A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read. Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett
Well ... for those of you who were getting a bit tired of reading about magic and fantasy in children's classics, it is time to rejoice! For it is now time to talk of children's classics of the other sort - those which deal with children in what is considered to be normal, everyday situations. There are so many of these and I often am confronted by the problem of whether they qualify as "children's classics" (but then again I can't see why we have to classify some books as "children's classics" when all that matters is whether a book is good or bad. Oh well ...) Anyway, let me tell you about a few books dealing with children that I found entertaining in the days gone by.
I can't remember exactly when I read the first book that would qualify as a children's classic but it was probably quite early in my reading career. Of course, I read quite few books in Sinhalese before I switched over to English and I read some of these classics as translations before I read them in the original English. I guess the first book that would qualify as a classic that I read was either "Amba Yahaluwo" (best friends or literally, "Mango" friends) by T. B. Ilangaratne or "Madol Duwa" (Madol Island) by Martin Wickremasinghe. Both of these were by Sinhalese authors and I read both of them around the time I was 7 years old. I enjoyed both the books immensely and used to scour the local library in search of other books by either of the authors. I read quite a few books by Martin Wickramasinghe in the next few years and even today I remember his books with fondness.
The first children's classic from English that I read was Captain Frederick Marryat's "The Children of the New Forest". My father, who has always guided me in my reading and who has over the years steered me towards many a good book that he had enjoyed in his youth, got me a translation of the book by Lal Premanath de Mel (if I recall correctly) called "Vana Daruwo" (Forest Children) when I was about 8 years old. I read the book with relish. It was about four English children who are orphaned during the time when Oliver Cromwell became ruler of England and Charles I had to flee to France to save himself. The children belong to the Armitage family who are Royalists (Those loyal to the king) and their house is burnt down and they are left with nothing in the struggle between the Royalists and the parliamentary forces, during the English civil war. They are given shelter by an old family servant and the story details their life and adventures in the forest and how they grow up to help in the restoration of Charles I's son, Charles II to the throne.
"The Children of the New Forest" not only entertained me but it also channeled my mind along a new avenue - history. Reading about kings and princes in olden times got me interested in history and I began reading more books that had a historical background. I read about ancient Greece and France during the revolution, about knights of England in the middle-ages and the people of Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs but most of these have nothing to do with children - so let me pass over them quickly and get to those books which talk about children. The next book which qualifies for this category was again a translation of an English book - "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson. This was the story of young Jim Hawkins and how he gets his hands on a treasure map and goes off with some friends of the family in search of the treasure and how they get involved with a bunch of cut-throat pirates who want the treasures for themselves. The story was gripping indeed and I read the whole book at one sitting - putting myself in the place of Jim and feeling his terrors and joys.
"Treasure Island" whet my appetite for R. L. Stevenson's books but I didn't come across anymore till I had started reading in English. I then re-read "Treasure Island" in English and also found his "Kidnapped". This time it was the story of David Balfour who in 18th century England (or was it Scotland?). Anyway, David goes to meet his uncle when his father's death leaves him alone in the world and the story details how his uncle tries to get him killed and how he has David abducted by a gang of seamen and how he meets an adventurer by the name of Alan Breck Stewart. David and Alan manage to escape from the ship when it is caught in a storm and have many an adventure in the highlands of Scotland before David can get home and expose his uncle for the murderer he is. David's story is continued in "Catriona" which is also by R. L. Stevenson but I didn't know about this second book till about four years later. In fact, I think I learnt about "Catriona" only because they had the whole story as a television series when I was young.
There are so many more classic tales of childhood that I cannot hope to cover them all. There is Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" - the boy who asked for more - and "David Copperfield". Then there is Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" - a true adventure if I ever read one and one which captures the spirit of childhood so truly and a book which made me laugh and cry. I will always remember the way that Tom got all of his friends to whitewash the fence for him and how he managed to get them to pay him for allowing them to do all that work! And then there was Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and his journey down the Mississippi river. The list stretches on and on with so many innumerable others. I cannot list them all but I always remember them with fondness and will leave you to discover them for yourself.
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