"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When I was a kid, I was too busy reading grown-up books (mostly junk) to pay much attention to children’s literature. I assumed that kids lit was what people wanted me to like rather than what I really did like. So by the time I reached my 20s, I had all sorts of treasures waiting for me. Among them were the books of Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Even if I had read children’s literature as a child, Burnett’s most famous novel, “The Secret Garden,” was considered a girl’s book and not something little boys read. When I finally got around to it in the late ’80s, I loved it so much that when I finished, I immediately picked up a copy of Burnett’s “A Little Princess.” I was reading that on the bus one morning when I noticed a businessman in his 40s sitting beside me and eyeing the book. Finally, I nervously allowed my eyes to meet his only to hear him say, “It’s a great book, isn’t it?” He went on to praise Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writing and told me how much he had enjoyed reading her books to his own daughter.
The reasons so many adults are reading books written for children seem pretty simple. A good book is a good book is a good book. What holds true about movies made for children is also true of books written for them: There is no truly good one that adults can’t enjoy as well. It may also be that for adult readers, kids books offer the strong, straightforward storytelling that reminds them of why they first started to read fiction.
The adult readership for children’s books stands to become even larger this fall as some writers with certifiable literary standing and large adult followings publish kids books. Neil Gaiman’s (truly scary) “Coraline” is already in the stores and on the charts. And in the next few weeks will follow books from Michael Chabon, Carl Hiaasen, Isabel Allende and Clive Barker. It’s a fair bet that readers who loved “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” or who count “The House of the Spirits” among their favorite novels, or who wait greedily for their yearly dose of Carl Hiaasen (I stand accused), will pick up these writers’ new works, regardless of whom they were written for. And established writers aren’t the only ones getting into the act. The veteran rappers L.L. Cool J and Doug E. Fresh also have children’s books coming out soon.
Obviously, the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has made it easier for authors to work in children’s literature without risking a smaller audience or worrying about being taken seriously. Chabon says that Rowling’s success allowed him to go to his agent with his idea for a children’s book, and “instead of saying, as she might have done a few years ago, ‘Please just take a year of your writing life and flush it down the toilet,” she said, ‘Hmm. Interesting idea! Go for it!’”
Daniel Handler, who, under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket, has achieved wide success with his riotously dour “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” isn’t certain that Rowling’s success translates into newfound respect for children’s literature. But, he says, “It does make it an exciting time to be writing such things. Another children’s author I know compared it to playing rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s — it’s a time when children’s literature is part of the zeitgeist, which results in a lot of experimentation and innovation.”
The main thing Rowling’s success seems to have done for writers venturing into children’s literature is to allow them the means of satisfying a desire that already existed. Michael Chabon, whose new “Summerland” is his first novel for children, cautions about separating “a publishing phenomenon” from a literary one. “Adult writers,” says Chabon, “especially in Britain, have always written, or considered writing, for children.”
He cites C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Dodie Smith, Mordecai Richler, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and Salman Rushdie. You could also tack on Ian Fleming (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) and the great Peter O’ Donnell, who wrote the Modesty Blaise novels and kids books like “Moonlit Journey” and “Pinkie Goes South.” Paula Fox, an author currently enjoying a revival (her memoir “Borrowed Finery” was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award and selected as one of the year’s best books by the New York Times Book Review), has written for children for years — of her 21 kids books “How Many Miles to Babylon?” impressed me, when I read it as a child, as the grimmest book I’d ever encountered.
It’s partly the memory of the potency of their childhood reading that prompts many adult authors to try their hand at the form. Handler says, “You never love a book the way you love a book when you’re 10. No matter how much I admire the work of Nabokov or Murakami, I’m not going to reread ‘Lolita’ or ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ nearly as many times as I reread ‘Harriet the Spy’ in third grade.” (It might be interesting to see what part “Harriet the Spy,” a book about the pleasures of voyeurism if ever there was one, played in the development of future film critics. I know of at least three who worshipped it as kids.)
Chabon feels similarly: “You never forget the delight that the books you loved as a child brought you; it’s all still there, you remember it. It’s fairly inevitable, I’d say, to want to try and get some of that for your own kids; but in the past, in this country at least, it was not necessarily feasible and perhaps not quite taken seriously enough.”
As Chabon notes, the appearance of these books does seem, for some of the writers at least, tied to the children in their lives. Isabel Allende says that her new “City of the Beasts” was inspired by reading to her grandchildren. The household of Clive Barker, whose “Abarat” is the first in a new fantasy series, includes the teenage daughter of his partner. Michael Chabon is only partly joking when he says that he always thought he was going to write kids books because he was a kid when he first wanted to become a writer.
But having his own kids returned Chabon to that desire. “I started back through the beloved books of my childhood with my oldest daughter. We began with the ‘Wizard of Oz’ when she was about 2 and a half, and on through Lewis and Tolkien and Ingalls Wilder and Dahl and Alexander and O’Dell and Fitzhugh and White. And it was all still so wonderful, and just as reading Alan Furst, say, makes me think about writing spy fiction … I started thinking, Hey, I want to do this. I still want to do this.”
You can’t help but wonder, though, whether there’s another reason, one these writers haven’t acknowledged to themselves — namely the sheer challenge of writing for kids. The old excuse among writers who write long is that they did it because they didn’t have time to write short. While some of the batch of new books are long (“Summerland” comes in at just over 500 pages), kids books, no matter how long they are, require writers who know how to write essentially.
