesia - Dr. Dolittle's parrot - and the other animals of his household.
Another book that I loved to read as a child was Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio". Again, I first read the book as a Sinhalese translation and I am not sure that I ever read a full English version of the book but then I have come across the story in so many different forms that it is difficult to keep track. The story of the little wooden puppet who tried so hard to be a real boy and whose nose grew long every time he told a lie has been told in so many forms - cartoons, clay-animations, books and movies - that I don't think there is anybody around who hasn't heard of Pinocchio. Nevertheless, the original book can be quite interesting because it is such a warm, funny and heart-warming story. It probably grabs your attention so much because there is a little bit of Pinocchio in all of us.
Another classic children's character who has made his presence felt in numerous forms and mediums is Peter Pan. Peter Pan, the boy who never grows old, lives in Neverland with the Lost Boys and in the classic story by J. M. Barry, he comes to London and takes Wendy, John and Michael (the three children of the Darling family - Honest! Their father's name is Darling! - ) away to take part in some grand adventures. They meet the cruel pirate Hook and a crocodile and fight Hook's crew and have many an adventure in Neverland before they return to London.
These are the books that kept me company while I was young and they still have the power to hold my attention if I were to take one up (In fact, I went quickly through "Alice in Wonderland" while writing this and felt like reading the whole book and I just went through the first chapter of Peter Pan and am fascinated by the way J.M. Barrie handles words and sentences.). I guess they will always be a source of enchantment and amusement to me.
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