That’s a very different matter from writing simply, which, in the context of children’s literature, has the connotation of dumbing things down. Even when the back story or mythology of a children’s book becomes complicated, the story has to be expressed in the clearest possible terms. That means finding what might be called a suggestive concreteness, a way of conveying action, character and setting in a few sharply defined strokes.
It’s an egalitarian approach, allowing the readers to shade things in for themselves. Here, from the opening of “Coraline,” is a description of a forbidding well on the grounds of the house that the young heroine’s family moves into:
“She found it on the third day, in an overgrown meadow beside the tennis court, behind a clump of trees — a low black circle almost hidden in the high grass. The well had been covered up by wooden boards, to stop anyone from falling in. There was a small knothole in one of the boards, and Coraline spent an afternoon dropping pebbles and acorns through the hole and waiting, and counting, until she heard the plop as they hit the water far below.”
Gaiman melds the secret and the hidden with a sense of danger, drawing a picture of the well as a lurking presence in the high grass; he describes the boards, which raises the possibility of someone falling to his death. And then there’s the way he uses the evocative clause “and counting,” which allows us to imagine the depth of the well.
As it turns out, there’s a more dangerous portal lurking in “Coraline.” Exploring her family’s new apartment, Coraline comes upon a door in the living room that opens onto a skewed replica of her family’s new digs. Waiting for her on the other side are her other “parents,” funhouse mirror replicas of the real ones with black buttons sewn on for eyes (told you it was creepy). Coraline finds everything she’s wished for in this alternate reality: parents who pay attention to her and delicious food. Then it turns out this “other mother” has no intention of letting Coraline get back to her real life. Gaiman’s book is a potent parable about a little girl getting her first inklings of the compromises of the adult world. It’s also a good, frightening read. (The book says it’s for readers 8 and up. I’d just make sure I knew the fright threshold of any 8-year-old I gave it to.)
One of the reasons Isabel Allende’s insufferable “City of the Beasts” doesn’t work is that she trusts neither her material nor her readers. She falls prey to one of the classic traps of bad writing: She puts her story at the service of her message.
Kids can scent the kind of didacticism Allende engages in, and she doesn’t even use the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help her medicine go down. She shows no faith in her audience’s ability to suss things out without being preached to. You never get the feeling she believes in the material on any level but the “instructive” one; it’s merely a sanctimonious little lesson in how man is despoiling the environment. This is exactly the kind of reductionism that William Bennett exalts in literature, only in Allende’s case, it’s coming from the left instead of the right.
And it shrivels up next to Carl Hiaasen’s charming “Hoot,” another environmental tale, but one in which, as in his Floridian mysteries, Hiaasen’s first concern is to be an entertainer. He uses a reliable old formula, that of the new kid in town finding his place, and joins it to one of his multistrand plots, this one about a scheme to save a group of miniature owls who’ve made their home in a vacant lot scheduled to have a pancake house built on top of it.
It won’t take Hiaasen’s adult readers long to realize they’re in Hiaasen country — not when the corporate dolt is named Chuck E. Muckle and when the characters include a kid who can fart the first line of the Pledge of Allegiance. Hiaasen is the environmentalist as vaudevillian. When a kid slips baby gators down the porta-san at the construction site, you know you’re dealing with the same man who once fantasized about putting bull gators in the tourist pond at Disney World.
That Hiaasen is such a natural at writing for children gives weight to Daniel Handler’s insistence that there is no difference between writing for kids and writing for adults.”I always suspect that people who regard them as different things are the sort of people who talk to children in that annoying high-pitched voice.” And Chabon echoes that sentiment when he says, “I tried to keep my sentences shorter, my diction plainer and my vocabulary simpler” — but, he adds, he didn’t feel he had to try very hard.
Still, if writing for kids requires more discipline, it may also be liberating. Chabon, who calls writing “Summerland” “the most pleasurable experience, page for page and paragraph for paragraph, that I’ve ever had as a writer,” says that the book allowed him to write about all sorts of fantastical things “without apologies or explanations or rationales.”
What’s striking about the best of these books, and what’s always true about great fantasies, is that they’re rooted in recognizable emotions. One of the reasons Harry Potter has been such a success is the casualness of J.K. Rowling’s style, the fact that she’s writing about wizards and witches and demons and dragons at the same time that she’s describing school bullies and tests and grumpy teachers and first crushes and feeling left out. There’s no hoity-toity ethereality in her brand of magic, no Stevie Nicks-style preciousness. The books are written in the same good, durable, plain language that you find in Hiaasen and Gaiman and Chabon — and even in the mock-Gothic grotesqueries of Lemony Snicket.
There are plenty of reasons for writing a kids book right now, some of them obvious, like the financial rewards and the current critical attention paid to children’s literature. Other reasons — the satisfaction the writers get from giving back the kind of pleasure they experienced as children, for instance — are more personal and intangible. But there’s one other reason that not even writers themselves may be aware of: Writing for kids allows them to fulfill the great primal satisfactions novels can give us, while it demands that they work at the absolute peak of the craft. It’s a win-win situation: Readers are reminded of why they read in the first place, and writers of why they ever wanted to write.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)